This is the third book about Big Tech and the internet that I have read recently. The first two are The Age of Surveillance Capitalism and Chokepoint Capitalism. This is the most nerdy of the three as it goes into detail about the underpinnings of the internet and how they affect business and consumers. That said, it is a very engaging, interesting, and accessible read.
In part one, entitled “Seize the Means of Computation”, the author explains how Big Tech got big through network effects and by helping the government deliver on beating the “bad guys”. He then introduces the concept of adversarial interoperability. This would mean that you could leave Facebook and still interact with your friends there. The term is a mouthful. He helped coin a better term: competitive compatibility, or comcom for short. In part two, the author addresses many of the objections that come up when this solution is offered. These are “What about” questions like, “What about privacy?”, “What about harassment?”, and “What about child porn?”
Of these three books about technology and our modern world, this is the best for the general reader. For that reason, I would recommend this book first of the three. It is not the most thorough with the most documentation. That would be The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. But if you want a quick, easy read to better understand how we got in this mess with Big Tech and how we can get out of it, this is the book to read.
My rating: 5/5
I picked this book up as a follow-up to The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. While that book is a detailed look at how we got to Big Tech and what to do about it, this book focuses on culture. It covers creative arts industries like book publishing, music, news, movies, video games, and live performances.
The first part of the book outlines how culture got in its current state where artists are beholden to Big Tech. Each chapter covers a different aspect of culture (i.e. books, music, live events, etc.). Part two covers the authors’ proposed solutions to the issues outlined in the first part. These chapters focus more on collective action than steps that individual artists can take.
This book is an excellent look at the problems Big Tech presents to artists and how artists can act collectively in response. It is a good companion to The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, especially if you are an artist or someone looking for a quick view on cultural issues in our digital world.
My rating: 4/5
I listened to Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters on audiobook on a recent road trip. It takes place in an alternate modern-day USA where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on his way to his inauguration in 1861. That same year a series of Constitutional amendments were ratified that enshrined slavery forever. A network of modern-day abolitionists called the Underground Airlines works to help escaped slaves find safety in Canada.
The main character is a former runaway slave working for the US Marshal’s office returning runaway slaves. He is in the process of infiltrating a cell of the Underground Airlines to return his latest runaway assignment. But something is a little off with this assignment.
As the mystery unravels, this world of modern, regulated slavery is laid out in all its horror for individuals and society. The story is compelling and realistic, never descending to polemics or speechifying. It all blends well into a sophisticated story of human complexity dealing with systemic racism enshrined in the Constitution. A fantastic “what if” historical thriller.
My rating: 4/5
The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power by Shoshana Zuboff is one of the most important books of the twenty-first century. It outlines how our economy has largely shifted away from an industrial base to a technological base of surveillance-driven advertising. And like the industrial revolution introduced new ways of economic engagement that required decades of adjustment, we must also adjust to this new economic modality. Unfortunately, the pace of the change this time is so fast that we aren’t adjusting to it quickly enough to head off as much of the negative consequences as we have in the past.
This work is well-researched with extensive notes. What I first thought of as a criticism became a benefit as I continued to read. The author keeps coming back to the basic points and reiterates them in the context of the content she shares. It is a bit like a spiral staircase that turns on itself in order to take you up higher in a limited space. It is just as effective here, ensuring that the reader is able to follow a very complex argument that builds to a very complete picture.
The book is a bit long (over 240,000 words), but is worth every minute of time it takes to read. For those concerned about surveillance, privacy, and inequality it is an essential work explaining how we got here and what we might be able to do to about it.
My rating: 5/5
I recently started requesting galleys at Net Galley. It’s a site where you can download and read books before they are published in return for giving an honest review. It helps publishers to build reviews for books before they come out. I am a big fan of Cory Doctorow and requested to read The Lost Cause, due to be published on November 14. I finished it today, so here is my brief review.
The story takes place about thirty years in our future. Climate change has continued to wreak havoc on the world. A new generation has grown up knowing nothing of a time before climate change. There has been a two-term president who signed into law a Green New Deal that has started to address the issues of climate change for real. This is followed by a less effective president of the same party and then a new president after who starts to turn things back. This is where the story begins
The protagonist is a young man named Brooks just graduating high school whose idealist parents died in pandemic when he was eight. He shares their ideals. His grandfather does not. He belongs to a Maga Club whose members are opposed to all the changes and love the new president. When internally displaced migrants from another city come to Brooks’ hometown of Burbank, Brooks and his friends clash with the Maga Club folks.
I really enjoyed this book. It had some cheesy romance, a little bit of political polemics, a whole lot of liberal ideals, and even some food descriptions that made my mouth water. It shows a view of how we might overcome climate change in the near future despite people who deny it happening and clinging to old ways. Both fun and political. One of the author’s better books.
My rating: 4/5
I am fascinated by technology and how it changes us and our societies. One of the biggest concerns these days is how fragmented out attention has become due to smartphones and social media. These days it seems like no one can pay attention long enough for the person talking to them to finish their sentence. Sometimes I am talking to someone and they pull out their phone while I am still talking. Even worse, sometimes I am the one pulling out my phone while someone else is talking to me! What in the world in going on here?
This book presents research and discusses the reasons why we have such a hard time focusing, and not all of them are technological. There are two ways to address these challenges–individually and society. The first says that it is your fault. You need to get better control over your attention and what is distracting you. The author largely does not focus in this direction though encouraging the reader to do what she can. He encourages personal change to address the issues but feels they are not enough. He focuses instead on how our world has changed that makes it hard for us to pay attention. He compares it to trying to lose weight when everything around you is shouting at you to eat bad food and sit on the couch. Sure you can do something about it, but it is harder that it needs to be or should be.
My favorite aspect of this book is that the author has included all the interview audio on his website for the book. He is also very clear about where the research he shares is relatively settled or still highly in dispute. He makes a strong case for his perspective and solutions, but he doesn’t pretend that there aren’t others with differing opinions. Refreshing. A good place to start is the interview with Nir Eyal from chapter eight. Eyal favors focusing on what we can do for ourselves because collective action takes a long time. Both Eyal and Hari see the need for individual and collective change, but they differ on which we should start with.
My rating: 5/5
For most of my adult life I have heard references made to the book Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman. It is in large part due to this book that I read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Postman makes the argument in his book that we have more to fear from and are closer to Huxley’s dystopia than that of Orwell (1984). The difference is that in Orwell’s dystopia, the tyranny comes from a dictatorial state while in Huxley’s it comes from a complacent public only concerned with being entertained continually. Sound familiar?
Well, I finally got around to reading Neil Postman’s book. Despite the fact that it was published in 1985, it is as relevant today as ever. The book focuses on TV, but simply change that word to social media or the internet and the same arguments could be made today. Postman doesn’t trash TV, though. He says that we definitely need entertainment. TV is best when it is trash TV. After all, that’s what it is for. The problem comes when it tries to get involved with more serious matters like politics and education. Rather than simply bringing these important aspects of society to a broader audience, it instead turns them into simple, and often mindless, entertainment.
The core of his argument is that due to TV, we are moving from a culture of reason and typography to one of entertainment and show business. It is an argument that is hard to refute. It seems even more true today than nearly forty years ago. My biggest disappointment with the book is that it doesn’t offer more in the way of ideas to overcome it. The one main suggestion he gives is a high hurdle – reforming education. I think the trouble is that there aren’t a whole lot of answers to this dilemma and none of them are simple. But becoming aware of the problem is a crucial first step.
Today we live in world that is largely dominated by computers and the internet. The history of how we got here is well told by Walter Isaacson in his book The Innovators. If we’ve learned anything in the last two years, our future seems likely to be influenced by biology and epidemiology. Walter Isaacson’s latest book explores this recent history and potential future in his latest book The Code Breaker.
In The Code Breaker he tells the history of CRISPR-Cas9 and gene editing, centering it around the Nobel Prize winner Jennifer Doudna. The first part of the book is partly a biography of her and her race with other scientists to unlock the key to editing human genes. The story is one of both scientific competition and collaboration.
The book raises ethical questions about editing human DNA. Will it create a privileged group of super humans, leaving the poor behind? At the same time, don’t we have an obligation to help those with genetic diseases like sickle cell and Huntington’s disease?
Finally, the author covers the role these same scientists played in the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly when it comes to testing. The discoveries made there may lead to better and faster detection of many diseases beyond COVID-19.
If you are interested in how we got to the digital age we find ourselves in, read The Innovators. And when you finish that one, read The Code Breaker to get up to speed on our present and future in the biological sciences.
There is a lot of heat and emotion around the subjects of sex and gender. This is most visible in the national debates around the rights of the LGBTQIA+ community, but particularly around those concerning transgender individuals. While my own thoughts about such issues have centered on compassion for others, I have been confused about what is really going on for these individuals. Not being a member of this community, I must admit that I do not understand all of the issues. But I long ago concluded that I don’t need to. It isn’t about what I think or understand but about accommodating and caring for people wherever they are and however they see themselves.
Hoping to better educate myself, I recently read the book The End of Gender by Debra Soh, a former sexology researcher who left academia to pursue a career in journalism. The book is a straightforward look at what the science of sexology says about sex and gender and many of the public issues surrounding them. It is an eye-opening book that is likely to both challenge and confirm your views on these subjects, no matter how you feel about identity politics.
This is not a political book, or at least it is not meant to be. It is grounded in published sexology research and takes the position that we ought to be open and clear about the science even if it goes against what we believe or is popular. Some may think this is a license to abuse minorities. The author disagrees. It isn’t the science we should take issue with but how some people use it as a weapon of hate.
The book is organized around nine myths about sex and gender. Two of these myths are “There are more than two genders” and “Sexual orientation and gender identity are unrelated”. Due to the sensitive nature of these topics, you likely reacted strongly to one or both of those statements. I highly encourage you to read this book from a well-educated scientist who uses research to inform her compassion. One of the major concerns she raises is the number of transgender individuals who transition and later change their mind and detransition. Perhaps a better understanding of the science behind sex and gender can lead to better outcomes for those struggling with identity issues.
I have often wondered why we have such a hierarchy of jobs. Why are service and maintenance jobs considered so “low”? After all, someone has to do that work for our civilization to keep working. It takes a different set of skills and experience but there is nothing inherently more valuable to our society about doctors and lawyers than mechanics, nurses, and janitorial staff. We need them all.
Recently I went looking for a book on this subject. I tried searching for the term “maintenance”. Unfortunately most of the results were about how to do it. I had to give up. But then I started reading a book on my list and discovered that unlike its title, it is really about maintenance and those who do it. That book is The Innovation Delusion by Lee Vinsel and Andrew L. Russell.
The authors are fed up with what they call “innovation-speak”. This is newness for its own sake and comes with all the cliches. We definitely need real innovation and technology. And we are surrounded by it – indoor plumbing, public transportation, electricity, etc. But our focus these days is on digital innovation to the exclusion of the physical technology that requires ongoing maintenance, as everything does.
This book is a primer on how our almost exclusive focus on building new stuff has led to us neglecting the maintenance of our existing technology. You hear this in the cries about our decaying infrastructure and the deep backlog of deferred maintenance. Unfortunately, the answers given in public are more about enhancing what is there or building new. We need to address how we will maintain what we have.
The authors do a thorough job of outlining how we got in this state and how it is affecting all of us while often devastating local communities. But the book is short on solutions, and that is on purpose. This book is a call to arms to pay attention to the situation outlined, to start a conversation that will lead to action. It is well-written and inspiring. And if you have any interest, in addition to reading the book you can follow what the authors are doing at www.themaintainers.org.