I’m going to both recommend reading Pinpoint: How GPS is Changing Technology, Culture, and Our Minds and also warn potential readers that it is unreadable in parts, laden with jargon, acronyms, and technical details that seem not to bring much to the story. But every time we turn on driving directions on our phones, ride in a plane that reliably finds the airport, consult the weather app, eat food that was grown in the field tilled by a GPS-guided tractor, or any normal activity we barely think about, we are relying on technology that seemed indistinguishable from magic just a couple of decades ago. (Yes, children, we ancient ones used to use paper maps to get places. It worked, mostly.)
As most magical technologies, GPS started with underwhelming excitement. Air Force pilots, when presented with early versions, reacted with, “It tells you where you are. I know where I am, why do I need a damn satellite to tell me where I am?” It brings to mind the early forecasts for computer sales, doesn’t it? The best part of the book is the history of the industry, which quickly adapted military early research (and of course used the satellites that make it all possible). When the author tries to explain how our view of the world changes with the new technology, he is less successful.
Written by two MIT professors, Machine, Platform, Crowd: Harnessing Our Digital Future presents many examples of how machines of all kinds are taking over many tasks that seemed to require human decision-making (and often doing a better job than said humans!) , how platforms allow companies to harness other people’s efforts (think about the app available from Google or Apple) , and how crowdsourcing enables information sharing a la Wikipedia.
The authors are clearly bullish about technology, but they readily address the issues that technology brings. For instance, an algorithm may be just as racist as the patterns it has internalized (but, unlike some humans, can be reprogrammed easily). We may bemoan the loss of human interaction, but who would go into a bank to withdraw cash these days (who uses cash?). And corporations may generate vast amounts of revenue without investing in any tangible assets (think AirBnB). The best part about the book is the wealth of examples, from companies we all know well to more obscure applications — such as IBM’s Watson (retroactively) guessing which kinases will likely activate the p53 protein.
The author of Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked takes sometimes meandering path through the psychology of behavioral addiction, and especially how manufacturers of electronic devices and apps exploit our built-in vulnerability to keep us checking our phone and our Facebook account at all hours. It’s just a little sad that all these smart programmers are basically toiling to bind us more tightly to our screens.
Perhaps it will inspire us to give it a rest and take our revenge on the whole conspiracy.
Whiplash: How to Survive Our Faster Future sets out, it claims, to help us cope with fast technological change, but it often reads more as a book-length paean to the MIT Media Lab, where the two authors work, and even more awkward, to Joi Ito, the first author. Too bad, since beyond the hubris are some interesting concepts, especially showing how static, top-down institutions fare badly in a fast-moving present, let alone future. The book is also filled with fun facts of all kinds, including celebrating the 1860s machinist that proposed a standard thread profile for screws (thank you, William Sellers).
Sadly, the book seems to be written from a bubble of wealth, education, and ultimate comfort and control of technology, with crippling blind spots. For instance, the authors marvel that a Canadian handyman who dropped out of a physics PhD program to take care of his parents is a great inventor, proving that anyone can do R&D (really!) and their adventures in the wilds of Detroit, MI, to help citizens brave the streets at night are especially awkward. We want people who invent, fearlessly, but perhaps they should not try to philosophize too much.
The bubble in who
A Truck Full of Money: One Man’s Quest to Recover from Great Success tells the story of Paul English, the founder of Kayak, who was born in a working class Boston family and went on to create several successful computer companies (and some not so much!), make millions, and generously distribute riches around him. Perhaps to evoke the highs and lows of the bipolar disorder he suffered from, undiagnosed, for decades, the book is messy and non-linear, and it’s not always clear where the author is taking us — but the story is certainly inspiring, especially the generous nature of the main character who seems more interested in building great things than rolling in the dough.
Like books? From the moment you grab this one, The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time, you will know it’s a winner, since its very cover embodies the topic: how books are printed, illustrated, and made. It’s a history of books that starts in ancient Egypt and China and even if you are curious about books and know quite a bit of the history I guarantee you will find new and delightful factoids, from the proper way to cut a papyrus stem to create a usable sheet to how Holy Roman Emperor Frederik II banned paper because he saw it as a horrible Muslim invention. We are introduced to typesetting technology and lithography, and how books are stitched and formed (have you noticed that hard-cover books are concave in the front? I had not!) And nary a whine about the upcoming death of books in favor f electronic media. A delight.
Can one write a book about war that doesn’t talk about weapons? Yes, and Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War proves it. Instead, the author talks about the labs in Natick, MA, that test fabric for uniforms (and gently makes fun of the specialists’ outstanding New England accent), how a wedding dress designer can get interested in mittens with one finger for snipers. Other topics are more challenging, showing how a different lab uses cadavers to test armored vehicles, how surgeons reconstruct penises lost to real bombs, and how doctors use maggots to clean wounds. A strong stomach is recommended! Still, there are plenty of humorous moments as when we learn that powered bug juice is a good tool to minimize toilet odors in submarines. Who knew?