Fave 10 books from 2017

12.13, Wednesday 3 Jan 2018

I only read 23 books in 2017. (31 in 2016; 42 in 2015.)

My favourite 10:

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, Mary Beard. I’ve been getting interested in Ancient Rome, thanks mainly to Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast – in particular the series Death Throes of the Republic and the episodes on the Punic Wars. Beard has broadened my awareness to the social. The grand sweep of time - and the fact we’re all still Roman in so many ways - makes this fascinating.

Four Futures: Life After Capitalism, Peter Frase. This book looks at two macro trends: abundance (via A.I. and automation) and scarcity (climate change). To see how these interact, Frase reintroduces the term class, built from first principles from the logics of capitalism and group allegiance. A vital term to navigate the late 2010s. Bonus: his four futures are illustrated with science fiction from books and movies.

Radical Technologies, Adam Greenfield. The first nine chapters are worth it in their own right, deconstructing technologies and asking the question: is the trade-off worth it. They serve to equip you for the barrage in the second half of the eponymous 10th chapter – escape velocity ideas told with beautiful, luminous words.

Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel. I’m late to Mantel’s semi-fictionalised story of Thomas Cromwell’s rise and fall (chief minister to Henry VIII and driving force of the English Reformation). The TV series is startlingly good: Mark Rylance is the embodiment of still waters running deep. It’s the only TV that comes close to the 1979 BBC adaptation of Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy with Alec Guinness. Like the TV series, the books - for complexity, legibility, and a gentle but relentless pace - do not disappoint. This is the first of a trilogy; the third is out in 2019. I’m reading the second now.

The Control of Nature, John McPhee. Nobody writes about nature like McPhee. He narrates complex tangles of people, history, fire, and water – highly situated (the Mississippi, a volcanic eruption in Iceland, and an L.A. fire) but moving between the particular and general. Not my favourite by McPhee (that would either be his four volume Annals of the Former World for its weight and scope, or Encounters with the Archdruid for its humanity) but his deft sentences and ability to draw pictures are always a treat.

Neutron Star (collection), Larry Niven. I read a bunch of sci-fi. This year I’ve been enjoying collections of short stories all told within the same universe: it’s neat to see an author explore ideas and consequences from a ton of different angles, and the the whole feels a lot bigger inside my head because of that. I’ve somehow missed reading into Niven’s Known Space future history so far. He’s got big ideas, and some cracking yarns. Great storyteller.

How Not to Network a Nation: The Uneasy History of the Soviet Internet, Benjamin Peters. Why didn’t the Soviet Union build its own internet? The argument in From Newspeak to Cyberspeak (Slava Gerovitch) is that the political insistence on materialism stripped cybernetics (and therefore computing research) of metaphorical yet inspirational ideas like “memory” and “learning”, constraining the vision of computing to simple calculation. Through detailed examination, Peters instead puts the blame on bureaucracy. Some interesting lessons here for institutions adopting (or not) new technologies.

(Peters has also shifted my attention from our familiar dichotomy of public vs private enterprise - that is, the state vs the individual - to polis vs oikos. When the state is, in parts, captured by private interests, it makes more sense to look at the two ends of the spectrum being the national community (polis) vs the household, or your flesh and blood (oikos). It’s stuck in my head; worth thinking about more.)

The Good Immigrant, edited by Nikesh Shukla. What does it mean to be black, Asian, another ethnic group, or mixed in Britain? An immigrant or born here; in a race-based community or not; recognised or not? What do expectations from yourself and others feel like; what is identity. Here are 21 personal stories from different authors. Mind-expanding, thought provoking, intelligent, empathy-building, and it gets you in your heart – not least because of my own story. A side note: I hope that this British perspective on race can contribute to an unpacking (and a reckoning) of our repressed memories of colonialism. This poisonous history is all the more poisonous for not being aired.

Platform Capitalism, Nick Srnicek. A look at the dominant technology platforms - Apple, Google, etc - not through the lens of technology as something new, but from the perspective of capitalism. Srnicek makes it possible to see that Uber’s platform approach doesn’t have any legs (it’s just about exploiting labour, nothing new there) but that data extraction and processing does imply labour, and can help explain the weird adjacencies in the platform business models (e.g. why Google would get in such different businesses as advertising, email, virtual reality glasses and hardware.) This framing supports the view that data is the new oil.

One complaint: Platform Capitalism feels an introduction, like it’s defining terms for a much bigger argument. And one misgiving: Srnicek says that social interactions cannot be seen as labour as (I paraphrase) they are not competitive. I disagree as online - whether on Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, or a dating app - per Zygmunt Bauman’s Consuming Life, we are marketing ourselves and competing for attention, such attention making ourselves more marketable. Given this misgiving, I don’t know how stable Srnicek’s set of ideas is as a foundation for debate. Stimulating none-the-less.

Living Dolls: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life, Gaby Wood. A series of interlocking essays on the history of automata from the construction of mechanical people and simulated animals, to Edison’s recording of the human voice and the early history of cinema in France. What Wood does is focus on the individuals, the movement of ideas and artefacts, and the historical context.

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