Friday, August 27, 2010


Coincidentally, two of the books I've read lately have hives at their heart. 

The first is the non-fiction You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, by Jaron Lanier.  Lanier may call the book a manifesto; there are times when it verged on a screed.  Lanier's opinions are always strongly held, aggressively stated, and vigorously defended. 

Lanier argues that the much-admired technological advances of Web 2.0 -  broad participation, intense collaborative achievements,  the 'wisdom of crowds' - rob us of our individual creativity and turns us into mere peripherals to a gigantic computing cloud.  He characterizes the result as an undifferentiated hive mind and warns that if we all spend our time on mash-ups, there soon won't be any original material left to mash up.  He uses many examples from music and computing to illustrate his points.

Lanier has a dim view of software development, despite being an accomplished developer in his own right and a pioneer of virtual reality.  He states that 'all computer related technologies built by humans are endlessly confusing, buggy, tangled, fussy and error-ridden'.  

I found this a hard book to read.  I am determined to finish any book I start, and this was one that took all my commitment.  Here I was relaxing at the cottage, and yet every sentence - even every phrase - required intellectual energy.  For instance, when I come across a phrase like 'metahuman technological determinism' I have to stop and think for a minute. Or three.  So this is a good book, but don't undertake it in a lazy mood.

The other book about hives is an old Frank Herbert science fiction book (he of Dunes fame) called Hellstrom's Hive, picked up from the used book table at our local regatta.  It features an underground colony of humans modelling the collective structure of a hive of social insects, and the conflict between the hive and the Outside.  Selective breeding, task specialization, and single-minded commitment to the community as a whole mean the hive humans are diverging from the individualistic humans of the Outside, although the hive inhabitants do sometimes go on foraging sweeps to breed and expand the gene pool.  

This book has the detailed construction of an alien environment that we saw in Dune.  This was a great Summer Reading type of book.

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