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Dated by design
on January 7, 2009
While Shenk's "cautionary notes" err on the side of the measured critiques of a turn-of-the-century technological participant-observer, this book's potential value as a bellwether of, for instance, conscientious information consumption is completely undermined by the braying topicality of the project. Because these articles were largely written as either pointed and timely inquiries into the social value of very particular and short-lived services (e.g. Pointcast), or as more diffuse, exploratory works on the ethical considerations underlying the adoption of certain technological advancements (e.g. cloning and the Human Genome Project), they betray their age rather poorly.
Shenk here sits atop the comfortable perch of a guarded cum unassailable optimism that comes packaged as some sort of "objective" or "realist" cynicism about the progress/efficiency narrative of the Web age. The author and his contemporaries coin their approach "technorealism", which can often be reduced to sloganeering about cost/benefit games and "faster not being better". Very fine and good, but this collection is all too piecemeal to accumulate the needed momentum to allow such obvious umbrellas to hold fast. Shenk even pads the page count with excerpts of email communications with his friends! Not to mention the articles about photojournalism and Photoshop or ticker news feeds and personalized homepages that seem downright, naively folksy ten years down the line.
The one excellent piece herein about the marriage between Biotech and University laboratory science does not a book make. (Granted, in light of another Amazon reviewer's comments, there's some merit to "Stealing Calm", a paean to radio in soundbite times). There's also better book-length arguments regarding the matters of import here (see Fukuyama's "Our Post-Human Future" on cloning, or any Neil Postman for heartier humanism). Is it a coincidence that writers of the mid-20th Century like Jacques Ellul (The Technological Society) or Orwell wrote more convincingly on our current socio-technological dilemmas? Their isolation from the modern ubiquities of information technology allowed for the kind of thinking we don't seem capable of as we're strapped in for the ride. No disrespect to Shenk, but this sort of journalism should really just hit the microfiche. ...Google books, that is!