The Internet Police – Book Review

In the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA and GCHQ surveillance activities, there has been a slew of books looking at how power is corruptly used to control the internet and the general populace. While many of these are certainly interesting reads (see my review of Data Vs Goliath for the impact on personal privacy for example) it’s not often that you get to see the other side of the coin represented in a non-sensational way.

The Internet Police comes as a palette cleanser then, with its focus on how policing has evolved online and why this is a positive force protecting people against the various neredowells and scams that pervade the digital world.

Internet-Police

The law has, for the most part, always been reactive. Of course there are general societal norms which everyone expects to be maintained – don’t steal, murder, that sort of thing – but it often takes new approaches towards crime to cause laws to come into force. Essentially, if people don’t know it’s a problem then they’re not going to protect people from it. With The Internet Police Nate Anderson, deputy editor at the excellent Ars Technica, recounts the seminal cases of internet-based crime, and how this has brought about new legislation and police practice.

UK readers should know up front that the majority of the book focusses on US based policing, but that doesn’t detract from what is a very informative read. Actually, the book begins off the coast of the UK with HavenCo, a secure data centre built into the old legs of a North Sea naval fort. The reason for this less than sumptuous location was so that the company could declare the fort a sovereign principality,  primarily to avoid prosecution for hosting shady sites. As you can imagine, this didn’t end well, but it is a good example of how modern policing has to contend with some very strange interpretations of legal statutes, and work around them to ensure that the law is upheld.

Throughout the following chapters we’re exposed to the dark and disturbing world of child pornography rings, webcam hijackers,  fake pharmaceutical companies preying on men with low genital esteem, the origins of Spam mail, and a wealth of other people who thought they could hide behind their perceived anonymity online.

Anderson follows several cases closely, revealing how police first became aware of the crimes taking place, then the methods they needed to use to combat them. It’s not exactly as gripping as a detective novel, but does give an insight into how leads are followed up, legislation is created, and in some cases, how the bad guys still get away.

If the ongoing storm of distrust about governments and surveillance agencies is getting to be too negative for you, or you’re just interested in how the police force works online in the best interests of everyday people, then this book will maybe go some way to restoring your faith in the system.

Beyond : Our Future in Space – Book Review

While the world is enjoying the splendid celebration of science and Matt Damon that is The Martian, those who want to find out more about the realities of space travel and actual planned trips to Mars should head immediately to Beyond: Our Future in Space by Chris Impey.

Just to make things clear up front, this isn’t some cash-grab book hanging onto the tails of a huge motion picture,  instead it’s a careful and diligently assembled history of the human need to explore, and where this will inevitably lead us.

Beyond_Cover

Impey, himself a university professor with a few astronomy books already to his name,  does a wonderful job in charting humanity’s journey from the earliest African adventurers who went in search of better lands, up to the theoretical travellers of the future who will take our species beyond the solar system for the first time.

Along the way he explores the early days of rocket science (with the accompanying political mire), relives the excitement of the Space Race, and explains the challenges facing those who would head out to the deeper parts of space in the years ahead. While this kind of topic does lend itself to an over-technical style of writing – the concepts are themselves actually quite complicated – Impey walks a fine line of keeping the reader engaged while opening up the ideas of Space Elevators, Dyson Sphere’s, and a number of other advanced theories, all without dumbing down or leaving non-engineering people behind.

Beyond-Image1

Illustrations are scattered throughout the book, and prove very helpful in putting visual meat on the cerebral bones of Impey’s explanations. Not that Beyond is reliant on these, as the patient and knowledgeable writing style draws the reader in, aided in no small measure by the author’s obvious passion and fascination with the subject matter.

Naturally there are a few slower parts of the story, with the section on private space travel companies (such as Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Elon Musk’s Space X) feeling a little more focussed on the entrepreneurial nature of their founders rather than the technology itself.  That’s not to say that it’s boring, quite the contrary, but it does seem like something of a diversion at times.

Beyond-Image2

The latter part of Beyond turns its attention firmly to long space travel, Mars trips, and how the human body can be affected by the extended journey times that these ventures demand. While many of the difficulties have yet to be overcome, with even theoretical solutions still falling short in some areas, the sheer inventiveness of thought that is going into this field makes for compelling reading. It’s this very resourcefulness and desire to shake off the confines of Earth, and to an extent physics itself, that Impey brings to the fore with such deftness.

In the opening chapter of the book he discusses the supposed ‘Restless Gene’ (which geneticists refer to as DRD4-7R, and which probably explains why they don’t write interesting books), and how the desire to explore is literally hardwired into a proportion of people. Thankfully this also seems to make its way into the occasional writer’s toolkit, with Impey being a prime example.

If you’ve ever looked up a the stars and thought ‘what if…?’, or sat through Interstellar, The Martian, or at a stretch Gravity, and wondered the same, then Beyond: Our Future in Space should be high on your reading wish list. Excellent stuff.

Data and Goliath by Bruce Schneier (Book Review)

With more of our lives increasingly taking place online, the issue of privacy, especially in regards to our personal data, has never been more important. Without even knowing it we broadcast a wide range of information about our locations, habits, interests, and beliefs just by carrying a smartphone in our pocket or using the web. This data isn’t lying fallow in digital fields though; it’s being collected, collated, and used to build detailed profiles so that companies such as Facebook, Google, and even our own governments can know more about us than ever before.

This isn’t a good thing.

Data&Goliath

Bruce Schneier has been a specialist in the data security industry for many years, and in Data and Goliath he expertly outlines the way in which we are being monitored and analysed by a variety of interested parties. Unlike some other books that cover this subject, Schneier is careful not to invoke histrionics or sensationalism in order to sell his story, instead he calmly explains how tracking works and why it is used so widely.

From its origins in the cold-war, he charts the way that government agencies regularly spied on their enemies (not to mention each other), and how this eventually transformed into the digital surveillance culture that Edward Snowden so spectacularly revealed in 2013. Schneier actually handled some of the famous Snowden documents while working with the Guardian newspaper, and even interviewed the whistleblower after he sought asylum in Russia.

Data and Goliath is a fascinating exploration of this post-Snowden world we live in. It shows how the back-doors that technology companies were forced to implement for the NSA, have actually become weapons for other agencies and hackers to use. We’re taken through the murky world of international espionage, and shown how we have all become collateral damage in this digital arms race. Schneier also explains that even when we try to protect ourselves by leaving Facebook or Gmail, the fact that our friends and relatives still use them means we’re caught up in this global informational dragnet.

I’ll admit, at times the book leaves you with a profound sense of hopelessness, as fighting against powers so strong appears an exercise in futility. But all is not lost. In the final third of the story, Schneier outlines his manifesto for how governments, corporations, and individuals can change they way they act, thus restoring some kind of trust to the online world. Sadly this is also one of the slowest part of the book, as the governmental and corporate sections really feel more like a utopian call to arms than an actual solution. Data has become so valuable  that the prospect of them surrendering it for the greater good seems a distant and unrealistic possibility.

“…at times the book leaves you with a profound sense of hopelessness, as fighting against powers so strong appears an exercise in futility.”

Tips on how individuals can at least obfuscate the data we generate is useful. Schneier advocates software such as the Tor browser, HTTPS Everywhere, plus other helpful tools. He also has some ingenious ideas about throwing in random behaviour to mess with the algorithms that predict our patterns.

In the end you’re still left with the knowledge that big brother really is watching, and won’t be stopping anytime soon. But at least if you’re aware of the facts it could help you make better decision about how much you, at least willingly, share. It might not be a happy read in a lot of ways, but it is an important one.

Data and Goliath is published by W.W.Norton in the UK and USA.

 

 

The Second Machine Age : Book Review

Technology is woven into pretty much every element of our society. We all carry devices in our pockets that give us access to the majority of all human knowledge and a fair proportion of the current population. Our phones help us organise our lives, and in some cases are beginning to replace parts of them. But what does this mean for the future? Will these helpful gadgets continue to be our aides, or are we actually being slowly outmoded? In the Second Machine Age, authors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee explore the impact that technology will have on the economy and workplace in the coming years…and in many ways it isn’t good news.

Second Machine Age

Both Brynjolfsson and McAfee hail from the MIT Centre for Digital Business, which gives them an impressive amount of insight to the emergent technologies that are transforming the way we live and ply our trades. At the start of the book they outline three principles which are creating this new landscape. The first is the incredible rate at which technology is improving its power and software capabilities. The second is the continued digitisation of knowledge and products, and the third is how most new innovations are actually recombined elements of previous ideas. In isolation any of these principles might just be seen as an interesting outlier, but when they combine it paints a picture where many jobs, and entire professions, could soon become replaceable by cheap, efficient, software AI or robots. In fact, in some cases, that’s already begun.

“On several different occasions I had my career flash before my eyes”

Now, we’ve all heard these types of stories before in the pages of science fiction novels, but what makes the Second Machine Age so fascinating is the amount of study that the authors have done into the socio-economic factors that are currently at play in the modern world. In fact the middle section of the books does get a little bogged down in economic theory, making the reading a little hard going at times, but it never descends into text book territory. The ideas put forward are clearly argued, backed with data, and make a lot of sense. The authors look at innovations such as Waze, the mapping app that employs the locations of its users to gauge how fast traffic is moving at any given time, and show how it is an example of the three principles. Self driving cars and intelligent computers are also explored, with discussions over how they will benefit people while also potentially threatening their livelihoods. Baxter, the cheap, programmable manufacturing robot is another example of the way repetitive, manual work will be done before too long. It all mounts up to a sea change in what we should expect the workplace to look like in the not so distant years ahead.  

Now I’ve been interested in this subject for some time. Last year I wrote an article for PC Advisor magazine here in the UK called ‘The Future of Robots‘ which explored many of the themes covered in this book. While it still remains a fascinating area, I have to admit that as a ‘knowledge worker’ in his early forties, the Second Machine Age is quite a scary book. On several different occasions I had my career flash before my eyes. Navigating the future does look like it will be tricky, and the luddite fear of the oncoming computer overlords is given plenty of fuel in this tome. That’s not to say though that this is some kind of techo-horror attack on the brave new world. In the closing chapters the authors lay out various ideas for how this could all be a very positive thing, and the potential growth of new employment sectors and trades. They even suggest areas you should look towards to avoid being retired by machine in a few years from now. In many ways it’s a Pandora’s box style book, one that releases many terrifying things into your mind, but at least contains hope.

You might not strictly enjoy the Second Machine Age, but a few years from now you could be very glad that you read it.

 

Henry Kuttner : The forgotten Sci-Fi master

Kuttner Range

It was on a beach in Eastbourne that I first encountered Henry Kuttner. Not personally – that would have been scary as the American author had been dead for a number of years by then – instead our first meeting was a quiet one that saved me from the dire predicament of being a teenage boy on holiday with his parents. Driven out of my mind by the boredom of two weeks in the seaside town that doubles as retirement central of England, I sought solace – as was often the case – in books.

While searching for something new I found him on an old wire carousel outside an ice-cream shop. The curious looking book bore the legend ‘The Proud Robot by Henry Kuttner – author of Fury and Mutant’. Well what could I lose? Furious, mutated robots….fantastic!

Proud Robot

My first Kuttner book – ‘The Proud Robot’

Rather than some dark tale of android revenge though, I found an inventor called Galloway Gallegher who was a genius, but only when drunk out of his mind. The story began with him waking up after a real bender only to find a robot preening itself by his mirror and complaining that the cat was walking too loudly. Galloway then spends the rest of the story working out why he invented the diva-like mechanoid, as he was far too inebriated to remember. From the first line “Things often happened to Gallegher, who played at science by ear.” I was hooked. Kuttner’s writing was elegant, visual, and most of all funny – very funny. Nearly thirty years later the book sits next to me as I write, battered from repeated reading and a sad reminder of a great author who is now all but forgotten.

Henry Kuttner

Henry Kuttner

2015 will mark the 100th anniversary of Henry Kuttner’s birth, and for many of those years a large majority of his work has been out of print. There was a brief spell when the  children’s film ‘The Last Mimzy’ (based on his story ‘Mimsy Were the Borogoves’) was popular, but apart from that Kuttner has faded from memory and slipped quietly into legend. Even the internet, in all its Google fuelled glory, has scant information on his writing or the man himself. So who was he, and why is he still relevant today?

Born in Los Angeles on April 7th 1915, Kuttner grew up to become a prolific author of short stories and novels. His first published work of fiction was called ‘The Graveyard Rats’ and appeared in Weird Tales magazine in 1936. In the following years he would contribute regularly to the publication, with stories covering sword & sorcery, horror and science fiction. He used several pen-names, which was not uncommon at the time, and after his marriage to C.L.Moore (herself an author) they began writing together. The pseudonyms that the two adopted, usually indicating only one writer, was a neat way to ensure that C.L.Moore received the same word-rate as her husband – women being generally paid less at the time. L Sprague De Camp, a good friend of the Kuttner’s, said that it was not unusual for the two to finish a story and not remember who wrote what – such was the closeness of their writing partnership.

Kuttner & Moore

Kuttner & Moore

Kuttner, friends with H.P.Lovecraft, also contributed to the Cthulhu mythos with stories such as ‘The Eater of Souls’, ‘The Invaders’, and ‘The Salem Horror’, alongside creating the deities Iod, Vorvadoss and Nygogtha. He produced several novels, the most famous being ‘Fury’ in which the remaining survivors of the human race lives under the seas of Venus, ruled over by genetically mutated people who appear to live forever.

Under one of his more prevalent pen-names ‘Lewis Padgett’ Kuttner also wrote an iconic episode of The Twilight Zone – ‘What You Need’. In this typically inventive story an aggressive loser stumbles upon an old man who has a knack of providing people the very thing they need to make their lives better – be it a bus ticket back to the big time, or a dripping fountain pen that can predict horse races. The sad tale unfolds with an odd menace and, as is common in the Twilight Zone, the ending is one that sticks in the memory.

'What You Need' Twilight Zone episode.

‘What You Need’ Twilight Zone episode.

In keeping with the brevity of the majority of his own creations, in 1958, at the age of 43, Kuttner died suddenly from a heart attack. His legacy was not a string of bestsellers, or a collection of glittering awards, but rather the inspiration he gave writers that followed after him. Marion Zimmer Bradley claimed ‘I consider the work of Henry Kuttner to be the finest science fantasy ever written’, dedicating her novel ‘The Bloody Sun’ to him. Richard Matheson did likewise with ‘I am Legend’, thanking Kuttner for ‘his help and encouragement on this book’. Other notable fans include Ray Bradbury and Roger Zelazny.

Kuttner's novel 'Fury'

 

I find it deeply saddening that this great literary talent may be lost to us within my lifetime. His writing had such wonderful playfulness and comedy, matched by the ferocious imagination that he and Moore brought to the table. His influence is hard to measure, but certainly looking at the calibre of writers mentioned above who saw him as a mentor, we can be pretty sure that it is significant. Reading his work now still feels fresh and modern, with hardly a sense that it came from an era before computers, the internet, or even man landing on the moon. Ideas leap from the page, a deft quip is never too far away, and there is a genuine sense of wonder mixed with the darker side of humanity running through his creations.

It’s hard to find much evidence of Kuttner in bookshops these days – well, it’s increasingly hard to find bookshops these days – but maybe the internet will be able to keep his tales around a little longer. In 2013 a Kickstarter campaign successfully printed a collection of ten short stories by Kuttner, and as this was a fully funded project it shows that there is still an audience for one of science fictions great forgotten masters.

Kickstarter project 'Ahead of Time'

If you’ve never experienced Kuttner, then do a bit of shopping around on eBay or Amazon to find his books while they still exist. They’re cheap, easy to read, and remain a link to a style of writing that isn’t too often found in the modern age. Henry might be long gone, but maybe the fact that someone he never met is still entranced with his work half a century later would make him, like his robot, proud.

Classic Sci-Fi – The Death of Grass by John Christopher

death of grass

I’ve recently been reading through some of the best science fiction from the 50s, 60s, and 70s. This has led me to a few rather wonderful books that I’d managed to miss during the hungry, binge-reading period of my youth. Ah, such a wanton time of literary abandon that really was.

One particular novel I’d always meant to read was the British apocalyptic classic ‘The Death of Grass’. I’ve always been a fan of British sci-fi writers such as John Wyndham, Arthur C Clarke, and J.G.Ballard, due to the patient and reserved way that they approached catastrophe. It’s always good to know that in the end, nothing is so bad that it can’t be solved with a good, hot cup of tea and a bit of a chat.

Anyway, here’s the review I posted on Goodreads.

‘This apocalyptic novel, which belongs with Day of the Triffids and The Lord of the Flies as a particularly English affair, shows how society can descend into barbarism in a handful of days when all the food runs out. It’s a classic stiff-upper-lip tale of two families who get wind of a terrible plot by the government to cull the population in order to survive an impending famine. They escape a blockade around London and head out on a journey to a farm belonging to one of the characters’ brother. Along the way they encounter a new England, one where the power of the gun is now law, causing them to make some awful decisions.

It’s telling that the novel was written in the 50s, as the women characters are barely visible. All they seem to do is make tea, cry, and tell the men how beastly they’ve become. Admittedly it grates, but using the stereotypes of the time does lend a strange coldness to the emotions of those involved, adding to the sense of unreality. The story moves at a steady, if slightly pedestrian pace, but again this works in its favour, as each crisis slowly creeps into view.

There are few likeable characters, and even less likeable outcomes. While this makes for a depressing read, it also shows the stark choices that such radical situations demand, and how dehumanising it can quickly become. Very good.’

 

Do you have any old classics that you’ve discovered lately? Let me know in the comments below.

Redshirts – It’s a book, Jim!

Redshirts_-A-Novel-with-Three-Codas-Scalzi-John_resizedcover

There is a well known trope in Star Trek that if a character is seen wearing a red shirt (usually signalling their involvement with a security team) then the chances are they will be dead by the end of the episode. The notable exception to this being Scotty, who presumably uses some kind of warp engine technology to evade the fate that his scarlet threads promise. In Redshirts, John Scalzi takes this idea and runs with it. Actually he completes a hearty jog, the Great North Run, and several marathons if truth be told.

The general premise is that officers serving onboard the starship Intrepid have a very low survival rate when going on away missions. That is, except for the senior bridge crew who always make it home in one piece, or at least once the transporters have reassembled them. The reasons for these tragic deaths are often ludicrous, with people making uncharacteristically daft decisions that then lead to their demise. All this changes though, when a set of rookie officers discover the trend and try to rebel against it, inadvertently revealing the real culprit – a TV show written hundreds of years before, of which they are the unwitting stars. Now they must travel back in time to convince the writers to cancel the show before the Intrepid crew meet their inevitable, grisly, end.

Ok, it’s a fun idea. The settings, comedy deaths, and lighthearted pace all work together to make Redshirts an easy read. But, for me, it just doesn’t really live up to the premise.

Sure, there is plenty in it for Star Trek fans to enjoy, plus several affectionate nods to other classic Sci-Fi TV shows and movies, but after the initial novelty wears off, and the big idea is revealed, it loses a bit of its charm. In many ways it feels a little like a TV episode that’s been stretched to make a feature film, with the story not quite fitting the running time.

In early chapters, where things are just a straight-up parody, it’s a good laugh. Seasoned officers manage to disappear just in time to avoid being drafted onto away teams, while our heroes have to overcome the dangers presented by a variety of creatures whose origins were decided more by budget restraints than genetics.

The idea of coincidence runs firmly through the narrative, but too many times descends into simple convenience for the author. This makes situations easy to extricate the characters from without doing any kind of hard work, and leaves the reader a little cheated. It’s a shame, as there’s much to like about the overall story, with some very tongue-in-cheek moments that I’m sure William Shatner would appreciate.

It’s hard to be too scathing though, after all, it is a book about Star Trek being real in an alternative future while being written in the past. So, it’s always going to be a bit of a stretch.

If you fancy something light, silly, and don’t think too much about how it all hangs together, then there are certainly worse ways to spend a few hours.

Book Review – Hacking Politics

On January 18th 2012 a multitude of websites blacked out their services to alert users of a new government backed copyright bill that threatened the very nature of the internet.

Prominent sites like Wikipedia went completely dark for the day, while others such as Google changed their homepage to one that was censored.

Google - SopaThis online co-ordinated activism was the largest of its type that has ever taken place, bringing together people from all around the world to unite against the SOPA and PIPA bills. In response to the outrage Senators changed sides and the bills were subsequently defeated, much to the annoyance of the music and film companies that had lobbied for them. It was a moment when the power of the internet community was seen to make a tangible difference in the world of politics, while also taking on the multi-national corporations who wanted to tighten their grip on the entertainment industry.

It is indeed a story worth telling.

DSC_0003

So, it’s no surprise then that someone wrote the book. Well, to be more accurate, several people wrote the book.

Hacking Politics covers the whole SOPA/PIPA uprising in clinical detail by bringing together a number of first-hand accounts, building a literary mosaic of the days leading up to the now infamous blackout.  Writers such as the sadly late Aaron Swartz, David Moon, Patrick Ruffini, David Segal, and Cory Doctorow all share their experiences and areas of expertise in the often confusing world of copyright law and high level politics. It’s packed to the gills with insight and facts…but that might be the book’s biggest problem.

At the beginning there is a prelude that actually takes you though the entire story over forty pages by editing together people’s testimonies. It starts a little disjointed, but soon the reader settles into the pattern of alternating voices and the story unfolds.

With this completed there then follows two hundred and sixty pages that tell you the story again, in greater detail. The problem is that pretty much all of the content included in the opening section is repeated in the larger one. Which gets tiresome very quickly. It also robs the book of any real narrative drama. You know what’s happening, why, and how it will turn out. So what’s the point in reading it?

This is a huge shame as the tale is actually very interesting, and highlights the real threats to the current incarnation of the internet that exist. If you have an interest in the inner workings of the American political system and where it intersects with technology then maybe the depth of Hacking Politics will give you much to think over. But the book left me with the definite feeling that inside the meandering prose and repetitious events was a truly excellent story that remains buried beneath the rubble of lazy editing.

If you do want to try it out for yourself then you can visit the publisher’s website here, where you’ll find some excellent titles, including Cypherpunks by Julian Assange that I reviewed recently.

 

 

Book Review: Cypherpunks – by Julian Assange

If you had sat down to read this book when it was initially written in 2012, you might think that a lot of the content belonged squarely to the tin foil hat brigade.

Julian Assange, editor in chief at whistleblowing site Wikileaks, has a marmite effect on people. Some see him as a valiant hero taking on the increasingly controlling and manipulative governments of the world, while others cast him as a fame seeking egotist. As is usually the case in things like this I’m sure a little of both is true. What is undeniable though is that inside the pages of the book are discussions about the security services and their deep spying techniques that only came to public light when another whistleblower, Edward Snowden, gave up everything in his life to bring the information to the public.

So, time to take off the tin foil hat and start paying attention.

Assange, in dramatic fashion, sets the scene with the statement ‘This book is not a manifesto. There is not time for that. This book is a warning.’

By the time you’ve finished reading, you can’t help agreeing.

Cypherpunks are activists who use strong cryptography tools to protect their identity and privacy online. They also promote the idea that everyone should do the same unless they want their every digital transaction and communication stolen and stored by the security services of the western world. It’s a harsh political stance, but over the course of the debates that rage in the book, allied with Snowden’s revelations, the reader is drawn into an incredible, scary world that isn’t like the one we imagine it to be.

Assange brings together three other advocates – Jacob Appelbaum, Andy Muller-Maguhn, and Jeremie Zimmermann – to have a round table discussion of the dangers that electronic spying has for an unwitting population, and how they can safeguard against it. The writing style is that of a transcription of these talks, which is effective in bringing out the differing standpoints of those involved.

IMG_0972

During the discourse they cover subjects such as government surveillance, digital currency, censorship, and from there branch into other tangential thoughts as their minds fire on all cylinders. Perhaps one of the most prescient arguments they make is how governments use the ‘Four horsemen of the Infopocalyse’ – child pornography, terrorism, money laundering, and the war on drugs – to pass overreaching legislation that none dare argue with, lest they be seen to support these awful practices.

It rings true when you look at David Cameron’s recent internet censorship bill that trumpets the filtering of pornography, but also seemingly cuts off access to dissident sites in the background. It’s a subtle, complex issue, and one that Assange and co don’t really offer any tangible solutions for (in that how do you stop these things without some form of censorship?), but the beginning of the discussion, and the eye opening effect it has to make you scrutinise government policies, is something we all can all benefit from.

It’s not a light read by any means, filled to the brim as it is with ideas, arguments, and sometimes chilling visions of the future, but it is an important book. The debates do lend themselves to easily becoming echo chambers, and I would like to see another edition where they include someone to argue the opposite position, though Assange often strays into a devil’s advocate role to keep the discussion on some kind of level footing.

Whether you care about computers, surveillance, hackers, Assange or not, Cypherpunks should be on your reading list.  The sooner the better.

 

Book Review: The New Digital Age

As you’re here on this blog there’s a fair chance that you’re interested in technology. So a book written by two of the senior minds at Google is probably a good thing to mention.

The New Digital Age is a collaborative work between Eric Schmidt, long time Google CEO, and Jared Cohen, the Director of Google Ideas and previously advisor to US Secretaries of State Condoleeza Rice and Hilary Clinton. Here they lay out their vision for how technology will be used in the future, thankfully avoiding the standard fare of obsessing over the various devices that will emerge.  Instead they focus on how an ever more online world will interact socially, what impact technology will have on emerging nations, and how wars, revolutions, and terrorist activities will be played out with the aid of the internet.

Ideas flow fast and furious, causing the reader to have to slow down and reread many a section to keep up with what’s being stated. It isn’t that the book is badly written, or in any way unclear, it’s simply a dense collection of thoughts on how the world will change, and you really don’t want to miss any of them. It’s true that chapters can feel a little repetitive at times where theories are revisited from different angles – say cyber–terrorism or government oversight – but the multi-layered nature of the subject matter makes this a necessary  way of exploring the themes. The real thrust of the book though is painting a picture of the future where the smartphone,  or rather access to the internet on a mobile device, is the centre of the universe. It’s surprising how many times the simple technology that we take for granted now is the fulcrum for prison control, tracking terrorists, keeping rogue governments in line through public accountability, or even enabling fishermen in the developing world to get fair prices for their catch.

1444345C-D4D9-42AD-A9DF-FD55F2AB433D

It’s not often that technologists the calibre of Schmidt and Cohen set out their ideas in such a straightforward and expansive manner, but the New Digital Age is exactly that. You know they’ve seen the secret labs which develop new hardware, their access to Google records also means that they can analyse data that other social scientists could only dream of, and as they have dealt directly with governments all around the world they can speak with real insight into the issues they’ve witnessed first hand.

The New Digital Age is a rare creation, in that it doesn’t feel speculative at all, instead it’s a wisely considered and authoritative map for the path that lies ahead.

This, of course, isn’t always a better, happier, road to take. Whereas they argue that mobile devices mean that citizens can report on their governments quickly and easily – thus causing the officials to be more careful with their abuses – It also demonstrates clearly that doing so will make you an easy to find target of said governments. In the light of the recent Edward Snowden / Prism scandal this only seems more real. An interconnected world is a frightening one when you realise that information and access to the internet are key to the future, but the means for both still resides mainly with those in power. Schmidt and Cohen are more optimistic though, seeing the internet as an incredible opportunity for those who can embrace its potential, with mobile devices freeing them to do that in their natural environments.

I remember reading Being Digital by Nicholas Negroponte many years ago and being astounded by the ideas he put forward for the future, many of which we are now finally seeing in everyday life. The New Digital Age has a simliar feel. You don’t really need to be interested in technology to read it, just curious about how societies will use the already existing means of communication and self expression to move the world forward. There are exciting avenues to explore, and some dark passages to hide from, but in the end that’s true in life whether it’s digital or not.

 

The New Digital Age is out now in Hardback from John Murray. If you are in the UK then you can click here to buy a copy, US readers can click here . If you live in any other part of the word, which judging by the latest WordPress stats I’ve been reading many of you are (hooray!), then please head over to your preferred bookseller and purchase a copy of this fascinating book.