Information Work in an Era of Information Abundance

I’m going to excerpt about fifty percent of David Frum’s review from this weekend’s New York Times Book Review (“Unhappy Days,” 5 September 2010, p. BR20):

Art historians tell us that photography revolutionized painting. Suddenly there was a better way of recording the physical appearance of things, and artists had to discover new purposes for brush and pigment. But for those living through the revolution, the process must have seemed more gradual. Long after the Impressionists and Cubists and Futurists, there must have been serious portraitists who continued to earn a living depicting brides on their wedding day or businessmen made good.

I kept thinking of those backward­looking artists all the way through Laura Kalman’s “Right Star Rising.” As a work of history about the Ford and Carter years, there is nothing seriously wrong with it. The facts are accurate, the writing is clear and the point of view is not tendentious. Once upon a time, such a book might have been useful to somebody.

But the question it raises — and it’s not a question about this book alone — is: What’s the point of this kind of history in the age of the Internet? Suppose I’m an undergraduate who stumbles for the first time across the phrase “Proposition 13.” I could, if I were minded, walk over to the university library, pull this book from the shelf and flip to the index. Or I could save myself two hours and Google it. I wouldn’t learn more from a Google search than I’d learn in these pages. But I wouldn’t learn a whole lot less either.

He gets a little more specific than this, makes a few examples, but that’s about all he has to say about the book. It’s nothing against Ms. Kalman — as Mr. Frum writes, “it’s not a question about this book alone.” The analogy to painting in an era of photography is apt. We live in a time in which our relation to information is changing. Problems of availability have — at least in the developed world — been for the most part solved. So like the painter, how are information workers to make their way in this world?

I’m not going to wind this post up with some pat answer. I think that Mr. Frum is also correct in not making a teleologically overdetermined analogy. “For those living through the revolution, the process must have seemed more gradual,” he writes. Painters only found a post-photography life through protracted experimentation.

I think of Harold Bloom’s idea of the anxiety of influence as much more than a theory of poetry. In an age of mass information, all information workers labor under the anxiety of influence (Jimmy Wales is our Milton). No one should think that a publisher is going to cut down a few hundred acres of trees for more of the same.

Infinite Summer Informal-Irregular Get-Together IV

Infinite Summer Informal-Irregular Get-Together IV, Mr. Henry's, Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C., 6 August 2009

6 August 2009, Mr. Henry’s, Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.: Infinite Summer Informal-Irregular Get-Together IV to discuss David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Clockwise from 12:00: typicalsquirrel, Miruna Stanica / Rrose Selavy, Daniel Ginsberg / NemaVeze, the photographer (off frame), Sarah Webster, Quinn Norton (blog | twitter | Wikipedia), Matt Dickerson / piscivorous. Oh, that’s right, piscivorous, you weren’t there.

8,000 Page Fantasy Life

I’m just wrapping up twelve weeks of Hitler and Stalin at the University of Maryland, and has been my experience with every class I have ever taken, I end with not much more than the sense of just how little I know about the subject. I then spend a postmortem of fantasy about actually becoming an expert in something-or-other. The 540 pages of Geyer and Fitzpatrick’s Beyond Totalitarianism: Stalinism and Nazism Compared and similar number of pages of selected journal articles weren’t enough. Thus, a Year of Hitler could be in my future as well (Barnett, Erica C., “My Year of Hitler: Six Things I Learned from Reading 8,000 Pages About the Nazis,” SLOG, The Stranger, 26 May 2009). Coincidentally, I’m tentatively titling my paper “Seven Ways to Think about Stalin during the Interbellum.”

Without the Bugaboo of the Soviet Union

Marx display, Borders at 14th and H Streets, Washington, D.C., 19 May 2009

Well of course — this is just the media pushing its left-wing agenda. I doubt it. The media has their finger to the wind. During the Bush years they shamelessly kowtowed to Ari Fleischer’s admonition to watch what they write and now that the times are a’ changing, the media is putting up sails for new seas. The mood questioning capitalism is welling up from the ranks with the media wondering how to be relevant. Witness:

“Until 2004, we sold less than 100 copies of Das Kapital per year,” Schuetrumpf [managing director of the Berlin-based publishing house Karl-Diez Verlag, publisher of the German edition of Marx’s collected works] said. “In the 10 months of 2008, we have sold more than 2,500 copies. It is clear that people are interested in learning what Marx has to say about why capitalism does not work.” (Godoy, Julio, “Economy: Turning the Pages Back to Marx and Keynes,” Inter Press Service, 7 November 2008)

And from the picture above, apparently Borders thinks there’s enough interest amidst their customers to turn the Marx collection face-out.

Craziest of all, according to a recent Rasmussen survey, a whopping 20 percent of Americans currently believe that socialism is superior to capitalism (“Just 53% Say Capitalism Better Than Socialism,” 9 April 2009).

During the Cold War, Americans’ strongest association with socialism was the Soviet Union, and after the collapse of communism we were told that left-wing economic ideas had been roundly refuted by events. So the right currently believes itself to be effectively tarnishing the program of President Obama by labeling him a socialist. But it turns out that the existence of the Soviet Union wasn’t just culture jamming socialist ideas, but the negative associations that it generated was lending undue credibility to right-wing ideas as well. The collapse of communism may end up not so much taking left-wing ideas down with it, as depriving those of the right of their cudgel of existent socialism. The association of socialism with Stalinism has lost its effectiveness now that the Soviet Union has become just another historical anecdote. This might explain the even more pronounced positive view of socialism among young respondents in the survey (33 percent of young people favor socialism versus 20 percent among the general population).

Republicans would be advised that in constantly pointing to the popular President Obama as the primary exemplar of socialism, the outcome isn’t so much to tarnish President Obama so much as to burnish socialism in the minds of the young generation. “If Obama is socialism,” they think, “I guess that makes me a socialist.” (Yglesias, Matthew, “The Declining Unpopularity of Socialism,” ThinkProgress, 9 April 2009).

My Interests, As Reverse Engineered by Amazon.com

According to Amazon.com’s reverse engineering of my purchases, here are my interests:

Accounting, Asia, Biology, Chaos & Systems, Cognitive Psychology, Communism & Socialism, Consciousness & Thought, Economic Conditions, Economic History, Economic Policy & Development, Epistemology, Ethics, Finance, Government, Greek & Roman, History & Surveys, History & Theory, Holocaust, Intelligence, Intelligence Agencies, International Relations, International Security, Investments & Securities, Japan, Logic, Marxism, Military & Spies, Military Science, Modern, Napoleon, Naval, Nonfiction, Nuclear, Philosophy, Physics, Political, Political History, Political Ideologies, Presidents & Heads of State, Public Policy, Purple Politics, Relations, Russia, Social Theory, Sociology, Statistics, Strategy, Theory, World War I

That reads about right. I could quibble about some omissions, e.g. where’s Europe. That being said, why do Amazon’s recommendations suck so much? How is it that I can routinely go into a bookstore and find, not obscurely hidden in a lesser-trafficked corner, but prominently displayed, some work of exceptional interest to me, but that Amazon hasn’t recommended? And the heavily cut tracks! I find that I have an occasional interest in, say, the U.S. Civil War, but that I refrain from adding a Civil War title to my wish list because the Civil War is such an overdone cottage industry: if you add a single Civil War title, next thing you know every new volume by every small-town antiquarian, about every two-bit local general is going to be recommended.

Update, 5 April 2008: And what the hell is “Purple Politics”? Everything listed under that category seems perfectly respectable, but when I hear “purple politics” I think of Jessica Cutler’s The Washingtonienne, the Starr Report or the tabloids on Nicolas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni.

The Anti-Library

A selection of my personal library, 20 August 2008

From Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable:

The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and nondull. He is the owner of a large personal library (containing thirty thousand books), and separates visitors into two categories: those who react with “Wow! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library you have! How many of these books have you read?” and others — a very small minority — who get the point that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allow you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary. (p. 1)

Great! On that basis, I’m going to allow myself to buy three more books this week.

Update, 26 August 2008: Two-thirds of the way there: I bought A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History by Manuel De Landa and The Concept of the Political by Carl Schmitt yesterday.

Update 2, 27 August 2008: Book number three purchased. At the suggestion of John, I ordered a copy of singularity-oriented sci-fi novel Accelerando by Charles Stross.

Asian Triumphalism

The blaring red 36-point font on the cover of the latest issue of Foreign Affairs insists, “Is America in Decline?” which immediately caught my attention, of Spenglarian tendencies as I am. Turns out it’s just an abridgement of Fareed Zakaria’s new book, The Post-American World. Turns out it’s all hype and the article hims and haws around an answer of “no.” But the issue also contains and adaptation of Kishore Mahbubani’s The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East as well as a reviews of Amy Chua’s Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance–and Why They Fall, Parag Khanna’s The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order as well as top billing, Fareed Zakaria’s book.

And wow, there sure are a number of books out about the certainty of U.S. relative decline. But there is something distinct about this list of authors: they’re all Asians. Fareed Zakaria was born in Mumbai, India, Kishore Mahbubani is a citizen of Singapore, Amy Chua is a first generation American of Chinese descent and Parag Khanna was born in Kanpur, India. And I’m not cherry-picking. This is lifted from a single issue of Foreign Affairs. And I’m not suggesting that they’re part of some Asian propaganda front. They’re all correct in their analysis. The United States is experiencing decline relative to a rising Asia and other countries.

What puzzles me is that there isn’t a similarly prominent cohort of white guys writing books saying the same thing. I am reminded of John Mearsheimer’s “China’s Unpeaceful Rise,” (Current History, vol. 105, no. 690, April 2006, pp. 160-162), but the issue of the relative decline is for Mr. Mearsheimer a subordinate point to his “tragedy of great power politics” shtick and he is writing it in a down market publication. I’m sure white people making the same point are out there, but why so little known? Is there something about actually being Asian that makes one prone to see and accept this point and something about being white that puts one in a massive state of denial? Or do publisher think there’s something novel and amusing about publishing such voices? Is there something about our discourse on relative decline that we feel the need to give it Asian spokespeople? Will Thomas Friedman’s next book be on the relative decline of the United States and the rise of Asia? Did Paul Kennedy write it so long ago that is doesn’t bear revisit?