Finding McLuhan: The Mind/The Man/The Message
edited by Jaqueline McLeod Rogers, Tracy Whalen, and Catherine G. Taylor
(University of Regina Press, 2015, 304 pages)
Marshall McLuhan was the first person to really investigate and theorize about the effects of electronic media like radio and television. This very interesting collection of essays looks at new issues of digital media and culture through the lens of McLuhan’s basic insights about technology. It includes interviews with people who knew McLuhan, including his two sons, as well as an interview with Douglas Coupland, McLuhan’s most recent biographer. I particularly enjoyed the essay by Karen Brown and Mary Pat Fallon, which applies McLuhan’s understanding of media environments to the issue of library space, as well as the essay on McLuhan’s religious thought by David Charles Gore and David Beard.
Secret Coders #1 by Gene Luen Yang; illustrated by Mike Holmes
(First Second, 2015, 96 pages)
Under normal circumstances Secret Coders would never have made it onto my radar. The demographic it caters to and the content don’t really shout “Julia.” However, I read an article in Wired that talked about the many reasons this was a book people should be picking up. Written by the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature (and the author of the graphic classic, American Born Chinese), Yang did an amazing job making the concept of computer coding fun and accessible.
The story revolves around a young woman named Hopper who has recently been enrolled in a new school, Stately Academy. She notices there are weird aspects to her school, but she doesn’t start exploring them until she befriends another student named Eni. Together the two uncover mysterious elements hidden around their campus and in the process teach coding basics to the reader.
This book demonstrates how easy it is to make learning new things fun and accessible when you play around with the format in which they are taught. Teaching coding through a graphic novel makes the whole process more engaging. Even though I’m not the target audience for this book I did learn something and would certainly recommend this as a book for parents who are eager to expose their kids to coding and the opportunities it opens up.
Interdisciplining Digital Humanities: Boundary Work in an Emerging Field by Julie Thompson Klein
(University of Michigan Press, 2015, 218 pages)
Digital humanities is a field that has emerged as computing technology and digital culture have been brought to bear on various disciplines in the humanities. One of the features most frequently highlighted about the field is its interdisciplinary character. As Klein points out, this is “an inevitable assumption given the marriage of technology and humanities in the name” (5).
However, while digital humanities brings together scholars from different disciplines and skill sets to work on issues that transcend any one discipline, there has been a lack of theoretical reflection on how this dynamic shapes the field. Klein applies “lessons from the literature of interdisciplinarity” (6) in order to help clarify terminology and define the field. In part, she looks to other fields, like American studies and feminist studies, which have established practices, institutions, and professional standards in order to help point the way forward for digital humanities.
One of the major themes of the book is the need for collaboration and openness amongst scholars working in this new-ish interdisciplinary field. Toward this end, Klein’s book is available in its entirety online, complete with annotating and commenting tools meant to “enrich the reading and learning experience of others and to facilitate community peer review” (xiii). Making the book available in this way reinforces the message of collaboration and promotes the open culture that is necessary to the establishment of digital humanities as a defined field of study.
Becoming Virtual: Reality in the Digital Age by Pierre Lévy; translated by Robert Bononno
(Plenum Trade, 1998, 207 pages)
Most things that are written about digital technology become irrelevant pretty quickly. Pierre Lévy’s Becoming Virtual is a significant exception to this rule. Though the original French edition was published over twenty years ago, Lévy’s reflections on virtualization as a human phenomenon, and his explanation of this phenomenon in bodies, digital texts, and economics, are startlingly relevant. Lévy uses philosophical tools to define virtualization and show how it extends human faculties. He shows how the virtualization of human intelligence through the internet and digital texts form part of a collective intelligence which blurs the line between the objective and the subjective.
Lévy is not uncritical of technological developments. He acknowledges that “virtualization is often experienced as something inhuman, dehumanizing” (183). However, he attempts (and quite successfully I think) to show that “virtualization” is not entirely unique to the digital era. Virtualization is a part of how the human species responds to cultural and material problems, transforming itself in the process. Despite its age, Becoming Virtual is an excellent book for anyone who is curious about how technology affects our minds, bodies, and the environments in which we live.
It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens
by danah boyd*
(Yale University Press, 2014, 281 pages)
As a parent of two teenagers, I had to read this book after hearing about it on NPR. Author boyd, a scholar and a principal researcher at Microsoft Research, spent several years interviewing teens from a variety of socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds in order to examine how and why teens are using the Internet and social media. The conclusion? Widespread panic about teens, technology and social media is overblown. boyd wants parents and educators “to take a chill pill.” While I agree with most of boyd’s discussions, and I could use a “chill pill” at times, I continue to believe that parents need to closely monitor their teens’ online lives.
boyd states that teens have not changed. Social media and new technology are just tools that teens use to entertain and socialize. Readers are introduced to extensive data and thorough analyses on how teens interact and socialize in the online world. Chapters on identity, addiction, bullying, inequality and literacy should prove helpful to teachers and counselors who work with teens. Unfortunately, most of the primary documents boyd utilized were 4-7 years old. A “recent” observation of a high school football game used in the book’s Introduction was conducted in 2010. It makes me wish the author could have updated the book with newer material. It’s surprising to read a book about new technology only to discover that a lot of stories referenced MySpace, the most popular social network site in the early to mid-2000s. One topic I wish the author could have covered is online/technology etiquette. Nonetheless, it’s an informative and engaging scholarly book. I highly recommend this book to teachers and parents of teens.
*this isn’t a mistake, the author chooses not to capitalize her name