Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Blind Giant

Nick Harkaway

Coming into this book, author Nick Harkaway had a long way to go to win me over. Its premise, as communicated on the book jacket and first section, creates the impression that it is yet another alarmist rag about how digital culture is ruining some aspect of the human experience. Luckily, I resisted my urge to set the book down and ask my editor for one which I would not so readily spew vitriol at. Instead, I discovered a pensive little gem which offers a unique and insightful perspective on the friction accompanying the radical shift to digital culture. In doing so, it explores what these conflicts reveal about what we hold dear, what motivates us, and, as the title says, what makes us human.
Harkaway's approach to the issue embodies, in my mind, the best kind of philosophy: instead of pointing at one thing (in this case, the Internet) as the harbinger of our doom, he digs deeper to examine why we react in such an extreme fashion to these societal shifts in the first place. Is it the breakneck pace of contemporary day-to-day life? The overflow of stimuli that bombard us moment-to-moment? The threatening of our privacy as our personal membranes become increasingly permeable and security issues become more difficult to navigate? The Blind Giant's response is that, while useful, each of these answers only addresses the presenting symptoms of a deeper disorder. Using them instead as clues to the root of the problem, Harkaway investigates prominent issues such as media piracy, privacy, and information overload with a level of nuance and bipartisanship that few writers on new media have delivered. An active citizen of the Internet (an avid World of Warcraft player and prolific blogger with a significant web presence), Harkaway skilfully switches between expressing wide-eyed wonderment at the possibilities offered to us by the existence of the Internet and warning readers about the chilling abuses it has the potential to facilitate.

What I found most impressive about The Blind Giant was how it connected proximal issues like the ones noted above with the more ultimate themes of human experience. Harkaway suggests that we feel overwhelmed because the reach of the outside world through our informational streams represents a violation of the concept of hearth and home which we have held static for so long. He believes that media creators are finding it so difficult to curtail piracy and falling profits because they are struggling to adapt to a business model where the consumer has vastly more control over acquisition and consumption of goods—where the decision to buy a product or support a company is based more on a model of gift-giving and good will, and a more direct, intimate relationship between consumer and creator.

This is the kind of eye-opening, lateral thinking brought forth in this book, bolstered by fastidious research inspired by a variety of disciplines, from philosophy to economics, social psychology, and engineering. Take care in picking up The Blind Giant, for you may find yourself with a library's worth of additional reading from all of the interesting references cited. For me, it has accomplished the impressive feat of leaving me both more informed about the world we live in, and optimistic that we as humans can make the most of it. That alone makes it worth a recommendation.

- Vincent Smith

Vincent Smith is a taoist, aspiring writer, and dyed-in-the-wool psychology geek at the University of Guelph. You can find his writing on video games, comics, movies, and all things geek over at The Rogue's Gallery.    

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