Excerpt: SOCIAL WARMING by Charles Arthur (Oneworld)

ArthurC-SocialWarmingUSHCIt is impossible to ignore the influence of social media. In the years since Facebook and Twitter, in particular, have exploded onto our browsers and mobile devices, many millions have found themselves spending more and more time watching their feeds update. “Doomscrolling” became a common word during the Trump years. Social media has connected us with people across the world with shared interests and hobbies. In too-many instances, it has also allowed the worst aspects of human nature to flourish. In Social Warming, Charles Arthur takes a deep dive into the ways in which social media has changed the world and today we have an excerpt for you. First, though, here’s the synopsis:

Nobody meant for this to happen.

Facebook didn’t mean to facilitate a genocide.

Twitter didn’t want to be used to harass women.

YouTube never planned to radicalise young men.

But with billions of users, these platforms need only tweak their algorithms to generate more ‘engagement’. In so doing, they bring unrest to previously settled communities and erode our relationships.

Social warming has happened gradually — as a by-product of our preposterously convenient digital existence. But the gradual deterioration of our attitudes and behaviour on- and offline — this vicious cycle of anger and outrage — can be corrected. Here’s how.

Now, on with the excerpt…

Continue reading

Quick Review: UNCANNY VALLEY by Anna Wiener (MCD, FSG / Fourth Estate)

WienerA-UncannyValleyUSHCA page-turning memoir of contemporary Silicon Valley

In her mid-twenties, at the height of tech industry idealism, Anna Wiener — stuck, broke, and looking for meaning in her work, like any good millennial — left a job in book publishing for the promise of the new digital economy. She moved from New York to San Francisco, where she landed at a big-data startup in the heart of the Silicon Valley bubble: a world of surreal extravagance, dubious success, and fresh-faced entrepreneurs hell-bent on domination, glory, and, of course, progress.

Anna arrived amidst a massive cultural shift, as the tech industry rapidly transformed into a locus of wealth and power rivaling Wall Street. But amid the company ski vacations and in-office speakeasies, boyish camaraderie and ride-or-die corporate fealty, a new Silicon Valley began to emerge: one in far over its head, one that enriched itself at the expense of the idyllic future it claimed to be building.

Part coming-of-age-story, part portrait of an already-bygone era, Anna Wiener’s memoir is a rare first-person glimpse into high-flying, reckless startup culture at a time of unchecked ambition, unregulated surveillance, wild fortune, and accelerating political power. With wit, candor, and heart, Anna deftly charts the tech industry’s shift from self-appointed world savior to democracy-endangering liability, alongside a personal narrative of aspiration, ambivalence, and disillusionment.

Unsparing and incisive, Uncanny Valley is a cautionary tale, and a revelatory interrogation of a world reckoning with consequences its unwitting designers are only beginning to understand.

This memoir received a lot of buzz prior to release. In some ways, this was inevitable — Silicon Valley remains a perennial fascination for so very many people. However, one thing that was coming out of the early buzz was that this is a rather different kind of Silicon Valley memoir/book. I started reading it pretty much as soon as I got a review copy, and I’m happy to report that the hype was justified: this is a superb book. Continue reading

Upcoming: IF THEN by Jill Lepore (Liveright)

LeporeJ-IfThenA new Jill Lepore book is always something to celebrate! And this latest looks quite different from the author’s previous histories. In the past, Lepore has covered topics such as the storytelling tradition in America (The Story of America), The Secret History of Wonder Woman, and has also tackled the Herculean task of writing a single-volume history of the United States (These Truths). If Then is a history of a data company established during the Cold War and how its influence can still be felt today. Here’s the synopsis:

A brilliant, revelatory account of the Cold War origins of the data-mad, algorithmic twenty-first century, from the author of the acclaimed international bestseller These Truths.

The Simulmatics Corporation, founded in 1959, mined data, targeted voters, accelerated news, manipulated consumers, destabilized politics, and disordered knowledge — decades before Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Cambridge Analytica. Silicon Valley likes to imagine that it has no past, but the scientists of Simulmatics are the long-dead grandfathers of Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk. Borrowing from psychological warfare, they used computers to predict and direct human behavior, deploying their “People Machine” from New York, Cambridge, and Saigon for clients that included John Kennedy’s presidential campaign, the New York Times, Young & Rubicam, and, during the Vietnam War, the Department of Defense.

Jill Lepore, distinguished Harvard historian and New Yorker staff writer, unearthed from archives the almost unbelievable story of this long-vanished corporation, and of the women hidden behind it. In the 1950s and 1960s, Lepore argues, Simulmatics invented the future by building the machine in which the world now finds itself trapped and tormented, algorithm by algorithm.

I’m really looking forward to reading this. I would also highly recommend The Story of America and The Secret History of Wonder Woman. If you are looking for a single-volume history of the United States, then These Truths is certainly one to consider (I’ve typically found that genre rather unwieldy, but Lepore’s book is excellent).

If Then is due to be published by Liveright in North America and in the UK, on September 15th, 2020.

Follow the Author: Website, Goodreads

Upcoming: THE MANSION by Ezekiel Boone (Atria/Emily Bestler)

BooneE-MansionUSThis December, Atria/Emily Bestler Books is due to published Ezekiel Boone‘s latest novel, The Mansion. I’ve only read the first novel in Boone’s Hatching trilogy (which was very good — so I’m not sure why I haven’t moved quicker on reading the other two, which I also have).

A family moves into a home equipped with the world’s most intelligent, cutting-edge, and intuitive computer ever — but a buried secret leads to terrifying and catastrophic consequences…

After two years of living on cheap beer and little else in a bitterly cold tiny cabin outside an abandoned, crumbling mansion, young programmers Shawn Eagle and Billy Stafford have created something that could make them rich: a revolutionary computer they name Eagle Logic.

But the hard work and escalating tension have not been kind to their once solid friendship — Shawn’s girlfriend Emily has left him for Billy, and a third partner has disappeared under mysterious circumstances. While Billy walks away with Emily, Shawn takes Eagle Logic, which he uses to build a multi-billion-dollar company that eventually outshines Apple, Google, and Microsoft combined.

Years later, Billy is a failure, beset by poverty and addiction, and Shawn is the most famous man in the world. Unable to let the past be forgotten, Shawn decides to resurrect his and Billy’s biggest failure: a next-generation computer program named Nellie that can control a house’s every function. He decides to set it up in the abandoned mansion they worked near all those years ago. But something about Nellie isn’t right — and the reconstruction of the mansion is plagued by accidental deaths. Shawn is forced to bring Billy back, despite their longstanding mutual hatred, to discover and destroy the evil that lurks in the source code.

This sounds like it has the potential to be deliciously techno-creepy. I’m really looking forward to reading it. In the meantime, I’ll have to get caught up on the second and third books in the Hatching trilogy…

The Mansion is due to be published by Atria/Emily Bestler Books on December 4th in the US. I could only find a listing for an imported edition for the UK, but a proper UK edition may still be in the works.

Follow the Author: Website, Goodreads, Twitter

Quick Review: FOREST OF MEMORY by Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor.com)

Kowal-MR-ForestOfMemoryAn intriguing, thought-provoking near-future story

Katya deals in Authenticities and Captures, trading on nostalgia for a past long gone. Her clients are rich and they demand items and experiences with only the finest verifiable provenance. Other people’s lives have value, after all.

But when her A.I. suddenly stops whispering in her ear she finds herself cut off from the grid and loses communication with the rest of the world.

The man who stepped out of the trees while hunting deer cut her off from the cloud, took her A.I. and made her his unwilling guest.

There are no Authenticities or Captures to prove Katya’s story of what happened in the forest. You’ll just have to believe her.

This is the first thing by Mary Robinette Kowal that I’ve ever read. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I really liked what I found. This won’t be the last thing of Kowal’s that I read.

The synopsis above really tells you everything you need to know about the story — it’s not only short enough that any more detail would spoil everything, but Kowal’s world-building within the text is sparse and sometimes vague. At times, I really wanted to learn more; but for the purposes of the story, it’s actually unnecessary. For example, we never learn any specifics about Katya’s employers, or the motivations of a person she stumbles across in the forest. If we had, then the story might have felt a little bit more substantial, true, but it’s still a satisfying read.

The novella is presented as a typed account by Katya (typos and all), and she has an interesting voice. If you take the purposeful typos out of the equation, this is very well-written, and Kowal’s prose is excellent. Unwittingly, Katya’s writing highlights the complete dependence her society has developed on mobile and networked technology. It’s a nicely-composed critique, perhaps, of today’s ever-increasing addiction to cell phones, tablets, the internet and, especially, social media. There are references to “captures” and feeds, painting a picture of willful, conscious abdication of privacy. The subject is well-presented, and lacks the heavy-handedness of, for example, David Eggers’s The Circle — a novel that practically bludgeons the reader with a critique that borders on technophobia. I’d be interested in reading more fiction in this setting.

If you like your near-future sci-fi thoughtful and thought-provoking, then Forest of Memory is for you. Recommended.


Forest of Memory is published by Tor.com next month. For more, check out the author’s website, and follow her on Twitter, Facebook and Goodreads. The author’s next novel is Ghost Talkers, due to be published by Tor Books in July 2016.

Guest Post: “Facebook and the First World War — The inspiration behind IF THEN” by Matthew De Abaitua

DeAbaituaM-AuthorPicIt was a news report on CNBC that provided a glimpse of the world to come:

“A single mysterious computer program that placed orders — and then subsequently canceled them — made up 4 percent of all quote traffic in the U.S. stock market last week, according to the top tracker of high-frequency trading activity. The motive of the algorithm is still unclear.”

This last phrase was taken by the artist James Bridle as the title of a talk. I hope to find it on a t-shirt one day.

The opacity of the algorithm indicates the underlying otherness of the technology that surrounds and penetrates us. On the surface, the algorithms powering Google and Facebook are compliant. Place a search term into Google and watch it scamper to please you. But there are layers of intent behind that compliance, some of which are commercial but a few offer stranger sites for speculation. Continue reading

Mini-Review: “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore” by Robin Sloan (Atlantic Books)

SloanR-MrPenumbras24HourBookstoreAn endearing novel about bibliophilia and the advance of technology

Recession has shuffled Clay Jannon out of his life as a Web-design drone and serendipity coupled with sheer curiosity has landed him a new job working the night shift at Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. And it doesn’t take long for Clay to realize that the quiet, dusty book emporium is even more curious than the name suggests. There are only a few fanatically committed customers, but they never seem to actually buy anything, instead they simply borrow impossibly obscure volumes perched on dangerously high shelves, all according to some elaborate arrangement with the eccentric proprietor.

The store must be a front for something larger, Clay concludes, and soon he has plugged in his laptop, roped in his friends (and a cute girl who works for Google) and embarked on a high-tech analysis of the customers’ behaviour. What they discover is an ancient secret that can only be solved by modern means, and a global-conspiracy guarded by Mr. Penumbra himself… who has mysteriously disappeared.

This is a very quick, endearing read. The synopsis really tells you all you need to know. This novel is, in many ways, a love-letter to both bookstores and books, and also modern technology and all it allows us to do. Clay’s background in the tech industry collides with his new job, after discovering the strange goings-on at Mr. Penumbra’s store. With the help of some friends, and eventually the strange, fanatical repeat-customers/borrowers, he uncovers a peculiar society with a peculiar belief.

Written with obvious love for both the new and old, Sloan weaves and engrossing, endearing and gripping story. The novel is filled with the author’s observations about the slowly disappearing (though still highly important) book and publishing industries, and the near-hyperactive growth of the tech and internet sectors. The protagonist’s geekiness is well-done, if ever-so-slightly cliché (a couple of things raised a disappointed eyebrow, but these are minor elements to the story, and easily dismissed).

If you enjoy gentle tales surrounding a love for books, reading, and technology, then Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a must-read. If you are after just a fun, quick read, then this is a must-read. Highly recommended.

“The Circle” by Dave Eggers (Knopf)

EggersD-TheCircleAn interesting, timely and disturbing novel

When Mae Holland is hired to work for the Circle, the world’s most powerful internet company, she feels she’s been given the opportunity of a lifetime. The Circle, run out of a sprawling California campus, links users’ personal emails, social media, banking, and purchasing with their universal operating system, resulting in one online identity and a new age of civility and transparency. As Mae tours the open-plan office spaces, the towering glass dining facilities, the cozy dorms for those who spend nights at work, she is thrilled with the company’s modernity and activity. There are parties that last through the night, there are famous musicians playing on the lawn, there are athletic activities and clubs and brunches, and even an aquarium of rare fish retrieved from the Marianas Trench by the CEO. Mae can’t believe her luck, her great fortune to work for the most influential company in America — even as life beyond the campus grows distant, even as a strange encounter with a colleague leaves her shaken, even as her role at the Circle becomes increasingly public.

The Circle is the first novel I’ve read by Eggers. It is also one of the creepiest books I’ve ever read. The novel revolves around Mae Holland, a new hire at The Circle – a massive, Google-meets-Facebook-type social media goliath. We follow her story as she navigates the company, its quirks, and also its never-ending evolution. We see her life turned upside down as she strives to rise in the Circle’s ranks, to adopt and embrace its new innovations. Completing the Circle becomes an obsession, and despite clear signs of its negative impact on her life and those of her loved ones, the inexorable pull of the company, the sense of community, and compulsion to be a part of something proves too much for Mae to resist.

What made this novel so unsettling was how Eggers has extrapolated an all-too plausible (albeit slippery-slope) evolution of social media. The author’s not subtle, either, and it sometimes felt like he is trying to bludgeon the reader with his own negative feelings about social media and its ubiquitous place in contemporary life. At the same time, he has a point. As The Circle continues to evolve, and gobble up ever-more resources, technology and, above all else, access to its users’ private lives, we see an unprecedented erosion of privacy. More than that, though, is that this erosion is voluntarily embraced by Circle users.

Despite the anvil-from-the-sky approach to delivering his point, Eggers has written an accessible, engaging and above-all thought-provoking novel. It will make you analyse your own social media use, and probably make you adjust your habits, too…

An important, if unsubtle, novel, The Circle is certainly recommended reading for anyone who embraces a well-connected life.