• August 23, 2014

Geeks at the Beach

9 intriguing summer reads (and a video) about technology's turning society upside down

Geeks at the Beach Enlarge Image
close Geeks at the Beach

Technology nowadays is supposed to be disruptive—in a good way— so let it disrupt your summer vacation. Enrich it, we mean, with these provocative books. Last grades submitted? Last commencement handshake done? Take a little time to find out what's in store next year and after that: Social media might rot students' brains—or create a cognitive surplus that improves society; hackers' pranks have definitely improved aspects of MIT; and Twitter may help repressive regimes more than it aids democracy activists. Also watch a video in which a professor outlines the future of smarter robots. Most of these are available in various e-book formats as well as print, so toss your tablet computer or smartphone into the beach bag along with the flip-flops.

Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other (Basic Books). You're not as good at multitasking as you think. That's a key take-away from the latest book by Sherry Turkle, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who blends personal observations with case studies from her research on how children, teenagers, and elderly people interact with various gadgets. She's not antitechnology—her once-gushing views on virtual identity landed her on the cover of Wired magazine in the 1990s, as outlined in a Chronicle profile this year. In her new book, she argues that we're so excited about checking e-mail and Facebook that we're neglecting face-to-face relationships, but that it's not too late to make some "corrections" to our high-tech habits. It's time to turn off the BlackBerry for a few minutes and set some ground rules for blending cyberspace with personal space.—Jeffrey R. Young

Cognitive Surplus: How Technology Makes Consumers Into Collaborators (Penguin). The technology enthusiast Clay Shirky argues for the transformative potential of the Internet, as more people use their free time in active, collaborative projects rather than watching television. Critics have argued that this view fails to take into account yet more opportunities for passive entertainment, but Mr. Shirky, an associate teacher at New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program who was featured last year in The Chronicle, points to examples such as Wikipedia and a ride-sharing Web site as proof that "the harnessing of our cognitive surplus allows people to behave in increasingly generous, public, and social ways." —Ben Wieder

The Future of Robotics and Artificial Intelligence (Stanford University's YouTube channel). The dream of creating general-purpose robot helpers is back! Since he was a kid, Andrew Ng has wanted to build smart robots. Soon after becoming a computer-science professor at Stanford University, though, he advised his grad students that making all-purpose thinking machines was just too hard. But now Mr. Ng has had a breakthrough that renewed his faith in his childhood dream. In a short talk he delivered last month at a Stanford conference on new ideas, he showed off an algorithm that can be applied to different kinds of problems, so that the same algorithm can do speech recognition and also help a robot make sense of images it sees through its camera eyes. C-3PO is looking more realistic by the minute. The talk is available on Stanford's YouTube channel, proving that some of the newest academic ideas these days can be found in video form rather than text. —Jeffrey R. Young

In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives (Simon & Schuster) and The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry) (University of California Press). The search to determine how Google came to be and how it has shaped society gets two new entries this year. For In the Plex, Steven Levy, a senior writer at Wired, interviewed hundreds of Google employees past and present, including top management—and ate countless meals at the company's Mountain View burrito joint—to document how Google grew from humble origins, in a garage belonging to friends of the founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, to its current ubiquity. The implications form the subject of Siva Vaidhyanathan's Googlization of Everything. Mr. Vaidhyanathan, a professor of media studies and law at the University of Virginia and frequent contributor to The Chronicle Review, reminds readers that they aren't consumers of Google's offerings. Rather, their use of Google's services is the product it sells to advertisers. Both books look at the continuing evolution of the Google Books settlement as a key test of how far the company's reach could extend and a sign of how the perception of Google has changed from that of scrappy upstart with a clever motto, "Don't be evil," to global behemoth accused by some of being just that. —Ben Wieder

The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires (Knopf). Is the Internet on its way to getting monopolized? That question underlies Tim Wu's The Master Switch. The eccentric Columbia Law School professor—he's known to dress up as a blue bear at the annual Burning Man festival—recounts how ruthless companies consolidated their power over earlier information industries like the telephone, radio, and film. So which tech giant seems likely to grab control of the net? Let's just say you probably won't see Steve Jobs reading Mr. Wu's book on the beach this summer. —Marc Parry

Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century (Polity Press). To judge by the sometimes breathless news stories about publishing in the digital age, it feels like we're perpetually on the verge of a tipping point, when e-books will overtake print books as a source of revenue for publishers. John B. Thompson, a sociologist at the University of Cambridge, analyzes the inner workings of the contemporary trade-publishing industry. (He did the same for scholarly publishing in an earlier work, Books in the Digital Age.) Mr. Thompson examines the roles played by agents, editors, and authors as well as differences among small, medium, and large publishing operations, and he probes under the surface of the great digital shift. We're too hung up on the form of the book, he argues: "A revolution has taken place in publishing, but it is a revolution in the process rather than a revolution in the product."—Jennifer Howard

The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom (PublicAffairs). Sure, the 2009 rebellion in Iran was on Twitter. The uprising in Lebanon and pro-democracy movements in Russia and China also made Facebook and even old-fashioned e-mail. But technology is actually doing far more to bolster authoritarian regimes than to overturn them, writes Evgeny Morozov in this sharp reality check on the media-fueled notion that information is making everybody free. Mr. Morozov, a visiting scholar at Stanford University, points out that the Iranian government posted "most wanted" pictures of protesters on the Web, leading to several arrests. The Muslim Brotherhood blogs actively in Egypt. And China pays people to make pro-authority statements on the Internet, paying a few cents for each endorsement. The Twitter revolution, in this book, is "overblown and completely unsubstantiated rhetoric."—Josh Fischman

Nightwork: A History of Hacks and Pranks at MIT (MIT Press). The word "hacking" is said to have originated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, sometimes referring to students' ingenious pranks involving the university's iconic buildings. The tradition of engineering-related pranks on the campus is celebrated in this well-illustrated coffee-table book by T.F. Peterson (described as "MIT historian" but actually a nom de plume hack), just released in an updated edition. One of the glossy photos shows a fire truck placed on campus's Great Dome in 2006 to commemorate the anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 2001. MIT even employs a team of security officials charged with removing hacks, though they agree to let the most clever and harmless stunts stay around for a few days. —Jeffrey R. Young

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (Norton). Multimedia—dangerous! Online research—depthless! Classroom screens—dubious! If you want a contrarian take on technology, Nicholas Carr is your man. In The Shallows, just out in paperback, the Colorado-based author warns that the Internet is rewiring our brains and short-circuiting our ability to think. And that has big consequences for teaching, he told The Chronicle last year: "The assumption that the more media, the more messaging, the more social networking you can bring in will lead to better educational outcomes is not only dubious but in many cases is probably just wrong."—Marc Parry

subscribe today

Get the insight you need for success in academe.