Technology and business books have had two big themes over the past year: artificial intelligence and privacy (particularly with regard to the General Data Protection Regulation). For this seasonal round-up, we will therefore avoid them.
I was 17 when I first saw a computer -- an air-conditioned roomful of a machine, operated via punch-cards -- and 28 when I first had one of my own. Boxed up, it was about the size of a 26-inch CRT television. The smartphone in many people's pockets is vastly more powerful and less expensive than either. However, almost every transaction you make with that smartphone still connects to a mainframe for payment processing and shipping.
The mainframe makes an appearance in The Computer Book: From the Abacus to Artificial Intelligence, 250 Milestones in the History of Computer Science, in which Simson L. Garfinkel and Rachel H. Grunspan trace the development of the field. Illustrated with a full-page picture per entry, the book is a solid backgrounder. Think of it as a beautifully printed museum exhibition.
Not everything included is a computer, and being a computer isn't sufficient to gain entry. Among the non-computer inclusions: the US's Fair Credit Reporting Act (1970) -- the world's first privacy legislation; Richard Hamming's 1950 work on error-correcting codes; John H. Conway's 1972 Game of Life, which marked the first program that could independently make copies of itself; 1978's first internet spam message; and zero-knowledge proofs (1985). Among the notable missing computers is 1951's LEO, the Lyons Electronic Office -- the first computer used for commercial business applications, built to run the back-office systems for Britain's Lyons teashop chain.
What the book is after, though, is not computers but concepts. How did we build our intellectual landscape from counting on our fingers to sending electronic messages across the world, more or less for free? In many cases, the antecedents of some 'new' invention reach back further than we usually think -- the first trackball, for example, was designed in 1946. The Jacquard loom, developed to weave patterns in 1801, built on the earlier idea of using punched tape and famously inspired the punch-cards I met in 1971. Images from Fritz Lang's 1927 movie, Metropolis, are still finding their way into science fiction movies today -- it had the first movie robot (which naturally was evil and given a female shape and name, Maria) and was the first to suggest that the machines would come to dominate us. Vannevar Bush's 1945 essay As We May Think, as Garfinkel and Grunspan write, "with the exception of microfilm pretty much nailed it" in terms of predicting something very like today's web, mobile, and internet. That said, they skip over the second and much more glaring exception to Bush's prescience: he imagined a roomful of 'girls' would be on hand to instruct the computers and correct errors. It's a minor miss in a feast of historical travelogue.
As We May Think also makes an appearance in The Digital Ape: How to Live in Peace with Smart Machines, a sort of travelogue/meditation laying out the state of our relationship with technology. Nigel Shadbolt, one of the book's two authors, is arguably Britain's best-known computer scientist. Roger Hampson is new to me: he is an academic with a long career as a public servant in various capacities. Both have been involved in advocating for open data and the adoption of new technologies to improve the delivery of government services.
In this book, taking as their starting point Desmond Morris's 1967 book, The Naked Ape, they examine our ongoing evolutionary adaptation to the digital tools we make and deploy. Granted, our digital tools are too new for much evolutionary adaptation to have taken place -- yet. You can't help thinking that the book's cover should have been a take-off of the T-shirt evolutionary sequence that starts with a fish, but ending with a hominid made of 1s and 0s. Instead, the round spoked wheel with an open hand dangling under it vaguely suggests the Venus symbol, although what it's meant to convey is the partnership between humans and machines. A note on the book's syntax: it's decidedly choppy, marred by alternating interminable sentences followed by short, incomplete ones.
The authors are surprisingly optimistic, given the state of today's headlines. We haven't exterminated ourselves! Not with nuclear power; nor with starvation or disease; nor, they predict confidently, with artificial intelligence or climate change -- which will cause disruption, sure, but the human race will survive. Hyper-complex systems present a new emergency, though. Yet even after saying this they remain relentlessly optimistic: since Morris's time, "The world is richer, less violent, and happier." For many of us, this is only true if you think statistically.
On the good side, Shadbolt and Hampson don't buy into the wilder reaches of techno-utopianism. They doubt the next few decades will see self-aware machines, and suggest that the danger isn't that we can't control new technology but that we won't. We should stop letting private companies define policy on topics important to our survival. Their suggestion: digital democracy, and citizen internet panels comprising millions of people. Isn't this what Ross Perot suggested in 1992 with his electronic town halls?
The small book Do Robots Make Love? Understanding Transhumanism in 12 Questions offers a much shorter meditation on some of the same topics. Presented as a series of 12 debates between French transhumanism expert Laurent Alexandre, in real life a urological surgeon, and Jean-Michel Besnier, an emeritus professor of philosophy, the book asks questions like whether technology can fix everything (obviously not), whether we need new laws (obviously yes), and whether you can make love with a robot. If you belong to the 'it's a fancy sex toy' school of biological supremacy, then obviously you'll answer no.
None of these topics is exactly new to anyone who's paid a modest amount of attention to transhumanism. The field's horizons have not expanded much since science writer Ed Regis opened them to the public in his 1992 book Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition. Still, the discussion is thought-provoking enough, even though the discussants offer little in the way of solutions to any of the problems they raise.
One reason may be that they need to get out more. Malka Older was inspired to write Infomocracy, which we missed at its first publication in 2016, by observing separatist movements in Spain, Darfur, Italy, Scotland, and even the US, as she travelled the world for ten years as a humanitarian aid worker. That experience shows throughout the novel, as her characters cope with the aftermath of an earthquake, a hacker attack, and an attempted coup.
For this book, and its 2017 sequel, Null States, Older adopted this premise: assume the nation-state is dead, but you can opt to be ruled by any government you choose anywhere in the world, no matter where you live. What do you pick? She calls the result 'microdemocracy'. In this worldwide system of government, 'centenals' of 100,000 people vote every ten years to decide which of the hundreds of global parties will govern their area. Traversing any geographical area may take you through numerous centenals, each governed by a different party. As you cross borders, signs pop up to remind you of the local laws. Here, there's no street vending or street eating; there, governing party PhilipMorris guarantees that cigarette smoking is not only allowed but encouraged; the next place is full of ecologically sustainable gardens.
As the novel opens, the leading party is Heritage, which holds a supermajority of centenals, but numerous others -- SecureNation, rEU, YouGov, SavePlanet, Liberty, Economix -- are hoping to beat it out in the upcoming third global election. If Heritage wins a third supermajority, will people continue to think it's worth the trouble to vote? Liberty may be plotting a war. May the best voter registration parties win!
We primarily follow the fortunes of Ken, a rising campaign manager for Policy1st, a party that eschews spokespeople in favour of ideas, Mishima, a high-level troubleshooter for Information, and Domaine, whose mission in life is to get rid of the whole election system. Information is a sort of cross between Google and the UN that works tirelessly to ensure that there is a single, authoritative basis of facts -- one of the frustrations Older has said inspired the book.
The book takes a little effort to get into, in part because the characters are thinly drawn (Mishima's clothing gets more lovingly detailed treatment than the rest of the characters combined). It's worth it, however: Older is clever and funny, and her years of travelling bring plausible future colour to the many locations and fraught situations her characters visit and contend with.
In the last few years, oral histories of TV shows have become a staple of entertainment websites, and for both fans and those more generally interested in how the industry works, they're often great reads. The hows and whys of casting, the reasons why story arcs had to change midstream, the mistakes, the moment when the writers realised that a favourite character was going to have to die... all of this is entrancing stuff when you've finished a show and still want more.
Inside Black Mirror offers an extra benefit for the squeamish: reading the story behind any episode is way less tense than actually watching it, and afterwards the show itself is easier to take. The latter stages of 'The National Anthem' look different when you see the obvious stated: the pig was happily munching on its bowl of food, and knew nothing of what was being acted out behind it.
Charlie Brooker, Annabel Jones, and Jason Arnopp have put together an elegant and heavily illustrated book with a chapter for each episode of all four seasons of the show, plus an introductory discussion of the commissioning and planning process for each season. As you would for DVD commentaries, the authors have made the effort to get a range of participants for each episode: directors, actors, composers, production designers, and, of course, writers. The resulting group includes such well-known names as Jodie Foster, Jon Hamm, and Mike Schur.
What emerges from all this is a surprisingly normal production process considering the dystopian and disturbing nature of the show. Brooker's comments often answer the question that plagues writers: "Where do you get your ideas?" Highly recommended as informative, visually stunning, thought-provoking, and fun.
Read more book reviews
- Antisocial Media, book review: Good intentions gone bad
- It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, book review: Choose calm instead
- The Internet, Warts and All, book review: How to regulate a messy system
- The Evolved Executive, book review: Banishing fear from the workplace
- Click Here to Kill Everybody, book review: Meeting the IoT security challenge