Book reviews – What technology has done to us

I’ve actually managed to read two books in the past two weeks. Both very closely linked to one another. First, The People Vs Tech by Jamie Bartlett, then second, The Death of the Gods by Carl Miller. These books dig into how tech is changing the world and the consequences of these changes that are already being felt.

Being a natural cynic I worry I am getting confirmation bias by reading books warning about technology. With these books I’m really pleased to see people doing research and journalistic digging into where technology is taking us and what is going on behind the scenes. As a developer the attitude is predominantly “I don’t care about politics”, “ethics is someone else’s job” and “I’m just here to write code”. We are having far greater effect with our work than we want to know or realise, and we need to start doing something about it.

The People vs Tech has the sub-title of “How the Internet is killing democracy (and how we save it)”, so it does look deeper into the role of tech in politics. This book particularly strives to avoid calling out either the left or right, and clearly sets out one of the skills we are losing is the ability to compromise, through technology driving people into more tribal groups. Obviously it concentrates on the thirst of tech giants for data as their source of revenue, then maximising that through manipulation (read advertising, algorithmic feeds, etc).

This looks at the algorithmic nature of political campaigns, as they are now. It does not delve deep into the law-breaking and things that should be law-breaking, but more into what they did and how they did it.

It also covers the autonomous car potential revolution. Then the tech giant monopolies that are pushing ever higher in valuation and reach (and the political arena). It then segues into blockchain, which is still probably the newest of the technologies covered. It feels like it gets a much smoother ride than it deserves, because of the changes in behaviour it creates, but only benefitting the minority of people.

It finishes up with a “20 ideas to save democracy”. This takes everything in the book and says, how do we solve it, so you don’t feel too despondent when leaving, and shows that not only can we find the problems but we can solve them.

Death of the Gods whilst covering similar ground takes a different approach, probably more journalistic with sources and more people focused.

I did find it a harder book to get into initially but just as rewarding. It does delve deep into the history of how these technologies and specifically the groups of people that embodied “hackers” got their start. After all even though it is about computers it is driven by people, even when they let go of the steering wheel when the AI makes their decisions for them.

It goes into cybercrime and it’s expanse quite a lot, which was illuminating to its scope and breadth. And terrifying.

There is also the software eating the world nature of business and its intransigence towards humanity, and the business models behind lies that drive clicks that drives revenue (they are lies not just the more benign sounding fake news). You get to see behind those curtains with actual sources. Politics and warfare are also well researches and enlightening.

The final chapter covering a hitman-for-hire website on the dark web, is well worth the read by itself. And for the unlikely heroes and the way that it plays out (don’t want to post spoilers).

Amazingly both books eschew much, if any, discussion of subjects like Edward Snowden and Cambridge Analytica directly. They concentrate on the causes and effects of technology.

Both books are well worth a read, but you will come away knowing tech needs to be regulated far better, and in neither of the ways politicians or the industry itself wants to.

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