What I’m reading this week: “Rise of the Robots,” by Martin Ford.
Humans have a love-hate relationship with automation. We love automation when it gives us dishwashers, washing machines, and robot vacuum cleaners to relieve the drudgery of menial labors. But we hate automation when it enables telemarketers to endlessly spam our phones, corporations to displace real people’s jobs, and tech companies to surveil our every movement.
Pop culture is replete with nightmare visions of cold robot overlords taking over the world on one hand, and utopian dreams of effortless lives and limitless adventures supported by faithful robot servants on the other. The truth is probably somewhere in between— although robots themselves may never rule the world, the people and organizations who control the most powerful robots almost certainly will.
“Rise of the Robots,” written by economist Martin Ford is a detailed analysis of the current state of play. Will robots dominate society? The answer is yes, they already do. The more pertinent question right now is, who will control the robots? Ford’s book explores this question with skill and keeps it interesting, aside from a few sections that get out into the technical weeds. (He is an economist, after all.) An eye-opening look at the value and risks of living in a roboticized world.
Conquered. Occupied. Stripped of power and privilege. Dick’s classic 1962 novel imagines life in an America that lost World War II. The Nazis and Japanese fascists have conquered the United States and divided it into territories, the spoils of war, over which they rule supreme. The Pacific States are controlled by fascist Japan– the South and East states, by Nazi Germany. The Rocky Mountain states lay in between, dismissed and overlooked, a no-mans land where the German and Japanese superpowers struggle for power in a diplomatic Cold War.
Much of the action takes place in San Francisco and the west coast. It’s a horrifying world fraught with deception, cruelty, greed and prejudice cloaked in banality and extreme cultural control. In this nightmare world, the dream of an alternative universe in which the United States England, and Russia won the war captures the imaginations of millions-— sparked by a wildly popular book-within-a-book that describes this mirror world in vivid detail. The book’s central characters struggle to reconcile these twin visions, which are more alike than not, as the plot drives them inexorably toward the climactic confrontation with the book-within-a-book’s author, the Man in the High Castle.
Written in the 1960s, Dick’s novel remains a work of genius however its blunt style and raw depictions of deep-seated racial animus raise the question of how it would be received if it was written in today’s world of reactionary divisiveness and identity politics. Another question is whether he intended his book to be a subtle indictment of the post World War II new world order of the 1960s, which at the time had its own forms of social control, cruelty, deception, greed, and prejudice. The novel’s descriptions of what American life might be like under fascist control leaves no question that a German/Japanese victory would have led to a dystopian hellscape of a society. Yet it subtly hints at a third way, between the darkness and the light, for which we all unconsciously yearn, yet which may only ever be a dream.
The Google search box is the new confessional box for a digital age. A place where deepest fears and forbidden wishes find new, unfiltered expression. In this new confessional, we don’t seek salvation— we seek information. And the questions we ask it often reveal things about us that were previously hidden, or misunderstood.
Subtitled, “Big data, new data, and what the internet can tell us about who we really are,” this book was written by a former Google data scientist who uses “confessional” search data on a vast scale to draw new insight into the human condition. It’s a fascinating and compelling work which kept me reading from cover to cover in one day.
I could quibble with the author’s overconfidence in the power of internet search data to accurately depict people’s true selves, because I believe that our relationship with the digital world is fundamentally a charade, and will one day come to be seen as such. But for now, the newness and sheer volume of this new form of data is electrifying and groundbreaking, and has great potential to shed new light on the previously dark corners of the human psyche. I eagerly look forward to the author’s planned sequel in which he intends to dive deeper into the “small data” that lives between the topline trends. 🔎
What I’m reading this week: “Zardoz,” by John Boorman. 👽📚 A gigantic stone head levitates over a futuristic grass-covered landscape, spewing guns from its cavernous mouth to its bloodthirsty followers below. Sean Connery (a.k.a. the original James Bond) is among them as Zed the Exterminator. He’s bare-chested in a red loincloth, and sports a black ponytail and 1970s handlebar moustache. A dazzling menage of bizarre scenes unfolds from there, complete with freaky caves, macrame-clad “Eternals,” psychic probes, and trippy kaleidoscopic interludes. Through it all, the gargantuan stone head floats, god-like, in and out of the action to say and do terrible things.
I picked up a pristine original pulp copy of this sci-fi oddity at Space Cowboy Books in Joshua Tree. I was drawn to it like a Brutal to a cache of corn and fleeces. Upon reading it, I was delighted to find that Zardoz the novel is as wonderfully weird and non-sequitur as the film is. The novel was written by the screenwriter and based on the cult classic film.
Zardoz the film is a corpulent tour de force that encapsulates everything wrong with 1970s-era filmmaking, and somehow everything that is awesome about it at the same time. The prose in Zardoz the book is just as, ahem, imaginative as the film. A seminal work from a truly strange place and time in pop culture.
What I’m reading this week: “Janesville: An American Story,” by Amy Goldstein.
A storybook American factory town suddenly loses its factory— the lifeblood and livelihood of the community. Janesville, Wisconsin is a quintessential American industrial city with a proud 90+ year history as an auto manufacturing center. The city of 63,000 had a renowned auto plant, an enviously capable workforce, a thriving middle class, and a well-earned sense of community pride.
Then in 2008, a confluence of shifting economic tides led General Motors to shutdown the massive Janesville auto plant. In an instant, the future of the city’s economy— and thousands of families whose livelihoods depended on the plant— were thrown into turmoil.
It’s one thing to say that people can retrain for new jobs, or relocate to a new place. But in practice, it’s never that easy. This astonishing book masterfully depicts the lived experiences of Janesville families as they navigate through a sea change in their lives. Through their stories, Washington Post journalist and author Amy Goldstein assembles a nuanced tale of American ingenuity, loss, grit, and reinvention.
Back to the future 😃📚 We found this groovy magazine article about Menlo Park’s “new” library in 1968. Complete with vinyl record listening stations, space-age microfilm reader, and card catalog—where one can “research any subject from aardvark to zythum.” Then, as now, Menlo Park Library is the place where past, present and future intersect. 📖
What I’m reading this week: “The Library Book,” by Susan Orlean 📚🔥 It’s every librarian’s nightmare. A devastating loss to a vibrant city’s collective culture and memory. In 1986, the same week as the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown crisis in Russia, the Los Angeles Central Library was set ablaze by an arsonist. The fire spread quickly through the old building and incinerated everything in its path, reaching temperatures of 2500 degrees Fahrenheit. Hundreds of thousands of books and priceless archival items were reduced to ash. Hundreds of thousands more were irreversibly damaged or severely threatened by water and smoke damage. The next day, thousands of volunteers converged on the building and formed a human chain, handing waterlogged books out of the building and rushing them to local commercial freezers to prevent mold from destroying them forever.
I’m partway through this extraordinary paean to the glory of libraries and their uniquely important place in the American social edifice. Author Susan Orlean combines a detailed journalistic style with her characteristically vivid and evocative prose to do more than simply tell the tale of a devastating fire and rebirth. Along the way, she rekindles her (and our) love for the American public library, and illustrates why this beloved institution perpetually rises from the ashes, again and again.
What I’m reading this week: “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” by Matthew Desmond. 📚🌧
Housing is a basic human need. It irrevocably shapes our lives and our destinies. It also can be a lucrative and, at times, cruel and devastating business.
This landmark nonfiction work tells eight stories of families who were swept up in the process of eviction. Along the way, the book sheds new light on the myriad social currents, large and small, that have brought American society to the brink of an alarming housing crisis. The people whose stories are told within— tenants and landlords alike— are expertly brought to life though the author’s masterfully descriptive and empathetic writing.
I’m completely engrossed in this astonishing book. The stories it tells seem so familiar yet they reveal something new about who we are as a society; about power, privilege, and the meaning of home.
What I’m reading this week: “Dark Matter,” by Blake Crouch 😀📚
Nothing is real, but nothing to get hung about, goes the classic song. Who among us hasn’t wished to travel back in time and try the door not opened? I’m halfway through this sci-fi / suspense mashup that uses pop science as a vehicle to explore this notion— with a twist, naturally. And I’m hooked. Plenty of dialogue and screen-ready descriptions (the author has written several television series) render this book a quick and engaging read. Perfect for a wet winter Sunday by the fire.🔥🌧
What I’m reading this week: Darwin Comes to Town: How the Urban Jungle Drives Evolution, by Menno Schilthuizen 📖
Nature adapts and evolves in response to changes in the environment. Cities have their own ecosystems, and many species have developed unique adaptions to survive and thrive in the urban environment. From sewers to the rooftops and everything in between, this book explores the many urban worlds where nature unexpectedly thrives.