New York Times journalist John Markoff was interviewed by Kara Swisher on the Recode podcast in February and talked about reading science fiction to better understand how technology is likely to affect us.
It’s actually a great piece of advice. Back in the day, large corporates used to employ authors to write stories based on scenarios as part of their research programmes. Many people have attributed the clamshell mobile phone to the Star Trek TV series and the flip communicator devices.
Markoff outlined his favourite stories.
“Snow Crash” by Neal Stephenson (1992): “The premise is, America only does two things well. One is write software, and the other is deliver pizzas. [laughs] What’s changed?”
“The Shockwave Rider” by John Brunner (1975): Markoff said he built his career on an early understanding that the internet would change everything. He said, “[The Shockwave Rider] argued for that kind of impact on society, that networks transformed everything.”
“True Names” by Vernor Vinge (1981): “The basic premise of that was, you had to basically hide your true name at all costs. It was an insight into the world we’re living in today … We have to figure it out. I think we have to go to pseudonymity or something. You’re gonna participate in this networked existence, you have to be connected to meatspace in some way.”
“Neuromancer” by William Gibson (1984): Markoff is concerned about the growing gap between elders who need care and the number of caregivers in the world. And he thinks efforts to extend life are “realistically possible,” pointing to Gibson’s “300-year-old billionaires in orbit around the Earth.
I had read Snow Crash relatively recently and Neuromancer was revisited last year. I had a vague recollection of The Shockwave Rider and True Names, but hadn’t read them in over 20 years.
Vinge’s True Names is published by Penguin with a collection of essays from a range of technology thinkers including
- Chip Morningstar and Randy Farmer who founded Habitat one of the first massive online multiplayer games, back when dial up bulletin boards were the bleeding edge. Farmer worked at Yahoo! when I was there and was involved in Yahoo! 360 and still consults on community / social platform issues
- Bruce Schneier wrote about how security products fail us. Bruce is one of the world’s leading commentators on all things hack and cryptography related
- Mark Pesce is better known now as an Australian-based computer academic, but two decades ago he invented VRML – a way of representing the internet as a 3D thing and prescient in the light of Oculus Rift and others.
- Marvin Minsky; was a pioneer in AI and machine learning provided an afterward to the story
That True Names managed to attract essays from these people should be an endorsement in itself. Re-reading it two decades on, Vinge’s story echoes and riffs on the modern web. Hacking, cyberterrorism, constant government surveillance and the tension between libertarian netizens versus the regulated real world. The central theme of Mr Slippy; a hacker who is identified by US government officials and co-opted as an unwilling informant and agent provocateur feels reminiscent of LULZSec leader and super grass Sabu. It’s amazing that Vinge wrote this in 1981 – although he envisages the web as being rather like a Second Life / Minecraft metaverse – with NeuroSky style interfaces.
Penguin’s careful curation of essays riffing on the themes of True Names is where the real value is in my opinion. For someone who cares about technology and consumer behaviour. It is worthwhile keeping this book on the shelf and diving in now and again.
Want to understand the future? Read science fiction, John Markoff says. | Recode
Habitat Chronicles – thoughts on gaming, online products and community building by Chip Morningstar and Randy Farmer
Schneier on Security
Mark Pesce’s professional website and his columns for The Register
Vernor Vinge lecture on long-term scenarios for the future via The Wayback Machine
I’ve been a bit quiet due to work and life intervening. Alongside my work in looking at strategy through a data-centric lens I have also taken on a content strategy role on a project. This isn’t about:
- Coming up with a few social ideas
- Editorial direction
But a much wider approach that takes a systems approach to content. What it is, where should it be and how it should be refreshed. With this in in mind I can thoroughly recommend The Content Strategy Toolkit: Methods, Guidelines, and Templates for Getting Content Right by Meghan Casey.
Meghan also provides a set of downloadable template to make your life even easier. I found the book relatively easy to digest but still have it about as a reference book on my current project.
I can also recommend the current British Museum exhibition: The American Dream – pop to the present. I really liked the works from the NASA art programme by Robert Rauschenberg that celebrated the Apollo programme.
I had this book on my list of to read materials as it was a proto-cyberpunk novel, and finally got past my inertia when John Markoff recommended it.
Brunner was a British science fiction writer who did his best work in the 1960s and early 1970s in this book he reflects on a connected world not too far away from the one that we live in. Despite Brunner’s roots he manages to speak with a confident American voice in his writing; something that I don’t think is a bad thing, but caused friction with his contemporaries.
The main protagonist is a hacker who has used his skills to conjure new identities and ends up starting a revolution through the creation of computer viruses and worms. Brunner is credited with introducing the concept of the modern computer worm.
His work reflects a different society to our own where our identities can be broken (if you have the skill or the money) and a new one forged – a vision 180 degrees away from what governments, advertisers and social networks want. He is on to something with The Ear – a service that audiences can contact and will be listened to in privacy and without judgement. The secular confessional it represents feels like something the world needs as a counterweight to the cognitive dissonance and connectivity-as-social-value of social networks like Facebook and SnapChat.
I’d read Joe Studwell’s How Asia Works over lunar new year. Studwell dealt directly with there reasons for East Asia’s economic growth and Southeast Asia’s failing to follow them.
Studwell attached this same subject through through a different lens. In Asian Godfathers, he tells the story through Asia’s business tycoons; from the taipans of Hong Kong to Stanley Ho – the Macau gambling tycoon.
Cosmopolitan privileged people who where in the right place at the right time. Some of them had colourful origin stories as black marketers selling fake medicines and blockade runners. But they are just a side show in a wider panorama of political greed and incompetence. Asian Godfathers is more like Hotel Babylon than an economics analysis like How Asia Works, yet it delivers its message forcefully.
Aicher was a German designer most famous of his graphic design and typography. His most famous font is Rotis His impact was far wider. Aicher was a co-founder of the short-lived Ulm School of Design. Over its 15 years it developed a legacy that continues to echo through design education.
He worked with prominent German brands including Braun, Lufthansa and ERCO the lighting firm.
Aicher’s design language for the Munich Olympics was ground breaking. He designed the first Olympic mascot: Waldi a dachshund with multicoloured bands on his body. The posters for the Munich Olympics were hyper coloured designs that still had a system wrapped around them and now trade for hundreds of pounds.
You can blame him for single handedly kicking off the use of stickmen pictograms on public signage in buildings like airports.
Aicher and his colleagues at Ulm were about more than making things look pretty on their medium of choice, they thought about systems. Aicher’s holistic approach to systems influenced modern brand design. Mark Holt, a co-founder of 8vo; who worked on everything from Factory Records to billing systems for mobile carrier Orange cited Aicher as a major influence.
Aicher’s book The World of Design collects a series of his essays across a wide spectrum of topics. Culture and political essays sit alongside examinations on the process of design and typography. Design and art do not exist in isolation but as part of the wider world. Something that you become keenly aware of as being central to his thinking – alongside his advocacy of reinvigorating modernism.
Probably most striking is Aicher’s delivery and style of writing. He writes with absolute confidence as each item has been thought about, despite feeling like a stream of consciousness in the way those mulled over thoughts are put down. He also completely dispenses with capital letters, sentences flow into each other from a visual perspective. This gives his work a sense of urgency and authenticity – but doesn’t make it any easier to read.
Theses essays felt as if they were born on the internet not written sometime before Aicher died in 1991, which says a lot about how fresh and contemporary his work still is.
I picked up Blood and Faith on a trip to Madrid. I have a habit of picking up English language history books if I can when visiting a place. It gives you a sense of how a country wants itself to be seen. These usually vary from clumsy propaganda to insightful works.
Coming across Carr’s book surprised me as it addressed a part of Spain’s history in an unsympathetic light. It covers briefly the expulsion of Spain’s Jewish community and covers the expulsion of the Moors in greater depth.
Carr’s background as a journalist and as the son of a controversial English teacher who got involved in post-colonial politics casts a certain lens for his writing perspective. His knowledge of Spain and Islam is second to none having covered both the Islamic world and Spain extensively in books and journalism.
Carr paints a complex picture of tolerance and a cosmopolitan society interspersed with zealotry, bigotry and criminality. The book shows how the decision to expel the Moors came about, a mix of:
- Security concerns in terms of internal strive and alleged support of pirate raiding parties from North Africa and Turkey
- Changes in Spanish royalty as the Hapsburg’s came to the throne. Their German background brought a ‘neoconservative’ viewpoint on Islam due the threat that the Ottoman empire posed to central Europe
- Internal politics within the Catholic church with hawks and doves
- External relations with the Holy See and other Catholic countries who viewed Spain as being tainted
- Internal injustice that caused Moor dissent which in turn fuelled the paranoia of the Spanish
The book and its subject matter feels surprisingly contemporary. 17th century Spain still provides us with a good picture of the challenges and chaos that ensues trying to deport people en masse. From discovery to logistics it was a nightmare.
The issues of conservative populism and racism also feel very contemporary given political sentiment across Europe. The expulsion of the Moors and reconquest of Spain have been cited by both Al Qaeda and Daesh to justify their actions.
If you want a book to read on Spain’s relationship with the Moors this is a well researched book, just be careful with what conclusions you chose to draw from it.
I have managed to catch up on a lot of reading over the Lunar New Year festival.
Joe Studwell’s How Asia Works is fascinating reading. It talks about how Korea, Japan and China have grown while their counterparts haven’t. Studwell highlights a number of factors that contribute to economic growth:
- With an agrian economy, a market garden approach to agriculture rather than farming at scale delivers the best results. But only if rent seeking interests are removed through effective agricultural reform
- Industry requires total mastery of technology – which is the reason why low grade heavy industry is the starting point
- Exports planned into industrial development from the beginning and a continued relentless focus on exports is required
- Governments are best at keeping businesses focused on total technology mastery, raising cheap finance and weeding out failures that might be a resource suck
Studwell critiques how different countries throughout Asia have managed to process in this manner including both the strengths and the weaknesses of their respective approaches.
It was fascinating to read how Taiwan managed to succeed in spite of nationalised industries and the challenges in China’s agricultural model. How General Park ‘motivated’ Korean chaebols and the tragedy of development in Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines.
China’s Crony Capitalism by Minxin Pei explained the mechanism of how corrupt officials, state enterprise employees and businesspeople managed to bilk the Chinese government and people of vast amounts of money. Much of the challenge is structural. China has a federalised government with power lying at provincial, city and county level. Pei is hawkish on the country’s prospects.
For an outside observer Pei’s research into the mechanisms, one can appreciate the challenge that the central government faces in combatting corruption and bad behaviour. President Xi’s ‘tigers and flies’ campaign to root out the worst corruption in the party and business is part of the solution; but according to Pei there is also careful structural reform required. This will only be possible through a massive aggregation of power towards the centre.
When I was in college Philip Kotler was a constant part of my life. His Principles of Marketing was a core text for my degree. It is a bit weird reading another book by Professor Kotler; especially one on such a dramatically different topic.
In Democracy in Decline Kotler addresses what are commonly cited as weaknesses in the political system of the United States. He provides an easy to understand guide to the US political system. Kotler then gets into what he identifies as the key points of failure in the American political system.
- Low voter literacy, turnout and engagement
- Shortage of highly qualified and visionary candidates
- Blind belief in American exceptionalism
- Growing public antipathy towards government
- Two-party gridlock preventing needed legislation
- Growing role of money in politics
- Gerrymandering empowering incumbents to get re-elected forever
- Caucuses and primaries leading candidates to adopt more extreme positions
- Continuous conflict between the President and Congress
- Continuous conflict between the federal and state governments
- The supreme court’s readiness to revise legislative actions
- The difficulty of passing new amendments
- The difficulty of developing a sound foreign policy
- Making government agencies more accountable
Kotler’s viewpoint is unashamedly liberal and supportive of collegiate rivalry underpinned by compromise in politics. The White House he envisions is more like the Barlett administration in The West Wing or Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets rather than Hilary Clinton. The flaws he has identified are so big in scale that they would likely require a major re-engineering of American society. From the electoral system, the relationship between federal and state government, public policy and public service.
That kind of re-engineering would require widespread societal approval. That wouldn’t happen in the riven, polarised society of America today. The books measures would be completely against the interests of the conservative movement.
For the European reader, Kotler offers an interesting engaged analysis of the American condition, however there is little to no reflection on the commonalities of national populism in European politics. This book will only provide an understanding of the United States; and that’s ok.
Kotler has a sub-header in the tile of the book ‘Rebuilding the future’. In reality Kotler provides an effective diagnosis, but an not anything that points to an effective solution beyond hoping for the best.
The Dark Forest is the second book in Cixin Liu’s Three Body Problem trilogy. I reviewed the first book here. In the second book the tone changes from being a hard bitten conspiracy story to a fully-blown space opera.
The Dark Forest of the title is a metaphor for a philosophical thought experiment. The universe is thought to be teaming with life. Each civilisation is like a hunter in a dark forest. Revealing oneself, leaves one open to being killed by another hunter. Since you don’t know a hunter’s intention it seems better to be quiet. Conversely if you become aware of another civilisation there is a strong incentive to get them before they get you.
Unlike the first book, The Dark Forest takes place over centuries as the protagonist is put into cryogenic hibernation and then woken centuries later. Living in the future provides a warning for readers against the perils of having all parts of our life automated and connected – it delves into similar themes as Michael Crichton’s Runaway.
Liu deals with complex arguments and grand societal change in a masterful way. I am waiting to read the last book in the trilogy Death’s End.
Hayton sets an ambitious goal for himself to try and unpick the claims and counter claims on territory in the South China sea. It is a massive convoluted story that encompasses colonial powers, oil companies and a plethora of Asian countries.
In the end no one comes out of it with glowing colours. China is easy to paint as a villain and it has played to type. But other countries and major powers have made constant mis-steps and it has become an intractable problem. The more hawkish may see the inevitability of war with China.
On the Chinese side, it makes sense for them to escalate a fight with one of their neighbours; as a Chinese idiom puts it ‘kill a chicken to scare the monkey’ and distract from the pain of change at home. The history is wrapped up with rising nationalism and aspirations of China and its neighbours.
From the American perspective, it makes sense to have the war with China further away from the Homeland, so the South China sea rather than the Pacific ocean.
Hayton doesn’t take a standpoint one way or the other leaving the reader to decide.
From a reading perspective, the tangled nature of the claims makes the book more difficult to read in small bursts. I tried reading it as a commuting book and it took a while to get it done.
More details on The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia
Like many people I was drawn to Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep by Bladerunner. I originally read the paperback book and it is one of the few cases where cinema did a better job than the source material. I read the book after I knew about more about Dick’s amphetamine fuelled life and the paranoia associated with speed underpins the story in plot turns affecting our main character.
Tony Parker has done a really good job of interpreting the original and breathing life into it as a graphic novel. He brings it to life to Dick’s work, in particular the phenomenon of ‘kipple’ and philosophy of Mercerism which underpins much of the novel. It is a credit to Parker that he managed to keep the visuals distinct from the iconic style of Bladerunner.
My one criticism of the Parker adaption is that it is an unwieldy book and the binding comes apart under the weight of the pages. As for the content, I think Parker’s adaption is a better way of taking in Dick’s novel – which has been listed as one of the 100 books you need to read (at least according to the Times Educational Supplement).
The Three Body Problem like all the best science fiction is multi-layered. It has a complex story which gradually weaves together a large set of characters across time as the story is told in a non-linear manner. It is also multi-layered in terms of genres:
- It is a space opera as rich as Asimov’s Foundation books, except it is the aliens who will be doing the interstellar travel
- It has a conspiracy at the heart of it that reminded me of James Bond novels and John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps
- It is the tail of of hard-bitten detective work as if Raymond Chandler had been in Beijing; complete with film noir levels of smoking and drinking
But most interesting of all is the mirror it offers on the modern China from the cultural revolution onwards. Liu is unflinching in his depiction of Cultural Revolution excesses.
Like all good authors there are hints of Liu’s early life in a rural part of Henan province during the cultural revolution. He has managed to spin the complex web of a story. The Three Body Problem is the first book in a trilogy – I am looking forward to reading The Dark Forest – the second book.
I have a couple of books on the go at the moment:
- Smartphones and beyond: Lessons from the remarkable rise and fall of Symbian by David Wood. Wood was a senior executive at Psion and Symbian. A combination of an extensive email archive and electronic diary allowed him to produce a blow-by-blow account. Much of it is in the weeds, interesting, but tough to tease definitive answers out. I keep reading it in spurts and then going away. A more details review will come once I work my way through this.
- The Three-Body Problem – Liu Cixin’s book has been applauded as a science fiction classic in both Chinese and Western circles. Liu has won a Hugo award for this book and is the recipient of the Galaxy award (China’s Hugo award, but with a better name) on nine occasions. I have just started on the book but it seems to have contrasting narratives, the first of which is a shocking portrayal of how intellectuals suffered during the cultural revolution. This is my go to book for commuting, expect a full review soon(ish).
In a world of Marvel-dominated culture, it is hard to imagine more realistic material. Ed Brubaker got the freedom to publish Velvet after several years at DC, Vertigo and Marvel.
Velvet is a welcome antidote to the superhero genre of graphic novels. Instead, you get a cold war era spy drama with modern storytelling. Velvet tells the story of a middle-aged Anne Bancroft-like secretary and one-time agent. The story gets going when she is set up for murder by persons unknown.
In this respect, it outlines the kind of spy plot that would be familiar to readers of Len Deighton or Alistair Maclean. Brubaker’s choice of the early 1970s goes back to a pre-cellphone and computer age. This provides him with a broader canvas to work with.
The story feels modern in its non-linear narrative that moves back and forth between 1956 and 1973. The story zips through Europe across both sides of the Iron Curtain as Velvet tries to find who set her up. The comic features highly kinetic action reminiscent of Matt Damon-era Jason Bourne.
The first two volumes of Velvet are available here and here. Volume three is due out in September.