Five Best Background Books on the Impact of Technology

These are suggestions for the five best books to read on the general impact of technological change.  They  chart the background to more specific developments – such as those in relation to access to justice.

First up are two classics:

1.   The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress and Prosperity In a Time of Brilliant Technologies

Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, Norton, 2014

2.    The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business

Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, Knopf, 2013

These are from authors with some experience. For example, McAfee is the guy who was behind the antivirus software and Schmidt ran Google. They are both pretty optimistic – though open enough to admit that the future will not be entirely smooth. Both books make hay with ‘Moore’s Law’, the prediction of an exponential growth in the size and, therefore, speed of processors. Consumers are going to be the big winners as higher quality goods and services are delivered at lower and lower prices. Winners too will be the companies like Facebook behind the new age. But both books face up to the fact that there will be losers.

Brynjolfsson and McAfee compare the new giants of the internet and now surpassed old volcanoes like Kodak. At its peak, Kodak employed close on 150,000 people: Facebook has less than 5,000 though at its peak its share price created seven dollar billionaires. There is a much more uneven ‘spread’ of wealth. Having seen this problem, the authors seek to grapple with the consequences. Perhaps predictably, they want a reorientation of the education system towards the personal and intellectual skills necessary for the new age. More interestingly, they are attracted to radical ideas like a negative income tax to spread wealth around more evenly.

Schmidt and Cohen also recognise that ‘a digital caste system will endure well into the future  … The tiny minority at the top will be largely insulated from the less enjoyable consequences of technology by their wealth, access or location’. Some of their specific observations have not worn that well. For example, they foresaw a better informed response to disinformation and false news: ‘The consequence of having more citizens informed and connected is that they’ll be as critical and discerning about rebels as they are about government’. As we approach the Trump inauguration, that looks in need of a reassessment. The authors are also concerned to trace the coming devolution of power: ‘On the world stage, the most significant impact of the spread of communication technologies will be the way that they help reallocate the concentration of power away from states and institutions and transfer it to individuals’. As we see Russia retreating from Syria with aircraft carrier flying ‘Job Done’ flags, this might invite a bit of revision as well. The authors have some thought-provoking observations along the way – for example, the likelihood that media-savvy start ups may be better at raising money for disasters than established organisations which are better at the task but weaker at its promotion: ‘There is a real risk of traditional NGOs being crowded out by these start up organisations’.

The great advantage of these two books is that they make you raise your eyes from the specific to the more general. Both begin with the notion that in the ‘digital’ or ‘second machine age’, the economy is going to change – and dramatically. Lots of jobs are going to disappear. Whole areas of the economy may look like the equivalent of the once thriving now near derelict mining villages of the North of England. We need a politics that is able to respond appropriately. Little evidence of that in countries like the US and UK so far. The books make you feel the lack.

3.    The Future of the Internet and How to stop it

Jonathan Zittrain,  Allen Lane, 2008

This is a passionate plea to maintain the creative (‘generative’) capacity of the internet and to resist a return to how it all began with providers like CompuServe and AOL establishing limits to what you could explore. It does not seem to have had a new edition recently so it misses out on covering controversies like Facebook’s offer of limited internet access in some parts of the world. And it is probably the least reader-friendly of the five books but worth a borrow from the library and a dip.

4.      The Dark Net

Jamie Bartlett Heineman, 2014

There is a good sketch of the dark net – broadly definable as that part of the Internet to which search engines like Google are blind and requiring a special browser like TOR or ‘the onion router’, which offers anonymity to its users. The book gives a history and an unemotional account of content that includes child pornographers, potential assassins, political dissent, illegal sales marts like the infamous Silk Road site (with an account of the taking down of its creator, Ross Ulbricht aka ‘Dread Pirate Roberts’, and a description of the successors that instantly set up to continue his market), drug deals (apparently often at above street levels of purity through the power of customer reviews), extreme free speech and illicit file sharing. You might not want to use the dark net personally but you should know about it. The author works both as a journalist and for UK cross-party think-tank Demos: he is a thoughtful and readable guide.

5.  The Future of the Professions: How Technology Will Transform the Work of Human Experts

Richard and David Susskind, OUP, 2015

You could not omit the Susskind boys from a list of top books relevant to technology in relation to the law. This takes Richard’s analysis further in collaboration with his son, David. The analysis will be familiar: ‘increasingly capable machines will transform the work of professionals, giving rise to new ways of sharing expertise in society’. Prediction in this latest book has become a bit more nuanced than in some of Richard’s earlier works. There are choices, it seems. Knowledge could become ‘a type of commons where our collective practical expertise is a shared online resource, freely available and maintained in a collaborative spirit’ – a type of interactive Wikipedia. Alternatively, expertise could be available online but controlled by its providers. Well, don’t hold your breath. I back lawyers to bend technology to their will rather than the other way round. As in the economy as a whole and recognised by Brynjolfsoon and McAfee, there will be fewer lawyers but they will be richer. The Susskinds do seem a little week on practical market prediction. There is, for example, no evidence of their account of the likely demise of barristas in favour of Nescafe machines – at least in my area of North London – for all of the theoretical attraction of automation: quite the reverse as coffee shops are thriving as never before. This is a reminder of the complexities of how markets actually work. Nevertheless, this is a must-read.

You do not need to digest these books to pursue an interest in net-based information and advice or the beginning of online small claims court provision. But they provide a valuable context. The picks are advanced to encourage discussion and exploration. If you think that some should be discarded, then, by all means, say so. Even better, if there are others that should be included in an essential background reading list then let me know.

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