Theorizing internet-infused life
April 12, 2011 12:17 PM   Subscribe

Recommend a nonfiction book (or article/essay/shorter piece) that theorizes what life is like now with present internet (and, bonusly, smartphone) technology.

This may be too new to have substantial “theory” behind it, but I thought I’d ask.

I’m looking for something that offers a systematic way of thinking about life-as-lived-with-current-technology in a way that might be similar to how Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class theorizes and contextualizes being a creative person, or Judith Butler theorizes gender, or John Ralston Saul theorizes Canadianness. Etc. You know what theory is.

Bonus points if it’s rooted in some more-or-less serious philosophical or critical tradition.

What I’m not looking for is anything remotely doom-and-gloom, “the internet is turning us stupid,” etc.

I understand that traditionally this has been the province of science fiction, or even fiction generally, but I'm not looking for that.

Studies incorporating empirical psychology are fine, even welcome, but I’m looking for cultural/philosophical and perhaps even historical analysis and contextualization of the experience of contemporary internet-infused life much more than how precisely our attention spans and/or other measurables may be changing.

Dissertations welcome.

posted by skwt to Society & Culture (7 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Sherry Turkle. Life on the Screen talks about these very things, though it's from 1995, which is a very long tech time ago.
posted by mkultra at 12:50 PM on April 12, 2011

Best answer: Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky.

Tyler Cowen wrote an excellent essay saying that the internet "is supplementing and intensifying real life." He argues that culture used to be analogous to a long-distance relationship, and the internet has made culture more like a marriage:
The Internet and other technologies mean that our favorite creators, or at least their creations, are literally part of our daily lives. It is no longer a long-distance relationship. It is no longer hard to get books and other written material. Pictures, music, and video appear on command. Culture is there all the time, and you can receive more of it, pretty much whenever you want.

In short, our relationship to culture has become more like marriage in the sense that it now enters our lives in an established flow, creating a better and more regular daily state of mind. True, culture has in some ways become uglier, or at least it would appear so to the outside observer. But when it comes to how we actually live and feel, contemporary culture is more satisfying and contributes to the happiness of far more people.
Here's a New Yorker review of several books on the how-the-internet-is-changing-our-lives theme. The gist is that these books tend to fall under one of 3 categories: the Never-Betters, the Better-Nevers, and the Ever-Wasers (respectively, people who say life has never been better than it is now, those who say life would have been better if the internet had never been created, and those who say life is the same as it ever was). The Ever-Wasers argue that "at any moment in modernity something like this is going on, and that a new way of organizing data and connecting users is always thrilling to some and chilling to others." I've quoted the following excerpt from the article previously on Metafilter:
when people struggle to describe the state that the Internet puts them in they arrive at a remarkably familiar picture of disassociation and fragmentation. Life was once whole, continuous, stable; now it is fragmented, multi-part, shimmering around us, unstable and impossible to fix. The world becomes Keats’s “waking dream,” as the writer Kevin Kelly puts it.

The odd thing is that this complaint ... is identical to Baudelaire’s perception about modern Paris in 1855, or Walter Benjamin’s about Berlin in 1930, or Marshall McLuhan’s in the face of three-channel television (and Canadian television, at that) in 1965. When department stores had Christmas windows with clockwork puppets, the world was going to pieces; when the city streets were filled with horse-drawn carriages running by bright-colored posters, you could no longer tell the real from the simulated; when people were listening to shellac 78s and looking at color newspaper supplements, the world had become a kaleidoscope of disassociated imagery; and when the broadcast air was filled with droning black-and-white images of men in suits reading news, all of life had become indistinguishable from your fantasies of it. It was Marx, not Steve Jobs, who said that the character of modern life is that everything falls apart.

We must, at some level, need this to be true, since we think it’s true about so many different kinds of things. We experience this sense of fracture so deeply that we ascribe it to machines that, viewed with retrospective detachment, don’t seem remotely capable of producing it. If all you have is a hammer, the saying goes, everything looks like a nail; and, if you think the world is broken, every machine looks like the hammer that broke it.
posted by John Cohen at 1:07 PM on April 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Data Smog by David Shenk (1997)
Faster (2000) and The Information (2011) by James Gleick
Emergence by Stephen Johnson

(More when I have some time away from making more data smog...)
posted by judith at 1:54 PM on April 12, 2011

Best answer: I thought Blog Theory: Feedback and Capture in the Circuits of Drive by Jodi Dean was great.

There was a conference in 2009 called The Internet as Playground and Factory, lots of academics working in this field were on panels - there is also video.

Rob Horning's blog Marginal Utility often covers this ground.

Interface Fantasy: A Lacanian Cyborg Ontology.

Internet and Society: Social Theory in the Information Age
posted by AlsoMike at 2:01 PM on April 12, 2011

Best answer: I would say that the most up to date and insightful writings about the Internet are not necessarily published in books. So I would rather recommend people, some of whom have published paper objects.

Jeff Jarvis' What Would Google Do? is a classic, full of insights.

Clay Shirky's excellent Here Comes Everybody has been cited above by John Cohen, but the more recent Cognitive Surplus is also great.

I also recommend (not in book form) the series of essays Press Think by Jay Rosen, The Human Network - what happens after we're all connected by Mark Pesce and again Buzz Machine by Jeff Jarvis.
posted by bru at 5:30 PM on April 12, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks everyone.
posted by skwt at 6:48 PM on April 13, 2011

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