What I’m Not Reading

I get regular emails from publishers who think they’ve got a hot new book for me. Collectively, they’re a good case study in how difficult targeting your actual customer base really is. Today’s solicitation produced a real groaner.

Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now

By Douglas Rushkoff

Rushkoff presents a rich, nuanced exploration of how technological shifts like the rise of email and social media enable our lives to play out in real time—the “eternal present”—but never in the authentic “now.” The resulting dissonance between our digital selves and our analog bodies has thrown us into a new state of anxiety: present shock. Weaving together seemingly disparate events and trends, Rushkoff shows how our changed relationship with time affects our biology, behavior, politics, and culture in this wide-ranging, deeply thought meditation on what it means to be human in the modern era.

“The eternal present but not the authentic now.” Seriously? Do you think there’s any chance at all that this guy has actually devised a way to measure the authenticity of someone’s experience of the now?

“The dissonance between our digital selves and our analog bodies.” Oh, one thing’s digital, the other’s analog; that must mean something profound!

When I hear people longing for more “public intellectuals” (I’m looking at you, Nick Kristoff), this kind of bullshit is what comes to mind. Because people are going to flock to snake oil salesmen who spin un-tested and untestable theories hooked to memetic catchphrases (I’m looking at you, Newt Gingrich), and will be bored to tears by any attempt to give them a real empirically-based argument. In fact giving people empirical information that contradicts their beliefs can actually strengthen false beliefs.

Public intellectuals are people like Malcolm Gladwell (who writes so brilliantly–I am envious–that I almost believe what he’s saying), David Brooks (whose contribution to our culture is the fluffing up of common-place thoughts so as to present them as meaningful insights), or Noam Chomsky (whom people listen to because he tells them what they want to hear, and they justify listening by reference to his academic credentials, which have jack all to do with the areas in which he pontificates).

And me, perhaps (small as my public is). Take that for a warning.

About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
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8 Responses to What I’m Not Reading

  1. Troublesome Frog says:

    What, no reference to quantum mechanics?

  2. pierrecorneille says:

    In my grad program, I heard a lot of my fellow grad students state that they use “empirical evidence” to distinguish themselves from the more cultural-history oriented students who only studied “language” and “texts.” That use rankled (and rankles) me. The self-identified “empiricists” weren’t usually saying that they asked questions only about that which is measurable. Neither were they making some claim about all knowledge coming from sense perception. They were, it seemed to me, simply saying that their evidence was better because it wasn’t cultural/linguistic evidence.

    But can’t we all just get along? Some questions are amenable to investigation with certain kinds of evidence and some with other kinds of evidence. Some evidence enables us to make certain types of conclusions and other evidence, other conclusions. Some things may be difficult to measure while others just can’t be captured in that way.

    Not that I have any plans to read Mr. Rushkoff’s book. That type of stuff doesn’t appeal to me unless it’s in simple language and shorter than 20 pages.

  3. pierrecorneille says:

    I do, by the way, agree with your aversion to “public intellectuals,” or at least the term. And your examples are pretty good. I’ve never read Gladwell, but I know what type of stuff he writes. I’ve read enough non-linguistic stuff by Chomsky to turn me off.

    And I just can’t make heads or tails of what Brooks says either in his op eds or in his weekly commentary at the NewsHour. I get that he’s “civil,” but he ends up making arguments like this:

    Americans need to decide if they want to be a nation of innovators, or a nation of people who just…..muddle on through. That’s why I oppose Obamacare.

    [Disclosure: That’s not anything he’s actually said. It’s just an amalgam of the type of argument he makes. The ellipses represent the pause he makes in the middle of uttering the second stated premise of whatever syllogism he’s arguing at the moment.]

  4. Matty says:

    I never actually made it through Chomsky’s defining democracy but did think there was an intriguing hypothesis under the waffle. Namely the idea that the US government knew relatively early that the Soviets were not as strong as their posturing (in non nuclear terms) but pretending they were made it easier to sell a lot of stuff to the public. It may be interesting but not enough to get through my dislike of his style.

  5. Dr X says:

    James, I’m surprised you left Garry Wills off the list of public intellectuals you hold in low regard.

  6. Dr X says:

    And you know I’ve photographed about half of the population of Chicago, so of course I’ve got my street shot of Wills.


  7. James Hanley says:

    Oh, God, Garry Wills. I had a long and vigorous debate at a conference where I was the panel commentator about two paper authors’ use of Wills. Wills claims the federal government created the states because the members of the Continental Congress–pre Articles of Confederation, much less Constitution–encouraged them to reorganize their colonial governments into independent, sovereign state governments. It boggles my mind. He also argues that the primary purpose of separation of powers was to give each branch specialization to enhance its efficiency, although Madison is explicit in quoting Montesquieu about the accumulation of powers in the hands of one or a few being “the very definition of tyranny,” and despite the clear evidence from Madison’s notes of the Federal Convention that everyone was fine with the executive and legislation not being separated, until James Wilson and Gouverneur Morris objected to legislative selection of the executive on the grounds of the potential for “cabals and intrigues.” Specialized capacity is mentioned in the Federalist Papers, iirc, but it’s clearly a minor justification, an “oh, yeah, that’s not what we actually discussed in convention, but it will have this benefit, too,” kind of argument.

    Wills disgusts me.

  8. James Hanley says:


    You should read a little bit of Gladwell, not because of anything he has to say, but because of his ability to write persuasively. It really is impressive, in large part because it’s so unobtrusive. Everything he says just ends up sounding so natural, so “of course,” that you have to stop and look closely at it to realize that it’s the quality of his writing, not the evidence itself, that makes it all so damn persuasive.

    I won’t read him anymore, and my blood boils a bit at the thought of him, but I am unashamed to say I truly envy his writing ability. (And sometimes, when I’ve put together a post with lots of bits of evidence pulled together, and people tell me how good it is, I have some disquiet, wondering if I’ve just pulled a Gladwell, whether it’s my ability to write that type of thing pretty well that’s doing the heavy lifting, rather than the evidence actually being that strong.)

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