Books reviewed by Raphael Badagliacca
The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power
by Shoshana Zuboff (2019, Hatchette Book Group)
Some authors are particularly adept at creating meaningful phrases to describe new phenomena. Soshana Zuboff does that right from start in the title of her book with the words, "surveillance capitalism." The text of this nearly 700-page book begins with the definition of those two words: "a new economic order that claims human experience as the free raw material for hidden commercial practices of extraction, prediction, and sales." Anyone with a cell phone, a computer, or access to cable news knows exactly what she is talking about. We live it every day.
Her penchant for apt phrase making continues when she goes on to explain that the value of data to the collectors is in its ability to predict behavior in what she calls the "behavioral futures market." But the ultimate economic goal is not to predict only, but to shape behavior. This is the battlefield on which she urges us to fight for our future.
The reality of surveillance capitalism undermines the idealistic notion that the connectedness of the internet would result in a democratization of knowledge. Instead, it has extracted knowledge from us not for us but for others for a price, while keeping its own methods hidden.
In a cautionary comparison, the author tells us that just as the advent of industrialism imposed a cost on nature, surveillance capitalism threatens human nature.
She attributes the rapid advance of this phenomenon to its invisibility because in our encounters with the unprecedented we automatically interpret it "through the lenses of familiar categories" thereby not seeing it for what it is. In another turn of phrase, she calls surveillance capitalism "a new actor in history," unimpeded by a legal system that cannot understand it or keep up with it.
She distinguishes between technology and the manipulators of technology to their own ends, between the puppet and the puppet master. In the conversation between books that I have referred to several times in this column, we can see agreement here with John C. Havens’ point in "Heartificial Intelligence" that algorithms are not neutral, but reflect the biases of those who program them, and when there is nothing to compete with the profit motive, preoccupation with GDP will set the guidelines. Zuboff writes of "psychic numbing" and "the quicksand of forgetting," a striking phrase to express how each generation overlooks that technology expresses the interests of something other than itself.
Ratcheting up the privacy debate, she calls up the human need for sanctuary, to have a place of refuge to go where we are not known, and how this is disappearing from the digital world. "If the digital future is to be our home then it is we who must make it so" – in other words, we need to be the ones who control our digital future.
Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World
by Clive Thompson (2019, Penguin Press)
Software programming is pervasive, and its presence is growing. It plays a role in nearly everything we do. In this column, I try to find messages in books relevant to leaders of associations. Sometimes they are about the world around us and sometimes they are about the activities that take place in non-profit organizations. In this case, both apply.
To lead any organization today, you must know something about technology. You may not need to know how to code, although even a modest amount of experience in this area clarifies the mind, but you do need to know what software coding can achieve. Since there will no doubt be software coders on your staff or in your employ as contractors, it will help you be a better leader to know their mindset. This book will tell you that.
The author points out that we tend to think of software programmers as engineers, but unlike in mechanical, industrial and civil engineering, the machines software engineers create are made out of words. In the words of the author, that makes software creations "oddly literary." Much later in the book, he recounts his return to programming – something he did in his youth – to get the feel again. He contrasts the burst of joy he experiences watching the program he has written working with the uncertainty he feels when he writes anything else, an article in a magazine or this book you are reading. Evaluations of the quality of a piece of writing always depend on a subjectivity other than his own – the readers. But with the program he just wrote, the evaluation is binary – it works, or it doesn’t – and when it works there is an instant reward.
This is only one of many insights in this book about the mindset of a programmer. There is the grueling aspect of working through bugs, not for the weak of heart, the Asperger-like intensity of focus, and the special empathic understanding of front-end coders, who must keep the end-user top of mind with every keystroke.
There is an in-depth discussion of how advertising diverts the classical aims of programming, which in its best form exhibits the succinctness of poetry. In the internet world, programming which serves advertising, strives to keep the user in an environment you own, equivalent to taking the long way around. Imagine, the author posits, if your GPS worked that way.
Programming for scale makes algorithms the first and last word, which opens debates we have had in these pages, or should I say on these screens, many times, including in the companion book review to this one.
If you want to know more about programming and programmers and how both operate in the world today, pick up this book.