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 Saturday 2 January, 2021.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)