Monday, October 6, 2014

Micro-Reviews of Books Read, September 2014

Reviews of books read last month: two novels and a non-fiction book
about the benefits of using technology.

1. "The Handmaid's Tale" by Margaret Atwood

This dystopian novel was published in 1986 and is set in the near
future. Religious fundamentalists have staged a coup in the United
States, forming the Republic of Gilead. The new regime introduced
an extreme patriarchal society, overturning many of the rights
gained by women. There has been a dramatic reduction in births, so
leaders of the regime are assigned "handmaids" if their wives are
unable to have children. Before the coup, the narrator used to be
an working woman with a husband and daughter. She was forcibly
separated from her family, and assigned as a handmaid to a Commander
in the regime. Her name was changed to "Offred", signifying her
relationship to her master. She describes her daily life as a
handmaid, which affords her some specific privileges, she has very
few freedoms compared to her previous life. As long as she has the
ability to conceive and stays out of trouble, she can at least
avoid getting banished to work in the colonies and be branded an

Dystopian novels can be heavy going, and not everyone's cup of tea.
I seem to like reading cautionary tales like this one, which reminds
us to be vigilant against the reactionary rhetoric of our political

2. "Ready Player One" by Ernest Cline

Thirty years in the future, the real world has become a bleak and
rundown place. Mounting debts have weakened governments and
corporations, making conditions difficult for ordinary people.
Fortunately, the infrastructure of the information age has remained
mostly intact. Children can get an education online, and it's
usually safer to do so than in the real world. More generally,
people can escape the drudgery of everyday life by logging into
OASIS, a massively multiplayer online virtual reality environment.
An added incentive is that the founder of OASIS, James Halliday,
left some "Easter eggs" in the system, and whoever finds all of
them will inherit his vast fortune. But this provides an opportunity
for Halliday's bitter corporate rival, Innovative Online Industries
(IOI), to send its own agents into the system and to try to usurp
Halliday's business. Halliday was a child of the Eighties, so the
egg hunters ("gunters") believe there are clues in cultural
artifacts of that era. "Anorak's Almanac", an electronic book that
compiles Halliday's interests, is the go-to guide for the gunters.

This novel delves deeply into the computer games, music, movies and
television of the 1980s. Readers unfamiliar with these nostalgic
cultural references may find the story harder to follow and
appreciate. Most of the action takes place in the virtual world, so
in-game avatars can provide alternative insights into the real-life
characters. Overall, I found this an enjoyable page turner.

3. "Smarter Than You Think" by Clive Thompson

The author of this book challenges the view that over-reliance on
technology is reducing our powers of thought and making us less
intelligent. For example, tailored search results can lead to filter
bubbles, where we are only present with information that confirms our
biases. Easy access to search engines can lead us to rely less on our
own memory. Multitasking and highly distracting social media can lead
us to be "shallow". The author acknowledges that technology is not
always positive. However, he argues that, when applied wisely, it can
make us smarter. We can use technology as "outboard memory", freeing
up our minds to concentrate on the actual problems at hand. Technology
provides the ability to quickly search and cross-reference large
collections of data. It facilitates increased collaboration across
cultures and national boundaries. Computers can be used to do a lot
of the low-level calculations necessary to work on complex problems.

The use of technology has been an area of debate and controversy
throughout history. For example, Socrates lamented that, compared to
interactive conversation, books were an inferior medium to conduct
intelligent debate. The author does a reasonable job of explaining
how technology can take a load off our minds so we can work on big-
picture problems. But we should remember that technology can make
constant surveillance, creepy advertising and other invasions of
privacy easier.