Book Review: Autonorama: The Illusory Promise of High-Tech Driving by Peter Norton

Cover of the book Autonorama: The Illusory Promise of High-Tech Driving by Peter Norton
Autonorama: The Illusory Promise of High-Tech Driving
by Peter Norton
Island, 2021

This review was first published by Booklist on September 1, 2021.

Autonomous vehicles promise to eliminate congestion on our roadways, reduce traffic accidents to near zero, and end greenhouse gas pollution. But as Norton points out, we’ve heard these promises before, many times. Car manufacturers have been proclaiming solutions to traffic problems since the 1930s, always by adding more roads and putting more cars on them. Autonorama is a deep dive into the history of our car dependency and the ways automotive manufacturers have strung along American consumers with promises of “just over the horizon” solutions to the problems cars themselves have caused. Norton argues the goal of car manufacturers has never been to satisfy mobility needs but to promote ever-increasing car dependency: Charles Ketterings’ famous maxim to keep the customer dissatisfied. Autonomous vehicles offer more of the same: empty promises of imminent solutions which can only increase our dependence on cars. Car dependency itself is the problem and cars can’t solve that. This is a bracing challenge to the dogma of autonomous vehicle enthusiasts and a clarion call for more varied and humane mobility solutions.

Book Review: A Brief History of Motion: From the Wheel, to the Car, to What Comes Next by Tom Standage

Cover of the book A Brief History of Motion: From the Wheel, to the Car, to What Comes Next by Tom Standage
A Brief History of Motion: From the Wheel, to the Car, to What Comes Next
by Tom Standage
Bloomsbury, 2021

This review was first published by Booklist on July 30, 2021.

Traffic jams. Accidents. Pollution. Safety concerns. This was the situation faced by cities at the end of the nineteenth century, with a glut of horse-drawn vehicles clogging streets and dirtying roads. The car was supposed to solve all that. Instead, automobiles came with their own problems: congestion, deadlier accidents, climate impacts, and the worsening of economic and cultural divides. Standage believes a look back at the history of wheeled vehicles and their impacts is useful to guide us toward the future. Cars fundamentally altered the landscape of the modern world, driving the redesign of urban areas and fueling the rise of suburbia. The popularity of cars had ramifications even beyond urban planning and traffic: factory mechanization, planned obsolescence, and the creation of teenage culture were all affected. He offers a balanced overview of new options being explored: autonomous vehicles, ride-share apps, vehicle sharing, and integrated transit systems. All offer potential benefits, and all come with risks. Any new technology will have consequences we don’t foresee. This is a well-researched exploration of an urgent subject.

Book Review: Star Settlers: The Billionaires, Geniuses, and Crazed Visionaries Out to Conquer the Universe by Fred Nadis

Cover of the book Star Settlers: The Billionaires, Geniuses, and Crazed Visionaries Out to Conquer the Universe by Fred Nadis
Star Settlers: The Billionaires, Geniuses, and Crazed Visionaries Out to Conquer the Universe
by Fred Nadis
Pegasus, 2020

This review was first published by Booklist on July 31, 2020.

Star Settlers is a cultural history of the human quest to conquer space. People have dreamed of travelling through the heavens for centuries, and the scientific advancements of the twentieth century have brought the possibility close to reality. Nadis seeks to understand the reasons why people want to expand out into space: as evolutionary imperative, as necessary for the survival of our species, and as spiritual quest. He traces the development of these ideas, from their earliest expressions in the seventeenth century to the present, and profiles many of the individuals and organizations who have pursued them. Some focus on colonizing Mars or the Moon, some want to build space stations, and some see humans filling entire star systems. Terraforming, ecosystem design, robots, AI, and transhumanism all have potential roles to play. The dream of space has been nurtured in science fiction, philosophy, spiritualism, and among the engineers and scientists of the Space Age. Ultimately, it’s not just a question of how we do it; it’s a question of whether we should.

Book Review: Ghost Road: Beyond the Driverless Car by Anthony M. Townsend

Cover of the book Ghost Road: Beyond the Driverless Car by Anthony M. Townsend
Ghost Road: Beyond the Driverless Car
by Anthony M. Townsend
Norton, 2020

This review was first published by Booklist on June 1, 2020.

Autonomous vehicles (AV) are on their way and Townsend (Smart Cities, 2013) wants readers to be prepared. AV will fundamentally change the nature of communities in ways even the most optimistic prognosticators can’t imagine. Self-driving cars won’t be the end of it: this technology opens the door to everything from intelligent hoverboards to self-driving buildings. Fleets of driverless trucks and delivery rovers will upend manufacturing, shipping, and delivery systems. Algorithmic analysis of traffic patterns can drastically reduce carbon emissions and virtually eliminate accidents. There’s tremendous potential to be tapped into that can transform the world for the better. But there’s also great danger. Technology tends to worsen social inequalities, it threatens to create ubiquitous surveillance, and the fortunes to be made could easily lead to the near-complete privatization of public space. Townsend posits a set of principles for individuals to commit to so they can take control and demand a human-focused future before it’s decided for them. Ghost Road is a balanced, well informed, and ultimately hopeful examination of AV.

Book Review: Spacecraft: 100 Iconic Rockets, Shuttles, and Satellites That Put Us in Space by Michael H. Gorn

Cover of the book Spacecraft: 100 Iconic Rockets, Shuttles, and Satellites That Put Us in Space by Michael H. Gorn
Spacecraft: 100 Iconic Rockets, Shuttles, and Satellites That Put Us in Space
by Michael H. Gorn
Quarto/Voyageur, 2018

This review was first published by Booklist on December 1, 2018.

Spacecraft profiles 100 craft that are significant in the history of space exploration: rockets, orbiters, spaceplanes, landers, space stations, satellites, and exploratory craft from the U.S., Russia, Europe, China, and more recent private, corporate ventures into space flight. The articles offer thorough physical and technical descriptions of each craft, along with a history of its development and use. The book is organized into 3 main sections, each covering a 20-year span from 1957 through 2017. Articles are further organized by the type of craft, with each country’s being grouped together. It’s not a strictly chronological narrative, but it provides an overall understanding of the history of the development and deployment of spacecraft. Readers can also use the table of contents to flip to any specific article that interests them. The articles are accompanied by numerous full-color drawings by illustrator Giuseppe De Chiara that show the details even better than the photographs do. This work is high quality; an effective hybrid of reference volume and coffee-table book. A solid choice for any public library.

Better Business through Sci-Fi? Better Futures through Storytelling

A coworker recently shared the following article with me. She knows I love SF and that I’m perennially fascinated by all things storytelling.

Better Business through Sci-Fi by Nick Romeo
(published by The New Yorker, July 30, 2017)

I admit, I do find this idea fascinating: using storytelling techniques to envision new products and services, craft new vision and mission statements, new marketing campaigns, new strategic initiatives. I’d be interested to see what, if anything, comes of it.

Continue reading “Better Business through Sci-Fi? Better Futures through Storytelling”

Book Review: Bit by Bit: How Video Games Transformed Our World by Andrew Ervin

Cover of the book Bit by Bit: How Video Games Transformed Our World by Andrew Ervin
Bit by Bit: How Video Games Transformed Our World
by Andrew Ervin
Basic, 2017

This review was first published by Booklist on April 15, 2017.

It’s unusual for a history of video games to feature multiple quotes from Rilke, references to philosophy and Zen Buddhism, and comparisons to great works of art. But that’s exactly what Ervin serves up to support his compelling argument: video games can be art. They can achieve the same heights of storytelling and social commentary, inspire genuine self-reflection, and promote personal and social progress, like any other creative medium. He examines what he considers the most seminal games, designers, and developments in the short history of video games. This isn’t a comprehensive history and doesn’t pretend to be. It’s a personal list—Ervin focuses on what he considers most important and his own experiences as a lifelong gamer. He’s clear about his personal preferences but does his best to understand the appeal of important games he doesn’t like. Ultimately, this is less about how video games have transformed our world and more about how they can. Ervin’s hopefulness sometimes feels naive, but that doesn’t render his faith in games any less compelling.

Book Review: Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy by Jonathan Taplin

Cover of the book Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy by Jonathan Taplin
Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy
by Jonathan Taplin
Little, Brown, 2017

This review was first published by Booklist on March 3, 2017.

Taplin urges caution in the face of our increasingly connected technology. Facebook, Google, and Amazon seem to be taking over the world. These companies are monopolies, wielding more wealth and power than any companies in history, and are even shaping laws in their own favor. He examines what motivates the men who lead these companies and discovers a frightening landscape of unchecked Randian libertarianism. His conclusion that they represent a threat to democracy itself may be hyperbolic, but it’s valuable to consider—current events may soon show whether he’s correct. Taplin also takes on the state of copyright laws and media distribution in the digital age. Here, his arguments become less nuanced. He shows little awareness of the substance of the myriad counter-arguments in the copyright debate, some of his positions are misinformed, even factually incorrect (such as his condemnation of streaming media services)—and he offers overly simplistic understandings of complex issues. But he does present a necessary challenge to conventional wisdom about modern technology and how it affects all our lives.

More Potential of Ebooks

Read my earlier posts about the potential of ebooks:


I look forward to authors exploring the ebook format as something more than just a different package for print books. Ebooks are a format, distinct from print, and can do things that print can’t, tell stories in ways that print could never accomplish.

It’s more than the obvious idea of integrating multimedia elements (but how cool would Rigg’s “Peculiar Children” books be if the images were subtle animated GIFs?). Ebooks aren’t ink on paper, which means the text doesn’t have to be permanent. The words themselves could be made changeable.

Continue reading “More Potential of Ebooks”

Book Review: Cyberbullying and the Wild, Wild Web: What Everyone Needs to Know by J. A. Hitchcock

Cover of the book Cyberbullying and the Wild, Wild Web: What Everyone Needs to Know by J. A. Hitchcock
Cyberbullying and the Wild, Wild Web: What Everyone Needs to Know
by J. A. Hitchcock
Rowman & Littlefield, 2017

This review was first published by Booklist on December 15, 2016.

This book will be a useful resource for anyone who wants to know how to deal with cyberbullying. Chock-full of examples of what cyberbullying is—each chapter opens with the story of a victim—the narrative’s greatest value is the well-informed and practical advice it offers about how to handle cyberbullies and what parents can do if their child is the one doing the bullying. The author also provides insightful analysis of what makes cyberbullying different and why it can be more harmful than other forms of bullying. The work concludes with a comprehensive list of resources and support organizations available to those who need them. Parents will appreciate the guidance. Hitchcock founded one of the first organizations dedicated to combating online abuse and is a recognized expert in the field. She approaches the subject from the perspective of her own experiences, which testifies to her authority on the subject, but at times it comes across as a bit self-promotional. However, she also interviews several other cyberbullying experts and includes their insights, making this a well-rounded resource for parents and educators.