Category Archives: Essays

language is our only home

Summer before the dark, by Volker Weidermann and translated by Carol Brown Laneway; Messages from a Lost World, by Stefan Zweig and translated by Will Stone

Pushkin Press have done marvels in restoring an entire generation of lost voices to contemporary English-language readers: Antal Szerb, Ernst Weiss, Arthur Schnitzler, Leo Perutz, Joseph Roth and of course their greatest rediscovery Stefan Zweig.

I say lost voices, but really these are voices which were deliberately silenced. It’s no coincidence that most of them are cut-off in the late 1930s to early 1940s. The Nazis sought to intimidate and destroy all art and culture that wasn’t in service of their own horrific goals. For a while they succeeded, and it’s a tragedy that so few of these writers survived to see how brief that success was and how total the Nazi’s ultimate defeat.

In his Summer Before the Dark, Volker Weidermann takes us to a moment of peace before the coming destruction: 1936 Ostend where a group of émigré writers briefly gathered. Pushkin have simultaneously published Messages from a Lost World, a collection of essays by Stefan Zweig written from the dawn of the first world war to the depths of the second.

SummerBefore ZweigMessages

I’m reviewing these together partly as Pushkin Press published them together and partly because they are such natural companion pieces. Both, as you’d expect from Pushkin, are physically lovely: well made hardbacks with high quality paper and well judged cover designs. They’d make the perfect gift for a melancholic relative…

Summer takes the reader to Ostend in 1936. It’s a rather Proustian middle-class Belgian seaside resort of the sort common before mass cheap airfare existed. The rise of the Nazis has already displaced a great many German language writers with Zweig one of the last to find himself unable to publish in his native tongue.

Over one summer Joseph Roth, Stefan Zweig, Irmgard Keun, Arthur Koestler and many more find themselves briefly together enjoying the cafes and the culture that have always formed the backdrop to their lives. It’s civilised Europe in miniature.

Weidermann skilfully evokes both time and place. It’s easy to picture the writers having passionate arguments about how best to intervene in Franco’s Spain (Koestler is despatched as a sort of amateur-spy) while crafting new manuscripts and falling into new relationships.

The book opens with a previous visit by Zweig to Ostend in 1914. Back then he couldn’t believe war would actually happen and delayed departure, incredulous at the idea that anyone would move beyond posturing to actual conflict. On the last train back he saw cannons being moved to the front – a physical rebuttal of his belief that common interest would outweigh nationalist folly.

In 1936 Roth is again striving for optimism, though it seems to be getting harder. Zweig at this point is a literary superstar. He’s rich and his books are hugely popular and widely translated. Ostend is a haven from his recent troubles in Germany, troubles which he’s been better insulated from to date than most:

Stefan Zweig in the summer of 1936. He looks at the sea through the large window and thinks with a  mixture of pity, reticence and pleasure about the group of displaced men and women he will be rejoining shortly.

Summer reads like a novel, which is both its strength and its weakness. There are no footnotes or endnotes and there’s no references or sources cited. That raises occasional questions about how confident we can be as to its accuracy.

Take the quote above as an example. Zweig “thinks”, but how do we know what he thought? Barring temporal telepathy this is presumably based on Zweig’s letters or a diary or something similar, but letters have an intended recipient, diaries may be written with a view to later publication, neither is entirely reliable as a guide to someone’s actual thoughts.

The question of how Weidermann knows what he writes remains a nagging concern throughout the book. It’s one that the reader just has to accept – I’ve no reason to believe Weidermann hasn’t done his homework and realistically it’s not as if I would have checked the citations had he provided them. Still, it makes this a book better read to get a sense of mood and of the nature of the world that was about to vanish rather than as anything more scholarly.

Read as novelistic-history (ironically something which Zweig hated), Summer reads very well indeed. Weidermann is good at capturing his subjects. Zweig in 1936 wears a pale suit with a well-trimmed moustache and is described as “self-confident, worldly” and “like an elegant shrew in his Sunday best.” By contrast, Roth is  “hunched” and “potbellied”; his moustache is “unkempt” and he “looks like a mournful seal that has wandered accidentally onto dry land.”


Zweig was one of Roth’s early literary heroes, and Weidermann tells a nice anecdote of how long before Roth met Zweig he went on a literary pilgrimage to Zweig’s apartment in Vienna but sadly missed seeing him. Zweig is now a lifeline as well as friend, providing Roth with cash and ensuring that he eats and takes basic care of himself.

Roth is an advanced alcoholic. His legs and feet are badly swollen, to the point where it’s almost impossible for him to put on a pair of shoes. For year’s now he’s had to throw up every morning, sometimes for hours. He eats almost nothing. Going out to a restaurant seems to him as an eccentric waste of money, that only a rich man like Stefan Zweig would dream up. Nevertheless, Zweig tries to convince him to eat a meal day after day. This summer in Ostend it even frequently works.

Both then and now Zweig suffers from being seen (rightly in my view) as the lesser talent. Zweig is a great writer of popular fiction, but Roth is simply a great writer. Still, they usefully collaborate: at one point Zweig struggles with an ending for a novel and Roth writes one for him, leaving Zweig to adapt Roth’s ending and craft it into his own book. I thought that lovely. Zweig gives Roth useful advice too (including on Weights and Measures, which Roth finishes too quickly desperate for the cash it will generate).

It’s no surprise that amidst all the literature and politics there’s sex too. Zweig is in Ostend with his secretary and mistress, Lotte, with whom he would spend the short few remaining years of his life (they ultimately committed suicide together). Roth meets Irmgard Keun (“the only Aryan here” she quips), a writer he encourages though without reading anything she writes. She later says of her first encounter with him “My skin said ‘yes’ immediately”. A line so good that on its own it’s persuaded me to read her work.

The contrast between the two central figures here couldn’t be greater. Zweig is civilised, urbane, bourgeois. No wonder history has been (until recently) a little unkind to him. Roth by contrast is a classic art-monster. He’s arrogant, passionate, filled with crazy dreams and absurd fantasies, self-destructive and yet attractive to women. Zweig has talent; Roth genius.

And yet. While Zweig is ultimately forced to abandon Roth fearing that otherwise he’ll be sucked down with him, overall he comes across as a man who does his best to live up to his own ideals. He’s a good friend to Roth for as long as he can be, and he’s a good man if perhaps a somewhat naive one. I prefer Roth’s work to Zweig’s, but I’d rather have Zweig as a friend than Roth.

It’s perhaps unavoidable in a book like this that reading it one rather wishes one could have been there, and yet the “there” weidermann describes is a terrible place. It’s a spun-sugar fragment of culture amidst an oncoming avalanche of barbarism, and within a few years nearly everyone he writes of will be dead and they’ll mostly die believing that everything they’ve worked for is in ashes.

I read Messages after Summer, and I think that may be the best way round. Messages is a well chosen collection of essays bringing out certain of Zweig’s core concerns: of the need for Europeans to find a common identity; of the merits of cosmopolitanism and humanism over insularity and fear.

Zweig’s themes resonate with me, and remain surprisingly timely as the UK moves towards a referendum vote on whether or not to stay in the EU. I know which way Zweig would have urged us to vote. From 1916:

… some exist who believe that never can a single people, a single nation achieve what a collective of European nations has not through centuries of heroic endeavour; men who ardently believe that this monument must be brought to completion in our Europe, here where it was started, and not in foreign continents like America or Asia.

That quote shouldn’t be taken as Zweig disparaging America or Asia, but first and foremost Zweig is unashamedly a European and it’s Europe that concerns him. If he had lived to see a united Europe I’ve no doubt his ambitions would then have stretched further to a united world, but as he came to see even his little dream of a common European polity proved too much for the era he lived in.

Zweig returns repeatedly in the essays to the myth of the Tower of Babel. To him it represents a dream of human potential – first built in metaphoric stone and now in culture and civilisation. He sees the Tower as a symbol of what can be achieved when people work together and put aside their differences, and as a caution showing how disunity can prevent us reaching the heavens.

The years up to 1914 Zweig sees as a metaphorical rebuilding of the tower, with Europe becoming more than merely a collection of individual nations through a cross-continent mingling of literature and music and art and science. Now as the tide of nationalism steadily grows over the course of these essays, he sees the foundation of the tower once more in danger.

Here’s Zweig in 1939 complaining of how history is taught in schools, and of how that encourages the very nationalism he deplores:

History, which ordinarily signified the highest objectivity, was force-fed into us with the sole aim of making us fine patriots, future soldiers, obedient citizens. We had to show ourselves humble before our own state and its institutions, mistrustful of other countries and races, and we had to agree with the carefully inculcated conviction that our country was better than all the other countries, our soldiers were better than their soldiers, our generals were more courageous than their generals; that our people throughout history had always been in the right and whatever might happen we would always be right: my country,right or wrong.

He goes on to talk about how he was taught history as a sequence of important dates and figures, most of them battles and conquerors. He could have written that about my schooling. Instead he would prefer a history that focuses on the truly important dates and achievements – scientific breakthroughs, notable medical discoveries, the scientists and artists. He wrote this on the eve of a war that would swallow the world, and he knew I think that none of this would be achieved anytime soon or even in his lifetime.

There’s the (very) occasional comic moment, such as in 1931 when he writes that “… the era of the “historical novel”, the blatant falsification of our ancestors’ lives, is now over”, on which note I’m afraid I have bad news for him. Mostly however this is a passionately if impractically argued plea for us to be better than we are. In 1940 he writes of the Vienna that he loves and which is now lost to him, saying:

Art, like culture, cannot prosper without freedom, and the culture of Vienna cannot flourish if it is severed from the vital source of European civilisation.

All of which is as true of Europe as a whole now as it was of the Vienna of his youth. I said above that his pleas were impractical, and often they are, but an excess of practicality can be the enemy of progress and sometimes we need a little impracticality if we’re to make any progress at all.

Other reviews

Not so many yet on the blogosphere that I’m aware of, but Kaggsy of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings wrote up Summer here and Messages here and Lizzy Siddal positively gushes about Summer here (and in answer to her rhetorical question, if one can’t gush on one’s own blog where can one?). If you know of others please flag them (and feel free to link directly) in the comments.

Finally, I should just note that these were review copies sent to me by Pushkin Press. I also have a personal copy of Zweig’s World of Yesterday and having read these now makes me all the more enthusiastic to read that.


Filed under Essays, German, Pushkin Press, Roth, Joseph, Vienna, Zweig, Stefan

I would be ashamed of a book whose spine was not broken

I Murdered My Library, by Linda Grant

Books breed. You start with a handful, a few shelves as a kid perhaps, but pretty soon you’re graduating to a bookcase. From there, another bookcase. Then another.

Soon you haven’t space for any more bookcases, so you start looking to see how you can fit in more books with the ones you have. You stack books sideways in front of the already-shelved books or on top of them. Perhaps you double-layer, though then how do you see what’s behind the front row?

Piles of books start to emerge, perhaps a reading pile near the bed, a few dotted around the living room, if you run to having books in the bathroom (I don’t) they start to gather there too. Books accumulate on tables, on chairs, under beds and on slow moving pets.

Eventually it comes time to move, hopefully to a bigger house. You stop flatsharing, move in with someone, maybe have a family. With more space comes more room for more bookshelves. Removal men curse your name and stick pins in voodoo dolls fashioned in your image.

Perhaps you dream of one day having a room solely dedicated to books. Unless you’re very, very rich it’s unlikely you’ll ever afford it though (perhaps in North America, they have more space there), and the genuinely rich tend not to be readers. Anyway, even if you did the books would still keep breeding.

If your partner’s also a reader, the books breed even faster. If they’re not, they’ll occasionally try to set rules about no books in certain rooms, no new books if there’s not space for the old ones, ask whether you really need all these books. Whatever they try it’s a losing effort on their part. Books will be smuggled in, shamefully squirrelled away where they might not be spotted. Contraband.

For some readers every book read bears their mark. Stained covers, scribbled notes in the margins, shattered spines and folded down corners. For others all that is blasphemy, every book treated so gently that visitors can’t tell which have been read and which not (that’s where I sit, Linda Grant as the quote titling this piece suggests, is in the other camp).

What happens though if you finally run out of space? What if you move and instead of going somewhere bigger, you go somewhere smaller? That’s what happened to Linda Grant. After 19 years living in a large flat crammed with books it came time to move, and there just wasn’t space in her new place for all her books, a lifetime’s reading, to go with her.

A book cull. It seems a suitable thing to blog about as we come up to Halloween, the season of horror.


Grant opens by describing her old flat, the shelves she had built for it, the nooks and crannies it held where books could be. However many shelves she had built though, there were still never enough:

The books in alphabetical rows were overgrown by piles of new books, doubled in front. Books multiplied, books swarmed, books, I sometimes dreamt, seemed to reproduce themselves – they were a papery population explosion. When they had exhausted the shelves, they started to take over the stairs; I had to vacuum round them. You cannot have a taste for minimalist décor if you seriously read books.

Unfortunately I do have a taste for minimalist décor, but she’s right, I’ve never achieved it because I’ve always had too many books.

So Grant had to do the unthinkable. She had to get rid of most of her books, thousands of them. She had to decide which would go with her, and which would not. In doing so, as any reader knows, she’s doing more than making some choices about mere property, she’s making choices about herself: who she is; how she connects to who she was; who she wants to be.

It is more than 50 years since I began to build my library, from its earliest foundations in the elementary sentence construction of Enid Blyton. Now at least half of the thousands of books I have bought are gone. It is one of the worst things I have ever done. I hate myself. But not as much as I have come to hate the books.

When I last moved I had to do something similar myself. We were paying for removal men, and even though we were moving to a larger place we wanted a chance of having it be a place we could enjoy, relax in, not a library with humans and cats moving carefully between the shelves. I found what Linda Grant found, it’s not actually as easy as you’d think to get rid of books.

Many charity shops don’t take books at all, those that do pulp most of those they take (a dirty secret of the charity industry, but most books have no resale value, particularly the more literary ones). Libraries aren’t as keen to get other people’s castoffs as you might think. If your friends are readers they probably already have too many books themselves, if they’re not they’re unlikely to want to give a home to what to them is a large pile of unsightly clutter.

If you’re getting rid of a few books none of this is insurmountable. Homes can be found, and Linda Grant does get a good few to where they might be read. If you’re getting rid of hundreds though as I was, or thousands as Linda Grant was, well, sooner or later you’re going to find yourself throwing books in the rubbish. Not just a few books either, and not just bad books, you’re going to be throwing good books away by the yard.

The process starts with care, with an assessment of merit and emotional connection. If you’re discarding in bulk though you really can’t keep that up, and besides sentiment leads you to spare too many. As Linda Grant says, “After a couple of hours, the process of deciding literary merit speeds up considerably.” In my own cull’s first hour I got through a handful of books, saving almost all of them. Three hours in and a second’s consideration was more than adequate.

It’s not a light thing to destroy books, particularly if you’re a reader, someone for whom they’ve been essential your entire remembered life (as Grant says, and I could say it myself, “Reading wasn’t my religion – it was my oxygen”). You literally though can’t give most of them away. Your books are priceless, but at the same time quite without value.

Who destroys books? Cities, churches, dictators and fanatics. Their fingers itch to build a pyre and strike the match. On 10 May 1933, students gathered in Berlin to dance around a bonfire of 25,000 volumes of ‘un-German’ books. They burned, amongst many others, Bertolt Brecht, Otto Dix, Heinrich Heine, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce and H.G. Wells. They destroyed them because the contents were too dangerous. Now, in an apartment on the Mediterranean, the same authors were being dumped because no-one wanted to read them. They are the detritus not just of the digital revolution but also of disposable living and small houses. And I too have committed murder in my library. I have killed my books.

Grant goes on to discuss wider themes, about how books fit into our lives as readers, and how they don’t for people who aren’t readers. If you’ve ever watched one of those tv shows where smiling experts help people buy or sell homes, it’s noticeable that there’s never any books. When Grant went to look at flats, particularly those being sold by younger people, they too largely seemed to be book-free:

Sometimes the alcoves were lined with shelves but they didn’t hold any books – they were for DVDs. The shelves pronounced taste, as my student bookshelves had pronounced a counter-cultural identity, but taste in interior décor and dinner. And I knew this because when the estate agent came to look at my flat, he winced when he saw all those books. What did he see? Clutter. Estate agents do not think that books furnish a room – books make rooms look messy. Books’ multi-coloured spines muddle and muddy the Farrow & Ball neutral paint colours, the Ammonite and Hardwick White and Savage Ground. They completely destroy the impact of the accent wall.

Estate agents advise her that books put off potential buyers. Grant’s cull begins long before her move as if she hopes to sell she can’t have a home overrun with books.

What then is the value of books? Particularly books we’ve already read? For us as readers (as Grant discusses) they are perhaps reminders of past pleasures, statements (to whom? to ourselves?) of who we are or mementos of who we once were (my own purge included a lot of SF I’d carefully accumulated over years, before my tastes shifted). They hold the promise of the possibility of revisiting an old literary friend or pleasures yet to be had if a book’s still unread.

They can also seem to be legacies, future gifts of knowledge and experience. Grant, like many, thought that perhaps in time she’d pass them on to the next generation, but really why would they want them? You see the same with people with carefully curated record or CD collections, is it really likely their children will want a lifetime’s accumulation of recordings by artists most of whom they’ve probably never even heard of?

My nephew’s wife took a suitcase full of the fashion monographs, but nothing else tempted them. The idea that I was building a library to bequeath to the next generation is one of the greatest fallacies of my life. The next generation don’t want old books – they don’t seem to want books at all. This is very painful to me.

The desire to pass on our library, our albums, our pottery collection or antique furniture or whatever possession we most prize is in part a desire not to die. It’s a bit of us continuing, our tastes, our memory brought to mind each time the imagined grateful recipients pull a book off the shelf or put a CD on (on what? It’s likely they won’t even have the technology to play them).

The reality though is that when we die our treasured possessions will at best be sold for whatever cash value they have, at worst will be a tedious and possibly upsetting chore for whoever has to sort through them all and put them in sacks for disposal. Grant touches on all of this, how in holding on to our books we hold on to our lives, how in getting rid of them we have to recognise our own mortality.

Grant also explores how her relationship with books and the wider world of books has changed. In the UK the loss of the Net Book Agreement led to deep discounting by chains such as Waterstones, who in turn were hit by even deeper discounting by the supermarkets, the charity bookshops and Amazon. Then came ereaders, at first poor substitutes for real books in terms of their reading experience, but increasingly as good if not better than their physical counterparts. A while back I bought Earthly Powers in hardcopy. The font was so small I couldn’t comfortably read it. Now I have it on Kindle, where I can increase the font size as needed. What use a book you can’t read?

Grant’s experience with Kindles is strangely similar to my own (making hers ironically a book “relevant to my personal experience”, a reader metric she rightly hates). Her first purchase is even one of the first I bought (Galgut’s In a Strange Room, though I’ve yet to read my copy). I love books, but wherever I can I get them now on Kindle. It means they’re always with me, and I won’t have to pay anyone to carry them next time I move. Besides, I buy a lot of books, I prefer independent bookshops as much as the next reader but ebooks are cheaper and don’t take up any space, like so many others I want the independent bookshops to survive but I can’t sensibly justify how much more it would cost me to make all my purchases at them or really the extra time it would take to get to one of the surviving stores (none are anywhere near where I live).

I Murdered My Library is, fittingly, available only on Kindle. It is, as you would expect, extremely well written and since anyone reading this is pretty much by definition a reader it’s a book that I think will resonate with you. It’s only around 28 pages, and sells at 0.99p, cheaper than a cup of coffee which as Grant notes is the price-point readers seem to expect of electronic books.

I’ll end with one final quote, one that I liked too much not to include somewhere:

I threw one box in the recycling bin. I’m going to hell, a hell in which eternity is a Kindle with a dead battery.

If you are interested in this, there’s a lengthy extract at the Guardian, here, which gives a good feel for the style.


Filed under Essays, Grant, Linda

Information is alienated experience.

You Are Not A Gadget, by Jaron Lanier

This is a terrible, terrible book.

Jaron Lanier was a major figure in the development of virtual reality technologies, and is now something of a techno-philosopher. His 2010 book You are not a Gadget was well received (though how baffles me), and addresses the relationship of the individual to the new information technologies that are so rapidly developing around us. It’s an important subject, one that concerns a great many people. Unfortunately, the only reason to read this book is if you’ve already made your mind up that the new digital technologies are a bad thing and would like your biases confirmed without having to go to the bother of actually examining them first.


The problem with Lanier’s book isn’t immediately apparent. In fact, it starts well and opens with some genuinely fascinating thoughts regarding technological lock-in and how seemingly small choices made in the early development of a field can later seem like laws of nature. Lock-in is a problem because design choices are made before their consequences are wholly apparent, but the nature of the technologies involved may make it extremely difficult to later change course.

As Lanier notes “Lock-in … removes design options based on what is easiest to program, what is politically feasible, what is fashionable, or what is created by chance.” Among his examples is the the seemingly fundamental concept of the file:

Once upon a time, not too long ago, plenty of computer scientists thought the idea of the file was not so great. The first design for something like the World Wide Web, Ted Nelson’s Xanadu, conceived of one giant, global file, for instance. The first iteration of the Macintosh, which never shipped, didn’t have files. Instead, the whole of a user’s productivity accumulated in one big structure, sort of like a singular personal web page. Steve Jobs took the Mac project over from the fellow who started it, the late Jef Raskin, and soon files appeared. UNIX had files; the Mac as it shipped had files; Windows had files. Files are now part of life; we teach the idea of a file to computer science students as if it were part of nature. In fact, our conception of files may be more persistent than our ideas about nature. I can imagine that someday physicists might tell us that it is time to stop believing in photons, because they have discovered a better way to think about light—but the file will likely live on.

Lanier focuses  on the downsides of the online space. He talks of how “Anonymous blog comments, vapid video pranks, and lightweight mashups may seem trivial and harmless, but as a whole, this widespread practice of fragmentary, impersonal communication has demeaned interpersonal interaction.” I don’t actually think it has demeaned interpersonal interaction, but I think there is an ugliness to much of online culture which is profoundly unappealing.

That last quote though illustrates where Lanier goes wrong. He mistakes assertion for argument. Are our communications online fragmentary and impersonal? Some evidently are, youtube comments (never read them, seriously, never) and newspaper comment sections are good examples. Others though are persistent and relationship based. Blogging is one example of that, but so too are many specialist-interest web forums where regular users carry on conversations sometimes over years. Other media, particularly Facebook and Twitter, can be used in a fragmentary fashion to leave random comments about celebrities or can be used to keep in touch with friends and to make new ones.

There’s an argument to be made that online culture is fragmentary and impersonal, but there are counter-arguments too. Lanier makes no reference to them. Even if he’s correct (and I’d argue mobile phones have done more to atomise us than the internet), it’s far from clear that it has demeaned interpersonal relationships more generally, the vast bulk of our contact with other people after all continue to take place in the real world.

Lanier argues that the digital realm edits us, squeezes down our personalities to fit into pre-defined boxes and marketing categories. He sees this as a truncation of the individual. He sees the individual diminished too in the rise of an online philosophy that places its faith in the wisdom of crowds – the use of sites such as wikipedia to replace individual view points.

When developers of digital technologies design a program that requires you to interact with a computer as if it were a person, they ask you to accept in some corner of your brain that you might also be conceived of as a program. When they design an internet service that is edited by a vast anonymous crowd, they are suggesting that a random crowd of humans is an organism with a legitimate point of view.

That’s a nice quote, but I’m not sure any of it is true. He contrasts Facebook with its predetermined fields to enter information into with Myspace where anyone could enter pretty much anything. He’s absolutely right that Facebook is a much more curated experience, and that Myspace gave more freedom for individualism. He ignores though that most of us lack anything by way of design skills, and that the result is that Facebook while constrained is usable while for many Myspace was an unreadable mess.

In that light Facebook isn’t necessarily a downgrade of the individual over the prepackaged, but an acceptable (to most, I don’t actually like it much) trade-off between personalisation and utility.

As for wikipedia, I simply don’t agree that there’s an implicit suggestion that a random crowd has a point of view. In fact, I think that’s a fundamental misreading of the philosophy underpinning that site. There are real issues with wikipedia, not least how easy it is to manipulate and how much weight users tend to place on it, but we kid ourselves if we think that the encyclopedias it replaced were themselves free of bias or occasional error.

Lanier makes further points regarding how we reduce ourselves in order to fit in to machines’ programmed/emergent expectations of us, but again he does so by simply stating his views as fact, without providing any evidence for them:

People degrade themselves in order to make machines seem smart all the time. Before the crash, bankers believed in supposedly intelligent algorithms that could calculate credit risks before making bad loans. We ask teachers to teach to standardized tests so a student will look good to an algorithm. We have repeatedly demonstrated our species’ bottomless ability to lower our standards to make information technology look good. Every instance of intelligence in a machine is ambiguous.

All that sounds good, but again is it true? Bankers mostly trusted other bankers. The senior management trusted the departmental managers, who placed their faith in quants whose work they didn’t understand and in traders running risk models that management didn’t understand. Is that faith in the machine though, or is it just once again forgetting that if something seems too good to be true it probably is?

Are standardised tests about making students look good to an algorithm, or are they rather about trying to be as fair as possible in testing students and seeking to remove local and individual bias? Is it an ideal system? Of course not, but is it about making information technology look good? I’m not remotely persuaded.

By the midway point Lanier starts to really warm to his themes, and it’s here the book becomes truly unstuck. To this point I’d found it frustrating, but Lanier did have some real insights even if he offered no arguments on behalf of any of them. He’s rightly sceptical of the economics underpinning much of the web, depending as it does on future advertising revenue streams that always seem to be just a few financial quarters away but which never quite arrive. He’s good too on how the question of whether something can be done becomes more important than whether it should be done (though that’s far from unique to computer science).

As he moves on though to stress the role of the individual over the technological, Lanier’s tendency to merely assert his views becomes much, much worse. In a particularly bad section he uses the analogy of the printing press, comparing its impact to the modern internet.

He talks of how “People, not machines, made the Renaissance.” I’ve never heard anyone say otherwise. He goes on to say “The printing that takes place in North Korea today, for instance, is nothing more than propaganda for a personality cult.” That’s true, and I’ve yet to hear anyone argue that technology can’t be misused. His next sentence though is “What is important about printing presses is not the mechanism, but the authors.” and while it’s absolutely true that what’s written is what matters that doesn’t mean it’s not also true that the printing press was a hugely important invention. 

What he’s doing here is presenting an utterly false dichotomy. To say that the printing press revolutionised the dissemination of knowledge and opinion isn’t to diminish the authors who wrote what those presses printed. The internet, like the printing press, can be a tool both for propaganda and for revolution. The point is that it’s a tool, and the tools we have matter. Acknowledging that doesn’t mean diminishing the importance of people.

Lanier thinks it does diminish them, but again it’s assertion. He says “An individual who is receiving a flow of reports about the romantic status of a group of friends must learn to think in the terms of the flow if it is to be perceived as worth reading at all.” That’s wrong again though, he has cause and effect backwards. People don’t receive relationship updates because Facebook tells them to, Facebook provides relationship updates because gossip about who’s with whom has been a fundamental part of human social experience for as long as there’s been human social experience.

Eventually it all starts to seem like a classic old man’s whinge. The youth of today have no respect, the world’s going to hell in a handcart, music today doesn’t have proper melodies. I’m not joking about that last one by the way:

There are new styles of music, of course, but they are new only on the basis of technicalities. For instance, there’s an elaborate nomenclature for species of similar electronic beat styles (involving all the possible concatenations of terms like dub, house, trance, and so on), and if you learn the details of the nomenclature, you can more or less date and place a track. This is more of a nerd exercise than a musical one—and I realize that in saying that I’m making a judgment that perhaps I don’t have a right to make. But does anyone really disagree?

I loathe the arrogance of that “does anyone really disagree?” with its implication that even if we don’t admit it we know deep down he’s right. I’m a huge fan of electronic music. Distinguishing between dub, house, trance and so on is not a nerd exercise rather than a musical one, these are different (though related) forms. If one has no interest in classical the difference between baroque and romantic likely seems wholly academic (and in fact I don’t know which is which). Similarly if one has no interest in dance music there’s no reason one should be able to (or indeed wish to) distinguish between trance and house. That doesn’t, however, make them the same thing.

From complaining about modern music Lanier goes on to explain about how he helps neurologists with their research. Some of this is frankly Pooteresque in its self-importance: “Sometimes I am designing tools for people to use, while at other times I am working with scientists trying to understand how the brain works.” 

Here he makes the classic error of assuming that expertise in one field lends itself to other fields. He talks at one point about how swearing functions as a brain activity:

There are specific neural pathways associated with this type of speech; some Tourette’s patients, for instance, are known to swear uncontrollably. And it’s hard to overlook the many swear words that are related to orifices or activities that also emit pheremonic olfactory signals. Could there be a deeper connection between these two channels of “obscenity”?

The first sentence there is correct. The second is mostly true, though he ignores the fact that swearing is culturally specific and that many cultures have extensive profanities based on animal comparisons or religious references. The third sentence is utter speculation. Lanier is now just free associating without any real knowledge of his subject matter and armed with an assumption that he has some peculiar insight that others lack.

He uses the last part of the book to speculate on matters as diverse as neurology, the evolution of language, and why cephalopods didn’t assume the ecological niche which humanity has taken. Each time his lack of specialist knowledge in the relevant field is painfully obvious. It reads, ironically, like a poorly researched blog.

Lanier is absolutely persuaded of his own insights. That’s the problem. He knows he’s right, so he doesn’t bother to show how he reaches his conclusions. Perhaps if he had he’d have examined them a little more, and they would be more than mere prejudice. As it is he presents his views to us like tablets from the mountain. The shame of it is he’s published a book, received positive reviews, and in the end it’s nothing more than the classic complaint of every person who’s got older and found the world no longer as it was when they were young. Stop the future, Jaron Lanier wants to get off.


Filed under Essays, Politics