Influential media

Inspired by a mailing list discussion and Scott Berkun’s recent tweet of his favorite books post, I decided to put together a post of my own on the subject of media that changed the way I think, with lots of links to other times I have written about these influences.

  • Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead, by Orson Scott Card – yes, it’s trite for a nerd to like these books, and Orson Scott Card’s real-life kookiness makes it hard to support him, but the description of Ender articulated a couple attributes that became long-standing goals of mine. In particular, I love the description of Ender as being somebody who can see right through other people and understand their motivations and their approach to the world, and that’s a skill I continue to work on (although the most interesting people regularly surprise me).

    I also love this quote from Xenocide about Ender as it expresses how I tend to interact with the world, evolving my thinking on a regular basis.

    “Thousands of competing contradictory impossible visions that make no sense at all because they can’t all fit together but they do fit together, he makes them fit together, this way today, that way tomorrow, as they’re needed. As if he can make a new idea-machine inside his head for every new problem he faces. As if he conceives of a new universe to live in, every hour a new one, often hopelessly wrong and he ends up making mistakes and bad judgments, but sometimes so perfectly right that it opens new things up like a miracle and I look through his eyes and see the world his new way and it changes everything. Madness, and then illumination.”

    These books have been long-standing in their influence on my thinking – even fifteen years ago, I was writing about how Card’s view of communities influenced me and how his views on the importance of story-telling were a big part of my worldview. Heck, Ender’s Game even influences my ideas about how to manage people.

  • Phil Agre’s red-rock-eater mailing list. Long since discontinued (Agre disappeared off the grid a couple years ago), but reading it in the late 90s and early 2000s introduced me to critical thinking about science and technology and how those subjects interacted within the larger culture. It led me to The Social Life of Information, by Duguid and Brown, which was one of several books to open my eyes to how we depend on others to learn. It led me to Sorting Things Out, by Bowker and Star, which blew my mind with the subjectivity of classification systems, and that book led me to Bruno Latour, who continued to blow my mind for a decade. Speaking of which…
  • Bruno Latour – reading The Politics of Nature changed how I see the world by describing how all of our structures (social, technological and physical) are contingent and reflections of how the world was perceived when the structures were built.
  • Language in Thought and Action, by S.I. Hayakawa – great introduction to semantics and how language influences how we think about the world
  • George Lakoff, who convinced me that political opinions are dependent on worldviews that can’t be influenced by facts. Therefore, making a difference in politics isn’t a matter of argument or explanation, but instead a matter of tactical ingenuity to exploit the existing system, which is less interesting to me. There is still an element of message management I find interesting (e.g. “Yes we can”), but between Lakoff and the disappointment of volunteering in the 2004 election, I pretty much gave up on paying attention to politics.
  • James Carse, particularly his book Finite and Infinite Games, which gave me a vocabulary to separate out activities designed to change the world from those that exploit the existing state of the world.
  • The User Illusion by Tor Norretranders and Sources of Power, by Gary Klein, which both do a good job of explaining that most of our brainpower is in the unconscious mind, which has to be trained to take cognitive load off of our limited conscious capacity.
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the TV show) – the first TV show I watched obsessively, the first one I paid attention to that built a complex enough universe to reward multiple rewatchings, the first one that I read literary criticism about, the one that drove me and a friend to create the FAQ. Buffy gave me an idea of what good TV could do, and I’ve spent most of the past decade watching too much TV trying to recapture that initial experience.

I could go on and on, especially once I started trolling through the book reviews I’ve put on this blog, but that’s enough for now. Also, man, looking at all those old reviews reminds me I need to make more time for reading – I haven’t done any serious reading in months!

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