Book Review: Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Account Right Now

Jaron Lanier is a well-known name in Silicon Valley, and I’ve enjoyed some of his books in the past. His latest — Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now — is not as strong as some of his other books, and he gets too cute with his explanatory acronyms at times, but the book has merit for informed reading.

I won’t go through all his arguments, but it boils down to this observation from a technology evangelist from inside the technology industry (with a decidedly humanistic approach to technology):

Companies like Facebook and Google that have created algorithms that sell user personal data to third party companies (See Cambridge Analytica controversy) have created a toxic atmosphere that feeds on negativity because the powerful emotions of negativity — anger, sadness, frustration, isolation — fuels interaction, and interaction with the technology leads to profit for companies.

The only way companies will get the message to change their course is for users to stop using the technology. In fact, Lanier argues that this current business model is unsustainable in the long run, and that if Facebook and Google don’t consider other models of profit, they will be doomed. Until then, though, the degradation of experience will continue.

Unless you make a choice to stop.

Lanier argues that we make that choice, and quit. Not the Internet itself. Not the connections we make. But quit the social networking systems that don’t value users as people, and whose algorithms (now set in motion and running rather autonomously) nurture dissent and friction. He cites examples from Black Lives Matter to the revolution in the Middle East and more, as examples of how the use of social media begins positively and then quickly turns negative when the algorithms amplify negativity for engagement.

He also acknowledges that everyone’s situation is different, and quitting for one person might be easier than for another. His final message is, be informed and make an informed choice.

Interestingly, Lanier is not entirely pessimistic. He believes there is still time to change things for the better. He offers up some different solutions, including the idea of users paying a small fee to use social networks, but also, the idea of social networks paying users for any content that engages people on the same network. So, you would pay (creating a new financial system for companies) and they would pay you to write and create interesting content.

Would it work? I don’t know.

Will people really quit in numbers enough to effect change? I don’t know.

Is the current system sustainable? I don’t know but I don’t think so.

Peace (through networks),
Kevin

Book Review: Light the Dark (Writers on Creativity, Inspiration and the Artistic Process)

This book — Light the Dark — is a fantastic tour of the creative mind, as a few dozen writers talk about where their inspiration comes from, important moments that spurred them on, and the books and poems and passages that helped inspire them.

Each small piece comes with a quote from a source of the writer’s inspiration and beautiful woodcut illustrations that draw you into the text. I read this collection over two months, dipping in now and then to savor the writing about writing (which I am admittedly a sucker for).

The stories remind us that we find our inspiration far afield sometimes, and in unexpected places, too. Some novels, some poems, some small passages have the ability to resonate for years to come, in creative ways. Here, the writers — such as Junot Diaz, Stephen King, Amy Tan, Roxane Gay and a slew of others, ending with Neil Gaiman — explore their inner creative terrain.

The result is a journey into the imagination and power of writing. What else might you want out of a book?

Peace (reading in),
Kevin

 

Book Review: Finding Mighty

The calls for more diverse books, more diverse characters and more diverse writers has certainly paying off with a slew of amazing stories for audiences of all ages, providing different perspectives on experiences. I’ll put Sheela Chari’s Finding Mighty in that category, although her story would clearly hold up even without this talk of diversity.

Finding Mighty is a mystery story, of sorts, with a small group of urban New York City youths searching for hidden diamonds. The setting is the city itself, with Parkour being part of how young people navigate the landscape. Graffiti art and family history, and a rotating narrative view of different characters all provide tension and atmosphere that moves this story along.

While one of the main characters, Myla, is Indian-American and the other, Peter, is African-American, (and one of their friends is white with Netherlands roots), this range of ethnicity is part of the fabric of the story itself. Chari addresses the difficulty of assimilation and retaining cultural connections, but only in service to the story. We understand these characters better as a result as they develop friendship and kinship, and perhaps, we come to understand each other, too.

I enjoyed the ways the kids put together the clues they find, and how the family histories are part of the mystery, and the way that the city itself was nearly a character — with subway trains and tracks, the old Aquaduct water system as part of a map,  historic houses, and more. It’s all woven together nicely.

This book is very appropriate for upper elementary and middle school students.

Peace (on the street),
Kevin

Who Said Anything About Quitting? The Digital Picture Book Project

Sharing Digital Picture Books

On our last full day of school yesterday (we still have today and tomorrow as half days), my librarian colleague, Pati, and I arranged to have our sixth graders share digital picture books with first graders, and it was a lovely experience to gather the older kids with the younger kids.

Our sixth graders made their books this year in Google Slides, and the theme was to riff off the picture book The Day the Crayons Quit. Although we all felt rushed by the end, with not enough time to do everything that needed to get done, the sharing was a success. I am grateful for colleagues like Pati.

It was all about writing for an audience, collaborating with a partner, understanding the design of image and words, and creating something worth sharing to younger readers. Pati and I have done versions of this project now for the past few years.

and

 

Peace (in the share),
Kevin

Book Review: Draft No. 4 (On the Writing Process)

Author/teacher John McPhee uses words I’ve never even known existed. His vocabulary boggles the mind. I wish I had kept a list of all the words in his book on writing — Draft No. 4 — that I didn’t know but now wondered about, and yet, I kept on reading instead of stopping to dig out my dictionary to look the words up.

It didn’t matter. I navigated through, like sitting in the classroom of a professor whose intelligence and insights are washing over you, and you, not getting it all, know that much of it will stick with you. If not now, then later.

I know McPhee’s writing through his work on long non-fiction in The New Yorker magazine. And I mean, long. He writes huge articles, sometimes spanning two editions on dense subjects. He spends months, if not years, on a single piece of non-fiction writing. Alaska. Cargo boats. Oranges. Long-distance trucking. His topics are all over the place.

In this particular book on writing, McPhee finds interesting elements to explore about his chosen art form — from different and creative means to structure a long piece of writing (look at his diagrams when you get a chance and you’ll be amazed at his logic flow and systematic approach), to how fact-checking and editing still rule the day at magazines (or those of substance), to the frustrations of any writer trying to find a starting point that is elusive and slippery and then moving into the various draft stages (thus, the title).

I’m going to tuck this book away with my other books on writing, and come back to it again, I am sure. McPhee (a professor at Princeton) has made me think, ponder and wonder about elements of the writing life. I’m still puzzling over some of his sentences and ideas, and that’s not a bad thing for a book on writing to leave you standing with.

Peace (in the pages),
Kevin

Book Review: This Is Just a Test

No, the “test” is not a standardized test. The “test” in This Is Just a Test, a novel by Madelyn Rosenberg and Wendy Wan-Long Shang is a nuclear bomb test. In this solid novel for middle school readers, set in the time of folks watching “The Day After,” we’re brought into the world of a character trying to make sense of a very confused world.

David Da-Wei Horowitz, with a Chinese grandmother and a Jewish grandmother at odds with each other over cultural heritage, is prepping for his bar mitzvah as the world shudders in the face of Nuclear War. The television show “The Day After” sent ripples through pop culture (as I well remember) and David wonders when the world might end.

The book has serious themes, but it is also a lighthearted look at a mixed-culture kid trying to find friendship and understanding, and finding ways to bring family together even in the midst of disagreement (the bar mitzvah surfaces tensions). Meanwhile, David is writing to another kid in Russia, a Jewish boy who will share in David’s bar mitzvah ceremonies from afar (since he cannot do it in the USSR). And he and a friend are building a bomb shelter, and debating the ethics of who gets to be invited in to the shelter.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this novel, and yet, once I was into the story, I really appreciated how the authors tackled such sensitive issues of culture, religion and global politics with grace and humanity. Maybe it helped that I was a kid during these same years of the story. The novel brings to light the Cold War fears of a generation (maybe not re-lit with the spats between the US and North Korea, and Iran).

Peace (bring it),
Kevin

Book Review: The Overstory

The entire first section of The Overstory by Richard Powers was pure magic. I was enthralled by the writing, as Powers sets up the “roots” of this story in character sketches of complicated people with complicated lives, all connected to the concept of trees and seeds and plants. I could not stop reading.

The middle and ending of the novel are strong, but not quite as strong as the beginning. Still, Powers does an amazing job of weaving the science of trees into the narratives of human lives, and the places where all things eventually connect together. You come away from this novel with a new appreciation for the trees in your yard, or the forests where you walk, or the invisible architecture of what’s below the soil, keeping us all alive. There’s more than meets the eye, Powers tells us.

I wasn’t quite satisfied with the ending, but I don’t know what I would have done different (not that I am second-guessing a talented writer like Powers). I anticipated more of a reckoning of some sort, of how people and trees are connected to this Earth, and how we share a common cellular ancestry. But maybe that was not his point. Maybe it was the illumination of all living things, and the notion that trees contain more than we can ever think to know.

Which is probably true.

Peace (in all the stories),
Kevin

NCTE Journal Review: What’s Next with Digital Tools and Social Media

The May 2018 edition of the NCTE journal – Voices from the Middle — arrived in the mail and immediately caught my attention. It’s part of a series of “What’s Next” themed editions of the journal (an edition about what’s next in reading was intriguing), and this one is entitled “What’s Next? Digital Tools and Social Media” and, if you know me at all, you know that is something I am interested in as a teacher and a writer (and a parent).

I was not surprised to Troy Hicks writing an introduction of sorts, as he framed the way technology is shaping our writing practices, and how our writing practices is shaping our use of technology. Yes, it goes both ways, and Troy has been writing and sharing and teaching us strategies about digital writing for many years now. (And Troy, thanks for the shout-out in your piece.) I was interested in the way Troy ended each section with an insight about digital writing, and what it means as we look ahead to teaching and writing.

In other articles in the journal, I appreciated the exploration of digital imagery as a connection to understanding and uncovering the inner lives of our students, the strategies for battling the fake news phenomenon, how infographics might extend writing practices and the use of argument, and the way technology might open more doors for students of color to have a voice in the world. There are solid classroom examples, and lots of resources, to explore in these pieces.

Overall, the theme from this wide range of writers and teachers is to remember that technology is a tool, not the thing. Students need to remain at the center of the learning and the writing, and educators — from the veteran teachers (like Chris Lehman’s piece about the imperative of pre-service teachers getting experience with digital literacies and Linda Rief’s piece about long-time teachers relying on students to teach us) — and the key to the work we all do to adapt to the changing world is, as the Cathy Fleischer notes, is “making this work sustainable” by connecting and sharing with other educators.

You can access a few of the pieces for free at the NCTE site, but many of the pieces are in the journal that comes with being a NCTE member. Since Troy’s piece is open and free, how about joining me in using Hypothesis to annotate his column?

Read and react to The Next Decade of Digital Writing by Troy Hicks

See you in the margins.

Peace (exploring what’s ahead),
Kevin

 

 

Book Review: Creative Quest by Questlove

I am intrigued the curious spirit of Questlove, the drummer and one of the leaders of The Roots. He seems to have his fingers and mind into many things, all with what appears a desire to collaborate and make stuff (like music but not just music) and to reflect on and share out his experiences in hopes of inspiring others.

His latest book — Creative Quest — is an exploration (with co-writer Ben Greenman) of his ideas on how to be and how to stay creative in the world.

While the book itself is rather uneven (and could have used a better editor to tighten the text), Questlove’s voice comes through the mix as he talks about expanding the definitions and ideas of what an artist is, how the influx of technology can both help and hinder the creative spirit, how moving out of your comfort zone is as important as mining the treasures of that same space, how collaborating with others will give you new paths to follow even if they at first make your uncomfortable, and how remix and appreciative appropriation of others’ work can build into something new.

Questlove mentions that he enjoys the segments on The Tonight Show (his band is the house band for Jimmy Fallon) when they play with artists outside of their typical genre, and notes that when they do off-kilter music segments with toy instruments or other pieces, it forces them as a musicians to work in a different way. All good.

It’s nothing new but Questlove’s advice to follow your instincts and be open to the unknown ring true with me as someone who tries to do creative work each day, as a poet, as a songwriter, as someone who dabbles in media (thank you, DS106).

I do wish that the book had brought the reader deeper into the songwriting process of The Roots. He does share some stories of being in the studio with artists like D’Angelo and Tariq, his main partner in The Roots.  But mostly those stories are about finding a sound, as opposed to discovering through creative experimentation the song that needs to be written and sung.

Ah. Well. Maybe next time.

For now, I enjoyed Questlove’s journey into creativity with Creative Quest, and I hope his message of how nurturing and exploring a creative life can enhance all of our worlds is something that resonates. Find art. Make art.

Peace (sing it),
Kevin

Book Review: Meet Me in the Bathroom (Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City 2001-2011)

This book may not be for everyone but it was fascinating for me, with an interest in music and music scenes and the way bands can flourish and disappear given the cultural moments. Lizzy Goodman  — in Meet Me in the Bathroom — conducted hundreds of hours of interviews with musicians around New York City just before, during and then after The Strokes hit the scene, causing ripples still being felt in rock and roll.

The story arc is familiar — a band (in this case, The Strokes) shakes off the dust of a stagnant music scene, creates excitement for audience and other musicians, companies come calling, other bands ride the wave, money impacts musicians in different ways, scene ends with a thud (sort of).

I can’t say I was ever a Strokes fan beyond casual listener. In fact, I am more of a fan of Vampire Weekend, one of the bands that came on the far end of the wave in New York City. They were not punk like The Strokes. Instead, Vampire Weekend merged global music and beats with a poetic sensibility.

What I liked about Meet Me in the Bathroom is the oral history format, as Goodman (who was part of the scene) explores the music of The Strokes and then all those who came after (or began during) the time they were suddenly “known.” Some of the bands I know and many I did not know.

Here is an incomplete list of bands mentioned (Note: + means I know and have listened while * means they are new to me)

The Strokes +
Interpol *
Jonathan Fire*Eater
The Killers +
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs +
TV on the Radio *
Franz Ferdinand +
Fischerspooner
The Hold Steady +
Vampire Weekend +
Regina Spektor
The Moldy Peaches
The National +
Dirty Projectors *
The Hives
Kings of Leon +
The White Stripes +
The Vines
Sonic Youth +

I am going to dive my way into YouTube and see what I can hear.

Peace (and rock and roll),
Kevin