The Entanglement is a big and highly complex subject, and it isn’t easy to understand unless you take the time to study it. I recommend reading all of the titles on this list – each adds new perspectives to the bigger picture.
Honestly, I’m still getting a handle on the whole thing myself. Read a few books and take the time to digest them.
This is a working document, and will be expanded as I read and study more on the subject. Titles are presented in the order in which I read them; this is not necessarily the best order. I recommend starting with The Shallows, followed by Deep Work.
The Future of the Internet And How to Stop It, Jonathan Zittrain (Penguin Books, 2008)
I read this book when it was first published in 2008. I had just finished writing a dissertation on the challenges of digital preservation and had an appetite for tech criticism. Unfortunately, this warning from the era on the cusp of mass smartphone adoption was ignored – and the dystopian future of the web it warned us against has largely come to pass.
The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we read, think and remember, Nicholas Carr (Atlantic Books, 2010)
Arguably the most important book on this list, The Shallows made a splash when it was first published. In 2010, tech utopianism was mainstream and the negative aspects of internet use were not widely discussed or investigated. Carr’s groundbreaking book argues that ‘the Net is literally re-wiring our brains, inducing only superficial understanding. As a consequence there are profound changes in the way we live and communicate, remember and socialize – even our very conception of ourselves’.
Much has since been built on this foundation. Even if you object to the lack of scientific data presented to back up Carr’s claims – little was available at that time – you may find yourself agreeing with his circumstantial evidence and personal impressions.
Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Cal Newport (Piatkus, 2016)
Deep Work is the second most important book on this list, and the one with greatest potential for changing your own life.
Cal Newport is a successful academic who has never had a social media account – and, furthermore, he claims that his success is largely because he has never had a social media account. Newport’s theory of attention capital states that ‘deep work’ – work requiring extended, focused concentration and creativity – is valuable, rare and meaningful, but that social media is a huge engine of distraction that prevents you from achieving deep work. He claims that the value of social media is largely an illusion created by psychological trickery. He makes a convincing argument, and the proof is in the pudding. Newport’s blog is wildly successful despite zero social presence.
The Cult of Information: The Folklore of Computers and the True Art of Thinking, Theodore Roszak (Lutterworth Press, 1986)
In the 1980s, personal computers were hyped to such an extent that to criticise their growing role in society was a radical act. The Cult of Information goes a step further by stating that information itself has become fetishised far beyond its true value – and that ideas, not information, are at the core of human creativity and greatness. Roszak was deeply critical of the coming internet revolution and believed that it would be bad for humanity.
While many of the arguments in this book now seem old fashioned, or have been rendered academic by subsequent events, it remains an interesting read. Roszak’s point of view is well argued and The Cult of Information offers a valuable insight into tech criticism from the pre-web era.
Ten Arguments for Deleting your Social Media Accounts Right Now, Jaron Lanier (Vintage Books, 2018)
A book that does what it says on the tin! Lanier’s ten-part rant is highly accessible and draws a few laughs. However, it’s also prone to absolutist statements, and Lanier’s concept of BUMMER (a backronym for ‘Behaviours of Users Modified, and Made into an Empire for Rent’) as the root of all social media’s problems is less convincing. Despite the book’s drawbacks, it has the weight of Lanier’s authority within Silicon Valley – another tech savant who refuses to get high on his own supply.
Notes on a Nervous Planet, Matt Haig (Canongate Books, 2018)
Notes on a Nervous Planet looks at a specific aspect of the Entanglement: how technology, specifically social media, can affect our mental health. Haig uses his own experience with anxiety and depression to ask questions about the relationship between social media, consumerism, and the overloaded nature of modern life. Highly recommended.
The Circle, Dave Eggers (Vintage Books, 2013)
Unlike every other book on this list, The Circle is a novel – and a terrifying one. It tells the story of a woman who gets a job at a Silicon Valley tech giant and soon finds herself overwhelmed. The plot is a bit blunt and simplistic in places, but in some respects reality has already surpassed this vision of the present day. Themes explored include tech utopianism, the drive to quantify and measure every human activity, and what happens to us when everything is online and publicly accessible. This book’s real gift is its ‘Rights of Humans in a Digital Age’ – a line in the sand against the machine world. Recommended.
Titles on my to-be-read list
I have not yet read these titles, but they’re sitting on my bookshelf ready to be studied. They may or may not prove to be of value.
- You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, Jaron Lanier (Allen Lane, 2010)
- Picnic Comma Lightning: In Search of a New Reality, Laurence Scott (William Heinemann, 2018)
- The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, Daniel Levitin (Penguin Books, 2014)
- The Four-Dimensional Human, Laurence Scott (Windmill Books, 2015)
- New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future, James Bridle (Verso Books, 2018)
There are thousands of web articles on this subject. I have listed only a few of the most important.
‘The Autumn of the Multitaskers’, Walter Kirn (the Atlantic, 2007)
This fantastic long-form essay made a huge impression on me as a student. It’s worth reading in full.
‘The Enlightenment is dead, long live the Entanglement’, Danny Hillis (Journal of Design and Science, MIT Media Lab, 2016)
Computer scientist Danny Hillis coined the term ‘Entanglement’ in the context being discussed here. In this essay, published by JoDS in 2016, Hillis explores the idea that while the Enlightenment led to the flowering of human knowledge, the Entanglement is an era in which our technological environment is becoming increasingly complex and therefore beyond human comprehension, fundamentally changing our relationship with it. We’re no longer the masters of our tools, in other words.
‘It’s Complicated’, Samuel Arbesman (Aeon, 2014)
This piece by Samual Arbesman is a more accessible introduction to the Entanglement, expanding on Hillis’s ideas and solidifying them: ‘The Entanglement is the trend towards more interconnected and less comprehensible technological surroundings.’
‘Quit Social Media. Your Career may Depend on It’, Cal Newport (The New York Times, 2016)
An intro to and summary of Cal Newport’s important book, Deep Work.
‘The Deliberate Awfulness of Social Media’, Mark O’Connell (The New Yorker, 2018)
Another useful article that helps to pin down the elusive definition of the Entanglement.
‘Childhood’s End’, George Dyson (Edge, 2019)
This is superb, and touches on a number of Entanglement ideas.