Every year, it is time for my list of some of my favourite new Christmas albums as well as a couple of books I particularly enjoyed over the last year (see also the 2019, 2020 & 2021 editions). As usual, I did not get as much reading done as I had hoped to (as evidenced by the towers of unread books I have all around me), but I still managed to get through a couple of volumes, a selection of which features below. As for the Christmas albums, slim pickings this year I’m afraid, but I found some that I like and I hope you will, too — and as a bonus, you get Charles Mingus’s recipe for ridiculously strong eggnog to get you through the season.
A very happy Christmas to you all from Oxford and happy reading & listening 🎄
If Then: How One Data Company Invented the Future
Jill Lepore, 2020, Liveright
‘If Then’ is one of those history books that really read more like a thriller, with a hint of Tom Wolfe. Lepore, a professor of History at Harvard University, takes us along on a wild ride as she follows the ups and downs of the Simulmatics Corporation, one of the pre-cursors to Cambridge Analytica. She tells a story of big dreams, ambition, and arrogance against the backdrop of the cold war, involving some of the leading social scientists of the day.
Simulmatics proposed to predict and manipulate the future by way of the computer simulation of human behaviour — but with computers that are outgunned by your modern high-school calculator and data that doesn’t even come close to what is available today. As every good story this one, too, ends in tears for most of those involved.
What makes the book so interesting is that Lepore explores the birth of themes and technologies that still very much concern us today: attempts at manipulating voters and the public, scientific racism, the belief in the superiority of data, computing, and prediction, AI and, yes, data journalism — take your pick.
All The News That’s Fit To Click
Caitlin Petre, 2022, Princeton University Press
A great title, a great cover, and a great topic: Caitlin Petre’s ‘All The News That’S Fit to Click’ has it all. Petre has achieved the feat of getting behind-the-scenes access to the now-defunct Gawker, analytics company Chartbeat and, drumroll, the hallowed halls of the New York Times itself. The result is an excellent book that examines in depth how web analytics and metrics shape and re-shape the work and working experiences of journalists.
Metrics have an increasingly important role to play in modern-day news production and Petre’s book comes just at the right time to take stock of the current situation. According to her, metrics have turned into a powerful but also problematic new form of surveillance which allow managers more control over journalists while appealing to the latter through their seeming objectivity and game-like features. Nevertheless, there’s also a silver lining with Petre showing — based on her rich empirical data — that journalists also know how to use these metrics to their advantage.
Colm Tóibín, 2021, Penguin
Ever since reading The Master, I have been a fan of Colm Tóibín’s writing. The Magician is very much a follow-up the to former, with the difference being that instead of painting an intimate portrait of Henry James, this time Tóibín turns his attention to another towering figure of modern literature — German novelist Thomas Mann.
Tóibín goes all in, tracing Mann’s complex and fascinating life from the very beginnings up until the very end. Much more than just a book about one complicated man, the Irish novelist also puts an emphasis on Mann’s family, especially the women in his life. Key here is Katia Pringsheim, Mann’s wife. Her unwavering support of her husband’s literary ambitions and her tacit agreements with him about his sexual life are ultimately central to his success, and Tóibín takes great care in showing her not just as an equal but often as the superior character.
What I found most endearing about this novel is it’s central theme: beyond tracing the sexual sub-currents of a century and the complicated and often conflicting inner and outer lives of it’s main protagonists, The Magician is at its heart a novel about perennial decline. The old world is dying and the new one is about to be born and the interregnum is confusing, messy, and often ugly (remind you of something?). It’s the same reason why I think of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince as one of the best books and films of the HP series. In both, we are watching the dying embers of a candle, basking a last time in its fading and flickering light before waking up to a new and bleaker reality.
Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon
Mark McGurl, 2021, Verso
I cannot say that I have understood this book fully and that’s fine (I think the implied assumption that one should ‘get’ every book in full is unrealistic anyway).
McGurl writes about fiction in what he terms ‘the age of Amazon, positing the company and the affordances of its main platform as integral to the way modern fiction is produced and consumed. It’s an interesting question, not least because it takes seriously those parts of fiction that are widely popular and successful but also usually frowned upon by many critics (what Susan Sontag probably would have termed ‘camp’) — generic romance or crime novels of which Amazon is arguably full if you go beyond the bestseller lists.
Despite his training as a literary scholar, McGurl draws upon a wealth of theories, including from economics, to make his case. His argument, as I read it, is that Amazon has supercharged the consumerist side of literature and literary production (which was, of course, always there but has been greatly expanded with the help of digital media, self-publishing, and the like). Seen through the lens of Amazon — now both a provider of goods to be read, the means to read them, and a marketplace for both readers and authors to find each other — the author in Amazon’s eyes should consider themselves a kind of entrepreneur and service provider, not an aloof or absent god, while a reader is mostly a customer with needs who seeks utility in what they consume.
It’s admittedly a challenging book. Densely written, McGurl’s prose is demanding, as are the theories he harks back to. But if you commit, you get treated to musings on the connection between romance novels and economic theory, the use of literature, and great lines such as this one:
‘Fiction in the Age of Amazon is the symbolic provisions of more — above all, of more various and interesting “life experience” than can be had by any mortal being, let alone one constrained by the demands of work and family. It is a commodification of this experience, shaped to the reader’s limitations and recurring therapeutic needs.’
And on what he terms ‘the great unread’, the books we never talk about because almost no one reads them (and of which Amazon is full to the brim):
‘What is achieved by the magisterial individual artist in the great tradition is achieved in the wastelands of Amazonia by the unread authorial masses in toto. Their anonymous collective achievement of transcendent uselessness is maintained in its perfection by never being examined, only contemplated from afar.’
Work, Pray, Code: When Work Becomes Religion in Silicon Valley
Carolyn Chen, 2022, Princeton University Press
Another favourite of mine: Drawing on Max Weber, Émile Durkheim et al. and extensive fieldwork in Silicon Valley, Carolyn Chen — an Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley — asks: “What happens to us, and what happens to religion, when people worship work?”
Her core argument, in my reading, is that religious practices are now deeply entrenched in Silicon Valley (and increasingly outside of it). As work weeks have intensified and people’s lives have become increasingly secularized, religious practices have gained a new foothold at work. Workers are looking to work not only to believe in something but also to belong to something, while companies have taken up pastoral and spiritual care as a way to make their employees more productive.
The reasons behind this shift are manifold (and Chen lays them out nicely in the introduction of her book) but can perhaps best be summarized as a result of the economic transformation of work in the late 20th century, with working hours going up sharply. This transformation has, however, led to the problem that especially high-skilled (and thus hard to replace) workers have to be kept happy to squeeze out maximum productivity. How does one do that? One borrows from concepts that have inspired sacrifice & commitment to an organisation in a different domain: religion.
The second piece of the puzzle is that increasingly demanding work environments have started to take time away from domains where people used to find belonging, community, and spiritual nourishment (families, local communities, religions). And so, instead, people search for the solution at the source of their problems: at work. This can, of course, have negative implications: cult-like organisations which cut employees off from the world around them. As Chen writes: ‘Silicon Valley is a bellwether of what happens when we worship work — when we surrender our time, identities, resources in service to work.’
Chen’s book is easily accessible without forsaking academic rigour and depth. It’s a great example that good sociology does not have to be boring but can ideally tell us important things about the world we make and live in.
Escape: How a Generation Shaped, Destroyed, and Survived the Internet
Marie Le Conte, 2022, Blink Publishing
‘Fifteen years ago, the internet felt like a special place my friends and I had built for each other; by 2020, we were standing on its ruins, wondering if we’d played a part in its destruction.’
Sitting at the intersection of memoir, essay, and eulogy, ‘Escape’ is essentially an exploration of the rise and demise (note my proclivity for the theme) of the internet that brings alive a web that was and is now largely gone. With her deft and deeply personal writing and her wry sense of humour, Marie captures the early excitement about the almost endless possibilities of a web that seemed freer and rawer–and the profound sense of loss many of us feel as the web that we used to know has slowly morphed into something both more dangerous and bland.
I have sung the praise of this book many times in recent months, the reason being that if feels very personal. What ‘Escape’ describes is the Internet I grew up with — and while Marie has an arguably much more interesting and exciting life than I ever will, many of the things she describes in ‘Escape’ feel familiar to me: I was there when this stuff happened and reading about it through the eyes of one of the wittiest writers of my generation is a pure delight (if you prefer Marie talking to you, I’ve got you covered, too…).
Everything, All the Time, Everywhere: How We Became Postmodern
Stuart Jeffries, 2021, Verso
I admit that I bought this one mostly for the cover. Richard Nixon featuring pop art, a cat and the Las Vegas sign — what’s not to like?
What I bargained for and ended up getting is a sharp and witty book that romps through the last five decades to chart the rise, fall and persistence of post-modernism: a term and concept that is hard to grasp as so many phenomena appear under its umbrella (and I think it’s fair to say that Jeffries, too, struggles with a definition, settling instead for a range of explanations).
What makes this volume so enticing is Jeffries’s breath of knowledge and his fantastic writing. Was I confused at various points? Yes. Was I ever bored? Not a single minute. And so we follow Jeffries on his journey from the Nixon Shock to the iPod and back, learning along the way that one cannot spell post-modernism without neoliberalism and capitalism. What capitalism realised and what is expressed most strongly in most post-modernist art and culture, so goes Jeffries’s argument, was that it didn’t need to be tough, but seductive. In other words: There is no escape from capitalism and post-modernism didn’t manage it either. ‘In the post-modern world, subversive are often risks such submission or co-optation into the system it seems to be submitting to critique. Not because of the willing collaboration of artists, but because of a leading feature of that world — appropriation. Everything is up for grabs, for sale at the right price, because there is nothing outside the market.’
It’s a wild and wondrous book but well worth your time. Chapters 4 (Living for the City, 1981: New York | London | Poundbury) and 5 (We Are Living in a Material World, 1983: Sophie Calle | Apple Macintosh | Madonna) are among the best and I shall say no more about them and let their titles speak for themselves.
Artificial Communication: How Algorithms Produce Social Intelligence
Elena Esposito, 2022, MIT Press
Artificial Communication is a strange book but I would still like to recommend it because it contains some nuggets that are worth considering if you are interested in AI.
In a nutshell, sociology professor Elena Esposito uses “Artificial Communication” to argue that the analogy between algorithms and human intelligence is misleading and proposes that we think of as “smart” machines in terms of artificial communication instead. Her key point is that AI lacks understanding and is only capable of mimicking intelligence through conversation and that the emphasis should be on the communicative element, not the question if AI is intelligent (ironically, I used OpenAI’s ChatGPT to co-write these sections), with machines ultimately contributing to social intelligence not because they have learned to think like humans, but because humans have learned to communicate with them.
My big issue with the book was that it was beset by repetitive and vague writing and some chapters really felt tacked on. I also missed more specific examples and clear explanations in the text. Yet, it is worth reading for the introduction and the first and fourth chapter.
Entitled. Discriminating Tastes and the Expansion of the Arts
Jennifer C. Lena, 2019, Princeton University Press
This is one of the more academic books on this year’s list but I still wanted to include it for two reasons: 1) The great cover (yes, cover art does matter, even for academic books) and 2) the fascinating topic. Penned by Jennifer C. Lena, a a cultural sociologist at Columbia University, it takes a closer look at elites and their tastes: how they form, re-form, and interact with the larger world we (and they) live in.
At the heart of Lena’s book is the question how American elites have been able to use taste as vehicle to maintain a distinction between themselves and others (which is what taste is for in a social context) while increasingly giving up on ‘highbrow’ tastes for opera, classical music and art, and the like. In other words: How is it possible that elite taste has moved away from highbrow culture, into more mainstream/lowbrow areas (such as blockbuster films, pop music, television, TikTok…you name it) — thus becoming less snobbish — but still somehow remaining elite and unequal?
Lena’s core argument is that elite tastes and the definition of what counts as artistic have drastically expanded over the twentieth century, partially due to greater social mixing across social classes, generational shifts and the strong growth of mass culture. Most important, however, in Lena’s telling of the story is a form of reputational entrepreneurialism of American elites who pushed cosmopolitanism and a form of ‘highbrow omnivorousness’ as a new status-seeking mechanism that conformed to the way they wanted to be seen: ‘Modern elites tried to show they were not elitist by celebrating diverse arts; however, demonstrating that diversity meant they separated or labelled these diverse arts as different from existing art.’
In other words: If you have ever wondered why you have to be able to discuss both Stormzy and Mozart at a dinner party with your well-heeled friends, this book might have some answers for you.
Cloud Empires. How Digital Platforms Are Overtaking The State And How We Can Regain Control
Vili Lehdonvirta, 2022, MIT Press
Are large platform businesses like states? This argument has been made many times before but Vili Lehdonvirta takes it seriously by putting it to the (empirical) test. The result is ‘Cloud Empires’ in which Lehdonvirta (full disclosure: Vili is a professor in my department) examines ‘why digital platforms have become the new virtual states, how they nevertheless differ from our earthly nations, and how we can regain control over them.’
Instead of trying to summarise ‘Cloud Empires’, I am going to be a bit lazy here and point you to someone who has already done it (and much better than I could): James Muldoon in the LSE Review of Books.
It’s a great book, not least because the author makes it easy for the reader. Right at the very beginning we are told where to look depending on our backgrounds and particular interests which is a useful aid that more books should have in my opinion. The writing is clear and accessible — not something one can say of all books written on this particular topic.
Digital Transformations of the Public Arena
Andreas Jungherr &Ralph Schroeder, 2022, Cambridge University Press
This is a short volume (at about 60 pages) and heavily theoretical but all the better for it. Andreas Jungherr and Ralph Schroeder (who is, I should point out, my supervisor) push Habermas and the theory of the public sphere into new areas.
In many ways, Jungherr and Schroeder build on a wealth of existing theories to come up with a new framework that allows to make sense of how digital media (so the Web, social media, etc.) have changed society by re-shaping the public arena — ‘the media infrastructures that enable and constrain the publication, distribution, reception, and contestation of information that allow people to exercise their rights and duties as citizens’. Or to put it somewhat simpler: the common mediated (but contested) space in which we collectively discuss and tussle over how our lives (and those of other people) should be governed.
Through the examination of three country cases (the US, Germany, and China) both authors plot how the rise of new, digital infrastuctures (think e.g. search engines or platforms) re-shapes the visibility and reach of information, the relationship between citizens and (political) elites, and the role of existing gatekeepers such as traditional news media. The key difference digital media have made here is that they bring about new opportunities for previously excluded actors and enable the bypassing (or challenging) of traditional gatekeepers, thus forcing us to think anew about the ways in which topics of general concern receive attention (or lose it).
If you are not afraid of a bit of media theory, this book is for you.
The Power of Platforms
Rasmus Kleis Nielsen & Sarah Anne Ganter, 2022, Oxford University Press
Before I say anything about this, let me state my priors: Rasmus is my boss and I’ve have worked with him on various projects in the past (including as a research assistant on parts of the data used in this book). So my view is necessarily biased. Having said that, ‘The Power of Platforms’ is still a must-read and a book I’ve been eagerly awaiting ever since I first heard about it.
Briefly summarised, their Sarah and Rasmus examine the relationship between news content producers (publishers) and digital technology companies (platforms) such as Facebook and Google. Based on interviews with over 50 people working across a range of publishers and platforms in the United States, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, as well as background conversations and observations at industry events and meetings and other data, they argue that the rise of platforms has led to the rise of “platformed publishing,” a situation where some news organisations have almost no control over the distribution of their journalism because they publish primarily to platforms defined by coding technologies, business models, and cultural conventions over which they have little influence.
They also show that most publishers seek to avoid becoming too reliant on platforms because their interests are not fully aligned and are actually often in direct competition or conflict. But still, the power of platforms is hard to escape. ‘This means, as the authors write, ‘that previously powerful and relatively independent institutions like the news media are increasingly in a position not unlike that of ordinary users — they are becoming increasingly empowered by and dependent on a small number of centrally placed and powerful platforms largely beyond their control that they may be afraid of and are frustrated by, but whom they continue to actively work with nonetheless.’
If you are looking for a somewhat longer summary by the authors themselves, I recommend this article on the website of the Reuters Institute. If you prefer to watch a presentation by both of them on the book, I’ve got you covered, too.
The Mirror & the Light
Hilary Mantel, 2020, HarperCollinns Publishers
I’ve been late to the final part of Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy. Some say it’s too long (a fair point: it comes in at 800-something whopping pages) and the pace is often slow and meandering, much like the Thames around which Cromwell’s life takes place. Then again, this is one of the reasons I enjoyed this book so much: it is truly slow reading at its best. Mantel elegantly weaves together multiple plots with broader musings on power and elements of social commentary, especially on the role of women — all with a keen eye for detail and metaphors which often foretell central elements of the story.
One example is from the beginning of the book where an exotic cat escapes and climbs a tree in Cromwell’s garden: ‘Below in the darkening garden, the cat-hunters raise their arms as if imploring the moon. High in the tree, the cat is a soft shape visible only to the educated eye: limbs dangling, she is perfectly at one with the branch on which she lies’. Observing his servant’s attempts to capture the cat, Cromwell puts himself in her perspective and puts his money on the cat ultimately escaping: ‘I have travelled so far to get here, and nothing they do disturbs me now, nor disquiets me, high on my branch.’ It is, of course, a reflection of his own position: he himself has travelled far to get where he is, he would gladly fight anyone who tried to remove him from his high position of power, and he his confident that just like catte he will live to see another day.
Of course, we all know how the story is going to end and the book evokes a strong but subtle sense of sadness and doom as Cromwell’s powers slowly but surely decline. In many ways, Mantel’s book is also a warning to those of us who think themselves so clever and powerful that they are untouchable: You think you can make your own rules but ultimately the iron cage of life will determine much of what you’ll be able to do within the confines of your mortality — and as much as you rattle and rail against the steelwork, in the end it will be unrelenting.
In terms of music, I thought 2021 wasn’t a particularly good harvest for new jazzy Christmas album (which are my favourites). Well, quelle surprise, 2022 is even worse. Apart from a decent Norah Jones record (which is basically just an extension of the album she released last year) I could not find a single new release (if you know of some, feel free to drop me a line). So instead, you will have to make do with a very old album that I only discovered this season Don Patterson’s ‘Holiday Soul’, a pretty great new album celebrating Charles Mingus (Jazz at Berlin Philharmonic XIII: Celebrating Mingus 100) and the famous eggnog recipe from the very same man.
Don Patterson, 1964, Prestige
Jazz at Berlin Philharmonic XIII: Celebrating Mingus 100
Magnus Lindgren & Georgebreinschmid, et al., 2022, ACT
Charles Mingus’s Eggnog Recipe
(Find the original source here: https://www.charlesmingus.com/blog/news/minguss-5-star-rapturous-deadly-holiday-eggnog-3-jl95e)
1 egg per person
2 sugar cubes per egg
one shot of 151 proof Jamaican rum per person
one shot of brandy (or Bourbon) per person
some milk (amount not specified)
cream (amount not specified)
vanilla ice cream
fresh nutmeg — lots
mix milk & egg yolks in bowl
add rum very very gradually or it will burn eggs
add whipped egg whites
add whipped cream
add fresh grated nutmeg
Add ice cream to keep eggnog cold!
Felix Simon is a Leverhulme Doctoral Scholar at the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) and a Knight News Innovation Fellow at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism where he is researching AI in journalism and the news industry. He works as a research assistant at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. His tweets can be found under @_Felix Simon_.