Tag Archives: technology

Enlightenment Now

Enlightenment Now : The Case for Reason, Science, and Humanism (2018) by Steven Pinker is a high selling non-fiction book by a famous author that espouses that humanity’s condition has improved dramatically in the past 200 years and also very dramatically in the past 50 years. In addition to that Pinker says that the reason for this improvement is Reason, Science and Humanism. Bill Gates recently said that book is his favourite of all time. Pinker is a Canadian born cognitive psychologist professor at Harvard. He has also written a number of very successful other books.

The fact that the number of people in the world living flourishing lives in the world over the past 200 years has shot up dramatically. This fact is critically important and has been sadly under reported. The recently deceased Swedish doctor Hans Rosling made a big effort with his ‘Gap minder’ website to collate statistics on the well being of people all over the world. His TED talk is fantastic and it has had a huge impact. The data show that life expectancy has shot up in poor parts of the world along with literacy and life expectancy. Max Roser, a German researcher, has furthered this sort of data collection in his fantastic our world in data project.

The book summarises these incredible developments well. Pinker states that the system of markets, science and democracy has worked better than anything in history and that the increase in well being is absolutely staggering. The book does cover much of the same ground that Matt Ridley’s ‘The Rational Optimist’ also does.

The other part of the book is stating that it is the ideas of the Enlightenment that have been furthered with atheism that has caused all this to take place and Pinker starts to take on those he believes are the enemies of The Enlightenment. This part is more problematic. Many of the major Enlightenment thinkers were religious, in particular Kant, as have been many major scientific figures including Newton, Maxwell and others. They were not seeking to put forward new thinking based just on reason but instead to use reason to justify their beliefs better. There have been critiques of the book from academics who study The Enlightenment that point out these issues .

Pinker also makes the point that a lot of the humanities have become heavily left wing and politicised and intolerant. Pinker points out that in many Humanities departments there are as many Marxists as conservatives with the majority being substantially left, and many hard left wing. They have also become intolerant of idealogical diversity. Pinker points out that this is also leading to much of the humanities become irrelevant. Science is seen by post modernists as just another version of truth that is primarily about propagating an oppressive point of view.

Much of the great progress over the past 20 years is also due to China’s rise and it is interesting to ponder if the rise of a nominally Marxist but certainly totalitarian state coupled to a market economy that uses science is a rise compatible with The Enlightenment.

Pinker’s previous book ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature’ was challenged by Nassim Taleb on the basis that a single modern nuclear war would make the entire thesis incorrect. Pinker responds to this criticism in the book. However, he doesn’t name Taleb which is a bit petty.

The book concludes with a defence of Liberalism and Humanism and references to The UN’s Declaration of Human Rights and a manifesto for a new Humanism.

Overall, Enlightenment Now is well worth a read for the statistics that point out just how much the modern world has improved in so many dimensions. Pinker’s idealogical justification for this rise isn’t as strong and is apparently not as well researched.





The Friendly Orange Glow

The Friendly Orange Glow : The Untold Story of the PLATO system and the dawn of cyberculture (2017) by Brian Dear is a fascinating but wildly too long account of the PLATO interactive, networked computer system developed at the University of Illinois.

PLATO was clearly an incredibly advanced system that had high speed interactive graphics and networking. It was started as a system that was intended to greatly enhance teaching by providing individually paced lessons for students. PLATO got many people to use the system in highly surprising that included early networked games, bulletin boards and networked chat. PLATO also had a plasma screen and critical research on plasma and flat panel displays was done for it.

The system was commercialised by CDC but largely failed to gain traction. PLATO also almost became the basis for the system at Xerox PARC. The system is also interesting because it was an important, revolutionary system that wasn’t developed in the US Northeast or on the Pacific.

Dear himself first used the system in 1979 and went on to have a great career founding several companies and working at a number of significant technology firms.

It’s an incredible bit of largely unknown history. The book could have been fantastic but due to the author’s desire to get too much in and the lack of an editor who didn’t weed the book down it’s a real slog. It is a great resource for historians though.

There is an excellent interview with the author on the also excellent ‘Internet History Podcast’. If you’re at all interested in the topic that would be a great place to start. This is also where I found the book.

PLATO was started in the 1960s and initially used the ILLIAC as the mainframe behind before migrating onto more powerful machines. It was led by Daniel Alpert, a physicist who made the inspired decision of hiring Don Bitzer, another physicist to be the technical lead. Bitzer made the team very informal and allowed anyone who could show they could contribute to contribute remarkably including high school students as well.

By the 1970s the system could support thousands of users and the labs at the university were fairly open and games and other social things were created that were hugely successful. Remarkably Bitzer allowed this use and cleverly used it to stress test and improve the machine. It had much of what is now on the internet 25 years before it was widely used in other places and 10-15 years before Unix based systems caught up.

Dear has a huge section on all the contributors and game programmers that he could track down. He also includes biographies for many of them. It’s quite amazing, but also pretty tiring.

The book is fascinating for people interested in the history of technology and it’s surprising for anyone who is familiar with what is usually presented as the main history of technology from mainframes to Unix to PCs. The PLATO system has clearly been dramatically overlooked and this book does a lot to correct that. It is, however, also far too long. One way to deal with it is to really speed read through any sections that the reader doesn’t find interesting. But if a third to a half of the book had been cut it would have been much better. Still, Dear deserves enormous credit for compiling and writing the book.




The Knowledge

The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World from Scratch (2014) by Lewis Dartnell gives an overview of what the author thinks a small band of humans would need to rebuild society after a disaster that kills most of humanity.

The idea of what technological ideas and what would be needed to rebuild society is an interesting question. After an apocalypse what would be needed and how quickly could things be rebuilt? Dartnell goes through agriculture, food and clothing and then chemicals, metals and materials that would be needed to rapidly restart civilization.

The start of the book is definitely fascinating, working out how to get enough food to keep people going and then grow enough food is a huge problem. Then clothing and shelter would be critical, unless they were already there. Dartnell then gets into the chemicals, metals and other things that would be needed and how a small group of people could make them. However, it all becomes more of a science lesson in the core bits of technology that enable so many of us to live so well. This is where it falls down, if enough people survived then sure the knowledge of how to do things would make it through due to some of the millions of books around surviving and people starting to trade and specialize. This part of the book also becomes a bit dull.

Still, it’s an interesting read and would be well worth it for anyone contemplating writing apocalyptic fiction themselves.

Fifty Things that Made the Modern Economy

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

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

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

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.