Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Jaron Lanier, Michael Axworthy and Jane Dunn.

Who Owns the Future? By Jaron Lanier

Jaron Lanier’s latest book has received critical acclaim for its unique inquiry into the information economy. He writes about economic imbalances on account of online corporations such as Google, Amazon and Facebook dubbed “Siren Servers” which have hoarded valuable data from its customers in exchange for the use of their services, denying them remuneration for this information.

James Harkin of the Financial Times observes Lanier’s scepticism over the power of the internet to spur widespread economic growth. He states Lanier “complains that the latest waves of high-tech innovation have not created jobs like the old ones did” adding that the conventional “'levees' that protected us from economic devastation are being swept away by this digital free-for-all.”

The Observer’s John Kampfner states Lanier’s book has pointed out the presence of an internet “ruling class” as a factor of serious consideration by “policymakers and technologists.”Kampfner adds that "our insatiable demand for information and entertainment and for access to instant communication has come at a heavy price. Most people don't know they're paying it.” 

Lanier’s book proposes a method to balance what the Guardian’s Laurence Scott describes as “capitalism…gone digital.” Lanier suggests that a small royalty sum should be paid to each customer when they part with information used by the company in a similar method to focus groups used by market research firms.  Scott commends the book for producing an "inspiring portrait of the kind of people [in a] democratic information economy.” He adds Lanier’s hypothesis implies that “if we are allowed to lead absorbing, properly remunerated lives, we will likewise outgrow our addiction to consumerism and technology.”

The Telegraph’s Matt Warman highlights Lanier’s doubts that this system of remuneration could result in us “reclining in the lap of luxury” but commends Lanier’s hypothesis for the future as “persuasive” and one which cannot be disputed “until we get there.”

Daphne du Maurier and Her Sisters by Jane Dunn

 

The Independent’s Helen Taylor praises Jane Dunn’s biography of Daphne du Maurier for its inclusive study of the three du Maurier sisters - Angela, Daphne and Jeanne during “a period of class and gender upheaval, and the sisters' response to social change.” She notes how biographies of artists “often ignore the interaction with siblings in favour of parent-child bonds” and adds the strength of the book lies in accounting for tense relations between the three sisters of on account of their mother Muriel’s favouritism towards Jeanne.

Nicholas Shakespeare relishes Jane Dunn’s biography Daphne du Maurier and Her Sisters in the Telegraph and gushes how “Dunn, one of six sisters herself, has written before of sisterhoods”. He states she understands that “it is sisters who weave the most complex web of love and loyalty, resentment and hurt.” Shakespeare concedes that her portrayal does “sag in places” but it is a feat of organisation – flamboyantly explaining that Dunn succeeds in keeping, “each du Maurier sister separate and yet still bubbling at the same intensity, like three temperature charts.” Thus the overall effect of “her triptych is sensitive and sympathetic.” It is described as a compelling biography, with Shakespeare highlighting psychoanalytical themes including the du Maurier girls’ relationship with their father, their "forbidden" sexual experiences and dreams of child rebellion.

In contrast, Rachel Cooke in the Guardian  provides a damning and sparky review of this latest installment that tries to establish the lives of the du Maurier sisters. She writes matter of factly that, “Dunn has nothing much that is new to say about Daphne. This version of the writer is just as introverted and as selfish as the last.” Cooke points out that Dunn's most surprising discovery is the fact that the sisters were not rivals in adulthood, especially considering the fact that they grew up in a household where "histrionics were a way of life". The longueurs in the biography, as Cooke puts it, are mostly down to the problematic organisation of the book. Cooke criticises the way all three women are dealt with at once, and chronologically, rather than in separate sections, which gives Dunn’s narrative “a fatal blow”. She concludes how, “Bing, that great mistress of narrative pace, would have rolled her eyes at this book, and set about its more laboured passages with a sharp, red pencil.”

Revolutionary Iran: A History of the Islamic Republic by Michael Axworthy

James Buchan praises Michael Axworthy in the Guardian  for his “calm and literate portrait of the Islamic Republic,”and explains how the central thesis in Revolutionary Iran is that, “certain long-lived chickens are coming home to roost.” The Persian nezam or system is under threat, and for Axworthy the turning point in Iran was the 2009 Presidential election – in which Khomeini's policy of balance between the factions in favour of "naked force" alienated the ruling clique, which served to weaken the republic. Buchan describes Axworthy as, “an academic historian, and sometime British diplomat” who “avoids the grand schemes and theories that have so clouded the study of Iran.” Buchan notes that Axworthy’s theory of the 1979 revolution has parallels with Tancredi in Tomasi di Lampedusa's novel The Leopold: "If we want things to stay as they are, everything must change."

The Economist writes that Axworthy mined newly opened archives effectively, balancing “scholarly precision with narrative flair”, exposing the failure of Western governments to keep abreast of fast-changing events, including the episode whereby the Iranian hostage-takers were astounded to find that none of the four CIA officers in the American embassy in Tehran could speak Persian. Axworthy is lauded for his description of the Iran-Iraq war, in which he draws on first-hand accounts of key military personnel, and challenges the contention that the Iranian air force was inept. The Economist’s analysis is that Axworthy breaks from James Buchan’s thesis that Khomeini was bent on exporting Islamic government to Iraq, “arguing instead that he saw the conflict as a just war to fend off a real threat.” Overall, the verdict is that Axworthy’s “analytical approach helps demystify a revolutionary regime that has needed to feed off myths.”

According to David Shariatmadari in this week’s issue of New Statesman, Axworthy has confirmed “his position as one of the most lucid and humane western interpreters of Iran writing at the moment” and is good at putting Iran into context. A narrative with “plenty of historical echoes” is formed and Axworthy makes modern parallels, which is “important as [Iran] is too often seen as exceptional.” Sameer Rahim reiterates this sentiment for the Daily Telegraph, endorsing it as a book packed with gobbets of information and policy advice on how to deal with Iran, and that it “feels like a book designed for William Hague’s bedside table.”

Photo: Karen Bleier, Getty Images
Nicola Snothum / Millenium Images
Show Hide image

The end of solitude: in a hyperconnected world, are we losing the art of being alone?

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. 

Michael Harris is a Canadian writer who lives in a big city and whose life is defined and circumscribed, as so many Western lives are now, by digital technologies. He finds it hard to leave his phone at home in case he misses anything. He worries about his social media reputation. He uses apps and plays games, and relies on the internet hive mind to tell him which films to watch or where to eat. Here is what happens when he goes on holiday to Paris:

Disembarking from the train from London, I invited a friendly app to guide me to a hotel near the Pompidou . . . The next morning, Yelp guided me towards a charming café in the Marais. There, wizard-like, I held my phone over the menu and waited for Google Translate to melt the words into English. When the waiter arrived, I spoke into my phone and had it repeat my words to the grinning garçon in a soft, robotic French. Later, at the Louvre, I allowed a Nintendo-sponsored guidance system to track my steps up the centuries-old Daru staircase as I squinted confusedly at its glowing blue you-are-here dot . . .

Terrifying, isn’t it? Well, I thought so as I read it, and Harris thought so afterwards. It was situations like this, during which he realised that his life was controlled, confined and monitored by distancing technologies, that led him to wonder whether solitude – the act and the art of being alone – was in danger of disappearing.

Harris has an intuition that being alone with ourselves, paying attention to inner silence and being able to experience outer silence, is an essential part of being human. He can remember how it felt to do this, before the internet brought its social anxiety and addiction into his life. “I began to remember,” he writes, “a calm separateness, a sureness I once could live inside for an easy hour at a time.”

What happens when that calm separateness is destroyed by the internet of everything, by big-city living, by the relentless compulsion to be with others, in touch, all the time? Plenty of people know the answer already, or would do if they were paying attention to the question. Nearly half of all Americans, Harris tells us, now sleep with their smartphones on their bedside table, and 80 per cent are on their phone within 15 minutes of waking up. Three-quarters of adults use social networking sites regularly. But this is peanuts compared to the galloping development of the so-called Internet of Things. Within the next few years, anything from 30 to 50 billion objects, from cars to shirts to bottles of shampoo, will be connected to the net. The internet will be all around you, whether you want it or not, and you will be caught in its mesh like a fly. It’s not called the web for nothing.

I may not be the ideal reader for this book. By page 20, after a few more facts of this sort, I had already found myself scrawling “Kill everyone!” in the margins. This is not really the author’s fault. I often start behaving like this whenever I’m forced to read a list of ways in which digital technology is wrecking human existence. There are lots of lists like this around at the moment, because the galloping, thoughtless, ongoing rush to connect everything to the web has overcome our society like a disease. Did you know that cows are now connected to the internet? On page 20, Harris tells us that some Swiss dairy cows, sim cards implanted in their necks, send text messages to their farmers when they are on heat and ready to be inseminated. If this doesn’t bring out your inner Unabomber, you’re probably beyond help. Or maybe I am.

What is the problem here? Why does this bother me, and why does it bother Harris? The answer is that all of these things intrude upon, and threaten to destroy, something ancient and hard to define, which is also the source of much of our creativity and the essence of our humanity. “Solitude,” Harris writes, “is a resource.” He likens it to an ecological niche, within which grow new ideas, an understanding of the self and therefore an understanding of others.

The book is full of examples of the genius that springs from silent and solitary moments. Beethoven, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Einstein, Newton – all developed their ideas and approach by withdrawing from the crowd. Peter Higgs, the Nobel ­Prizewinner who discovered the Higgs boson particle, did his best work in peace and solitude in the 1960s. He suggests that what he did then would be impossible today, because it is now virtually impossible to find such solitude in the field of science.

Collaboration, not individuality, is fetishised today, in business as in science and the arts, but Harris warns that collaboration often results in conformism. In the company of others, most of us succumb to pressure to go with the crowd. Alone, we have more chance to be thoughtful, to see differently, to enter a place where we feel free from the mob to moderate our unique experience of the world. Without solitude, he writes, genius – which ultimately springs from different ways of thinking and seeing – becomes impossible. If Thoreau’s cabin in the woods had had wifi, we would never have got Walden.

Yet it is not only geniuses who have a problem: ordinary minds like yours and mine are threatened by the hypersocial nature of always-on urbanity. A ­civilisation can be judged by the quality of its daydreams, Harris suggests. Who daydreams now? Instead of staring out of the window on a train, heads are buried in smartphones, or wired to the audio of a streaming film. Instead of idling at the bus stop, people are loading up entertainment: mobile games from King, the maker of Candy Crush, were played by 1.6 billion times every day in the first quarter of 2015 alone.

If you’ve ever wondered at the behaviour of those lines of people at the train station or in the street or in the café, heads buried in their phones like zombies, unable or unwilling to look up, Harris confirms your worst fears. The developers of apps and games and social media sites are dedicated to trapping us in what are called ludic loops. These are short cycles of repeated actions which feed our brain’s desire for reward. Every point you score, every candy you crush, every retweet you get gives your brain a dopamine hit that keeps you coming back for more. You’re not having a bit of harmless fun: you are an addict. A tech corporation has taken your solitude and monetised it. It’s not the game that is being played – it’s you.

So, what is to be done about all this? That’s the multibillion-dollar question, but it is one the book cannot answer. Harris spends many pages putting together a case for the importance of solitude and examining the forces that splinter it today. Yet he also seems torn in determining how much of it he wants and can cope with. He can see the damage being done by the always-on world but he lives in the heart of it, all his friends are part of it, and he doesn’t want to stray too far away. He understands the value of being alone but doesn’t like it much, or want to experience it too often. He’ll stop checking his Twitter analytics but he won’t close down his account.

At the end of the book, Harris retreats, Thoreau-like, to a cabin in the woods for a week. As I read this brief last chapter, I found myself wishing it was the first, that he had spent more time in the cabin, that he had been starker and more exploratory, that he had gone further. Who will write a Walden for the Internet Age? This book is thick with fact and argument and some fine writing, but there is a depth that the author seems afraid to plumb. Perhaps he is afraid of what he might find down there.

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. After 200 pages of increasingly disturbing facts about the impact of technology and crowded city living on everything from our reading habits to our ability to form friendships, and after warning us on the very last page that we risk making “an Easter Island of the mind”, the author goes back home to Vancouver, tells his boyfriend that he missed him, and then . . . well, then what? We don’t know. The book just ends. We are left with the impression that the pile-up of evidence leads to a conclusion too vast for the author, and perhaps his readers, to take in, because to do that would be to challenge everything.

In this, Solitude mirrors the structure of many other books of its type: the Non-Fiction Warning Book (NFWB), we might call it. It takes a subject – disappearing childhood; disappearing solitude; disappearing wilderness; disappearing anything, there’s so much to choose from – trots us through several hundred pages of anecdotes, science,
interviews and stories, all of which build up to the inescapable conclusion that everything is screwed . . . and then pulls back. It’s like being teased by an expert hustler. Yes, technology is undermining our sense of self and creating havoc for our relationships with others, but the solution is not to stop using it, just to moderate it. Yes, overcrowded cities are destroying our minds and Planet Earth, but the solution is not to get out of the cities: it’s to moderate them in some way, somehow.

Moderation is always the demand of the NFWB, aimed as it is at mainstream readers who would like things to get better but who don’t really want to change much – or don’t know how to. This is not to condemn Harris, or his argument: most of us don’t want to change much or know how to. What books of this kind are dealing with is the problem of modernity, which is intractable and not open to moderation. Have a week away from your screen if you like, but the theft of human freedom by the machine will continue without you. The poet Robinson Jeffers once wrote about sitting on a mountain and looking down on the lights of a city, and being put in mind of a purse seine net, in which sardines swim unwittingly into a giant bag, which is then drawn tightly around them. “I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together into interdependence; we have built the great cities; now/There is no escape,” he wrote. “The circle is closed, and the net/Is being hauled in.”

Under the circumstances – and these are our circumstances – the only honest conclusion to draw is that the problem, which is caused primarily by the technological direction of our society, is going to get worse. There is no credible scenario in which we can continue in the same direction and not see the problem of solitude, or lack of it, continue to deepen.

Knowing this, how can Harris just go home after a week away, drop off his bag and settle back into his hyperconnected city life? Does he not have a duty to rebel, and to tell us to rebel? Perhaps. The problem for this author is our shared problem, however, at a time in history when the dystopian predictions of Brave New World are already looking antiquated. Even if Harris wanted to rebel, he wouldn’t know how, because none of us would. Short of a collapse so severe that the electricity goes off permanently, there is no escape from what the tech corporations and their tame hive mind have planned for us. The circle is closed, and the net is being hauled in. May as well play another round of Candy Crush while we wait to be dragged up on to the deck. 

Paul Kingsnorth's latest book, “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” (Faber & Faber)

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

0800 7318496