måndag 20 juni 2011

Books I've read lately

I wrote pretty recently about my reading habits in general and I have also previously written about the work-related books I read during the autumn. I more or less read two non-fiction books per month of which one is work-related. Here is a summary of the books I've read during the spring:

The Swedish-language 2010 anthology "After the Pirate Bay" ["Efter the Pirate Bay"] contained no less than 19 contributions of which a bunch were written by persons I happen know (one contributor sits in the room next to mine). The contributors have a variety of backgrounds and while most are researchers (from a variety of disciplines), some have other backgrounds (for example a few journalists, a member of the parliament, an entrepreneur). Almost half of the researchers are ph.d. students (i.e. junior researchers probably in the 20's or perhaps early 30's). They write about a variety of issues and the book is divided into the three different parts; "technology", "pirates" and "politics". The book was naturally a little uneven, but it was in general a good read and one of the texts in fact gave me an idea I hope to be able to develop in a shorter text of my own. My main take-away from the book is how totally out of synch current copyright/IP laws are with the technology of our times, and, with common sense! (Not that I didn't know it before...) Although the book (of course) is available for free online, it is inexpensive enough (69 SEK) for anyone who wants to read it to order the paper version.

Several in-your-face examples of just how out of touch and absurd our laws for regulating Intellectual Property (IP) are were glaringly obvious while reading Lawrence Lessig's "Free culture: The nature and future of creativity" (2003). I notice that the more recent edition of the book has another subtitle: "How big media uses technology and the law to lock down culture and control creativity". That just about summarizes it all. Lessig (whose earlier book "Code: And other laws of cyberspace" impressed me a lot) sounds like a lonely sane voice in a desert of lobbyist-fed propaganda from industry dinosaur-titans trying their best to obstacles in the way of of "creative destruction" making the process short with their previous-century industrial age business models. By looking backwards and clinging to the past, organizations such as the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) squarely stand in the way of new, better business models that are more appropriate for the time we live in. Unfortunately these previous-century dinosaurs command hefty purses and thus do their best to strangle common-sense attempts to free the positively vast amounts of culture that has little or no economic value in the marketplace (because it is old or of interest to the few rather than to many etc.), but that in the age of affordable networked computers is of vast value to of our societies and to our culture. Even though Lessig is not alone, he is one of the best in formulating his critique against the current state of affairs. Lessig is an astute observer and a great writer - but I can't keep up with him as he has written a new book every second year during the previous decade.

Paul Edwards book "The closed world: Computers and the politics of discourse in cold war America" (1996) is a book I have owned for more than a decade and I have in fact started to read it once before but got stuck 30 or so pages into the book. Although the book is a little on the heavy side to read it is extremely well-researched and manages to convey a picture of pioneering work in the computer sciences that is radically different from most of what I have read before/elsewhere. Edwards ties the development of digital computers (and cognitive sciences) tightly to American cold war goals and mindsets and military dreams of creating cyborg human-machine interfaces and war machines - or even getting rid of the slow, unreliable human in that loop! There are many things in the book that "rewire" the standard history of computers, software, human-computer interaction, artificial intelligence (AI) and cognitive sciences, for example the vast (often non-directed) support from the military for basic research in computer science in general and AI i particular during its first 20 years as an academic field. The final - almost 50 pages long - chapter analyzes the computer in popular culture (with an emphasis on films) from the 1960's to the 90's (Dr. Strangelove, 2001, Tron, Star Trek, War Games, Star Wars, Terminator etc.). The analysis livens up and ties back to and applies Edward's previous analysis of the much "heavier" and "drier" material, and it is brilliant!

The last book I read during the spring was Richard Sennett's "Flesh and stone: The body and the city in western civilization" (1994). This is another book that I have owned for quite some time and while I have read other, later books by Sennett with pleasure I have to say that this book was both a little heavier as well as a little further away from my academic/research interests that I thought before I started to read it. The book treats the relationship between the human body and the city in a variety of ways; how humans move, adapt to and conduct their affairs in relation to the design of the city and city life, as well as how the city itself is a product of culturally bound conceptions about humans, their relationship to others as well as their religion, cosmology and world view. The featured cities are (primarily) the ancient greek city-state Athens, Rome, medieval Paris and Venice, industrial-age Paris and London and modern New York. While I found the book moderately interesting, it was not the easiest read and it is doubtful I will have any practical use for it in terms of my (wide-but-finite) research interests.

Have you read any of these books (or would you like to)? What is your opinion about them?

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