A Handbook for Staying Human in a Digital Age: Nick Harkaway’s Blind Giant
You, dear Reader, are the end of the line. Your generation has watched its world move from atoms to bits. Those who follow you, though, will be born into a purely digital society, where eBooks have gone from exotic to everyday. In The Blind Giant, Nick Harkaway, the blogger and novelist, uses a series of linked essays to consider whether this brave new world of ours will be heavenly or hellish.
These topics are familiar to us all because we cope with them daily: information overload, how search engines change the way we think, piracy and ownership, activism in a digital world, and so on. Harkaway, though, has thought a lot more about this than you have. The book is like a digital "My Dinner With Andre," where we eavesdrop on a fascinating conversation about our place in the changing world.
While this may be of interest to future historians, like Marshall McLuhan's influential Understanding Media from 1964, Harkaway's book is nothing if not now. His examples -- the Facebook IPO, WikiLeaks, the live Twitter account of the attack on Osama bin Laden's compound, etc. -- are so effective because they are so fresh.
These well-chosen illustrations are useful in grounding the discussion, and this is important because some ideas are farther out there than "The Jetsons." For example, Harkaway muses, "If I were to collect DNA from someone I found attractive, say from a hairbrush, and have it combined with my own and placed into a viable human egg, would I have committed some sort of (intellectual property) violation?" Yeow. But, he’s right: Our society will face questions like these, they are a lot deeper than the etiquette around "defriending" someone, and we're not ready yet.
The author shares some of his own information overload with us, which can be both fascinating and overwhelming. The global chicken population in 2003 was twenty-four billion. There is a blind man who can ride his bike through traffic by clicking his tongue and listening, like a bat, to tell where he is and what is around him. Prisoners given nutritional supplements committed thirty-five percent fewer violent incidents than those given a placebo.
The Blind Giant is an interesting counterpoint to Jaron Lanier's You Are Not a Gadget, which covered similar ground with a lot more skepticism about what "Web 2.0" offers us. Ultimately, Harkaway makes the case that technology is like any other tool: not good or bad, except in how we use it. It's reassuring, at least, to know that our society has people like Nick Harkaway to start asking the right questions.