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?
Door to Door: The Magnificent, Maddening, Mysterious World of Transportation‘s ambitious subtitle overreaches but the author delivers a wealth of information in a highly readable narrative: if you suspect transportation is a boring topic, you will be very pleasantly surprised. Most of the stories focus on Southern California ports, where the author is based, and we get to visit with the UPS district manager, the ship dispatchers who orchestrate the arrivals of container ships (these women have a lot of power!), and the anonymous crate operators (who unload 28 containers per hour, which boggled my mind). If you have ever wondered how your food, clothes, cars, gas, and electronic devices got to you, read this!
Following the wonderful The Design of Everyday Things, Norman brings us Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things, which shows how objects can appeal to us on a visceral level, a behavioral level, or a reflective (emotional) level, and how we can be drawn to objects that make us feel good even though they may be useless.
There is a long, rather tedious, and seemingly unconnected chapter about robots, which you may want to skip. The rest of the examples are lively and inspiring.
Dan Lyons, age 53, took a job in a technology startup and dishes out about his experience in Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble. The descriptions of the frenzied atmosphere of startups, the hungry investors, the overwhelmed, alternatively naive and greedy founders, the lightweight managers are right on. What’s just a little disturbing is the author’s attitude: he hates it, he hates everything about his job, and especially the whippersnappers who dare want to manage him. Since his past, cushy job (at Newsweek) is gone, perhaps he could condescend to speak to his colleagues as equals and not some lower life form, smile about the push-up club rather than denounce it as a millennial folly, and realize that going over his boss’s head may not be the best way to make friends or even influence people. Above all, he seems shocked, really shocked that the startup has to make money (how uncivilized) by selling what he considers to be a spam-creating horror (it’s a marketing platform, hello!)
To top it off, he leaves the company for what he considers to be much more respectable employment at… Gawker! How wonderful is that?
The whole thing would have worked much better as a fictionalized satire. The Orwellian underpinnings of would-be unicorns do make for rich pickings!