Quarterly review: FY2013Q2

Below are links to all the off-the-cuff reviews of books and film from this quarter, besides my more in depth reviews. During 2013Q2 my family spent 7 weeks in Japan, so there was quite a spike in my media consumption. I do not even list the television series that I watched while they were away.

From Goodreads (2013)

★★★★★ We Are Anonymous: Inside the Hacker World of LulzSec Anonymous

★★★★☆ Future Perfect (the second time I read it. Original review here.)

★★★★☆ The Martian Chronicles

★★☆☆☆ Radical Openness Four Unexpected Principles for Success

★★★★★ Farthing

★★★★☆ Homeland

From my Letterboxd film diary:

★★★★☆ We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists

★★★★☆ Star Trek Into Darkness

★★★½☆ Warrior

★★★☆☆ Oblivion

★★☆☆☆ Hackers

★★★★½ Cloud Atlas

★★★★★ Django Unchained

★★★★☆ The Master

★★½☆☆ Tales from Earthsea

★★★★☆ Zero Dark Thirty

4 more horsemen — a review of Cypherpunks

Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet

Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet by Andy Greenberg

NOTE: Originally posted on Medium.

This book is really a footnoted conversation between Julian Assange, Jacob Appelbaum, Andy Müller-Maguhn and Jérémie Zimmermann, some big names in the internet/activist/anarchist/online security communities. It would have been great to see this as a video, but in some cases the footnotes are essential.

Their conversation reminds me of the discussions we have in Talk Club (a local, salon-like discussion group): no holds barred, anything goes, blue sky solutioneering. But these guys are not only really smart, they are professionals in their fields. When they riff upon one another, sure some batshit crazy stuff comes out, but more often than not the reader is nodding his head along to some brilliant comment or another.

Some of it is just being clever. Says Assange:

Cryptography is the ultimate form of non-violent direct action.

and:

A mobile phone is a tracking device that also makes calls.

but at a more profound level:

It was a fact of physics that it was possible to make an atomic bomb, and when an atomic bomb was made then geo-politics changed.

The “platonic realm” of the internet is the source of a political disruption on a grand scale for these four men, but it is also the salvation of the people. Their conversation serves as a warning to those people not to depend on government or corporate coddling, but to take responsibility online, to be the final arbiters of their online destiny.

This book is certainly a product of its time, especially since it is so lodged in the situations of WikiLeaks and Assange’s incarceration. The protests against SOPA and PIPA feature heavily as do ACTA, and the 2012 views on BitCoin seem quaint from our current historical vantage point. Regardless, it serves as a primer on cryptoanarchy, but furthermore on the problems of privacy and surveillance, freedom of expression and censorship, and the politics of a new web savvy activism. A quick read, you will probably be looking for more depth elsewhere. I suggest This Machine Kills Secrets by Andy Greenberg.

Unbridled optimism — a review of Abundance

Abundance: The future is better than you think
Abundance: The future is better than you think by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler

Abundance is a book of two parts, with a sprinkling of Singularity University and XPRIZE promotion and some nice little autobiographical tidbits. The first part introduces the arguments against abundance (Thomas Malthus, Club of Rome, etc.) and attempts to brute force them with tons of data. From this section I can tell Diamandis and Kotler are well-educated technology optimists, and that they read many of the same books as me. You may recognize the arguments of Kevin Kelly and Chris Anderson among others. The second part of the book is a whirlwind tour of exciting and inspiring advancements, some of which I knew about and others which I intend to investigate further.

Of the many themes presented, I think they circle back to one thing: we live in an age of exponential growth, where technological capability is rapidly expanding while conservation of needs are at the front of our minds. One reason for this era of the exponentials is that more and more of our science and innovation (eg. biotech) are effectively being turned into information science problems. To get a taste of this, here is Peter talking about the 6 Ds of exponentials:

All 6 of those Ds make multiple appearances in the book.

The collaborative problem-solving potential of the internet- connected world-brain made up of billions of progressive individual humans is a common technology optimist theme. But the book does not take a critical approach. The authors present a series of amazing successes yet do not provide any context. What about all the failures? Regarding the successes, what (small) percentage of the total attempts do they represent? Cynicism and pessimism about the future are the only real contexts they provide, and maybe that is good enough. When people say that we live in an era on the brink of utopia, this book represents a great collection of the evidence for that point of view. As far as Diamandis and Kotler are concerned, the alternative narrative is already the dominant one.

Some people will take issue with Diamandis and Kotler’s supreme faith in technological solutions to the world’s problems. Their backing of genetically engineered food and fourth generation nuclear power are presented perfectly aware of the knee-jerk political reaction. I am confident this book will be viewed as a trove of solutionist bias. However Abundance is by no means a thorough philosophical treatise about progress to be studied generations from now. It is an inspirational and is self-admittedly soon to be out of date. The afterword specifically addresses this point, inviting readers to the website to learn about more recent advancements. If you are looking to be inspired and want to learn about edges of current technological progress, would recommend you read this book sooner rather than later.

The New Banality — a review of The New Digital Age

The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business

The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business by Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen

Since I read This Machine Kills Secrets first, this book seems particularly dangerous to the web as a whole. Universal User Registration? A supranational committee for quarantining non-conforming IPs? This is a company guy and a government guy trying to organize and regulate the internet. Schmidt and Cohen speak as the establishment, and some of their proposals will scare proponents of the open Web. Many of their other proposals are basically blue-sky-solutioneering. I think this book will appeal to those already in power, which is disappointing because I find their view is far too statist and establishment to reflect the true disruptive power and decentralized nature that Web connectivity gives us. I suspect policy writers will point to this book as a mandate from the “tech elite” which makes it an important read. Study it closely and highlight as much as you can. There are many layers here. Think of who the messages are intended for, and be very critical in your assessment.

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I wrote most of the above early last month on Goodreads. Today Julian Assange released an op-ed in The New York Times that basically mirrored my thoughts. Two choice quotes:

The prose is terse, the argument confident and the wisdom — banal. But this isn’t a book designed to be read. It is a major declaration designed to foster alliances.

But this is essential reading for anyone caught up in the struggle for the future, in view of one simple imperative: Know your enemy.