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The Real World of Technology and the Four Other Books I Read August 2023

Books I read in August -- with ratings and some curated quotes!

< July 2023

The Real World of Technology


As I see it, technology has built the house in which we all live. The house is continually being extended and remodelled. More and more of human life takes place within its walls, so that today there is hardly any human activity that does not occur within this house. All are affected by the design of the house, by the division of its space, by the location of its doors and walls. Compared to people in earlier times, we rarely have a chance to live outside this house. (Location 89)
Technology is not the sum of the artifacts, of the wheels and gears, of the rails and electronic transmitters Technology is a system. It entails far more than its individual material components. Technology involves organization, procedures, symbols, new words, equations, and, most of all, a mindset. (Location 102)
Today’s real world of technology is characterized by the dominance of prescriptive technologies. Prescriptive technologies are not restricted to materials production. They are used in administrative and economic activities and in many aspects of governance, and on them rests the real world of technology in which we live. While we should not forget that these prescriptive technologies are often exceedingly effective and efficient, they come with an enormous social mortgage. The mortgage means that we live in a culture of compliance, that we are ever more conditioned to accept orthodoxy as normal, and to accept that there is only one way of doing “it.“ (Location 271)

The Circle


She couldn’t stand it. Every day of that job, the eighteen months she worked there, she wondered if she could really ask Annie for a favor. She’d never been one to ask for something like that, to be rescued, to be lifted. It was a kind of neediness, pushiness—nudginess, her dad called it, something not bred into her. Her parents were quiet people who did not like to be in anyone’s way, quiet and proud people who took nothing from anyone. And Mae was the same, but that job bent her into something else, into someone who would do anything to leave. It was sickening, all of it. The green cinderblocks. An actual water cooler. Actual punch cards. The actual certificates of merit when someone had done something deemed special. And the hours! Actually nine to five! All of it felt like something from another time, a rightfully forgotten time, and made Mae feel that she was not only wasting her life but that this entire company was wasting life, wasting human potential and holding back the turning of the globe. The cubicle at that place, her cubicle, was the distillation of it all. The low walls around her, meant to facilitate her complete concentration on the work at hand, were lined with burlap, as if any other material might distract her, might allude to more exotic ways of spending her days. And so she’d spent eighteen months in an office where they thought, of all the materials man and nature offered, the one their staff should see, all day and every day, was burlap. A dirty sort of burlap, a less refined form of burlap. A bulk burlap, a poor man’s burlap, a budget burlap. Oh god, she thought, when she left that place she vowed never to see or touch or acknowledge the existence of that material again. And she did not expect to see it again. How often, outside of the nineteenth century, outside a general store of the nineteenth century, does one encounter burlap? Mae assumed she never would, but then here it was, all around her in this new Circle workspace, and looking at it, smelling its musty smell, her eyes welled up. “Fucking burlap,” she mumbled to herself. (Location 155)
She was allowed to turn off the SeeChange cameras in the room, but she found she rarely did. She knew that the footage she might gather, herself, for instance about movements during sleep, could be valuable someday, so she left the cameras on. It had taken a few weeks to get used to sleeping with her wrist monitors—she’d scratched her face one night, and cracked her right screen another—but Circle engineers had improved the design, replacing the rigid screens with more flexible, unbreakable ones, and now she felt incomplete without them. (Location 4263)
And shit, Mae thought, her throat tightening, did she really send a frown to a group of heavily armed paramilitaries in Guatemala? What if they had contacts here? Certainly there were plenty of Guatemalans in California, and certainly they would be more than happy to have a trophy like Mae, to punish her for her opprobrium. Fuck, she thought. Fuck. There was a pain in her, a pain that was spreading its black wings inside her. And it was coming, primarily, from the 368 people who apparently hated her so much they wanted her gone. It was one thing to send a frown to Central America, but to send one just across campus? Who would do that? Why was there so much animosity in the world? And then it occurred to her, in a brief and blasphemous flash: she didn’t want to know how they felt. The flash opened up into something larger, an even more blasphemous notion that her brain contained too much. That the volume of information, of data, of judgments, of measurements, was too much, and there were too many people, and too many desires of too many people, and too many opinions of too many people, and too much pain from too many people, and having all of it constantly collated, collected, added and aggregated, and presented to her as if that all made it tidier and more manageable—it was too much. But no. No, it was not, her better brain corrected. No. You’re hurt by these 368 people. This was the truth. She was hurt by them, by the 368 votes to kill her. Every one of them preferred her dead. If only she didn’t know about this. If only she could return to life before this 3 percent, when she could walk through campus, waving, smiling, chatting idly, eating, sharing human contact, without knowing what was deep in the hearts of the 3 percent. To frown at her, to stick their fingers at that button, to shoot her that way, it was a kind of murder. (Location 5252)

Proust and the Squid


Proust saw reading as a kind of intellectual “sanctuary,” where human beings have access to thousands of different realities they might never encounter or understand otherwise. Each of these new realities is capable of transforming readers’ intellectual lives without ever requiring them to leave the comfort of their armchairs. (Location 372)
Unlike its component parts such as vision and speech, which are genetically organized, reading has no direct genetic program passing it on to future generations. Thus the next four layers involved must learn how to form the necessary pathways anew every time reading is acquired by an individual brain. This is part of what makes reading—and any cultural invention—different from other processes, and why it does not come as naturally to our children as vision or spoken language, which are preprogrammed. (Location 456)
The chance discovery of little clay pieces, no larger than a quarter, marks the birth of modern efforts to learn about the history of writing. Called tokens, some of these pieces came enclosed in clay envelopes (see Figure 2-2) that bore markings representing their contents. We now know that these pieces date back to the period between 8000 and 4000 BCE, and formed a kind of accounting system used across many parts of the ancient world. The tokens primarily recorded the number of goods bought or sold, such as sheep, goats, and bottles of wine. A lovely irony of our species’ cognitive growth is that the world of letters may have begun as an envelope for the world of numbers. (Location 696)

The Stoic Challenge


A growing number of people have realized that they lack what the ancient philosophers would have called a philosophy of life. Such a philosophy tells you what in life is worth having and provides you with a strategy for obtaining it. If you try to live without a philosophy of life, you will find yourself extemporizing your way through your days. As a result, your daily efforts are likely to be haphazard, and your life is likely to be misspent. What a waste! (Location 68)
Their goal wasn’t to banish emotion but to minimize the number of negative emotions—such as feelings of frustration, anger, grief, and envy—that they experienced. They had nothing against the experience of positive emotions, including delight and even joy. We should think of the Stoics not as grim individuals but as eternal optimists who possessed a profound ability to put a positive spin on life’s events. (Location 128)
In one sense, a patient person is one who can suffer a setback without complaint. This is not, however, what the Stoics were doing. Their goal was not to remain calm while suffering a setback but rather to experience a setback without thereby suffering. It is an important difference. (Location 134)

Napoleon: A Life

W.I.P because it is like one trillion pages but 5/5 (so far)

Napoleon was able to compartmentalize his life to quite a remarkable degree, much more so even than most statesmen and great leaders. He could entirely close off one part of his mind to what was going on in the rest of it; he himself likened it to being able to open and close drawers in a cupboard. (Location 456)
A persistent untruthfulness in the telling of his own life has made the task of Napoleon’s biographers challenging. In youth he was a novelist manqué, and all his adolescent writings and essays were deeply autobiographical. So keen was he to burnish his legend and legacy while imprisoned on the mid-Atlantic island of St Helena that he wildly exaggerated his accomplishments and minimized or altogether ignored his errors, failures and occasional brutalities. ‘The historian, like the orator, must persuade,’ Napoleon told his chamberlain General Henri Bertrand. ‘He must convince.’ So in June 1816, while on St Helena, he began dictating to his private secretary Emannuel de Las Cases and others—sometimes for up to twelve hours a day—what was to be published two years after his death in four volumes under the title Le Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène. It was the greatest international bestseller of the nineteenth century, outselling such other classics as Uncle Tom’s Cabin. ‘What a novel my life has been!’ he once said while on the island, and his retelling of his life certainly owed as much to fiction as to fact. (Location 539)
Napoleon believed that ‘bloodletting is among the ingredients of political medicine’, but he also thought that quick and certain punishments meant that large-scale repression could largely be avoided. He almost never indulged in brutality for its own sake, and could be sensitive to people’s suffering. A week after Binasco he told the Directory: ‘Although necessary, this spectacle was nevertheless horrible; I was painfully affected by it.’ Ten years later Napoleon would write in a postscript of a letter to Junot: ‘Remember Binasco; it brought me tranquillity in all of Italy, and spared shedding the blood of thousands. Nothing is more salutary than appropriately severe examples.’ ‘If you make war,’ he would say to General d’Hédouville in December 1799, ‘wage it with energy and severity; it is the only means of making it shorter and consequently less deplorable for mankind.’ (Location 2564)