Sunday, December 31, 2006

The Best of Technology Writing 2006

Contributing editor for Wired, Brendan Koerner has edited The Best of Technology Writing 2006*, and it cuts an interesting swathe across subjects that proved salient this past year. Despite the "technology" moniker, this isn't dry, technical reading. It's well-written, often thought-provoking articles from sources as varied as The New Yorker, Wired, Salon, Discover, The New Republic, and the Financial Times.

My thoughts on some representative pieces:

"The Book Stops Here" by Daniel H. Pink - this essay is a must-read for anyone interested in the history and mysteries of Wikipedia. It includes detailed explanation of how entries are updated and policed by compulsive contributors, but also points out some of its inherant problems. For example, is it a problem that the entry for Leonard Nimoy is longer than the one for Toni Morrison? Should novelty or cult status trump literary/historical value? Maybe the answer is yes, since the Spock character may arguably have made a deeper impact upon cultural consciousness than Morrison.

Also exceptional is "Plugged into It All" by Richard Waters, which tracks the evolution of texting and the emergence of "full-time intimacy" or "constant presence," suggesting that the activity, rather than breaking down social bonds is actually re-inforcing them, serving as a sort of social glue. Potential problems, of course, include the fact that our condition of being increasingly always available means we're multitasking more and more (like a lot of people, I wonder if we're becoming an ADD society), but it also creates unusual new social norms: among Japanese teens, allowing your mobile to run down, or - God forbid - forgetting it have become significant social blunders. And to think there was a day when folks had to catch you at your desk or at home. Seems like ages ago already. One other excellent point: texting (and obviously email and IM) have created a real social bridge for many people. Instead of calling someone (highly personal) the terminally shy can get to know someone via texting before meeting them in the flesh. This principle indubitably explains the success of online dating, especially among Gen-Xers and Ys.

"The Trend Spotter" by Steven Levy - provides an intriguing look into the career of Tim O'Reilly, he of the O'Reilly books empire, and offer some facts about him I wasn't aware of. Seems Levy has his finger in numerous pies: he started what was arguably the Web's first portal and sold it to AOL; he was an early funder of Blogger and later; and, of course, he's also responsible for the DIY mag Make, which yours truly has contributed precisely one short review to. He appears to have the Midas touch.

"The Right Price for Digital Music" by Adam L. Penenberg - Penenberg suggests offering different prices for different music for download: "a pure free-market" solution. I agree with him to an extent, but any time someone uses "pure" and "fre-market" together in the same sentence, I tend to wax a little cynical (Iraq immediately after the fall of Saddam Hussein was a true "pure free market"). Offer less popular tunes for 25 cents, popular ones for a buck, sure, but Penenberg says,
If a single unit [and he means a single mp3] climbed to $5, consumers couldn't complain that it costs too much, since they would be the ones driving up the price.
Right, 'cos people don't complain about other stuff that fits that demand model, do they? Like gas. Later he admits, "charging extra for top sellers might just push legal downloaders back into the outlaw world of peer-to-peer file trading." You think? It's a short article and I expected a little more of it, but it's the only dodo I found in this collection of eminently readable essays.

*Thanks to the folks at University of Michigan Press for kindly providing me with a copy for review.

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