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Thomas King (USA)

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Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con That Is Breaking America
Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con That Is Breaking America
by Matt Taibbi
Edition: Hardcover

23 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderfully written and biting, 17 Nov 2010
In GRIFTOPIA Matt Taibbi uses his unique and caustic writing style to skewer Wall Street, Alan Greenspan, mortgage scammers, commodity traders, sovereign wealth funds, the insurance industry, and of course, Goldman Sachs. Taibbi makes a very compelling argument that the United States is now basically a kleptocracy with a tiny business and financial elite who are "hoovering up" the remaining wealth even as they fully realize that the country as a whole is going into relentless decline and the idea of the American dream is evaporating for nearly everyone else.

Some of Taibbi's best writing is reserved for the Tea Party, which he believes is unable to even begin to penetrate the complexity of the modern financial environment in order to understand what is really happening. The Tea Party fails to see that the wealthy elite lives in a different and inverted world: a place where government is not an intrusive enemy but a corrupted benefactor. This allows the elite to co-opt populist anger about local and state governments that meddle in small business and turn it against any attempt to rein in Wall Street. As Taibbi says, the Tea Party "has been encouraged to militancy by the very people they should be aiming their pitchforks at."

I think it is vital to understand Taibbi's point about how Wall Street uses the complexity of new financial innovations as a shield. It is virtually inconceivable that average people -- within the Tea Party or not -- will succeed in understanding the high-tech larceny that is going on. As someone that works in the field of technology, I can tell you that things are going to get worse because technology is advancing faster than ever before. As computers get faster, Goldman and others are already using "Flash Trading" to siphon off millions. A recent piece by Fareed Zakaria on CNN had a clip of former GE CEO Jack Welch getting almost orgasmic because a company was going to be able to cut its workforce by 50% using new technology.

The point here is that as things advance, wealth and income will become even more concentrated, and the elite will have even more tools with which to hijack the economy -- and it will get even harder to understand what is happening. For more on how things are likely to get worse if we don't take action, I'd recommend this book: The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future (Also has a Kindle Version). The ugly truth is that five or ten years from now we may look back on what happened in 2008 and think it was tame.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 8, 2012 8:51 PM GMT

Bad Blood (Virgil Flowers Novels)
Bad Blood (Virgil Flowers Novels)
by John Sandford
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Fun, 15 Oct 2010
This was one of the most enjoyable books I have read for quite some time. Sandford's pacing and character development is I think unparalleled. Virgil Flowers is a likeable yet realistic character. The dialog is especially well done.

The plot of this book, and the extent of the conspiracy is maybe a bit far fetched (but not as bad as the Prey novel about the Soviet agents). Still, it makes for a great story and a fun read.

I Live in the Future & Here's How It Works: Why Your World, Work, and Brain Are Being Creatively Disrupted
I Live in the Future & Here's How It Works: Why Your World, Work, and Brain Are Being Creatively Disrupted
by Nick Bilton
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £18.03

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Well-Done Analysis -- but not quite what I expected, 15 Oct 2010
"I Live in the Future & Here's How it Works" generally offers an excellent analysis of future trends in media (especially social media) and consumer behavior. One point that the book makes is that we can often get a good sense of how technologies will be absorbed into broader society by looking at the most tech-savvy among us ("early adopters"). Bilton generally has a more positive take on the social impacts of the internet than some other authors who worry, for example, about Google and Wikipedia making us stupid. For instance, Bilton argues that video games can enhance capability and cites evidence that Surgeons who regularly play games outperform those who don't.

One of the key points of the book is what Bilton calls "Me Economics" -- which implies that consumers will increasingly seek out products and services that have personal relevance and which provide highly engaging personal experiences. In other words, customization and personalization will win out over broad-based media, and businesses will have to adapt to this in order to be successful. Many of the points here are somewhat similar to those made in Chris Anderson's "The Long Tail."

My only problem is that for a book titled "I Live in the Future" and subtitled "Why Your World, Work, and Brain Are Being Creatively Disrupted," I expected a much broader treatment of how technology will be likely to impact society and the workplace. While Bilton's insights into media are well developed, I don't think those trends can be completely divorced from other -- possibly much more important -- disruptive impacts as technology continues to progress.

In particular there is no discussion of how advancing technology and our evolving consumer desires will impact employment (which should certainly be of interest given the current economic situation). As more of our consumer demands become digital in nature, it necessarily means fewer jobs for people to fulfill those desires. For example, consider the thousands of people employed by the nearly bankrupt Blockbuster, as opposed to how many people Netflix will employ in the future when nearly all movies are streamed directly to televisions or other devices.

Additionally many new automation technologies will increasingly threaten jobs of nearly all types, including knowledge-based jobs that require college degrees. In fact, this is already happening with IT jobs which are being hit even harder by automation than by offshoring.

For an excellent overview of these broader economic and social issues, I would highly recommend this book: The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future (Also has a Kindle Version)..

In spite of the ambitious title, this is clearly outside the scope of what Bilton intended to cover in his book. Therefore, I am still awarding 5 stars for his well-done focus on media. Nonetheless, I think any reader who is interested in the impact of technology on future society, the economy and business should not ignore the broader trends that are analyzed in "The Lights in the Tunnel".

Macrowikinomics: Rebooting Business and the World
Macrowikinomics: Rebooting Business and the World
by Don Tapscott
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £18.06

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting, but not a balanced analysis, 15 Oct 2010
MACROWIKINOMICS is an interesting read and gives a good overview of the ways in which collaboration is changing the social and business landscape. As another reviewer has pointed out, the book tends to be repetitive and is, to a large extent, a "re-make" of the authors' previous book.

The authors are relentlessly optimistic in their view that mass collaboration will have positive social, economic and even environmental impacts. The title of this book could well have been "How Wikinomics will Save the World."

I found the discussion and examples interesting, but in many cases a bit far-fetched. I wasn't very taken by the argument that open collaboration offers viable solutions in areas like financial system innovation and healthcare, for example. It seems to me that this raises obvious issues with security and privacy, and these concerns weren't adequately addressed.

In general, I think the authors' optimism may be appropriate when Wikinomics is viewed as a strategy for a particular business. But when the idea is expanded to the "macro" level a more balanced analysis is required. In a book that runs to 380 pages of text, only about 15 pages are devoted to a section at the very end entitled "The Dark Side of MacroWikinomics."

And there clearly is a "Dark Side." As the authors point out, mass collaboration is most often done on a volunteer basis, and it therefore can destroy paying jobs. The authors seem to think that the Linux story offers a reason to be optimistic; they point out that while contributors are unpaid, they all have day jobs as software developers. I don't think that extends very well to other areas. For example, Wikipedia has clearly diminished the prospects for commercial encyclopedias, even though the quality of the material often falls short of what you would find in a commercial product.

Another implicit assumption is that the primary impact of future progress in technology is going to be increased collaboration between people. I think that Wikinomics generally misses the potential for technology to become increasingly autonomous and start actually doing a great deal of work -- rather than simply enabling groups of people to do it.

For a broader look at the impact of technology on the future economy and job market, I'd also suggest reading this book: The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future (Also has a Kindle Version).

"MacroWikinomics" is certainly worth reading, but the reader should be aware that it offers a limited and one-sided analysis.

The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civilization's Northern Future
The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civilization's Northern Future
by Laurence C. Smith
Edition: Hardcover

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating look at the future, 15 Oct 2010
"The World in 2050" offers a highly readable and well-developed -- but perhaps somewhat conservative -- look at how global civilization will evolve over the next four decades. The book goes beyond simply attempting to predict the impact of climate change, and integrates four primary forces into its projections: (1) demographics, (2) natural resource demand, (3) climate change and (4) globalization.

One of the central thrusts of the book is that people, agriculture, and geopolitical power will migrate northward, largely in response to the impact of climate change and resource depletion. The populations of countries like Canada, Iceland and Norway are all projected to grow by over 20%, while global population will reach just over 9 billion. People will increasingly live in cities and will be older and wealthier.

As might be expected, water and energy are predicted to play vital roles. Smith offers a relatively optimistic take on potential conflicts over water, suggesting that they will be resolved peaceably, rather than degrading into war. Cities will win out over agriculture in the competition for water, and some regions will be maintained purely through global trade and the import of "virtual water" via grain. We will remain highly dependent on fossil fuels, but the energy economy will be more of a mix, with heavy use of natural gas and electric (or hybrid plug in) cars.

One of the most interesting sections covers "alternate endings" and considers issues such as a reversal of globalization, carbon release from the thawing tundra, or a well-developed global water trade.

My primary criticism of the book is its assumption (laid out clearly in the beginning), that technological advance will be "incremental." This is probably a reasonable assumption regarding radical advances in areas like energy or food production -- but it is not at all reasonable where information technology is concerned. Computer-based technologies have been, and will continue, to advance exponentially, and that is likely to have dramatic economic and social implications for both developed and developing countries.

For insight into this issue, I would strongly recommend this book: The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future (Also has a Kindle Version).

Smith writes at one point that "technology is a fifth force, twining through the first four." I would go further and elevate technology to a full-fledged force that will play an increasingly important role in shaping the societies and economies of the future. The economic implications of technology, in particular, will have a dramatic impact on our ability to adapt to both climate change and resource scarcity. I'd suggest reading both "The World in 2050" and "The Lights in the Tunnel" in order to get a sense of how all five of those forces will interact.

What Technology Wants
What Technology Wants
by Kevin Kelly
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £17.61

17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating look at how technology evolves, 15 Oct 2010
This review is from: What Technology Wants (Hardcover)
WHAT TECHNOLOGY WANTS offers a highly readable investigation into the mechanisms by which technology advances over time. The central thesis of the book is that technology grows and evolves in much the same way as an autonomous, living organism.

The book draws many parallels between technical progress and biology, labeling technology as "evolution accelerated." Kelly goes further and argues that neither evolution nor technological advance result from a random drift but instead have an inherent direction that makes some outcomes virtually inevitable. Examples of this inevitability include the eye, which evolved independently at least six times in different branches of the animal kingdom, and numerous instances of technical innovations or scientific discoveries being made almost simultaneously.

Kelly believes that technological progress has a symbiotic relationship with human population growth: technology makes increased population possible, while also relying on it to create both new minds that can be applied to further innovation and new consumers for those innovations. The book suggests that population is likely to peak and perhaps decline as global living standards rise and women choose to have fewer children, and it offers a number of possible scenarios under which it may be possible to decouple future progress from population growth.

One of the most interesting chapters delves into the possible dystopian side of advancing technology. The book quotes at length from Theodore Kaczynski's "Unibomber Manifesto." Kelly is willing to acknowledge the obvious logic of many of Kaczynski's arguments, even as he bemoans the fact that some of the most "astute analyses" of these issues comes from a mentally unbalanced murderer. Kelly rejects Kaczynski's pessimistic belief that technology destroys freedom, arguing instead that technology should make it possible for us to make better decisions.

The book offers a list of ten universal tendencies that give technology direction. Interestingly, one item on this list is "sentience." Kelly believes that some forms of artificial intelligence are inevitable and suggests that AI may be likely to evolve out of the internet.

I found it somewhat surprising that the book does not include more on the broad economic implications of progress. The technologies that Kelly describes -- especially artificial intelligence -- are certain to have a dramatic impact on employment markets, the concentration of income and wealth, and perhaps the overall structure of the economy. For an in depth look at these issues, I would highly recommend this book:

The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future (Also has a Kindle Version).

"What Technology Wants" argues for a broad definition of technology that includes the arts, culture and social institutions. "The Lights in the Tunnel" makes an essentially similar argument that the structure of our economy also needs to be considered technology and will need to evolve as progress continues. Both books offer strong evidence that technology is likely to continue advancing exponentially for the foreseeable future, and both should be read by anyone who wants to gain insight into the likely impact of that incredible degree of progress on society and the economy.

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