Top 10 Tech Books
of 2014, Part II
Social-media addicted teens, the rise of Anonymous, the war on privacy, and the problem with corporate profanity; feast yourselves on five more of the best technology books of the year. (Part I is here.)
It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens
By danah boyd
Yale University Press
Parents, you have permission to chill out. Yes, your children are growing up in an environment of digital distraction and immersion unlike anything ever experienced by any generation of humans who have ever lived on this planet. Yes, they appear to be spending way too much of their quality time on Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat and something that was just invented yesterday that you haven’t yet heard of.
But please, do not freak out. Digital technology is not the enemy. Social media is not a dread scourge. Kids today are doing what kids have always done, struggling to form and uncover their identities with whatever tools are at hand — and especially those tools that allow them to communicate with their peers.
So argues Danah Boyd in It’s Complicated, and she has the data and research — not to mention countless actual interviews with living, breathing teens — to back her argument up. Boyd, a principal researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder of the Data & Society Research Institute, is one of the brightest young stars in the emerging ranks of scholars who have been weaned on digital technology. A digital society anthropologist who is making sense of a world in the act of its creation, Boyd has always been well worth listening to.
One of her key points: Today’s teenagers have it rough. Curfews, over-controlling parents, poverty and racial tensions, along with seething paranoia about unsupervised interactions in physical space have all made it more difficult for today’s teens to figure out who they are. Social media is one of the few spaces left for them to be themselves, to experiment and to play.
As an antidote to fear-mongering and a manual for how to parent in the 21st century, It’s Complicated should be required reading. But it’s also something more — the first major salvo from an author on whom we can depend to keep illuminating our world for the foreseeable future. I can’t wait to see what she does next.
Think teens don’t care about privacy?
The Glass Cage: Automation and Us
By Nicholas Carr
Nicolas Carr is notorious for the headline of a piece he wrote for The Atlantic six years ago, “Is Google Making Us Stupid.” He told me once that he didn’t choose that headline, and he thinks it oversimplifies his argument. But it still serves as a handy shortcut to what increasingly seems to be his life work: puncturing the hype about the wondrousness of our digital world.
You don’t have to believe that the Internet is actually making us dumber to get value from Carr’s latest book, an exploration of some of the downsides to an increasingly automated, digitally mediated life. Where other critics are shrill and frothy, Carr is level-headed; an eloquent writer and a subtle thinker. OK, maybe he wrings his hands a little. He’s a worrier. But sometimes we need worriers. And after a few years of unpleasant surprises about the state of our online privacy and security, society may be a bit more appreciative of his basic argument than it was five or ten years ago.
Automation, suggests Carr, doesn’t just threaten jobs, it changes who we are, and not always for the better. Automatic pilots on aircraft have been proven to erode pilot skills, he writes. So what happens when all our cars are self-driving? What do we lose when we forget to drive? What do we lose when our smartphones do everything for us?
Silicon Valley startup founders and venture capital investors scoff at such namby-pamby talk. But only a fool ignores the truth that there are tradeoffs inherent in any evolutionary or revolutionary change. Reading Nicholas Carr didn’t convince me to throw away my smartphone or return to writing with quill and inkwell, but it did make me think, pause and reflect — essential activities for surviving our fast-moving future.
Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security, and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance
By Julia Angwin
The title says it all. If we learned anything about the Internet over the past two years, it has been that the extent to which corporations and governments are snooping on our personal information goes far beyond what any of us expected or imagined the first time we pressed send on an email, texted a lover or simply searched for a good deal on headphones on Google. We might have once thought that the Internet was mostly about giving us access to information; now we realize that it’s an even more efficient tool for granting others access to information about us.
This culture-wide exercise in consciousness raising made the publication this spring of longtime Wall Street Journal reporter Julia Angwin’s quest to see if she could close the Pandora privacy box back up extraordinarily timely. But it also makes for a disheartening narrative. Angwin goes to extraordinary lengths to lock down her privacy information as much as possible while still maintaining her ability to participate in the online world. The ordinary person can’t and won’t be bothered to spend that amount of time and effort maintaining a privacy shield. And even Angwin acknowledges that her labors were hardly foolproof. There’s plenty of leakage, no matter how zealously you patrol your packets.
At the end of her year “of trying to evade surveillance,” Angwin writes that she felt surprisingly hopeful,” even though “my efforts to evade the dragnets were not very successful.” She concludes that her “hope is that if enough people join me in refusing to consent to ubiquitous indiscriminate surveillance, we might also prompt a conversation that could unravel it.” I hope she’s right: Dragnet Nation is a fantastic first step in launching that conversation. But the road ahead is daunting.
Companies and institutions track us almost indiscriminately. Is this the world we want to live in?medium.com
The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers
By Ben Horowitz
The one outlier in this list of ten should properly be in the best business book category. But since the author is one half of the hugely influential Silicon Venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, and the topic, roughly speaking, is how to steer your tech startup to success, it offers an important look at a key part of the overall technology puzzle. Most of the books in this list were written by people critiquing or explaining what Silicon Valley has wrought. The Hard Thing About Hard Things opens a window into the mindset of the people who do the wreaking.
Horowitz is also an inherently interesting person. The grandson of communists and son of the notorious conservative bomb-thrower David Horowitz, Ben Horowitz is a hip-hop loving businessman who, when I interviewed him earlier this year, proved to be refreshingly appreciative of the dangers of growing income inequality and the responsibility of the tech community to figure out how to share the wealth.
The culture he describes, however, is full of people for whom social repercussions just get in the way. Horowitz’s Silicon Valley is a profane, macho place in which the will to power and success is as crucial to eventual triumph as having a good idea or loading up with a legion of brilliant software developers. With chapters boasting titles such as “Preparing to Fire an Executive” and “Lies that Losers Tell,” The Hard Thing about Hard Things prepares readers for survival in the cut-throat jungle. As business management books go, it feels more raw, and much more authentic, than your average best-selling business success how-to text.
My employees told me I was too foul-mouthed. Here’s what I said to them.medium.com
Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous
By Gabriella Coleman
As I write these words, my Twitter feed is blowing up with the news that Sony has decided to cancel the release of The Interview, citing violent threats from unknown parties who hacked Sony’s computer network and stole scads of embarrassing documents and emails. The incident will surely go down as one of the most extraordinary hacks in history, and there’s no telling what kind of precedent has been set. Will appeasement in the face of hacking blackmail become a standard part of daily life?
As of this writing, we don’t have solid proof of who accomplished the hack. North Korea, estranged Sony employees, wanton troublemakers? It’s not clear. But what we do have, thanks to Coleman, is some context. If we want to understand the emerging culture of hacking as a political act, we now have a place to start. Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy is the most detailed and informative look yet at one of the more unexpected social phenomena of the Internet era: the rise of a shadowy collective of roustabout hackers, motivated by politics or rage or the sheer desire for mayhem.
Coleman has come under fire from some quarters for what the technology writer Adrian Chen called “naïve techno-utopianism” in The Nation. Chen believes that Coleman went native with Anonymous, that she embedded herself so deeply in the community that she was unable to be properly critical. There’s some truth to this; Coleman does, at times, overstate the positive political accomplishments of Anonymous.
But that doesn’t make the book any less essential. What the Sony debacle tells us is that hacking as an act of political or commercial or cultural warfare is a new fact of life that is only getting started. Anonymous represents a very important part of the indigenous emerging culture of a society raised on the Internet. Nobody has studied this culture more intently or gotten closer to it than Coleman. We ignore it at our peril.
Of all my Anonymous subjects, I was closest to the defiant Sabu. Turns out he was closer with the FBI.medium.com