tisdag 1 juli 2014

Books I've read (Jan)

I read the four books below during my Christmas vacation in Argentina and during the first few weeks of my sabbatical at UC Irvine (which, as I write these words, is coming to an end), i.e. between the end of December and mid-February. Here's the previous blog post about the books I read before that.

My new habit (as of February) is to each day post one or two quotes from books or articles that I'm reading on Facebook. I will harvest these quotes from Facebook and post them at the bottom of this and future blog posts. They will thus flesh out these blog posts considerably and constitute a sample of memorable quotes from the book(s) in question. Each asterisk below denotes one quote from that book (further below).

The book "Future of News" is in fact the final report from the 10 groups that took my master's level project course "The Future of Media" during the autumn 2013 term. Instead of writing a final report, each project group writes a chapter and we put them together and print them all in a limited-edition book. I wrote several blog posts about different aspects of this year's course itself during the autumn term (for example this and this). The previous year's book is called "The future of magazines" and I wrote about it a year ago

I read this book primarily because I had to; I needed to grade the project groups and their "final reports" were neatly collected in the above limited-edition book. Although the physical book is hard to get hold of, the texts aren't - they're online! You can either download and read individual chapters or download and print/read the whole book (pdf file, 6.14 MB).

The quality of the chapters (e.g. the project groups' final reports) vary, but the three most-appreciated projects (solid texts, great deliverables and interesting ideas in general) were "Newsify" (pdf), "You've got bias" (pdf) and "Future of ads" (pdf). Do note that not only the texts, but also some really great concept movies about the projects are available in the online archive. An alternative to reading the book above might be to download and watch some of those movies (and then deepen your understanding by reading the book chapters about your favorite projects).

Since the book consists of 10 very different chapters, it's difficult to say something about the book as a whole rather than about the individual chapters/projects. I do have to say that the book itself looks great though - as usual! I hope we can reach the same level of quality in this year's course (with a new, different theme) that starts after the summer.

Thomas Homer-Dixon's 2006 book "The upside of down: Catastrophe, creativity and the renewal of civilisation" is a very interesting book. Homer-Dixon successfully combines results from many different areas, including the social sciences, ecology, energy and complexity studies. The book is very "sturdy" - 300 pages of text and 100 pages of detailed notes. A major part of the book treats developments and stresses of different kinds (environmental, social, economic) on local, national and international scales:

"Convergence is treacherous, too, because it could lead directly to synchronous failure, if several stresses were to climax together in a way that overloads our societies' ability to cope. What happens, for example if together or in quick succession the world has to deal with a sudden shift in climate that sharply cuts food production in Europe and Asia, a severe oil price increase that sends economies tumbling around the world, and a string of major terrorist attacks on several Western capital cities? Such a convergence would be a body blow to global order, and might even send reeling the world's richest and most powerful societies. Global financial institutions and political stability could begin to break down" (p.17).
"Any management policies that really address the underlying causes of our hardest problems usually require big changes in the existing economic and political order. After all, that order is often a central reason why our problems are so bad. But big changes always run headlong into staunch opposition from powerful and entrenched intest groups - like companies, unions, government bureaucracies, and associations of financial investors - that benefit from the status quo" (p19).
"Because it's hard to challenge the arrangements that benefit vested interests, when we try to manage serious threats to our well-being we usually create new organizations, institutions, and procedures rather than reforming those that already exist. ... too often, though, this strategy simply adds another layer of complexity on top of an already cumbersome and dysfunctional management system. So, over time, our mechanisms for dealing with a more volatile world become more rigid and susceptible to catastrophic failure when exposed to severe stress" (p.20).

This longish quote pretty much summarises a large part of the book. Those of you who might have read any of Joseph Tainter's works will recognise his ideas about decreasing returns of increasing complexity. Beyond being influence by Tainter, biologist Buzz Holling's work on "panarchy theory" (of biological cycles of growth, collapse, regeneration and renewed growth) has also had a large influence on Homer-Dixon's thinking. Being a social scientist, Homer-Dixon transposes biologist Holling's theory of adaptiveness and resilience to the social and societal arena. The picture Homer-Dixon paints is in general pretty grim, but he does also propose ways to go forward from where we are by emphasizing creativity (which often is unleashed in uncertain times) and the birth of something new (e.g. "the light at the end of the tunnel")

Homer-Dixon is the director of the Trudeau Center for Peace and Conflict Studies in Waterloo outside of Toronto. I was in Toronto a few months ago and tried to set up a meeting with him about a project that I am spearheading. We did unfortunately not succeed in setting up that meeting - not the least because Homer-Dixon is busy working on a new book "about how humanity might solve its global problems". I can understand that that topic might keep him busy…

Married couple Michael and Joyce Huesemann's (2011) "Techo-fix: Why technology won't save us or the environment" is a broadside against human hubris, and, against the human belief that we can "improve on nature" with/through technology. From the introduction:

"Tech-optimistm is pervasive in our society but hardly justified. ... Techo-Fix questions a primary paradigm of our age: that advanced technology alone will extricate us from an ever-increasing load of social, environmental and economic issues. Techo-Fix shows why negative unintended consequences of science and technology are inherently unavoidable and unpredictable, why counter-technologies, techo-fixes and efficiency improvements do not offer lasting solutions and why modern technology, in the presence of continued economic growth, does not promote sustainability but instead hastens collapse.
Techo-Fix ... asserts that technological optimism and the unrelenting belief in progress are based on ignorance, that most technological cost-benefit analyses are biased in favor of new technologies and that increasing consumerism and materialism, which have been facilitated by science and technology, have failed to increase happiness.

It would be easy to imagine that a book like this would have been written by journalists, historians or philosophers, but the two authors actually have Ph.D.s in chemical engineering and mathematics. Moreover, the book actually does elaborate on each of the statements above and methodically delivers on them. The critique that is formulated is very well grounded - for example taking evolutionary biology and the laws of thermodynamics as starting points:

"One assumption that underlies a substantial number of technological applications is the belief that nature can be improved upon or perfected for the benefit of mankind [but] the process of evolution guarantees that, within a given environment, species function and interact in a changing but largely optimized fashion. ... in effect there are some two to three billion years of "R&D" behind every living thing. ... Our most glittering improvement over Nature are often a fool's solution to a problem that has been isolated from context, a transient, local maximizaion that is bound to be followed by mostly undesirable counter-adjustments throughout the system. 
... Because the negative consequences of science and technology often occur in unanticipated forms and in distant locations, and sometimes after significant time intervals, they are often not perceived as related to their causes."

I especially appreciated the job the authors did on tearing cost-benefit analysis to pieces. They spend a whole chapter (25 pages, "The positive bias of technology assessment and cost-benefit analysis") on showing how arbitrary systems boundaries are, how important but "diffuse" stakeholders (e.g. the general public, future generations, plants and animals) are sidelined or ignored, and how such "analyses" are set up so as to always overestimate the (possible) positive effects and underestimate and downplay the (possible) negative effects of new technologies.

Techno-Fix is a really deep book and it is, in my opinion, almost on par with Alf Hornborg's excellent book "The power of the machine". While the ideas expressed are first-class, the drawback of the Huesemanns' methodicalness is their sometimes plodding writing style, enumerating one thing after another after another. No stone is left unturned in this book - for good and for bad.

I originally found out about the book by listening to a podcast where the first author was interviewed. I immediately thought both the author and the book sounded really interesting, but I think it has taken me two years or more from when hearing the podcast to buying the book and then reading it and writing about it here. My lead times can apparently be very long in this ongoing book-reading project of mine... I'm pretty methodical myself and the drawback is a lack of spontaneity.

***** (five asterisks = five quotes from the book below) Joseph Tainter came to visit UCI back in February and I wrote a blog post about it. My copy of his classic book "The collapse of complex societies" is back in Sweden so I thought I would buy and read another book of his to prepare for his visit and my choice fell on Joseph TainterTadeusz Patzek's (his blog) (2012) "Drilling down: The Gulf oil debacle and our energy dilemma". This is a really strange book as it not so much a cooperation between two authors as it is two totally different books within the same spine. The authors have very different profiles and it is exceedingly easy to figure out which chapter is written whom. The chapters are furthermore hardly linked to each other at all! Patek is a professor of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering at The University of Texas and his current research "involves mathematical and numerical modeling of earth systems with emphasis on fluid flow in the subsurface soils and rocks". I learned much more than I ever wanted to know about the nuts and bolts of offshore/deepwater drilling when I read Patzek's chapters...

Needless to say, I bought the book not because of Patzek but rather because of Tainter and his chapters did not let me down, despite the fact that I have the distinct feeling that they for the most part are built on touched-up already-published articles of his. I think this is a sloppily written book - perhaps the authors had a tight deadline or something - but Tainter's ideas are so interesting that I still appreciated reading the book quite a lot. For more about Tainter's ideas, see the blog post I wrote after Tainter's UCI visit. Do also have a look at the quotes below for sample of the book!

---------- QUOTES: ----------

----- on the extravagant use of energy in modern society -----

"The late anthropologist Leslie White once noted that a bomber flying over Europe during the World War II consumed more energy in a single flight than had been consumed by all the people of Europe during the Paleolithic, or Old Stone Age, who existed entirely by hunting and gathering wild foods."
Tainter & Patzek (2012), "Drilling down".

----- on large effects of small screw-ups -----

"In 2005, during Hurricane Dennis, an incorrectly plumbed, 6-inch. length of pipe [...] ultimately caused the Thunder Horse platform to tip into the water. The platform was fully righted about a week after the hurricane, delaying commercial production initially scheduled for late 2005 by 3 years."
Tainter & Patzek (2012), "Drilling down".

----- on living in a risk society -----

"Thousands of computer screens and messages are misinterpreted or misunderstood every day, but only occasionally does a mine cave in, a nuclear reactor melt down, a well blow out, a plane crash, a refinery explode, or soldiers die from friendly fire as a result. Each time we are reassured that the incidents were isolated and could have been avoided if people were just more thoughtful, better trained, or better supervised, managed, and regulated. Is this sense of security justified [...] or are these events the result of societal processes over which we have little control?."
Tainter & Patzek (2012), "Drilling down".

----- on the price we pay for societal complexity -----

"We pay a price for complexity, and two of the currencies for counting that price are stress and aggravation. [...] When an electronic device pesters us to update antivirus software, or download, install, and configure some program said to be improved, we count the cost in the currency of annoyance."
Tainter & Patzek (2012), "Drilling down".

----- on decreasing returns of "big science" -----

"fields of scientific research follow a characteristic developmental pattern, from general to specialized; from wealthy dilettantes and gentleman-scholars to large teams with staff and supporting institutions; from knowledge that is generalized and widely useful to research that is specialized and narrowly useful; from simple to complex; and from low to high societal costs. [...]
exponential growth in the size and costliness of science is needed just to maintain a constant rate of innovation.
we have this impression of continued progress not because science is as productive as ever, but because the size of the enterprise has grown so large."
Tainter & Patzek (2012), "Drilling down".

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