The Internet Is NOT the Answer by Andrew Keen

The Internet Is NOT the Answer by Andrew Keen (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2015), 273 pages.

TIINTA Keen

You can learn a lot by changing the context on an issue or problem. So if, as this book says, the Internet is NOT the answer, what was the question in the first place?

Before I reveal what I think the question that Andrew Keen is asking might be, let me back up a bit. Generally, I like books that question technology and the role it plays in our society. Having made a good living in technology (telecommunications and the Internet in particular), I feel that I have a vested interest in what people are saying about my line of work, the same way that power plant operators might care about how the general public feels about coal. I’ve already looked at Cory Doctorow’s book on intellectual property, so I read this looking to see how they might relate.

But Keen is more focused on the role the Internet plays today in people’s everyday lives. His position is spelled out right up front in the preface (page x). Not only has the Internet (I still use the “capital I”) spawned monopolists like Google and Amazon, Keen says, but it also:

  1. Encourages mob rule instead of democracy.
  2. Intensifies the “war on women” and other minorities instead of tolerance.
  3. Fosters a selfie-centered narcissistic world of voyeurs instead of a renaissance.
  4. Enriches a few white males in Silicon Valley instead of spreading the wealth.
  5. Compounds people’s rage instead of promoting their happiness.

The rest of the book is devoted to marshalling arguments to support his positions. It’s not hard to do, of course, because the real world exhibits a remarkable degree of plasticity when it comes to looking at a set of facts and going “so here’s what it means.” There is a great book called Historians’ Fallacies by David Hackett Fischer where at one point he mentions a law against littering in old New York that sets out very severe penalties. This one fact can be used to (a) support the idea that the streets were spotless and clean and they wanted to make sure they stayed that way, or (b) support the idea that the streets were knee-deep in trash because this severe law was needed in the first place.

This does not mean the Keen’s arguments are without merit or that the Internet has ushered in an age of wonderful prosperity and justice for all. It hasn’t. But, as I’ve said again and again, once things change, they don’t change back.

Keen’s best line is on page 188 during a discussion of Uber, the service that summons an un-taxi Uber-service-driver from a smartphone app, a service that is giving registered and regulated taxi drivers a lot of competition. Services like Uber, says Keen, quoting George Packer, solve “all the problems of being twenty years old with cash in hand.” It’s one thing to need a ride home from the club when you’re tipsy, but is Uber going to wait in a line at the airport and help you and your family with your bags? Maybe not.

And it’s certainly true that there’s little chance that another Amazon or Facebook or YouTube or Google will come along: the heady days of Internet pioneering are all but over. But all might not be lost: MySpace got blindsided by Facebook, and kids today have moved on to Vine and Instagram.

So if, as the title says, the Internet is NOT the answer, then what is the question? Keen says the question (page ix) is along the lines of “wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone in the world could communicate directly with everyone else?” Then everyone would have a voice and equality would reign.

It’s true enough that the Internet falls short. Countries censor the Internet routinely, and the race for the latest gadget leaves a lot of people in the dust. But why is this the Internet’s fault?

Let me, as a kind of “Internet insider,” try to put some of this in perspective.

Keen is a consummate hand-wringer when it comes to the impact of the Internet and technology (he often blurs any distinction between the two) on our daily lives. A large section of the book (especially pages 76-86) is taken up with the demise of Kodak in the face of the rise of digital photography and uploaded cell phone “selfies.” The once-thriving city of Rochester, New York, home to Kodak, is now struggling with these effects and striving to find a substitute employer to stave off complete chaos and bankruptcy.

But isn’t this story also about how the dunderheaded executives at Kodak were slow to embrace or adapt to changes in the photography industry? They invented the digital camera and then didn’t want to tell anyone because they might mess up their 90% share of the film industry. But wasn’t an even bigger mistake made when Kodak passed on becoming the “official film” of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles and letting Fuji Film grab all the glory?

Were the Kodak folks any worse than the executives at Xerox who sent the inventor of the laser printer off to Palo Alto into a sort of corporate exile because the Connecticut headquarters guys were only concerned with copier sales? (The way that Xerox “fumbled the future,” as one book put it, is legendary. One way or another, Xerox gave up the rights to the PC, the mouse, computer networks, network protocols, graphical displays, windowed processes, and more…all while managing not to make a dime from any of them.)

And what about the city of Rochester? Did they think Kodak was the only company that could open offices and factories? All they needed to become Flint, Michigan was to invite Roger Moore to visit and make a movie. When you put all your eggs in one huge basket, what do you do when the bottom falls out of the basket?

The truth is that business has always turned over, sometimes slowly, often quickly. When I used to teach this stuff, I always pointed out that no railroad became an airline, although the railroads had plenty of expertise in transportation. Why should it be any different today? Why should print publishers flourish in an online world, even if they know a lot about authors and marketing? In the 1980s I read that the list of the Fortune 500 companies turned over 50% with each generation. If it was that fast then, why should the “post-Internet” world be any different now?

Given my background, you can see I’m not an Internet basher, but I’m not an uncritical cheerleader either, especially when you compare the promise of the early Internet and Web with the mind-numbing content of the bandwidth hogs of today. As I said at the start, a context shift can be revealing, and Keen does provide a good context shift: are we really better off than we were before we started the Internet journey?

We had a lively debate at work this week about a classic problem involving books on a shelf. If you read it as straight “word math” problem, you’ll get the wrong answer. But if you shift the context to a problem of visualization, the answer is easily grasped and even trivial. Sometimes I think the shift involving the Internet is from “I wish they’d make a network that could survive a nuclear bomb. We’ll call it the Internet” to “I wish they’d drop a nuclear bomb on the Internet. We’ll call it the end of annoyingly cute cat videos.” It all depends on how you look at it.

 

Ultima by Stephen Baxter

Ultima by Stephen Baxter (Orion House/Gollancz Books, 2014), 549 pages.

U Baxter

I realized last week that I had violated my usual 3-nonfiction-then-1-science-fiction book pattern. But here is the book that should have been next off the walter.book.stack. It’s Ultima, the sequel to Baxter’s Proxima book I wrote about previously. I’ll get back to the rhythm, I promise.

I’m not even sure I’m supposed to have bought this book, which I ordered on Amazon (I try to buy as many books as I can in book stores, but often I have to turn to Amazon…I buy enough books to make everyone happy, I think). Anyway, I’m not even sure who actually published this book. It’s a UK book, published by www.orionbooks.co.uk and www.gollancz.co.uk, as the bar code puts it on the back. If that’s not confusing enough, the inside mentions that it’s a product of Orion House (“An Hachette UK Company”), that it was typeset at The Spartan Press Ltd. (Lymington, Hants), and that it was printed and bound by CPI Group (UK) Ltd. (Croyden, CR0 4YY). The price only given in pounds (16.99, which seemed a little steep for a paperback) and “in UK only.”

Why should this matter? Anyone who has tried to buy a book published in Canada and not in the US quickly finds that things are not simple in the book industry. Publishers are often national in scope, and not international, and “foreign rights” have value to publisher and authors. But I purchased this book right off the US Amazon web site, and they shipped it right out, so I hope that I am not in violation of some strict regulation enforced by the book police.

For those who think I am never going to talk about the book: I’m done. Almost. This is the UK edition, as I said, but contains only a few turns of phrase I was not familiar with as a life-long American (not like, say, Harry Potter texts, which can be very different). There’s the single quoted dialog instead of double quotes thing (the UK singles always struck me as more rational and cleaner), but that’s really all I noticed.

I did like the author notice at the front, though: “The right of Stephen Baxter to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patent Act of 1988.” Now, that’s a copyright notice! And the copyright holder is Baxter, not the publisher, as with most of my books.

Anyway, Ultima picks up where Proxima leaves off. Proxima ended when a group of travelers journey through a mysterious Hatch (Baxter’s term) and reach not only a far-away star like Proxima Centauri, closest star to our sun, but an alternate universe where human history has taken a different path. I think this book ends the duology, although the story can go on if Baxter wants to extend it. But the “proxima” title (nearest) is balanced so neatly by the “ultima” title (farthest) that a pair of “bookends” are probably then best outcome for these stories.

It’s one thing to write a book where a group of characters have to save the world. But Baxter not only tackles the chore of saving the whole universe, but the whole multiverse as well. The multiverse, for those who stick to one-world books, is the collection of different universes that makes up reality. Naturally, there is plenty during the trip for fans of the alternate history type of science fiction story. Without giving too much away, Baxter enjoys describing a world run by a Romanized Britain whose empire never fell to the barbarian hordes (although a recognizable version of Christianity runs through this world). He lovingly lingers over each aspect of this universe (which has starships but no computers, for example) until I had to rush through the descriptions of the harbors just to get on with the story.  The more you know about Roman Britain (I suspect UK readers might be fascinated by this topic), the better you will like the first “what if” half of this story.

But I think my impatience had a lot to do with my familiarity with Roman history and not with any shortcoming of Baxter’s writing. In fact, I know it was all me, because I found the second part of the story, set in a universe where the South American Incas rule the stars, endlessly fascinating. Baxter does a good job of integrating his research with modernized Incan cultural practices such as primitive forest tribes, ornate costumes, human sacrifice, and so on. As odd as the characters are, they are all recognizably human and just as likely to hinder as to help along the main point of the plot.

Without giving the whole plot away, let me just say that this main plot, alluded to in Proxima and brought to fruition in Ultima, concerns an artificial intelligence (AI) entity named Earthshine communicating with really slow-thinking but sentient bacteria in the ground to save the universe of the story from being demolished during a collision with the boundary of another universe of the multiverse. When Baxter, goes big, he goes BIG, I have to say.

The biggest issue I had with this “biggest theme of all” approach, however (and I generally like Baxter’s writing, as I’ve said), is that the characters tend to shrink as the canvas they are drawn on expands.  For example, the first part of Proxima is propelled, and excellently, I thought, by a quirky, roughed-and-tumbled character named Yuri Eden. But by the start of Ultima, poor Yuri is all but consumed by the wear and tear of surviving on hostile worlds populated with hostile characters compounded by the aging required by scaling a story up to interstellar distances, even with the magical hatches as shortcuts (of course, if you don’t take the Hatch route, traveling four light years takes at least four years of your life).

Yuri is sick, Yuri is old, and then Yuri dies. But we can’t think about poor old beloved Yuri for long, because we must be off to save the multiverse.  Along the way, the emotionally hot humans age out or die off and the cool and calculating AI entities (there are two: Earthshine and ColU) take over the narrative, which then in the end tends to become as cool and calculating as the robots. There is a long scene with Earthshine’s virtual reality (don’t get me started on VR!) self and the humans sitting around a campfire (really) while Earthshine tells them the long tale of their universe (panspermia plays a large role).

(Wait! Did he just call the AI entities “robots”? Yeah, I did. Someday, I will do a whole write-up on AI stuff, but for now just note that I don’t particularly like the term “artificial intelligence” at all. I prefer “simulated intelligence,” which is what it really is. And this whole modern idea of uploading Uncle Harry into a computer is nonsense; a fantasy of immortality given a computer science basis no more real than ectoplasm. Moreover, there are hints that intelligence appears to be as much of an illusion as consciousness.)

I have one more Baxter book on the input queue: Stone Spring.  I’ll give you a break before that one.

At the Edge of Uncertainty by Michael Brooks

At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise by Michael Brooks (Overlook Books, 2015), 292 pages.

ATEOU Brooks

I loved Brooks’s 2009 book, 13 Things that Don’t Make Sense, so I jumped all over this book when it came out. Both books are about things that scientist know or have evidence of, but are sort of at a loss to figure out how to fit them into our “standard” models of reality. At least a couple of the head-scratchers from the 2009 book, like the strange drift of deep space probes, seem now to have satisfactory answers, so a follow-up volume was a good idea. And I like to keep up with lots of different science fields.

But I have to say that some of the 11 topics chosen left me a little puzzled as to what could be so radical or challenging about them. Interesting, yes, but hardly challenges to contemporary scientific understanding that things like dark matter and dark energy (although “dark flow” does show up at the end). It’s one thing to note that gender differences have been ignored or underappreciated in vaccine or drug research, but addressing the issue does not require any new science or breakthrough of theory. We only need to add common sense about half the human race to often un-reported gender biases.

Let’s go through each of the 11 discoveries and let’s see what it is that makes them noteworthy.

Consciousness and zombies—Given my AI background, I liked that the book started off with material about new discoveries in brain neuroscience. That said, Brooks puts it all in a package with “zombies,” although brain scientists mean something very different than reanimated dead people. In AI studies, a zombie is a person who acts just like a regular human, but you aren’t really sure that their minds are working like ours. After all, we only know of one truly conscious person in the universe: the person looking out at the world from behind our eyes.  The discoveries here include studies that seem to establish near-human levels of consciousness in “lower animals” like parrots. Visual studies (page 17) are starting to reveal a unified theory of the mind for the first time (it’s hard to have “artificial” intelligence when you really have no idea what “intelligence” is in the first place. Otherwise a strict behaviorist approach (“if it acts like a duck…”) prevails, but this is not very scientific or challenging, given the way people talk to their GPS systems.

Humans aren’t special—In a related chapter, Brooks explores animal emotion and points out that animals can be shy or bold and exhibit personalities like humans (I suspect anyone with dogs or horses knows this). But even funnel-web spiders can be aggressive (as in New Mexico) or shy (as in Arizona) (page 42), a finding that sort of had everyone scratching their heads.

Rise of the chimera—We can now manipulate the DNA of many species, and from a strictly scientific point of view, people are mostly bacteria (page 66). This chapter opens with a survey of early attempts, starting in 1656, at inter-species blood transfusions (page 57) which is not for the squeamish, and speaks of experiments to crossbreed humans and apes (I’m not sure which to feel more sorry for).

Epigenetics—There is more than a hint of evidence that Lamarck (the guy who thought giraffes grew longer necks because they stretched them during life) was onto something after all (page 89). Darwin proposed that proto-giraffe offspring with slightly longer necks were “fitter” than others of their generation and so survived when the population was stressed.  But the discovery of epigenetics and the idea that heredity is not all DNA has given scientists a way to test some of Lamarck’s ideas. But experimenting on human is tough. In one of the books gems, Brooks tells how the Indian scientist Subbabrao discovered tetracycline and folic acid and a host of B vitamins and the magical molecule of biological systems, adenosine triphosphate (ATP, page 86). By 1983 (Subbabrao died in 1948) vitamin supplements for pregnant women were deemed so important that studies with control groups without vitamins were considered unethical. Now, that’s the kind of stuff everyone should know.

Gender—I know the stuff I read is good when I run to tell my wife what I just read. This chapter covers the underrepresentation of women in major drug studies, and much to the chagrin of all, giving the same drug to a man or a woman turns out to be important. For example, in 1989, high-viral-count versions of measles vaccine killed 33% more Third World girls than boys (page 101). Why? Because the new dosage had not been tested adequately on malnourished females. Now they get extra food with the vaccine. Gender science shows that women and men have completely different heart attack symptoms, but the whole system is set up to detect and treat men (page 105). The main symptom in women is not chest or shoulder but lower abdominal pain, often dismissed by male doctors.

Will to Live—If a famous person commits suicide, and this is treated as a big story, suicides of “regular people” will spike immediately after (page 134). If you dump the survivors of a shipwreck or plane crash into the ocean, people with similar weighs, ages, general health, and so on will have very different survival rates. At some point, older people just seem to let go and lose the urge to keep going (in fairness, this is often after a health crisis or loss of someone dear). It just might turn out that if you think you’re old and about to go, you are and you will.

Quantum biology—Scientists are finding out that quantum effects at atomic levels might make life not only more efficient, but possible in the first place. This is apparently how only 450 “smell nerves” can detect thousands of aromas (page 149). Quantum “vibrations” might be important in photosynthesis as well (much of this vital process remains mysterious).

Reality—So they tell me that we might be all programs running on a computer the size of the universe (page 173). I read a whole book on this by Max Tegmark, and Brooks creates a nice summary. My whole career has been spent in networking and telecommunications, and here’s the problem I have: bits is bits. If the whole universe is information like 10100101101… and so on, where does the meaning come from?  (See “the Information Paradox” by Peter J. Denning and Tim Bell on page 470 in the November-December 2012 issue of American Scientist for more on my point. Let me know when you have an answer. John Wheeler thought the human mind essentially created meaning in the universe.)

Big Bang Issues—This is where “dark flow” comes in (age 195). Whole clusters of galaxies are apparently being dragged off somewhere…but where? And by what? It could be, as poet e e cummings once put it, “the universe next door” is having one heck of a big party and wants us to come. (How excited do you get over things that might or might not happen 10 or 20 billion or trillion years from now?) Anyway, a lot of things imply that the Big Bang doesn’t work well anymore.

Hypercomputing—We all saw Turing invent the computer in The Imitation Game, right? But the “Turing Machine” is only one possible model of a computational device. Studies in hypercomputing (they are even hard to describe) show that these might be better models for the human brain than digital (0 or 1) processes. But nobody knows yet…which is good.

Time—I took not one note on this last chapter. Time is relative, Einstein showed. Deal with it. 🙂

 

 

The Young T. E. Lawrence by Anthony Sattin

 

The Young T. E. Lawrence by Anthony Sattin (W.W. Norton, 2015) 316 pages

TYTEL Sattin

Well, everyone knows by now my fascination with Joan of Arc and related things Medieval. But Joan is not the only topic that I’ve been sucked into like a whirlpool between rocks. The spirals come and go, rise and fall, but even when the waters seem quiet, the littlest disturbance can set the ocean of my mind spinning again.

Consider, for example, my current interest in Lawrence of Arabia, which I find intellectually stimulating but which my wife Camille suspects is merely creepy. I thought everyone in the whole world knew who Lawrence of Arabia was: a review of this book mentioned that Lawrence and Winston Churchill are the most written about Englishmen of the 20th Century. However, Camille is an art teacher, and a quick ad-hoc survey of students and other teachers and adults revealed that most people have no idea who this guy was, although some did recall a movie about him they had once caught in part (it is almost four hours long).

As with Joan of Arc, I think everyone should know more about Lawrence of Arabia. So read this.

This is not really a book review (actually, none of these essays are “reviews” of a book, as I’ve said before). Consider this more of an answer to “Why should anyone care about this guy Thomas Edward Lawrence?”

Let’s skip to the end first: essentially, Lawrence, born in 1888, was a young British army officer during World War I (1914-1918) in Cairo who was posted as a liaison to the Arabs in Syria and the Arabian Peninsula to see if they could be organized into an effective fighting force against the Turks, the allies of the dreaded Germans. After warfare in the west had stalled in long trench-based bloodbaths, and the disastrous Gallipoli landing failed with enormous losses for the allies, perhaps a breakthrough in the east would help morale if nothing else.

T. E. Lawrence broke every rule of the British army and modern warfare (he pioneered guerilla tactics) and yet succeeded brilliantly in leading the camel-riding Arab Army against Aqaba (the crowning moment of David Lean’s amazing film) and finally Damascus. Many of Lawrence’s seemingly foolhardy acts of bravery can be traced to his direct experience with what terrible shots Easterners were before the war.

After the war, the British and especially the French had no interest in leaving the entire Middle East, including Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and a couple of other countries, in the hands of an autonomous tribal conglomeration. The oil (for battleships built after 1910) the allies had used to help win the war was far too valuable and important. And then there was that sticky Jewish-Palestine issue (and this was before the Nazis…).

Stung, and feeling somewhat betrayed (justly), Lawrence renounced his status and medals and spent the rest of his life (he famously died in a motorcycle crash in 1935 at the age of 46) writing letters and books and hiding from his own life and trying to point out what a mistake they had made carving up the Middle East with arbitrary borders. No one paid this lunatic much attention, but the Middle East would be very different today if his views had prevailed (Churchill did listen, but everyone claimed that there was nothing could be done at that point). The whole past 100 years can be read as a struggle to adjust to boundaries and rulers imposed on the Arabs by the allies after the war.

Seen through this lens, Lawrence’s life becomes a puzzling rise to power, a few years of glorious action, and then a sad decline to a frustrating retirement and death. I have another book about that “decline” to read. Sattin’s book, published in Britain in 2013 as A Portrait of the Legend as a Young Man, is about Lawrence’s adventures in the years leading up to WW I, or his first 26 years.

But this book shows that Lawrence’s great run through Arabia was not a fluke. He wasn’t alone, but one of many British officers who served with distinction in the desert campaign. However, he was the only one who had traveled alone through Syria on foot during the height of summer studying Crusader castles (page 38), learning the language and politics of the locals long before this knowledge would become strategic. Only Lawrence had spent four years digging at the great Hittite city Carchemish (Jerablus) on the Euphrates, gaining valuable experience as the archaeological overseer of a mixed group of Arabs and Kurds, who often tangled (page 180, although this reference to a man named Busrawi is not included in the index). Lawrence also got to keep a wary eye on the Germans, who were building a bridge for the Baghdad Railway nearby. Lawrence feared they would decorate their embankments with Hittite stone carvings (page 147), but eventually he made a deal whereby they would haul his rubble away for their bridge approaches.

Sattin treats Lawrence’s relationship with the “donkey-boy” Dahoum (real name Ahmed) with sensitivity. There is clearly more going on than mere interest in a poor boy’s education (page 114-116), although the asexual Lawrence (page 25) managed to handle the relationship without arousing anger in homophobic societies.  This book is the first I can recall that explains the “Dahoum” (Darkness) nickname as a play on the boy’s light complexion.

Sattin also points out (page 122) that Lawrence’s claim that the four years doing archaeology at Carchemish were the happiest of his life is a reflection on Lawrence’s realization of his family history. His father, the former Sir Thomas Chapman, abandoned his lands and estates and wife and daughters in Ireland to run off with their Scottish housekeeper, Sarah Junner. A financial settlement kept the new family, which grew to include five sons, afloat, but marriage was out of the question. (And it’s not like there were many jobs for idle ex-Irish lords.) Lawrence seems to have imagined his royal position at Carchemish as a good approximation of the life he could have lived.

In parallel with Lawrence’s attraction to Eastern culture came a slow withdrawal from his home and family. The digging was seasonal, but Lawrence spent the off-seasons wandering around the area and acting as de-facto guard for the site. Before the war broke out, Lawrence had spent a year and a half in the company of Dahoum (page244), even taking him to England for a few weeks in the summer of 1913 (page 200). Lawrence hoped to return to Carchemish as archaeologist after the fighting (page 262) but Dahoum had died of typhus in 1916 (page 259) and Lawrence’s notoriety made archaeology unthinkable.

Dahoum became the “S.A.” to whom Lawrence dedicated his magnum opus Seven Pillars of Wisdom, although the opening poem expressing his love for his friend was not published until after Lawrence’s death (page 266). I still have my battered 1962 paperback edition of the book, which I admit I could not get through until the 50th anniversary edition of the film appeared in 2012.

I’ve read a lot of books about T. E. Lawrence since. I have more on my “to be read” pile. So stayed tuned for more.

Today, naturally, we can recognize Lawrence’s post-war years for what they probably were: a case of extreme PTSD who dulled his post-war mental and physical anguish with outlandish acts of humiliation and mortification until he ultimately committed suicide by shooting himself in the head with a bullet in the shape of a motorcycle. The only pictures I’ve ever seen of Lawrence’s wide, toothy smile show him astride the monstrously overpowered beast that killed him.

I wonder if anyone has written that book yet?    🙂