Guest post: Chris Matyszczyk offers some reading suggestions for this holiday season, when techies should be taking a respite from their digital labors.
It is holiday time, and, in my tech naivete, I am assuming that the hard-working, soft-partying readers of this site take a few hours, perhaps even a few days, to remove their glassy eyes from their screens and consider just what it all means.
I can't expect you to consider this for too long, because you have platforms to design, software to deploy, servers to consolidate, politics to navigate and sanity to wistfully pursue. But you must have occasionally strayed by chance to an episode of, say, "Boston Legal," one cold February night when your children, your lover (or, I am sure, in a couple of cases, your mother) are asleep. So I have to assume there is at least a chance for you to be inspired by a little fiction that doesn't happen to be science-based.
The first book I would like to recommend is "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao," by the Dominican writer Junot Diaz. It's OK. It's in English.
Diaz, you might be comforted to hear, is a professor of writing at that bastion of computer science and engineering, MIT.
Oscar Wao, you might be less comforted to hear, is a rotund nerd who finds it a little difficult to persuade girls to so much as pucker their lips in his direction.
Please don't misunderstand me (so many people do already and it is a heavy burden I have to carry with me every day, even through airport security), I am not suggesting that everyone who works in the tech world resembles the sumo version of Mr. Bean. Not everyone.
But Wao's journey serves well to illustrate just how hard it is for people with a plan and a purpose, but not necessarily all the human tools the contemporary world demands, to persevere when the chances seem to be more stacked against them than the odds of Tara Reid being cast in a new movie version of Othello. Opposite Kevin Federline.
Wao, like quite a few people toiling in tech, believes there's a curse on him, a so-called fuku. The fuku, he thinks, has hovered over his family for quite a while. A little like the analog world hovered over us for decades, a vulture seeking an alternative lunch.
"The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" is all about a nerd who wants to change the course of the world. And what techie couldn't relate to that?
The second book I would like to gift you is really, really short...because it's a play. And if there's one thing about plays, it is that if you just buy the script, it only takes about 90 minutes to read it. Perfect for today's time-harrassed techie.
Regular readers of this unpronounceable blogger will know that I believe the greatest commercial battle of the Web's next few years will be between the ad and the algorithm.
While the former is based on knowledge of humanity and art (at least in its creators' heads), the latter, at its heart (if it actually has one) has the notion that human behavior can ultimately be predicted if enough about it is known.
"Rock 'N' Roll" comes at this philosophical battle from an interesting angle. The one in which Syd Barrett was one of the most important musical influences of the modern world. (Look, if you don't know who Syd Barrett was you're far too old for this post. Or too young. Or you just never liked Pink Floyd.)
Tom Stoppard is actually a Czech named Tomas Straussler. His father died and his mother married a man called Stoppard. And "Rock 'N' Roll" is his second foray into the world of Czech he left behind.
The play is very funny because it examines in a very full focus just what rationality becomes when you allow it to be the full and only controlling mechanism.
"Rock 'N' Roll's" big believer in rationality is a crotchety cabbage of a character called Max, who in the original stage performances was played by Brian Cox (the baddy in the "Bourne Supremacy," rumored member of the new "X-Men" movie cast).
To Max, the most rational, sensible and human way to live is, well, communism. "There are some among us who thought we had liberated reason from our ancestral bog of myth and claptrap," declares Max in Act One.
Might he have been channeling Google ad sales staff, preparing to summit DoubleClick? And then he slips into a little Facebook, when he declares "to be human is to be joined together."
I'm not going to spoil the story for you, but this is an extremely funny musing on what the hell we think we've been doing for the last fifty years, whether we really are as clever as we think we are and where it all might end up.
And it comes with music from U2, Pink Floyd, the Stones, Guns 'n' Roses and the Plastic People of the Universe. So load up your iPod before you read.
As the year closes, it is surely worth thinking about not just how clever Facebook, Google and other pioneering companies might be, but what kind of world they might usher in.
It seems as if it will be a world where rationality creates control and self-exposure creates a new definition of friendship.
Yet, when a new bunch of 16-year-olds comes along, what are they going to think of this world? And how are they going to change it? And how will they decide to rebel against it? An analog backlash perhaps? Or will they just say bollocks to it all and decide Louis Armstrong is their God?