The Scottish Islands: A Comprehensive Guide to Every Scottish Island

Hamish Haswell-Smith (1996)

0/5. Finished Wednesday 5 April, 2017.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

Neil Postman (1985)

If ever a book was timely, this is it. Despite being thirty years old, Postman has nailed both the politics of the modern age and the dangers of “big data”.

The current buzz around “Amusing ourselves to death” comes form the recent US election, which seems to have degenerated into a media-driven circus that turned its back on “real” politics. Postman’s diagnosis of this – from decades ago, of course – is that attention spans have been systematically destroyed by television which, as the dominant medium of the time, forces all other discourse into its own form. He is icily dismissive of television debates or of any attempts to use it for serious or educational purposes, since there’s no scope for measured explanation: he contrasts this with the presidential debates between Lincoln and Douglas that lasted (literally) for hours without benefit of anything but oratory.

One wonders what Postman would have made of the internet. His ire is largely focused on television’s image-based format, which discards the deliberation of the printed word and so changes the ways in which information is expected to be presented in other media as well. The internet seems superficially to be the apotheosis of this idea, but I’m not completely convinced: most internet content is textual, after all, especially the blogs and fake news that receive most of the condemnation at the moment. (Brexit, interestingly, was quite TV-driven, and so maybe a better illustration of Postman’s thesis.)

As well as the media issues, Postman also prefigures the era of big data with a comment that would be almost throwaway at the time he wrote it, since his readers wouldn’t have seen what was coming:

Thus, a central thesis of computer technology – that the principal difficulty we have in solving problems stems from insufficient data – will go unexamined. Until, years from now, when it will be noticed that the massive collection and speed-of-light retrieval of data have been of great value to large-scale organisations but have solved very little of importance to most people and have created at least as many problems for them as they may have solved.

That – from before the commercial internet – is a perfect summing-up of the modern problems with privacy and content sharing, familiar from Who Owns the Future?. While I would argue that computers have solved a huge number of problems for ordinary people, and have potentially enabled them to explore the truth of a massive array of propositions of daily importance, I can’t deny the accretion of power in the centres of the network. It’s amazing that so prescient an analysis was performed so early.

5/5. Finished Tuesday 28 March, 2017.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Spirit of Place

Charles MacLean (2015)

An excellent guide, both to the distilleries and their surroundings. The pictures are quite amazing, and often capture details of the distilling process that are being lost or overtaken at many distilleries.

5/5. Finished Sunday 26 March, 2017.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The World Until Yesterday

Jared Diamond (2012)

Perhaps the best summary discussion of the differences between traditional and modern societies one could imagine. Diamond is both an expert in his field and an expert in communicating its intricacies – and he doesn’t shy away from the details in making often subtle points.

There is no romance here for traditional ways of life: no room for Rousseau. It’s a life that many traditional peoples, when offered the choice, abandon with little regret. The perils of the traditional life are many, not least from other members of neighbouring tribes or bands. Diamond makes an identical point to that made by Stephen PinkerStephen Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature: A History of Violence and Humanity: modern societies are by far the most stable and peaceful social structures we’ve ever created. But there are other hazards: skin scratches are elevated to the ranks of the top-five causes of death (from infection). Diamond himself makes the point, in his excellent concluding chapter, that despite his emotional and professional commitment to New Guinea, he’s never considered moving there.

Diamond is at his strongest when discussing war, lifestyle, and religion – and he deals sure-footedly with that most difficult of topics. He’s less deft in dealing with the diseases of different societies: not because of any lack of mastery, but because the detail feels overwrought somehow. But that’s a minor complaint for a book that’s overwhelmingly detailed and balanced, and that tries to draw out the best of traditional societies in a way that might find application for we moderns, without ever losing sight of the fact that the modern world is in many ways an infinitely more preferable place in which to actually live.

4/5. Finished Thursday 16 March, 2017.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Better Angels of Our Nature: A History of Violence and Humanity

Steven Pinker (2010)

A comprehensive look at an important problem of perception.

I sort of disagree with Pinker’s hypothesis that most people believe the world is more violent than in the past: than in the recent past, perhaps, but I don’t think anyone really disputes that the past 2,000 years had more violence in them. Where dispute arises, I think, is when one considers pre-State or pre-chiefdom level societies: did small bands live in harmony, as Rousseau and his followers would have us believe? Pinker’s answer is a clear “no”, when one considers the death rates of small-society violence.

But in some ways this is an essay manifesting itself as a book. The introduction and conclusion are quite compelling in their own rights: violence has decreased, people do live more peaceful and safe lives now than at any other point in history, local eruptions of extreme violence notwithstanding. The rest of the book provides the evidence, and it’s vitally important that it’s been collected, synthesised, and analysed by someone as skilled as Pinker. And it’s the source of fascinating anecdotes that it’s a shame to risk missing – but its very depth and length make that risk real, as well as becoming lost in the fascinating but ultimately inconsequential analyses of a certain body of evidence. It’s a depth that’s necessary for a research work or thesis, but perhaps off-putting for a casual reader.

4/5. Finished Saturday 4 March, 2017.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)