There’s been an inordinate amount of ink spilled online about all the things that are wrong with online culture. Indeed, it’s one of the most popular subjects of online discourse. There are many ways the online culture we’ve created is toxic and amplifies the worst aspects of our nature. There are many factors which cause online toxicity, but the one I tend notice most is how so many people are obsessed with being right. And with making sure everyone knows it.
I keep seeing posts from the subreddit AITA. They show up on Twitter, Buzzfeed, lots of different places. They bother me. They’re emblematic of our need to prove ourselves right. Every AITA post is essentially someone asking for people to tell them they’re right. That doesn’t sound like such a bad thing, really, so why does it bother me?
This review was first published by Booklist on August 5, 2022.
People have a long history of trying to predict the future, especially with the rise of modern science and science fiction. Several futuristic tropes have become common, such as cyborgs, brain-machine interfaces, robots, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, immortality, space exploration and settlement, energy weapons, faster-than-light travel, flying cars, and more. Novella turns his skeptical eye on futurism, assessing whether any of these predictions are possible, from the likely to the probably impossible. He identifies several common fallacies which plague our attempts at futurism, most notably the tendency to overestimate short term advancement while underestimating long term change, and our insistence on picturing people in the future as just like us. Old technology persists for surprisingly long times, and new disruptive technology can radically alter who we are and our relationship to the world. Predicting the future isn’t an exact science, but skeptical scientific inquiry can help assess the likelihood of our various visions for it. A fun overview of both the current state of modern science and a general survey of the history of futurism.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.