Review: In the Plex

intheplexSteven Levy’s book, “In the Plex: How Google Things, Works, and Shapes Our Lives,” holistically explores the history and various products of Google Inc. The book’s significance comes from Levy’s ongoing access to various Google employees, attendance at company events and product discussions, and other Google-related cultural and business elements since the company’s inception in 1999. In essence, Levy provides us with a superb – if sometimes favourably biased – account of Google’s growth and development.

The book covers Google’s successes, failures, and difficulties as it grew from a graduate project at Stanford University to the multi-billion dollar business it is today. Throughout we see just how important algorithmic learning and automation is; core to Google’s business philosophy is that using humans to rank or evaluate things “was out of the question. First, it was inherently impractical. Further, humans were unreliable. Only algorithms – well drawn, efficiently executed, and based on sound data – could deliver unbiased results” (p. 16). This attitude of the ‘pure algorithm’ is pervasive; translation between languages is just an information problem that can – through suitable algorithms – accurately and effectively translate even the cultural uniqueness that is linked to languages. Moreover, when Google’s search algorithms routinely display anti-Semitic websites after searching for “Jew” the founders refused to modify the search algorithms because the algorithms had “spoke” and “Brin’s ideals, no matter how heartfelt, could not justify intervention. “I feel like I shouldn’t impose my beliefs on the world,” he said. “It’s a bad technology practice”” (p. 275). This is an important statement: the founders see the product of human mathematical ingenuity as non-human and lacking bias born of their human creation.

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Recommended Books from 2011 Readings

BookDespite some cries that the publishing industry is at the precipice of financial doom, it’s hard to tell based on the proliferation of texts being published year after year. With such high volumes of new works being produced it can be incredibly difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff.  Within scholarly circles it (sometimes) becomes readily apparent what books are above middling quality by turning to citation indices, but outside of such (often paywall protected) circles it can be more challenging to ascertain what texts are clearly worth reading and which are not.

While I can hardly claim to speak with the weight of scholarly indices, I do read (and rate) a prolific number of texts each year. In what follows, I offer a list of the ‘best’ books that I read through 2011. Some are thought-provoking, others were important in how I understood various facets of the policy process, and still others offer interesting tidbits of information that have until now been hidden in shadow. For each book I’ll identify it’s main aim and a few points about what made the book compelling enough to get onto my list. Texts are not arranged in any particular ranking order and all should be available through your preferred book seller.

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Review: Islands of Privacy

Image Courtesy of University of Chicago Press

Christena Nippert-Eng’s Islands of Privacy is an interview-intensive book that grapples with how her sample group of Chicago residents attempt to achieve privacy, and the regular issues they face in maintaining privacy on a day-to-day basis. She finds a strong correlation between those who have had their privacy violated and those who want to secure and defend privacy as a concept and important element of their lived experience. 74 interviews were conducted with residents of Chicago and she makes very clear that her findings and conclusions are consequently highly contingent: other populations across America and the world would likely result in very different understandings of what constitutes privacy and a violation.

Privacy is defined quite early as “about nothing less than trying to live both as a member of social units – as part of a number of larger wholes – and as an individual – a unique, individuated self” (6). Further, privacy is identified as something to be managed: it exists by managing public information. Information is seen by participants as inherently public, with effort required to make it private, though interviewed subjects do not necessarily stick to this understanding of privacy throughout their interviews. On the whole, the approach to privacy remains wrapped up in the language on control, seclusion, and selective sharing of information; in this sense, Nippert-Eng’s work can be seen as a fusion of Westin’s Privacy and Freedom and key tenets of Nissembaum’s work in Privacy in Context: Technology, Policy, and the Integrity of Social Life.

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Review of The Googlization of Everything

Googlizationcover_0Siva Vaidhyanathan’s The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry) is a challenging, if flawed, book. Vaidhyanathan’s central premise is that we should work to influence or regulate search systems like Google (and, presumably, Yahoo! and Bing) to take responsibility for how the Web delivers knowledge to us, the citizens of the world. In addition to pursuing this premise, the book tries to deflate the hyperbole around contemporary technical systems by arguing against notions of technological determinism/utopianism.

As I will discuss, the book largely succeeds in pointing to reasons why regulation is an important policy instrument to keep available. The book also attempts to situate itself within the science and technology studies field, and here it is less successful. Ultimately, while Vaidhyanathan offers insight into Google itself – its processes, products, and implications of using the company’s systems – he is less successful in digging into the nature of technology, Google, culture, and society at a theoretical level. This leaves the reader with an empirical understanding of the topic matter without significant analytic resources to unpack the theoretical significance of their newfound empirical understandings.

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Review of The Offensive Internet: Speech, Privacy, and Reputation

9780674050891-lgThe Offensive Internet: Speech, Privacy, and Reputation is an essential addition to academic, legal, and professional literatures on the prospective harms raised by Web 2.0 and social networking sites more specifically. Levmore and Nussbaum (eds.) have drawn together high profile legal scholars, philosophers, and lawyers to trace the dimensions of how the Internet can cause harm, with a focus on the United States’ legal code to understand what enables harm and how to mitigate harm in the future. The editors have divided the book into four sections – ‘The Internet and Its Problems’, ‘Reputation’, ‘Speech’, and ‘Privacy’ – and included a total of thirteen contributions. On the whole, the collection is strong (even if I happen to disagree with many of the policy and legal changes that many authors call for).

In this review I want to cover the particularly notable elements of the book and then move to a meta-critique of the book. Specifically, I critique how some authors perceive the Internet as an ‘extra’ that lacks significant difference from earlier modes of disseminating information, as well as the position that the Internet is a somehow a less real/authentic environment for people to work, play, and communicate within. If you read no further, leave with this: this is an excellent, well crafted, edited volume and I highly recommend it.

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Review: Network Nation – Inventing American Telecommunications

Image courtesy of Harvard University Press

I spend an exorbitant amount of time reading about the legacies of today’s telecommunications networks. This serves to historically ground my analyses of today’s telecommunications ecosystem; why have certain laws, policies, and politics developed as they have, how do contemporary actions break from (or conform with) past events, and what cycles are detectable in telecommunications discussions. After reading hosts of accounts detailing the telegraph and telephone, I’m certain that John’s Network Nation: Inventing American Telecommunications is the most accessible and thorough discussion of these communications systems that I’ve come across to date.

Eschewing an anachronistic view of the telegraph and telephone – seeing neither through the lens that they are simply precursors to contemporary digital communications systems – John offers a granular account of how both technologies developed in the US. His analysis is decidedly neutral towards the technologies and technical developments themselves, instead attending to the role(s) of political economy in shaping how the telegraph and telephone grew as services, political objects, and zones of popular contention. He has carefully poured through original source documents and so can offer insights into the actual machinations of politicians, investors, municipal aldermen, and communications companies’ CEOs and engineers to weave a comprehensive account of the telegraph and telephone industries. Importantly, John focuses on the importance of civic ideals and governmental institutions in shaping technical innovations; contrary to most popular understandings that see government as ‘catching up’ to technicians post-WW I, the technicians have long locked their horns with those of government.

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