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Posts about books (old posts, page 41)

Who Owns the Future?

Who Owns the Future?

Jaron Lanier

2013


A fascinating, if ultimately incomplete, exploration of the alternatives to the current web architecture that prioritises the needs of companies over those of consumers – or producers, if the truth be told. Lanier approaches the problems strictly from the perspective of information and information processing, with a clarity that I, even as a computer scientist, find refreshingly complete: it's as though he's willing to encompass some of the logical consequences that even professionals shy away from.

The central argument is that internet users, and especially users of social networks, are providing too much information for free to companies that then profit from it. Lanier suggests some alternative approaches to this, where content and expertise give rise to micro-payment compensation in cash or some other medium of exchange. The problem is that this is a tall order against the structures that have already grown up, and it's unclear that it's now possible to change tack as radically as would be required. Still, in many ways that makes this work all the more important, and it's a great contribution to the broader literature on e-commerce and digital living.

3/5. Finished 18 June 2016.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Between the World and Me

Between the World and Me

Ta-Nehisi Coates

2015


A book that it's perhaps hard for a white, middle-aged, Englishman to review, but still a powerful indictment of how America still relates to its black (and other) populations – made all the more poignant by the current spate of police shootings and the contentious presidential campaign that's unmistakeably racist. Coates chooses to frame his argument in terms of physical threat, using it as both a metaphor and as an entrance to the more general sense of fear and danger still felt by many. He doesn't avoid the changing face of oppression over the years, but still holds that there's a danger to being black in America that it's hard for whites (and non-Americans) to fully understand: perhaps the closest we can come to it in the UK would be the feelings of Catholics in Northern Ireland during the height of the Troubles, which was a story of privilege and discrimination that I remember being hard to accept at the time.

4/5. Finished 16 June 2016.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Peacemaking, 1919

Peacemaking, 1919

Harold Nicolson

1933


A minor participant's view of the making of the Treaty of Versailles.

It's strange to see the inside view: strange to realise that the things that later generations perceived were mistakes were often understood to be mistakes at the time – but that events carried the negotiators along, and their differing beliefs and goals, as well as their incongruent personalities, made it impossible to avoid the consequences. Many world statesmen appear, and most come out reasonably well – the exception being Woodrow Wilson. This book is a great precursor, and complement, to the histories of the run-up to the next war and helps contextualise many of the events that often seem inexplicable.

4/5. Finished 04 June 2016.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

So Sad Today: Personal Essays

So Sad Today: Personal Essays

Melissa Broder

2016


The story of an obsessive personality that makes one glad not to share similar traits. It's strange how, in someone else's mind, trivial things can assume enormous proportions; amazing how emotions can be felt differently than one would expect; strange that they can be felt in different ways simultaneously. I think this book is best read both as a story of survival – and as a warning in case you meet someone like the author and struggle to connect with them.

2/5. Finished 27 April 2016.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered

Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered

Ernst F. Schumacher

1973


One of the founding texts of the environmental movement, and one that asks profound questions about the relationships between humanity and our environment. There are some great ideas about the nature and place of economics in deciding priorities for human investment and lifestyle. But taken as whole this isn't a book that's aged well.

Why not? I think there are three essential reasons. Firstly, there's a rather declamatory style to the presentation that presents as certainties things that are actually rather questionable. For example, Schumacher dismisses statistics: "and of course, nothing can be proven with statistics". I beg to disagree: in any physical or life science, one can only prove things with statistics, since there will always be noise and error in any set of observations that can only be properly analysed and quantified statistically.

Secondly, to continue from above, Schumacher is surprisingly dismissive of science as a useful cultural basis. He identifies six "large ideas" that – he claims – stem from the humanities and offer a broader and firmer foundation for living than any scientific ideas. And what do these "large ideas" consist of? Well at least two of them (evolution and natural selection) belong firmly within science after all; two more (class struggle and positivism) have been largely discredited, while another (Freudian sub-consciousness) has been changed beyond recognition; and the last (relativism), to the extent that it allows multiple opinions as to the Truth (with a capital T), is maybe the only one left standing – and can hardly be argued not to rest at least in part on scientific ideas of uncertainty and progressive refinement.

But the third problem is the most interesting. It seems to me that many of Schumacher's arguments are logical and well-supported by evidence – but have been proven wrong by events. A good example is his (again rather declamatory) assertion that economic growth must always be underpinned by increased energy consumption, which must necessarily come up against resource limitations. A plausible argument: but recent history shows growth decoupling from energy, with energy per unit GDP plummeting, driven in large measure by the rise of the service and digital economies. Schumacher could have dealt with the former, even if we accept he could have known nothing of the latter. But this lack of knowledge about future developments is not something that will ever disappear, and it renders his style of sweeping large-scale pronouncements permanently suspect.

It is always dangerous to make predictions, especially about the future (as Yogi Berra once observed). That doesn't mean we shouldn't continue to try to do so, but nor is it an excuse to dress up opinion as fact, or to claim that certain conclusions are inescapable and irrefutable. We won't get to the truth by literary means, and we need to accept that we continually over-estimate how quickly things will change when extrapolating from the present – and continually under-estimate how different from our predictions the long-term future will be. That's a level uncertainty that frustrates those looking for a single-issue "hook" on which to hang concrete action, but is nevertheless the world we actually live in.

2/5. Finished 04 April 2016.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)