Despite 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.
Landau’s Surveillance or Security?
The past decade has seen an exponential increase in public and private surveillance actions, typically under the auspice of efficiency and/or security. Landau investigates the legitimacy of claims linking surveillance to security and ultimately argues that integrating surveillance into communications networks does not necessarily or inherently make us more secure. In fact, such surveillance may make us less secure by creating previously non-existent vulnerabilities. She identifies three core groups invested in expanding surveillance processes: content owners; law enforcement and law makers; and law enforcement and national security. As novel means to identify individuals online are built into networks these same networks are becoming increasingly vulnerable to attacks from hackers, non-state actors, insiders, and other nation-states. Wiretapping and identity-attribution doesn’t just help security services: they also create basic risks to communications security and threaten the democratic principles of free speech and freedom of association. Where the privacy and security of individuals’ communications are violated, such violations must be minimal, possess high levels of oversight, be technically limited to preclude function creep, be extremely limited in application, and not impede the workings of the press. For anyone doing work in security, privacy, or addressing contemporary problems with public and private access to communications data, Landau’s work is required reading. Her mastery of the subject matter and accessible discussions of policy, technology, and standards make the book useful to the academic, policy maker, governance expert, citizen, and politician alike.
Levmore and Nussbaum’s (Eds.) The Offensive Internet
Through a collection of essays, this book provides an incisive glimpse into the ‘bad’ parts of the Internet. How do we address mob-like behaviours, civil rights online, or reputational problems stemming from comments’ online permanency? Authors offer varying positions – everything from stripping Section 230 protections from the Communications Decency Act, to simply better applying law to online spaces, to investigating the ethics of shaming online – to remedy the worst of the ‘net. How effective would such remedies be? Many propositions possess strong ‘academic’ biases, insofar as the proposals would likely be twisted and warped once in an actual policy discourse. Others are excellent academic legal suggestions that would set precedent if adopted. Regardless, this is one of the best argued – and most reputable – books that I’ve come across that tries to engage with the hard questions of remedying the harms and crises individuals face as a result of Internet-related actives. Word of warning: many sections are incredibly painful to read because the authors refuse to sugar-coat the language directed at the targets of online hate, or the crises those targets subsequently experience. Ultimately, this series of essays is a much needed read for anyone arguing for free speech online: this book provides a cogent series of snippets for why online speech should perhaps not be so free.
Morozov’s The Internet Delusion
This book deserves its ‘must read’ status amongst Internet governance scholars and policy makers. In The Internet Delusion, Morozov argues that we have to recognize and reject Internet-centrist and utopian approaches to Internet policy. Whereas ‘net-utopianism argues for what should be done, centralists argue that problems should be framed through the lens of the Internet rather than according to the specific question or problem at hand. Both centrist and utopian approaches, Morozov argues, should be rejected because they handicap thinking about Internet policies. Instead, a realist approach should be adopted. Throughout the text we read about the consequences of centrist-thinking: the implications the U.S. State Department faces from influencing American Web 2.0 companies; problems associated with unthinking policy choices concerning freedom of speech and Internet access; logical shortfalls of applying Cold War language to web censorship; the dangers of ignoring long lasting political advocacy groups that lack web savvy. Critically, he rejects a neutralist position concerning Internet services and insists that all networks require ethical investigation and critical evaluation to uncover the services’ negative applications. Morozov is a welcome, highly critical, participant in the governance debate and a must read for anyone interested in critiques of contemporary American Internet-related policy making.
Farivar’s The Internet of Elsewhere
When we read about Internet policy it tends to be about policy in the West. This has the unfortunate result of distorting how we understand Internet policies and deployment strategies, conflating what worked for ‘us’ with what will work for ‘them’. Farivar’s book looks at what happens when “the Internet collides, head-on, with history unfamiliar to most Americans” (15). He performs a comparative analysis, looking at South Korea, Senegal, Estonia, and Iran, and offers revealing insights about Internet-related policies in each nation-state. From South Korea, we learn how high levels of Internet activity can be tied to the government’s strong investiture in digital initiatives to secure the nation’s economic future, as well as the relationship between high levels of literacy, low costs of Internet access, and innovative services and problems. In Senegal, Farivar outlines the problems stemming from episodic third-party investment in Internet access combined with low levels of literacy. Programs are not written in commonly spoken languages and, combined with problems of employment and low economic activity, as well as poor regulation of the national telecom monopoly, traditional Internet uptake has been poor. Turning to Estonia, we see that (similar to South Korea) high levels of literacy are a boon to Internet adoption, as were the high levels of R&D investment by the former-USSR. Ultimately, however, a few key actors have pushed Internet adoption and Farivar concludes that, in essence, “the Internet has been able to flourish in Estonia because the nation’s independence coincided with the arrival of the disruptive technology of the Internet” (146). From Iran, we see that the Internet is adopted because of high literacy, but that actual uses of the communications medium are hampered by the nation’s political conditions. While Western governance experts talk about the ‘single Internet’ of today, Farivar argues that the singular Internet simply does not exist: filters, divergent languages, and local politics create unique Internet cultures throughout the world. This book is an excellent accompaniment to Morozov’s, further lending credence to the ‘realist’ position in Internet governance.
Berners-Lee’s Weaving the Web
Berners-Lee was responsible for driving the Web’s creation, and his text articulates his passion about the World Wide Web. In short, Weaving the Web is about Berners-Lee’s vision that the Web provides new freedoms by letting anything be connected to anything else. This connectedness lets us grow knowledge faster than when labouring under hierarchical classification systems. Throughout the text we learn about key features of the Web’s – and the World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C) – birth, including contestations at standards bodies, what drove the Web’s licensing conditions, how W3C worked to counteract particularly onerous American legislation, and Berners-Lee’s early positions on Web privacy. The text is helpful in outlining W3C’s contributions during key regulatory contests in the 1990s and is essential to understand the philosophy the Web’s designer meant to weave into his creation. Anyone looking at freedom of speech, privacy, or governance issues will profit from reading this book.
Birkland’s After Disaster
In After Disaster: Agenda Setting, Public Policy, and Focusing Events, Birkland explores how focusing events can be examined empirically and theoretically. While scholars of agenda-setting routinely refer to the importance of focusing events – those sudden, relatively rare, events that are defined as harmful or revealing the potential for harm in the future, that can be located within a definable area or community of interest, and that become known to the public and politicians virtually simultaneously – there had not been a formal, elongated, study of focusing events themselves prior to this book. Birkland masterfully fills this gap in the scholarly literature. He identifies key characteristics of focusing events that (a) get onto the agenda; (b) lead to policy change. In both cases, it is critical that individual, rather than aggregate, events are emphasized. Moreover, the composition, dynamics, and dimensions of the policy community and domain radically influence the likelihood of policy change. In terms of my own analyses of what does, and doesn’t, work to shift telecommunications agendas I see this as a critical piece of the theoretical puzzle. Anyone that is looking to understand how agenda-setting relates to focusing events must read this text.
Abbate’s Inventing the Internet
Whereas Berners-Lee focuses on the inception of the Web, Abbate explores the development and rise of the Internet itself. Against those who insist that technology itself is autonomously driven, Abbate argues that the Internet’s identity as a communications system was determined through a series of social and political choices. Critically, the ‘net wasn’t a single isolated act of invention. Rather, the idea of the Internet is a story of its regular invention and reinvention. As we progress through the text it become apparent just how many social choices were made in the Internet’s design and the path dependency that this has created. We see that what seemed to be relatively minor, or practical, decisions in the 1960s and 70s have had enormous impacts and act as the foundation for contemporary politics of Internet governance, surveillance possibilities, and property conflicts. The history of the Internet is rife with contributions from individuals and organizations, and is immersed in the conflicting politics of the academy, private businesses, private actors, and the nation state. When Abbate was writing the text – in 2000 – she concluded by arguing that the Internet’s long-term survival would depend on its developers’ capacities to draw on the legacies of adaptability and participatory design that were baked into the Internet. For those invested in contemporary political issues related to the Internet – net neutrality, identity politics, security, privacy, governance – this book is essential: it outlines what has gone before and why, and generally orients current conditions for political conflict over the Internet today.
Turkle’s Alone Together
Turkle’s book is an inspiring piece of work that serves as a warning to moderns and technologists alike: we are at a precipice and should critically evaluate technology’s place in our lives before we step off the cliff and (potentially) fall into psychological chaos. Her book is broken into two parts. The first focuses on the role of robots and the degree of emotional attachment that humans can and do develop towards them. In this section, she examines how children, seniors, and those who are lonely are being confronted by humanized robots. What does it mean for children to associate particular personas and egos to digitized code that is intentionally developed to evoke strong emotional attachments? Is it an ethically responsible decision to place socialized robots within elderly homes, so that children and caretakers can absolve themselves of the need to visit and engage in human contact with elderly members of our society? Technologists insist that the children and elderly alike are better off, but Turkle’s insightful examination leaves us with questions about the psycho-social implications of socialized robotics. The second half of her book considers how networked society is damaging our capabilities to enjoy intimacy and solitude. Mobile phones, social networking sites, and novel understandings of social norms are her sites of examination. By the conclusion of the text, we are left critically questioning the actual value of many of our modern networked conveniences. Anyone raising a child, or living a highly-networked life (i.e. with a smartphone, multiple online social networks, etc), should be required to read this book to understand the psycho-technical trajectories we are passing along. Like all of Turkle’s work, this book is well grounded in case studies and offers significant psychoanalytic and ethical evaluation of the cases. It is incredibly accessible to the lay audience – you don’t need to be a technologist or psychotherapist to ‘get’ each and every point that is made in the book. Warning: many of the cases in the book are absolutely heartbreaking, and may lead the reader to emotively question the value of technological and sociological ‘progress’ in contemporary Western society.
National security and intelligence operations have long been a topic of public interest. In his book, Aldrich presents a detailed evaluation of the UK’s Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ) signals intelligence organization. Focusing on the 1940s to present day, the book’s key merit for political scientists is in revealing how tightly integrated many Western foreign policy decisions are with intelligence gathering. The often tense political contests surrounding small tracts of land are made clear when discussing how those same tracts were (and are) used to listen to Chinese, Russian, and other less friendly nations’ communications. Throughout the book we gain insight into the UK/USA ‘special relationship’ and the importance that individual directors have had in the relationship’s waxing and waning over the decades. Revealingly, a significant element of this relationship is linked with secret intelligence gathering powers: one is left wondering whether the UK’s relationship will wax if the United States can find another similarly determined, resourced, and trusted partner to monitor the globe’s communications. The last chapters of the book disclose how much power this secretive organization has in influence UK governmental decisions. GCHQ’s capacity to block intelligence from entering the court system, to appropriate monies out of the national security budget (and increase its budget through supplementary avenues and budgets in poorly disclosed manners), and contemporary efforts to ‘hoover up’ information and share it with GCHQ’s American cousins (i.e. the NSA) is explored. This is a highly valuable supplemental text, insofar as those who spend time in the politics of surveillance in the US and UK alike can learn how these nations’ respective surveillance organizations have driven – and been driven by – government policy.