Fifty Things that Made the Modern Economy (2017) by Tim Harford is a history of fifty very important technologies that have had a huge impact on the modern economy. It’s a bit like James Burke’s superb TV shows Connections and the Day the Universe changed but for the loyal listener set. Chapters from the book were first put into a podcast series that is also very interesting and well done.
Harford was a professional economist before becoming a writer for the Financial Times and then a presenter on BBC radio. He’s written a number of books on economics and has now written this one looking at a range of technologies. He hasn’t tried to pick the most important items, like the wheel, or light, because so many other people have looked at them. Instead it’s an inspired list of varying items and the tales behind them.
The items include : The Plough, Barbed Wire, Robots, The Welfare State, Infant Formula, TV Dinners, The Pill, Video Games, Market Research, Air Conditioning, Department Stores, The Dynamo, The Shipping Container, The Barcode, Tradable Debt and the Tally Stick, The Billy Bookcase, The Elevator, Cuneiform, Public Key Cryptography, Double-Entry Bookkeeping and the Light Bulb. They vary considerably.
Each chapter is very interesting on its own and the whole is even greater than the sum of the parts. The chapters are also quite short and so the book can be read in nice short chunks if desired. Each chapter has extensive references as well so anyone who wants to go into more depth can easily go off and read books about the inventions.
It’s really a great read and something that is really informative. Even if you have listened to the podcasts you’ll also find more in the book. It’s definitely one of Harford’s best books and for anybody at all interested in technology or the impacts of technology it’s highly recommended.
The Entrepreneurial State (2013) by Marianna Mazzucato looks at how the state is, according to Mazzucato, entrepreneurial in its development of science and technology.
The first thing about the book is that it abuses the word ‘Entrepreneur’. Mazzucato tries to put forward the idea that the state, by financing research is being ‘Entrepreneurial’. But it’s not really. The financial risk for the state itself isn’t that great. The financial risk for the people who allocate the funding is also small.
The book does make the case well that a lot of technology had much of the initial development paid for by the state. The book looks at the IPhone extensively and points out that microprocessors, the internet, touchscreens and the GPS in the device were all built for the US government. She then implies that Apple and other technology companies and VC firms just took the money and should pay more of it in tax. The book downplays the difficulty of performing this kind of integration and ignores the many companies who tried and failed to build a successful smartphone prior to the IPhone.
There is a very interesting review of the book in The Guardian that points out the problems with her general thesis.
The book then puts forward the idea that the government is the key entity that needs to shape clean energy by being entrepreneurial, but also in taking the upside and more of the profit. She jumps from pointing out that the state created various technologies used by Google and Apple and pharmaceutical companies to saying that it can just shape the market to prefer her favored energy choices. It’s not a strong argument. The US government did invest in IT, but there was no design of a market for computers, software and smartphones. That simply evolved.
Mazzucato makes the point that Apple doesn’t pay their ‘fair share’ of tax by pointing out that they use tax shelters to minimize the tax they pay. She doesn’t mention the raw figure of how much tax big US IT companies pay. Even with various tricks to reduce their tax they still pay billions and their employees, in jobs created by these companies also pay a great deal of tax.
The Entrepreneurial State makes the case that well that state spending on R&D has paid off in many instances. The claims it makes that the state should obtain more of the profits and benefits and shape markets is not well made.
One Device (2017) by Brian Merchant is a history of the IPhone for the tenth anniversary of the device. It looks at how the phone was developed, parts of the global supply chain that produce the device and the impact it’s had. Merchant has managed to write a book that is more than just a hagiography for Apple fans.
One of the big problems for a book like this is actually talking to the people who were really involved in the creation of the device. Most companies like to keep things quiet and get people to sign NDAs and not until long after will people really talk. On top of this Apple is a company with more secrecy than most. In this book Merchant seems to have managed to get quite a few people to talk and be what appears to be honest. There are some frank exchanges where some of the original team talk about the cost to their personal life and marriages of the work involved.
The book goes to Chilean mines, a Foxconn plant and a recycling center for electronics in China. He also gets an IPhone broken down to see exactly what it’s made of. Merchant also goes to ARM and talks to the transsexual engineer who was one of the original ARM designers.
There is also an interesting part on one of the first Smart phones that was tried, an IBM device from the early 1990s. There is not much of a mention of the Nokia Communicators prior to the IPhone. There is some mention of the first phone to get email working well on a phone, the Blackberry, which was common in business circles prior to the arrival of the IPhone. There are also a few mentions of WAP the unsuccessful attempt prior to the IPhone to get the internet working on a portable device.
For anyone interesting in technology ‘One Device’ is well worth a read. It’s well written and quite informative. It’s not the complete history of the emergence of the internet on portable devices but it is a very readable, informative and interesting book about the creation of a significant technological device.
Everybody Lies (2017) by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz is an interesting look at how big data gleaned from the internet can give us a better picture of what people are really like. Seth Stephens-Davidowitz (SSD) did a PhD in economics using search terms from the internet. After his PhD SSD worked at Google. He’s clearly seen a lot of data and thought about it and found a lot of interesting stuff.
The book emphasizes that what people say in public and put on Facebook isn’t what they are thinking. The dramatic use of racist search terms and their locations when President Obama was elected gave a great correlation for where Donald Trump would do well. People say how great their spouses are on Facebook, then they search for why they aren’t having sex with them on google. People outright lie about how many condoms they are using, with both sexes exaggerating substantially.
The book refers frequently to Freakonomics and Steven Levitt and the author states and shows his admiration for the work of Levitt and the way he looks for interesting data.
There are some other interesting observations about violent films and crime, which someone will hopefully soon extend to violent video games and some interesting notes on selective schools. There is even some things on the most unread books around.
The book makes the point that social science and literary studies have a fantastic new source of great data in big data. It’s an interesting and seemingly valid point.
It’s not a bad book and it would be hard to go through without learning something. SSD writes well and there are some fun facts on the way. It’s not great, but well worth a look.
Wonderland : How Play Made the Modern World (2016) by Steven Johnson is an interesting read about the impact of how luxuries and amusements have had on history. Johnson wrote a superb book called ‘How we got to now’ that had a limited number of key inventions that he says lead to the modern world. Wonderland is similarly constructed.
The book looks at shopping, music, taste, illusion, games and public space. The chapter on shopping looks at how the development of shopping fed growth. When looking at music the fact that humans like music and the importance of automatic players is described. Taste concentrates on the importance of the spice trade. Illusion looks at spiritual shows and finally Disney. Games looks at Chess and early computer games. Public space describes pubs and other public spaces.
Johnson is a fine writer and a lot of the information in the book is fascinating. His descriptions of the mechanical works of Iranian engineers is amazing. However, the book is undermined in that the main thesis running through it is oversold. The book is worth reading for a well written and interesting diversion though.
Confessions of a Serial Entrepreneur: Why I can’t Stop Starting Over (2007) by Stuart Skorman and Catherine Guthrie is an autobiographical account of Skorman’s adventures in starting businesses. Skorman founded reel.com which was an early fairly successful dot com in the first dot com boom. He had an entertaining interview on ‘The Internet History Podcast’ recently and the host recommended his book.
Skorman grew up in Ohio and his father ran a business that had a number of stores so he was brought up being aware of retail and business. He went to college and then managed a band in New England. Following that he tried to become a writer and then worked for Bread and Circus, a health food retailer in New England. After that he founded and ran a chain of video stores in Vermont then sold them to Blockbuster and then founded reel.com. Finally he founded a blended pharmacy and new age medicine store.
There is definitely some interesting stuff in the book. The fact that people in the know thought as early as the start of the 1990s that video stores were going to be replaced by online streaming and purchases is interesting. There is also quite a lot of business advice from Skorman. It’s not a bad book but far from the most interesting memoir about dot coms and the like you can find.
F’d Companies : Spectacular Dot Com Flameouts (2002) by Phillip J Kaplan that lists company after company that raised money, burned money and went out of business. Kaplan, aka Pud, created the site F’dCompany that was a really fun site that catalogued the collapse of many dot com companies. I saw him speak in DC not long after the book had been released and he was also an entertaining speaker. I think I read the book around then as well.
The book is of some historical interest because it looks at failure, which is something that isn’t often looked at. There are dozens of books about Apple, Google, Microsoft, Ebay, Amazon and co but few books look at the many, many failures that looked almost as likely at one point. The book is also funny, at least for a while, but the sort of thing that makes a funny blog post (which this book actually predates really – blogs took off after) isn’t what makes a funny book. It gets a bit tiring. But there are still some laughs. For anyone who was around at the time it will bring back some memories.
But reading the book in 2016 makes you realise that a number of the ideas were just before their time. On demand internet video, now known as Youtube, is there. Also a company called ‘myspace’ in their first incarnation as an online storage site. There are also other online storage sites like Dropbox that went insolvent. Hosting companies are also numerous. Also mocked is six-degrees, which was about the first social networking site, long before Facebook. Also mocked are various sites for making internet sites mobile friendly, admittedly over WAP which never took off. Still, an idea before it’s time that doesn’t make any money is a bad idea. It’s also worth noting how many failed companies Amazon was involved in.
If you’d been really smart and looked at the book in 2002 and thought about how increasing broadband and internet adoption was coming and what would work once there was three or four times as many people on the internet as there was in 2000 you could also have founded Youtube or Facebook. Who knows, perhaps some of these companies were founded by people who’d read the book and thought about what would work in the future. This is overly simplistic, there is a lot of skill in making things like that scale but it does show that ideas that do eventually work have often failed before.
There’s something in this book for people who remember the first dot-com boom and people who listen to ‘The Internet History Podcast’ but want to remember some of the many companies who didn’t make it. They style is pretty terrible but the content is there. It’s also worth noting that Pud went on to found some successful companies, so the book isn’t about total disillusionment with the internet, it just shows that there money was too easy to come by and ideas that were half baked got funded like never before and never since.