Dead Famous: An Unexpected History of Celebrity from Bronze Age to Silver Screen

Greg Jenner (2020)

A romp through what it means to be famous. And indeed what “famous” means, which is actually a more nuanced question than it might first appear. Are “influencers” famous? – not according to Jenner, and it seems a slightly arbitrary distinction. When did fame begin? – one has to start somewhere, so the start of newspapers seems sensible but excludes some who might otherwise be in consideration. Nonetheless there are some excellent vignettes on what it means to achieve fame, and the consequences when one has done so, enough ( suspect to kill-off many people’s latent desire for celebrity.

4/5. Finished Friday 29 January, 2021.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Infinite Detail

Tim Maughan (2019)

What would happen to society if the the internet died? That’s premise of this book, and it comes to w weirdly similar technical conclusion to that in How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism.: replace it with a decentralised network that’s inherently privacy-preserving.

Of course there’s a lot more to it than that, and it’s a well-drawn story of what a social collapse might look like when “just” to communications infrastructure collapses, leaving everything else intact – but useless because it’s all been optimised to algorithmic control and can’t meaningfully function without it.

3/5. Finished Saturday 9 January, 2021.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

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 Saturday 2 January, 2021.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)


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 Thursday 31 December, 2020.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

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 Tuesday 29 December, 2020.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)