I've recently stormed through Some Remarks by Neal Stephenson and The Way The World Works by Nicholson Baker. Both brilliant. Both really good on technology and the cultures that technologies encourage.
Here, for instance, are some fragments from Stephenson on the difference between geeking out and vegging out.
"To geek out on something means to immerse yourself in its details to an extent that is distinctly abnormal—and to have a good time doing it. To veg out, by contrast, means to enter a passive state and allow sounds and images to wash over you without troubling yourself too much about what it all means."
"Scientists and technologists have the same uneasy status in our society as the Jedi in the Galactic Republic. They are scorned by the cultural left and the cultural right, and young people avoid science and math classes in hordes. The tedious particulars of keeping ourselves alive, comfortable and free are being taken offline to countries where people are happy to sweat the details, as long as we have some foreign exchange left to send their way."
"Nothing is more seductive than to think that we, like the Jedi, could be masters of the most advanced technologies while living simple lives: to have a geek standard of living and spend our copious leisure time vegging out."
"But many people, after they have vegged out long enough to recharge their batteries, derive fun and profound satisfaction from geeking out on whatever topic is of particular interest to them. Choose any person in the world at random, no matter how non-geeky they might seem, and talk to them long enough, and in most cases you will eventually hit on some topic about which they are exorbitantly knowledgeable."
"But we’re all geeks in different subject areas, and so the only thing that links us all together is what we watch on the tube when our geek energies have been spent and we feel the need to veg out—the lowest common denominator stuff."
(Probably some parallels here with Matt's thinking about attention.)
And here's Nicholson Baker on Wikipedia.
"And when people did help they were given a flattering name. They weren’t called “Wikipedia’s little helpers,” they were called “editors.” It was like a giant community leaf-raking project in which everyone was called a groundskeeper."
"It worked and grew because it tapped into the heretofore unmarshaled energies of the uncredentialed. The thesis procrastinators, the history buffs, the passionate fans of the alternate universes of Garth Nix, Robotech, Half-Life, P. G. Wodehouse, Battlestar Galactica, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charles Dickens, or Ultraman—all those people who hoped that their years of collecting comics or reading novels or staring at TV screens hadn’t been a waste of time—would pour the fruits of their brains into Wikipedia, because Wikipedia added up to something."
"You looked up Diogenes, and bang, you got something wondrously finished-sounding from the 1911 Britannica. That became Diogenes’ point of departure. And then all kinds of changes happened to the Greek philosopher, over many months and hundreds of revisions—odd theories, prose about the habits of dogs, rewordings, corrections of corrections."
"And yet amid the modern aggregate, some curvy prose from the 1911 Britannica still survives verbatim: Both in ancient and in modern times, his personality has appealed strongly to sculptors and to painters. The fragments from original sources persist like those stony bits of classical buildings incorporated in a medieval wall."
"A piece of antivandalism software, VoABot II, reverted that edit, with a little sigh, less than a minute after it was made."
"Without the kooks and the insulters and the spray-can taggers, Wikipedia would just be the most useful encyclopedia ever made. Instead it’s a fast-paced game of paintball."
"You recall the central Wikipedian directive: “Be Bold.”
And here's another bit of Baker, a lovely description of Google's arrival amidst the cluttered portals that the original directories and search engines had become:
"Then Google arrived in 1998, sponged clean, impossibly fast. Google was like a sunlit white Formica countertop with a single vine-ripened tomato on it."
That reminded me, instantly, of some of the best little moments of Clive James on TV.
I've always thought that would be the best job in writing right now. To do for the internet what Clive James did for telly. I'd love to do it myself but I'm not funny or clever enough, and I wouldn't be willing to be critical enough. Someone should though. Someone.