From the collapse of cryptocurrency and Meta’s financial troubles to Elon Musk’s vivisection of Twitter to the federal government’s long-awaited attempts to regulate social media companies (at least a bit), 2022 has been a momentous year in technology.
Almost certainly, the reckoning will continue into 2023, as we deal with challenges such as privacy, fintech regulation, platform governance and the role of clean technology (cleantech) and intellectual property (IP) in dealing with climate change.
It’s a lot to deal with. Making matters worse is that for many people the tech sector is shrouded in an aura of mystery that is often encouraged by the companies themselves.
But it doesn’t have to be. And what better time to bone up on the tech basics than the holiday season?
Below are five books that have shaped my understanding of the sector, from crypto to platforms and much else. Beyond their clear, accessible style, the five share a commitment to understanding the world as it is, rather than as we might wish it to be. If you want to understand why cryptocurrencies were always a dumb idea, what “internet freedom” really means, what’s at stake in the debate over privacy and surveillance, or the pernicious link between poor US-China relations, cleantech and the future of humanity, these books are for you.
Nick Srnicek, Platform Capitalism (Polity, 2016)
Platform Capitalism is proof that shorter is often better. A svelte 129 pages before endnotes and references, this small-but-mighty volume is essential reading for anyone wanting to understand the dynamics of the data and platform economy. Eschewing the moral panic that would inflect Shoshana Zuboff’s much heftier The Age of Surveillance Capitalism in 2019, Srnicek argues that it is platforms’ business model, based on data collection and rent extraction via the provision of services, that makes them distinctive. Srnicek gets bonus points for recognizing in 2016 the precarity of Facebook and Google (too ad-driven), as well as the unsustainability of “lean platforms” such as Uber (too dependent on venture capitalists’ unrealistic monopolistic fantasies). Likewise, Srnicek understood that Amazon, which controls the servers of this new economy, is the real giant. He ends the book by starkly presenting our options in dealing with platforms: regulate (necessary but “unimaginative” and likely ineffective in addressing deeper structural problems); create rival cooperatives; or make platform ownership public. All of which makes this an essential starting point for substantive policy discussions.
Shawn M. Powers and Michael Jablonski, The Real Cyber War: The Political Economy of Internet Freedom (University of Illinois Press, 2015)
“Internet freedom” is one of the most potent slogans in the hotly contested area of internet governance. However, as Powers and Jablonski point out in this incisive exploration of US internet policy making, the slogan reflects a very particular set of US economic, political and military interests. The next time you hear someone say they’re defending “internet freedom,” ask them exactly what they mean by that, and if they’ve read Powers and Jablonski. Their answers will reveal a lot about the quality of their argument.
Helen Nissenbaum, Privacy in Context: Technology, Policy and the Integrity of Social Life (Stanford University Press, 2009)
Individual privacy has become a flashpoint in platform and data governance debates. And while the concept and importance of privacy may seem straightforward enough, the reality is that there’s no consensus about either how to define it or what it means to say it’s a human right. Helen Nissenbaum’s Privacy in Context is a great starting point for understanding these discussions. She argues that whether encroachments on individuals’ privacy are beneficial (contact tracing to stop a pandemic, say) or not (police carding, for example) depends on the context in which our information is being obtained and used.
Peter Drahos, Survival Governance: Energy and Climate in the Chinese Century (Oxford University Press, 2021)
This read is a sobering reminder that the climate emergency remains by far the most important issue facing the world. On that front, Peter Drahos delivers some good news and some bad. The good: There remains a slight chance that humanity can get its act together to stave off the worst climate change outcomes. The bad: Geopolitics and economic inertia mean that our least-improbable hope lies with China becoming a cleantech superpower. I’ve included this book because access to cleantech and the relevant IP are key to surviving climate change. Unfortunately, while cutting China off from such IP (most of which is in the West) may be crafty geopolitics, Drahos’s merciless logic suggests that any American triumph will be pyrrhic.
John Kenneth Galbraith, A Short History of Financial Euphoria (Penguin Books, 1993)
This is another small but mighty book (128 pages). I first read it in the late 1990s, and it’s the reason I never succumbed to the evangelical zeal around bitcoin and cryptocurrency, or even fintech and decentralized finance.
The legendary Canadian economist reminds us that what passes as financial innovation is almost always just a new way to create “debt secured in greater or lesser adequacy by real assets.” As for the inevitable financial crises, they always involve “debt that, in one fashion or another, has become dangerously out of scale in relation to the underlying means of payment.”
As it was with tulip bulbs and junk bonds, so it is with subprime mortgages and cryptocurrencies, the latter of which are secured by no real assets whatsoever. And so it is, too, with fintech “innovations” such as buy-now-pay-later and gamified stock trading that merely (and recklessly) open the world of finance to people who often lack the “underlying means of payment” to cover the ensuing debts.
Unfortunately, because financial memories are short, and because people tend to equate wealth with intelligence, each generation ends up relearning the same hard lesson as their parents. Only the speculative medium changes.
A Short History of Financial Euphoria is not a tech book per se. But beyond its relevance for crypto and fintech, its caution against “financial speculative euphoria” works just as well for the technological speculative euphoria that sees in every technological innovation a revolution, and in every technologist a prophet.
Galbraith’s book suggests that any humbling of the tech sector will likely only be temporary. If we fail to understand the roots of our delusion, there will always be another Elon Musk around the corner, ready to take advantage of our credulity and amnesia.