Tag Archives: book reviews

Book Review: Genes, Cells and Brains

  • Hilary Rose and Steven Rose (2013) Genes, Cells and Brains: the Promethean promises of the new biology (London: Verso). This review first appeared in Red Pepper.

Hilary and Steven Rose’s new book is about the politics of biology, but it’s also about themselves. The Roses are professors of sociology (her) and neurobiology (him), both with long-standing and vocal commitment to the left. They’re married, as the book quickly informs you with a touching reference to their meeting in a New Left Club on Oxford St. Such anecdotes reflect not just ways in which the personal is political but that the history of biology is both of these things too.

As junior academics in the 1960s, they received an extra £50 a year to their salaries for each of their children. This was due to the influence of William Beverage who, as a keen eugenicist, wanted to encourage such bright young academics to breed. This story warns us to beware of simplistic hero-building, but also that ideologies, bodies, science and administration wrap together in the Roses’ life history, just as their book argues such matrixes of technoscience effect us all.

The book is also about the large and important abstract entities of its title – genes, cells and brains – and the institutions, people, ideologies, offices, publications and above all, money that not only helps bring such entities into human understanding but direct what we do with them. It is a book critical, pointed and clear in explanations of the political economy of modern biology, and how this is significant not only for our understanding of how the world works, but how we imagine ourselves in it and how we choose to engineer it, including engineering ourselves.

The spectre of reductive materialism haunts this book, as one might expect from a Marxist take on biology. This is a reading I have never quite got behind. It is, itself, just too reductive. I remain unconvinced Victorian ideologies that influenced early Darwinian concepts of evolution really explain that much about the politics of biology today. There is nothing ‘inherent’ in the sociology of science. Humans are just not so mechanically simple. Still, the Roses offer several useful lines of critique. There’s a neat passage on the ‘outsourcing of ethics’ through the structures and uses of specialist bioethicists. They raise a sceptical eyebrow at Lord Sainsbury’s £11 million worth of donations to Labour and oh-so-generous refusal to take a salary when he did, finally, get the job of science minister he so coveted. They also note the influence of the Wellcome Trust as “the ten-thousand-pound gorilla in the genomics room”, not only significantly bankrolling their own science but lobbying the government to follow their lead too. They could probably be more critical of the Trust, which may have done an enormous amount of good, but is not be above questioning. As Stella Creasy’s asked, should they invest in Wonga?

In some respects the Roses paint a picture of a society that sleepwalked into significant and dangerous changes to the life sciences. Science journalism is partly held accountable, failing in its role as 4th estate with an over-reliance on churnalism. There’s also a finger pointed at the architects of the new left for simply not paying enough attention to science. I’d personally cast some blame at the sociology of science for a lack of public engagement, although these issues are complex, and the forces that have aimed to narrow, ‘outsource’ and obfuscate public debate on the politics of science to rather neoliberal ends have been a strong force to reckon with.

In some ways, I was left with a sense the Roses feel it’s too late to save science for the people. There’s a tempting whiff of truth to such pessimism, but I’m personally more hopeful. For all it’s socialism, the story told by the Roses seem rather preoccupied by big names. Arguably this is appropriate for a book about science, which is a highly hierarchical business dominated by loud personalities, for all its occasional posturing to be otherwise. But I suspect more social history/ ethnographically inspired empirical work talking to the middle-ranking workers of science would have pulled out a slightly different picture. More normatively, I think it’s through the building of horizontal networks between such workers that we’ll see positive change.

The book also felt slightly tired, and a bit dated in places. It’s all a bit old-new left. What about the newer-new lefts, the ones that write blogposts not books, that build and break networks online, that flirt with sceptics in the pub, make internet memes to parody Dawkins and are increasingly more worried by environmental sciences than biology? Where do these new monsters of technoscience fit into the scheme of science in society? Are there ways they might occupy scientific spaces, reclaim areas of knowledge and the very notion of techno-utopianism? Might they break the institutionalised nature of much so-called citizen science and public engagement, ignore the publication relations messages of groups like the Science Media Centre, agree and disagree in equal measure with Ben Goldacre and make new social movements for the 21st century all their own? I think they might. Or at least I think they have potential.

If you’re interested in science in society (and you should be, because those who are hold the keys to our futures), read this book. But don’t be taken in too deeply by its neater stories, and certainly don’t let it depress you too much. Let it make you angry enough to want to learn from more than just the good Professors Rose.

Energy and Climate Change: Some Good Reads


This post originally appeared on the New Left Project

A friend recently asked me for book recommendations on energy and climate change. “I want books” they stressed, “not policy briefing papers or essays or scientific reports. Something to curl up on the sofa with, something that digests and explains the issues and spins a few good yarns along the way. A good read.”

Here are my suggestions. I know I’ve missed loads: e.g. Merchants of Doubt, The Carbon Age and The Oil Road. I’ve stuck to factual literature, but if anyone wants to suggest some fiction, please do. Arguably we could do with some better fiction on this issue (good essay in the LA Review of Books on this), and I could also have included long form journalism like Bill McKibben’s piece for Rolling Stone last summer, or books for kids. What would you add?

The Discovery of Global Warming. Spencer Weart (2nd edition, 2008).

Global warming, like most scientific discoveries, was less a singular moment and more a long process of many discoveries. Weart weaves a tale involving many people over many years, gradually learning about the phenomenon and coming to terms with it (as continues to be the case).

Such a picture of slow, gradual development, refinement and sharing of human understanding of climate change might seem a bit depressing. A simple “eureka!” (or perhaps “oh, bugger” would be more appropriate) might seem easier to deal with. We’d see, know and just do something about it. Except the world really isn’t that simple and in many respects, discussion of the complexity is liberating. It’s crucial for understanding where we are now on the science and the policy and, I think, key to thinking about what we might do about it too. It also makes for a much more interesting read. Eureka tales don’t really take you anywhere.

It’s also, in a way, quite a hopeful book, as Weart is keen to stress that we have taken actions to learn more and do something with this knowledge in the past. We can continue to do this, and do more. It’s a story of change, with a real sense that more change is possible.

As well as being the best introduction to climate change I’ve read, this book is also simply a great case study in how scientific discovery works, and fascinating in terms of the interactions between international policy and science in the 20th century. It’s also reasonably short, clearly written and engrossing. Weart’s published a hypertext version too but the linear dead tree version’s my favourite.

Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet. Mark Lynas (2007).

A neat bit of narrative non-fiction which won the 2008 Royal Society science book prize, turning scientific modeling into a very literary experience worked step-by-step as we’re invited to imagine first a world where the average temperature is one degree warmer than now, then three, then four, and so on. It’s a form of fantasy fiction, perhaps, but where the rules of this different world are based on scientific research, not simple make-believe (comparable with the way the Mr Tompkins stories tried to explain modern physics in the 1940s). This is a global story, as any on climate change will be, although this time the characters are largely waters, winds and other non-human entities. It’s a science book, although political in a way, it’s about things, not people, and expect a small amount of numbers, but it’s not hard to understand at all.

It’s a bit scary in places. But climate change is scary. I re-read the four degrees chapter at the end of last year, while the Doha conference was crawling on and we were going through quite a cold snap, and found myself hiding under blankets with jumpers and legwarmers, the howls of the sea ominously mingling with the noise of the traffic outside, the heating resolutely off and only a small solar powered torch to read by. It’s when it gets to six degrees it really gets a bit scary. As the climate modeling scientists he’d been using as a guide up till then fall by the wayside, generally falling short of simulating six degrees warming, he starts to uses sketchier geological information about extreme episodes in the Earth’s distant past. There’s something of the horror movie narrative to it, starting in the relatively familiar, gradually unraveling into chaos as he invites readers into “the sixth circle of hell”.

This is another book that manages to end on a relatively hopeful note, arguing we can build a low-carbon society, and leave it as a gift to the future so the nightmare image he presents really is just a nightmare. You might disagree with him on his version of how, which is arguably the rub, but if Weart provides a “yes we can” message, Lynas’ book says “you better bloody get on with it”.

The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power. Daniel Yergin (1991).

This isn’t a short book, but it’s a page-turner, and if you give it time, you get really drawn in. It’s got a lot of characters, spanning many countries and covering a historical sweep of over a century. But it’s well structured, so you won’t get lost. It’s choc-full of stories, and would make a good commuting read if it wasn’t so bloody heavy, because you can read it small chunks (perhaps this is what e-readers are for).

You’ll find that learning about the history of the oil will teach you a lot about other aspects of the world (insert your own joke about oiling the wheels of modernity here). Just as Weart teaches you something about the way we invested in climate science partly as an odd attempt at peacekeeping during the Cold War, from Yergin you can expect to learn something about the slow construction of the type of capitalism we’ve built for ourselves over the last few centuries. You’ll also read a lot about war. And you’ll never look at a petrol station in the same way again.

Did you know Shell is called Shell because they used to sell shells? (In the East End of London, not by the seashore, sadly) Or that the American oil market started off selling small veils for medical purposes? (burning came later).

Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. Alexis Madrigal (2011).

We might think of wind energy community co-ops or electrical taxi cabs as something new, a recent response to concerns over climate change and peak oil, but they’re not. There is a long history to both, as there is for solar power, wave energy and more. Madrigal even suggests that, at one point in the late 19th century, it looked like the future of transport in America would largely be a matter of electrically powered public systems, not the fossil fuelled individual vehicles we have today (apparently it’s partly the bike’s fault this didn’t happen). Electrical cabs were reasonably common in Manhattan in the 1890s. Londoners can see one built for their own city in 1897 in the ground floor of the Science Museum.

In some respects, this is a book of roads not travelled and, like Weart’s description of the slow, gradual ongoing story of the discovery of climate change, it could be quite depressing, yet it also manages to be inspiringly hopeful. It is a story of how energy could once have been something different, and so might be something else again. More explicitly than Yergin’s epic, this book helps you realise technology is something we make, and invites you to think about can we might remake it, or at least pay more attention to the structures which build such things so new technologies can be built to meet the needs of the planet, not exploit it.

Madrigal also makes some interesting comments in the concluding chapter about the way we imagine environmentalism, especially with respect to any sense of division between people, technology and nature. The “creation myth” of American environmental movement might be that they put the protection of nature first, but many environmentalists are highly aware that an idea of “natural” is both complex and not necessarily a substitute for “good”. Madrigal stresses the worth of a human focused environmentalism (or at least one rooted in an idea of the anthropocene) which acknowledges how much of an impact humans have had on the Earth and aims to be clever about our role in its future. He weaves into this ideas of national identity and the idea of the American sublime – American wilderness as some ultimate authenticity – and nods to David Nye’s sense that there is a strong history of the American technological sublime too. My critique of Nye’s (in many ways brilliant) book is that he doesn’t unravel the inequality involved in politics of the human construction of this sublime, something which a human focused environmentalist critique, for me, would have to do. But I think Madrigal’s book does help us reflect on this political aspect.

Book Review: Secrecy and Science

Wanna know a secret? Of course you do. Ok, it’s not really a secret, it’s just a story that’s a bit closed off. It’s an interesting story, about a military research centre which held an open day, but it’s in a niche academic book with a £55 pricetag. It’s a good book, painstakingly researched and thoughtfully written, just not one aimed at a large audience. It’s about secrets, hence this slightly folksy start, and here’s my review.

Science is often seen as both being about uncovering secrets and doing so in open, and yet large parts of it are done in secret: for military or industrial reasons, or more mundanely, everyday professional competition between otherwise apparently open scientists, or the privacies of peer review and other practices of scholarly publishing (e.g. embargos on press releases). As Balmer describes the Manhattan project; at it’s time, an almost unprecedented achievement in organised science, and yet one which was organised on a strictly need-to-know basis.

Key to Balmer’s thesis is that secrecy changes science. Secret science not simply open science enacted behind closed doors. Knowledge is fundmental to the social interaction which helps make so much of science. Secrecy disrupts that. Secrets separate scientists from aspects of their community at large, and with that they not only block off information and ideas but reward systems which enforce scientific norms and/or broader attitudes to morality and behaviour. That, in itself, doesn’t mean secret science is necessarily bad science (even if it might be seen to go against Mertonian norms) but it does make it different.

Balmer is also keen to stress that there are degrees of secrecy; it’s not as simple as if it’s open or a secret. Often the two work together, not least in that story of an open day I promised you. It’s chapter six of the book, on how a mix of political pressure and media coverage led to the secrecy at Porton Down being complemented by a measure of transparency culminating in a series of open days. The very idea of an open day for a research center undertaking secret research might sound quite weird but it was all about how they co-managed both openness and secrecy. As Balmer concludes, this story is not one of a complete secretive organization being forced to open, but a transition from secrecy embedded in culture to one that managed openness and secrecy in public.

By June 1968, with various representatives of the media, peace activism and parliament were, sometimes literary, knocking on the door of Porton Down. The BBC requested to film. Porton Down had to check with the Prime Minister as Number 10 had “preferred in the past not to go out of our way to promote interest” (Balmer, 2012: 93) It wouldn’t be a matter of unfettered access it’d always be controlled and the PR agents asked to preview film so as allow chance to persuade BBC to remove any “unsuitable material”. The CND magazine, Sanity, had published an aerial photograph of the site with the caption “The picture no one dare to print”. In contrast, the director of the Chemical Defence Experimental Establishment director told the BBC “I would like to introduce a sense of realism about this claim that Porton is a super-secret establishment” (Balmer, 2012: 106) which seems rather pompously patronising to me. Claims to “a sense of realism” are always rhetorically interesting, especially in a context where information is closed off to many (I mean whose realism, and how are doubters to check?). It’s pretty telling that a lot of the fallout of the television covered seemed to led to the familiar pattern of fights over impartiality with claims of bias from both sides.

Balmer writes that plans started to gather pace, and from late June 1968 they were planning open days at the end of October. This was a tight deadline so “emergency measures” (the very idea that it was that tight showed amount of prep required: managed openness) and a committee of scientists was setup to design exhibits and demo, others gathered information about how other defence establishments had managed open days (it wasn’t unprecedented). The open days were invite only, divided into a “dignitaries day” (MPs, senior local officials, industrial representatives , a senior scientists day and another day for other scientists and laymens [sic] (Balmer, 2012: 109-9). Members of the various peace associations and student protesters would not be welcome.

Fascinatingly, they also worried about vivisection. Animal experimentation wasn’t a central topic for public controversy at the time, but it had been an area of ongoing sensitivity, and a trickle of parliamentary questions had been noted. Porton Down had a farm on site, which bread around 600 cats, 10,000 rabbits, 30,000 guinea pigs, 50,000 rats and 10,000 mice a year for research. Should this be one of the things that was hidden? As one of the organiser remarked: “There is little doubt that a visit to Allington farm would give some of the press the time of their lives in reporting on the kittens and puppies it is best to face this once and for all” (Balmer, 2012; 109). A reply from the Minstory of Defence was that the secretary for state “has expressed the hope that it may prove possible to concentrate the public gaze on the rats, mice and guinea pigs kept for experimental purposes. If puppies and kittens are allowed a prominent position in proceedings, and unfavourable public reception to the work of the establishment is guaranteed” (Balmer, 2012:109-110). Whatever your own views on transparency and animal testing, it was interesting to see a different area of science-related managed un-openness folded into those of chemical and biological weapons research.

One of the other really interesting parts of the book is a chapter on the way doubt and uncertainty function in secret science. As Balmer shows, many of the scientists working under secrecy drew on authority to lay claim not just to certainty but uncertainty. As he argues, science studies sometimes too keen to lend a deconstructive hand at expense of studying those scientists who are all too happy to express gaps in their knowledge (Balmer, 2012: 74). This is not just the case for military research, as Balmer refers to several studies of environmental and regulatory scientists where “confessional uncertainty” becomes a positive sometimes defensive, resource (Balmer, 2012: 78-9). Uncertainty, just like certainty, is a contestable ground and a useful political tool on occasion too. We all know uncertainty exists in science policy disputes – YAWN (or as he puts it more politely “that is an over-familiar observation”, Balmer, 2012: 89) – but the ways uncertainty is constructed, managed and utilised by scientists could do with more scholarly attention.

Overall, I liked this book, but there is scope for a more ambitious work on science and secrecy; something that is historically less ambitious, but more sociologically so, and says more about secrecy in science at large. Although Balmer makes a few interesting general points (e.g. the ones I led with, and the points about uncertainty) he is also limited by his case studies. How do military cultures of secrecy differ from, for example, contemporary industrial contexts? Or more everyday competition between scientists, or the more normalised, protective secrecy of peer review? How do these all interact, as with the vivisection issue at the Porton Down open days? What are the different types of secrecies in and around science, and what do they mean for the future of science policy? What about new stuff like the Google-funded research drones for WWF? How can we build a more developed vocabulary for the various types and layers of interacting open and closed spaces of science? I enjoyed Balmer’s book, but for that very reason it inspired a lot more questions too.

Review: Maximum Republic

street art in london during the jubilee

Some of the monarchy-themed street art in London this sumer.

A couple of years back, the Royal Institution made their director redundant. There were various reasons why they did this, but part of me enjoyed the basic idea that they didn’t need a director. I wondered if other scientific institutions might follow. I mean, do universities really need vice chancellors? (and it’s an interesting convention that we call them vice chancellors, as officially they are deputy to a figurehead chancellor who’s role is generally entirely ceremonial). Do we need a President of the Royal Society? Or a Chief Scientific Advisor?

I remembered this rather idle musing on a possible more anarchic science while reading Dan Hind’s new ebook/ extended essay “Maximum Republic“. Here, Hind argues that the republican cause should stop picking a fight with the Queen and focus on other constitutional arrangements. Most Brits seem to quite like our current head of state. Moreover, the actual Queen is perhaps a distraction from those global oligarchies which rule so much of the economies we live within. In Hind’s words, “the hidden wiring that connects London to global capital flows and their enabling circuits of information and untruth” (pp.12). Instead, Hind offers “another, less familiar and more substancial republicanism” which denies a necessary anti-monarchism and is more concerned with “remaking the state as the shared possession and achievement of a sovereign public” (pp. 7-8, emphasis added).

Key to Hind’s central argument is that the British too often use the world republic in ways which obscure the more interesting and useful aspects of what a republic might look like. A republic exists when the state is the shared possession of a sovereign public. This is already understood by the ruling class, Hind argues; indeed, the very idea of shared possession of the state is what defines a ruling “class” (i.e. group, not just individual). “A coalition of the wealthy and the political astute has achieved this by accepting the need for paradox and cooperating as a secret, or radically unreported, public” (pp. 15). In a way, we’ve already toppled the monarchy, there are already co-operatives ruling the state. The question is who has access to this slightly more distributed power (and the answer is that it remains within a rather small, closed group).

To deal with this, Hind suggests, we need to learn more about the processes of governance to: “We do not fully own what we do not understand” (pp. 41). He understands that such processes of understanding aren’t simple. It might be “commonplace to say that education empowers, it is also true that power educates” (pp. 43); we need more public ownership of communication systems, a point that reminded me of old debates on the circulatory of ideology and education (e.g. Bourdieu and Passeron). In places, Hind’s arguements also reminded me of the idea of science and the “modest witness” (see Shapin and Schaffer and Donna Haraway); the 17th century construction of a connection between truth and openness whereby science must be demonstrable to witnessed, except only certain people may count as appropriate witnesses, a process of exclusion which is largely hidden.

Hind makes a few specific points about science, arguing that any truly republican system of communication would not just stop at journalism, education systems, etc, but must include the discussion and conduct of science too. His ideas will be familiar to many in science policy: “the state, the corporations and a handful of industrial and post-industrial foundation largely determine the direction of science” this determines much of the direction of society “although science reflects the preoccupations and assumptions of those who fund it, scientists themselves do not like to admit this elementary fact” (pp. 46). In some ways, it’s a matter of gaining control of the means of production, just applied to a knowledge economy, and kind of Foucaultian (in a power/ knowledge sort of way).

The Royal Institution had it’s own reasons for picking a fight with their particular queen when they made her redundant in 2010, but what was left in the wake was a very long way from a Royal Institution by the people, for the people. We might make a similar point about the increasing uptake of “open access” policies, which drop paywalls for access to science but doesn’t open it up in any meaningful way to allow the public any role in that science, maintaining their role simply as recipients of knowledge (a point I tried to make in the THE a few months back). As with his book The Return of the Public, Hind’s essay has a lot to say to those interested in the social relations and structures of science.

Advertising the Space Race

Book review of Megan Prelinger’s, Another Science Fiction: Advertising the space race 1957-1962 (New York: Blast Books). A shorter version of this appeared in the August edition of Public Understanding of Science.

Another Science Fiction cover

There’s a lot of loose talk about science fiction; about the great influence fiction has on science or, conversely, a great cultural crash between the two fields. This isn’t to say science and fiction do not influence each other, or that there aren’t tensions between the two; only that there can be more waffle than study on this topic.

There is a growing body empirical work on the topic which attempts a realistic examination of the topic; work which often creatively looks beyond the flashy lights at the front of the cinema to consider the various ways science fiction exists, and various ways it is influenced by and influences science (and vice versa). David Kirby’s (2011) book ‘Lab Coats in Hollywood’ (on scientific consultants for films) is one, and Megan Prelinger’s ‘Another Science Fiction’, which considers her database of 600 1950s and 1960s adverts for space race technologies is another.

Much has been made of the hype and promises of science fiction. Here amongst the trade magazines of the mid-20th century (e.g. Aviation Week) Prelinger shows us that some of the most fascinating discourses of hope weren’t in pulp fiction, but those aiming to cash in on the ‘new frontier’ of space. It’s a study of a form of science fiction which I suspect fans of the sociology of expectations (e.g. Brown et al, 2000) will enjoy. The book is, in many ways, a story of at least one thread of the social construction of science and technology.

It’s also a chocolate box of a book too; bursting with lush reproductions of these sometimes exuberantly illustrated adverts. In many respects, it is a piece of art and design history as much as it is a history of the rhetorics of science technology. It’s easy to play spot-the-influence of Klee, Mondrian or Kandinsky in places; images that provide a visual treat as much as an intellectual one (and, arguably, add something to the similarly too often loose talk about connections between science and art). The ephemeral as well as semi-technical nature of the material (amassed from the library in San Francisco Prelinger runs with her husband) also makes you feel like you have access to an area of social life at least less accessible than blockbuster movies. They are images that are at once familiar and yet also unfamiliar. It really is another science fiction, one you are unlikely to have quite seen before, even if you will feel quite at home in it. I have a small personal vice in that I occasionally like to take a break from work by spending my lunchbreak with the Science Museum library’s archive of New Scientists, having a good sniff at their particular type of paper mold, and tracking cultural changes in science by looking at the adverts. Reading this book, I got a sense of a similar joy, mediated by Prelinger along with her thoughtful and well-researched commentary.

The advertisement on page 174 of Prelinger’s book sums up her material very neatly. “Want to build a space motel?” a large banner title asks next to image of floating spacemen and tiny cap of curve of Earth in background. A subheading informs: “Thompson Products can help.” The text continues “It’s bound to happen in the not-too-distant future: an American space motel for rockets will be orbiting about the earth! While the U.S. Government may send it aloft, private enterprise will help build it. And right now, Thompson Projects is ready to design and produce important components and assemblies for such a space station of tomorrow. Fantastically difficult? Perhaps… […] If you’re considering the development of an advanced product, let Thompson help get it into production”

This is very much a story of the commercial side of the space race. A story of companies that were engaged not only in making money from the process of dreaming about the future – as with pulp fiction, a big budget sci fi movie, or indeed, much popular science – but a sense that these dreams might be made into tangible, sellable products. As Prelinger notes, many of the adverts were for recruitment. Similarly, this Tompson Products is not advertising actual products as much as a relationship with the company. The text I edited out with boxed parenthesis in that quote above is filled with blub on their company’s history of work in the field. They are running a discourse of hope on reputation. These adverts are a fiction of sorts, but the fiction of advertising, not the more philosophical and entertainment based fiction that mid 20th century space-themed science fiction is known for. They are still playing with ideas of possible futures, but as an advertising fiction, these are ideas of futures where the implication that they might be real is key. Arguably, all science fiction (all fiction) has some key connection to a sense of the real, but this is perhaps a different form of real, a montisable one. Or at least one you are invited to bet on happening.

To end on a pragmatic note, I can’t be the only science communication lecturer to note advertising as a career path for graduates. As one ex-student put it: ‘those semiotics lectures were especially useful’. I bit my tongue rather than suggest I wasn’t sure that was what their tutor had in mind when she asked the class to deconstruct references to scientific authority in advertising. We may not be comfortable with this, but it’s a reality of the communication of science. For all ‘the public understanding of science’ movement’s lofty educational aims, a lot of science communication is about making money (c.f. Fyfe and Lightman, 2007, or simply the next paid-for touring exhibition you visit at your local natural history museum). Advertising is part of what constructs science and technology; in public and within most closed expert communities too. We’d do well to recognise this.


  • Kirby, David (2011) Lab Coats in Hollywood (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press).
  • Brown, Nik, Rappert, Brian & Webster, Andrew (eds) (2000) Contested Futures: A Sociology of prospective techno-science (Aldershot: Ashgate).
  • Fyfe, Aileen & Lightman, Bernard (eds) (2007) Science in the Marketplace: Nineteenth-Century Sites and Experiences (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press).

You Are Not a Gadget

You Are Not a Gadget, by Jaron Lanier.

An arrow key on my laptop broke last week, and I had to send it away for a few days to be fixed. One of the unexpected consequences of being without it was that I kept finding myself itching for a book to read. Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget came highly recommended by several friends and colleagues, and it’s manifesto-like call for a future where individuals mean more than machines seemed like a good choice to fill the gap left by constant, easy access to the files and software on my computer.

I didn’t share my friends enthusiasm. It’s not a bad book. It’s thoughtful, wise even. It is also very well written, with a wry humour and succinct style. Lanier manages to be provocative in an outspoken whilst also humble way; as if he just wants you to think about an issue, rather than necessary agreeing with him. The book’s central thesis – being critical about technology is not simply a destructive act but can be utilised in a hopeful way, to construct a better future – is one I agree with. I also agree that technological change can be stressful, and that decontextualised information, on it’s own, is pretty inert. Plus, I think that it’s worth questioning, as Lanier does very neatly, the way crowdsourcing and the idea of a ‘hivemind’ may collectivise thinking in negative as well as positive ways, and the problems of a free-at-the-point-of-click economy (including social inequalities such economics might entrench/ create).

I just did’t get much more intellectually from reading Lanier than I did from The Social Shaping of Technology (1985 and 1999) and Life on the Screen (1995). I admit I read around those books, synthesised ideas and disagreed with some too. I also appreciate they aren’t the most mainstream of titles, whereas Lanier’s book a popular work aiming at a broad audience. As I thought about Michael Brooks’ Free Radicals, it’s all very well yawning and saying ‘some of us knew this years ago’, but that’s of little good if no one outside my little bit of the Ivory Tower noticed. Still, I do also suspect I might also have got a lot of what Lanier says from the a fair bit of science fiction too, perhaps supplemented with a re-reading of Animal Farm and David Quantick’s old 1980s prediction that pop will eat itself.

Something I did think was important was the book’s reference to political ideologies embedded in digital culture, although I’d have liked to see this discussion extended. Under the heading ‘everything sounds fresh when it goes digital – maybe even socialism’ Lanier notes a fair amount of ‘stealth socialism’ in digital circles’ (p104). He says he isn’t necessarily opposed to this, but ‘if socialism is where we are headed, we need to be talking about it’ (p103). I totally agree, though I’m unsure Lanier is talking about socialism. Or if it is socialism, I’ve missed some big discussion on economic inequality. What, to my reading, Lanier seemed most worried by was the difference between doing things on one’s own and doing so collectively. This may well connect to aspects of socialist thought, but is maybe better considered in terms of the longer history of modernity, bringing in a critque of capitalist uses of mass action too. Generally, I was surprised by the book’s lack of explicit discussion of modernity (including its late, post and liquid variants) as it seemed to relevent to so many of Lanier’s arguements.

Personally, I thought the book’s inclination to distrust a hivemind seemed to my reading to be rooted in an ideological commitment to individualism over the collective which needed as much unpacking as any notion of ‘stealth socialism’. Further, I’m not sure it is all that hidden under an apparent cloak of Silicon Valley liberalism, as Lanier suggests. Or at least we need to unpack the various liberalisms associated with online cultures a bit. I also think we need to talk about the scientific history of much of today’s digital culture. The web was born at CERN, and in many ways builds on what Merton called the communalism of science. It’s simplistic to draw a direct comparison between communalism and communism, but there are both quite real historical and key philosophical connections between the aspects of socialism and aspects of scientific culture which we do need to keep in mind. Especially important to Lanier’s argument, I thought, is post-war science’s commitment to the sense that the work of many can achieve more than that of individuals (the latter half of this interview with Tim Berners-Lee provides some nice context). The collective work of ‘Big Science‘ can just as easy be made to read as post-war science’s connection to capitalism, I should add. It’s all quite slippery, which is precisely why we need to talk about this more (and modernity should have been mentioned more).

The thing that frustrated me most about this book, however, was Lanier’s continual need to tell us that he is optimistic about technology really, that he isn’t a simple pessimist; as if the obvious default setting is either pro or anti innovation as some coherent whole (which ‘innovation’ really isn’t, no more than ‘science’ or ‘stuff people do’). In many respects, Lanier has produced a call to think beyond the binaries and I appreciate it’s not his framing; rather one he works within. Still, I wish he’d simply ignore it. Because ‘what do you do when the techies are crazier than the Luddites?’ (subheading, p28). Well, you stop simplifying the world into Luddites and techies for a start, and take time to spot the more complex and often overlapping networks of debates instead.

So, for me, the scariest thing about the prevalence of machines in contemporary life is not the idea of people might think of themselves gadgets, or that I find it hard to cope without my laptop for a few days. It is that even expressly bold, creative and independent thinkers such as Lanier may be hesitant on their critique technology, and still so keen to frame ideas as nightmares set against hopeful daydreams. I’m not a gadget, neither do I want to be, even if I enjoy using them. To quote another manifesto on the topic, one several decades older than Lanier’s: I’d rather be a cyborg than a goddess (a critical user of technology). I think a lot of us feel that way, whatever words we happen to use to say it.