Living close to the Google headquarters, we see autonomous cars on the road every day (multiple times a day!) and marvel at how they are getting so much better over time, from negotiating four-way stops to seamlessly keeping up with traffic. No One at the Wheel: Driverless Cars and the Road of the Future is not written by a technologist, but by a transportation expert who was once in charge of New York City traffic. He does not have much to say about the underlying technology but has thought a lot about the transformations that autonomous cars will bring to cities and society in general, including how pedestrians will interact with vehicles that are programmed to stop when challenged (will pedestrians pretty much own the streets?), whether autonomous vehicles will be shared (and if not, if owners will keep them circling rather than park them), and whether they will used as mobile bombs (scary!). He blessedly spends little time bellyaching about the ethical dilemmas of programming cars to avoid pedestrians or trees; it’s pretty clear that, although such situations will exist, they are not the central issues for the future of autonomous driving.
An annoying and rather surprising feature of the author’s argument is his unwavering love of public transit. It’s clear that public transit is required to solve transportation challenges in cities, and that autonomous vehicles (other than autonomous buses) cannot, but he seems unable to accept the well-deserved criticisms that users have about it: it’s dirty, it’s unpredictable, and it’s not flexible. Surely, trying to address these issues would be better than pretending they do not exist.
Bitwise: A Life in Code is the memoir of a programmer, and I thought that its most interesting feature was to provide a glimpse of the typical personality of programmers. The author makes it clear from the first sentence, “Computers always offered me a world that made sense. As a child, I sought refuge in computers as a safe, contemplative realm far from the world. People confused me.”
That said the reader also gets to experience the wonders of a segmentation fault on page 37. It’s kinda unpleasant for non-programmers… But other chapters are more successful, as when he compares his infant daughter to a computer that gets upgraded on a regular basis (it’s much less creepy than it sounds, pretty funny actually).
The last part of the book is a reflection on how computers and algorithms are changing the world, and is less successful, in my mind, with the important exception of his thoughts on how data structures drive the way we engage with the world, taking as his example the way Facebook allows its users to characterize themselves. An interesting personal peek into the world of the people who create the technology we use.
Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech raises all kinds of issues with our reliance on processes embedded in technology: silently racist or sexist online forms, emotion-deaf social network notifications, prejudices baked into algorithms, and of course the lack of diversity of the industry that creates all these tools.
It’s good to talk about problems. What’s not so good about this book is that the author seems to have just one mode: total outrage. And while some of the things she reports on are indeed outrageous (why should women or people of color be excluded from Silicon Valley’s hiring networks?), others are just mechanized versions of offline errors, or poor execution by a relatively new industry. Those sexist online forms? They are just the latest embodiment of sexist hard-copy forms. Not a reason to keep them as they are, for sure, but hardly cause for outrage. The social network that reminds you of your mother’s death a year ago? Terrible choice, but someone (armies of someones!) is hard at work to make sure that you will look at the app today, and they know that death reminders don’t work too well for that.
A more nuanced approach would better highlight the central, ugly truth: self-learning machines will readily recognize and amplify biases in the data they survey. So if all the computer programmers are while males, they will form a very strong concept of programmers as white males. Pretty much the thinking from which we work hard to de-program ourselves…
Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology is presented as a memoir but is organized as a series of essays, roughly chronological to be sure but more essays than biography. The author is a woman who started in the technology field in the early 80s, so a pioneer. My favorite parts of the book are the ones where she talks about how her work, whether it’s the byzantine hierarchy between assembly coders and application coders, the frenzy around Y2k, or the quest to find and fix a bug that eluded other programmers for years (really! and she makes it as fun as a treasure hunt, which it is).
The essays when she reflects about the consequences of technological advances are less successful, in my mind. Sure, gentrification happened in her neighborhood (she has a wonderful story of a little city park morphing from skid row to white tablecloths, and back, during the 2000 bubble, which illustrates the hubris of the time perfectly) but that does not mean that technology is bad — or good, for that matter.
Still, I would recommend this book to anyone working in the tech world today, for a historical perspective and also a strong description of what it’s like as a woman to work in a man-dominated world.
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.