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Posts about book-reviews (old posts, page 72)

How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism.

How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism.

Cory Doctorow

2020


A lot continues to be written about artificial intelligence and machine learning – most of it nonsense, which makes it especially refreshing and valuable to encounter a book for a popular audience that takes a wide perspective while treating the science and technology properly and accurately.

What effects is surveillance capitalism having on politics and society? Doctorow identifies the problem as one of monopoly rather than of technology, with the proviso that technology makes monopoly far more powerful than it might otherwise be. Monopoly deprives people of opportunities for choice by crowding-out other voices and services; technology then magnifies the ability to target specific groups who can be identified because of monopoly data collection.

But he also explodes the hypocrisy and pretensions of the tech giants. Hypocritical in gorging on the "digital smoke" we emit for free through the use of devices and services, while claiming ownership of that data and anything arising from it. Pretensious in making claims to the efficacy of their digital targeting that is wildly excessive compared to the limited success that machine learning can show in proper scientific trials. He also nails the dangers of loading0-up "Big Tech" with responsibilities to police their content, the expense of which puts a floor under the size of company who can come into the market: perhaps why these regulations aren't being fought too vigorously.

5/5. Finished 02 January 2021.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Hiroshima

Hiroshima

John Hersey

1946


A book that's lost none of its power in the three-quarters-of-a-century since it was written. By focusing on the lives of six Hiroshima survivors (or hibakusha, "bomb-affected persons", as they are called in Japanese, to avoid any possible slight to those who died) Hersey manages to describe the suffering without making it spectacular. Originally written as an artcle in 1946, in the book he returns to Hiroshima after thirty years, which means he can assess the short- and longer-term effects of radiation sickness in ways that weren't visible in the aftermath (and which weren't wholly anticipated beforehand, although there is debate about the extent of what was known).

5/5. Finished 31 December 2020.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. (D.O.D.O. #1)

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. (D.O.D.O. #1)

Neal Stephenson

2017


Magic is dead – or is it just postponed? If a secret US military agency has its way, witches will be re-empowered (within closely controlled limits) and able to influence the past (again, within limits) in advantageous ways, But the witches have other ideas....

It's the limits that make this book interesting. They've been carefully crafted to structurally avoid the contrivances that often plague time-travel novels. It also takes aim at the dangers and blindness
of a bureaucracy trying to control something that its fundamentally doesn't understand.

This is something of a return to form (in my opinion) for Stephenson after Anathem and (especially) Reamde: back to the style of Snow Crash and The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer. Although having said that it's a book that's clearly a scene-setter for a sequel rather than in any way self-contained.

4/5. Finished 29 December 2020.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Shanghai Free Taxi: Journeys with the Hustlers and Rebels of the New China

The Shanghai Free Taxi: Journeys with the Hustlers and Rebels of the New China

Frank Langfitt

2019


The taxi, while an essential part of the plot, doesn't perhaps feature quite as much as one might expect in this exploration of China and the Chinese as they start to drive the 21st century. It's a view from part way inside: not a Chinese view per se, but from a Western journalist with deep knowledge and strong sympathies for China, who manages to get a variety of people from the city and countryside to comment reasonably candidly about their experiences. It strikes me as a balanced and important contribution to understanding the nature of the emerging "Chinese century" (as it may, but will not necessarily, become), both its strengths and weaknesses.

3/5. Finished 17 December 2020.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry

What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry

John Markoff

2005


Another history of the early days of computing. The goal is to link the rise of personal computing to the rise of the counterculture and (especially) to the psychedelics of the acid tests of the Merry Pranksters. There's some overlap in individuals, notably Stewart Brand (who makes a brief appearance in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test). But overall it seems something of a stretch: the most influential players at the time (Doug Engelbart, Alan Kay) weren't especially counter-cultural. But the contrast between the corporate computing world and those of Engelbart and Kay – and for all their differences they share a lot of similarities – is profound, and it's sad that in many ways the corporate side won: modern software draws on the surface aspects of Kay's work on Smalltalk, for example, but at a deeper level is more heavily influenced by corporate needs, and that's become even more pronounced in the years since this book was written.

4/5. Finished 09 December 2020.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)