Holiday Reading: Three Looks at Today's Technology


I spent a fair amount of time over the holidays reading. Some, like The Da Vinci Code and Teeth of the Tiger were just for entertainment. But others, while fun, were more for education. Three of the books I read in the latter category were Smart Mobs by Howard Rheingold, ME++ by William Mitchell, and Natural-Born Cyborgs by Andy Clark. In some ways these are all the same book, just with a slightly different perspective. They even contain some of the same stories. Even so, the perspective that each author gave the topic held my interest.

cover Howard Rheingold's been the editor of several culturally important media properties such as HotWired and The Whole Earth Review, and he has a history as a commentator on the social aspects of technology. At first I thought his book was about mobile computing, but that's just one of the primary memes in a work that's more about the social networks being enabled by recent technology shifts. Mobile is part of that, but its more than mobile, it always connected and the blending of the technology with our lives.

cover William J. Mitchell's book is, as I said, vaguely about the same thing, but his background is architecture and the book follows from his study of the environment that we all live in. Mitchell is Professor of Architecture and Media Arts and Sciences and Dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at MIT. You may not think that puts him at the heart of today's technology innovations, but he's been associated with MIT's Media Lab for some time and has written two other books on the impact of technology on the spaces we live in. The book sees the augmentation of human intelligence and capabilities by computers as just one more in a long line of technology innovations, such as water supply systems and sewers, that have extended out life support systems outside of the "skin bag."

cover If that idea catches you, then you're definitely going to want to read Clarks book. Clark is the Director of the Cognitive Science program at Indiana University. Clark takes the position that we don't need to wait for chip implants to consider ourselves cyborgs--we're cyborgs right now and have been since the invention of writing at least and perhaps before that. Clark comes back to the theme time and again that the distinction between what's inside the "skin bag" and what's outside is not very important in the end analysis. In Clarks world, cell phones are brain upgrades available on every street corner.

If you're only going to read one of these books, you probably ought to go with Smart Mobs since that's the least specialized of the three unless your interests lean more toward architecture or cognitive psychology. Even so, I'd recommend all three. They're short and easy to read and the difference in perspective about the same ideas is intriguing.