Not Just Fancy Television

Posted by Nishant Shah at Dec 08, 2012 02:30 AM |
Nishant Shah reviews Ben Hammersley's book "64 Things You Need to Know for Then: How to Face the Digital Future Without Fear ", published by Hodder & Stoughton

The review was published in the Indian Express on December 8, 2012.

Let us begin by acknowledging that when the world was learning how to drive on the information highway, Ben Hammersley was out there, instructing us how to do it best. So it doesn’t surprise that 64 Things You Need to Know for Then: How to Face the Digital Future Without Fear, despite its untweetable title, is quite spot-on when it comes to describing our digital pasts, demystifying our interweb presents and preparing us for technosocial futures. Well-written, interspersed with illustrative anecdotes, reflective experiences and speculative ideas, the book looks at the good, the bad and the downright bizarre that the digital turn has introduced in our lives. Working through moments of nostalgia for things that have already become obsolete, and through experiences that morph even before we can comprehend them, Hammersley writes (or, as he suggests in his introduction — co-writes with hundreds of anonymous contributors) a book that is readable, for those seeking to understand how the digital world moves and those who want to remember their own role in shaping forgotten trends.

The book also attempts to answer some of the troublesome tensions in our understanding of our contemporary digital lives. Hammersley’s basic intention in writing the book is to show how technological shifts are not merely about changing usage patterns. It radically (and often dramatically) restructures our domains of life, language and labour. Older structures have become redundant and the new ones have not yet found their feet. There are many who attempt to think of the internet as a mere extension of older media practices. But as he says, “The internet is absolutely not just fancy television.” It is a technology that is reshaping everything we had understood about who we are and how we relate to the world around us.

However, Hammersley suggests, the ways in which the internet is rapidly transforming the world leads to a clear divide around technology literacy. The “technologically literate” are shaping the digital turn, experimenting and exploring the possibilities, but unable to fall back upon older structures of assurance to know whether the choices they are making are sustainable. At the same time, the “technologically illiterate” are still responsible for shaping a world that they are quickly losing track of.

This book clearly explains the technological, legal, cultural, social and economic shifts of the last 20 years, and how they foretell our futures, without complicating it with geeky discourses on code or theoretical bluster.

Hammersley also ensures that the book is not merely a glossary of terms. He has the most interesting anecdotes from around the world like Harry Potter fan-fiction and crowdsourced translations in Germany challenging intellectual property rights regimes, the Human Flesh Search Engines in China, which threaten to reinforce regressive mob politics while also enabling cultural vigilantes in our societies. He also goes beyond individual concerns and reflects on the larger political concerns of censorship, control and freedom, discussing with great lucidity, the complicated nuances of hacker groups like Anonymous, political effects of collectives like WikiLeaks, etc. It is an exciting mash-up of events that will make you smile at the audacity and irreverence of the players in the digital playground, but will also make you shiver as it lays bare the new authoritarian and violent regimes that emerge with digital technologies.

Instead of taking partisan positions about something as necessarily good or bad, Hammersley documents some of the practices, effects and affects of technology, to show how our world has changed. There is no explanation of why the list stops at 64 things. But it is a well curated list of social, cultural, economic and political concerns and provides a conversational account of the present and future, speculating, like an old friend on the living room couch on a Sunday afternoon.

The only criticism against Hammersley is that he is too dependent on the rules of the internet to explain the internet. The different laws that have evolved in computing and network theory, in the sociology of the Web and the economic analysis of information societies, are accepted too easily, and used as self-evident explanatory frameworks. But then, this is not a book pretending to argue for a new conceptual framework. It is a book that has set out to educate and entertain, slowly unfolding the fractured narratives of the Web from its military origins to its Arab Spring manifestations. Of the many books that are already flooding the market, trying to decode the Web, Hammersley’s list of 64 things is going to be at the top.

The writer is Director (Research), Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore says:
Feb 13, 2013 10:29 AM

It is an interesting mash-up of activities that will create you grin at the audacity and irreverence of the gamers in the electronic play area, but will also create you shiver as it sets simple the new authoritarian and aggressive routines that appear with electronic technology.

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