Jan 192012

I gave a few books as gifts last year. These are the three non-fiction books I most often recommended to people. I ended up giving away multiple copies of these.

The thing they have in common: they all make you revise your view of the world.

1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created

It’s sort of like Connections but for world history since that date, with a huge emphasis on the way globalization changed the world. One of the best moments is when he talks about plants… as American as apple pie (apples are from Kazakhstan); Italian food without tomatoes (they are from the Americas); the Irish and potatoes; southeast Asian cooking without chilies (from Mexico); Switzerland without chocolate (also Mexico); and rubber having basically moved from Latin America (where there’s a native endemic pest that kills the trees) to Southeast Asia (where there isn’t… but 40% of the world’s rubber comes from those trees, we’re utterly dependent on it for airplane tires, electrical wiring, and medical use; and we’re just waiting for the moment when some idiot travels from Brazil to Indonesia with some mud on their shoe and kills the entire monoculture crop in Vietnam & South China.

I can’t resist, even though it will bloat the blog post…

There’s a chunk in there which explains how (if I can remember it correctly) the fact that Europeans were engaging in trade with Africa and got bitten by mosquitoes there meant that they became latent carriers of malaria… which then resulted in them getting bitten again by non-carrier mosquitoes in the tropics in Latin America, which resulted in the rapid spread of malaria to mosquitoes in the Americas, which meant that when silver was discovered in Potosi in Bolivia, or really riches anywhere, a malarial climate meant that the primary source of labor had to be imported from a population that carried a genetic resistance to malaria — namely West Africans; and this is why slavery never took strong hold in the territories outside of the anopheles mosquito’s climate range.

Of course, the malarial areas in the Amazon meant that the silver could not be exported via the relatively short Amazon River route, and therefore had to be carried by llama to Peru, where it was shipped to the Philippines and to Spain; this is why there is such a substantial Asian population in Peru today.

This also led to the introduction of potatoes to Europe, which led to a massive rise in population, but since potatoes were cultivated via “clones” from only ten genetic lines, there was a massive monoculture which later led to the Irish famine.  In Europe, it resulted in a massive financial crisis because of an excess of currency supply from all that silver in every nation in Europe, which led to dramatic inflation followed by the financial collapse of just about every monarchy on the Continent and the creation of a middle class.

Meanwhile, the reason there was an appetite for silver in the Philippines was because China had settled on silver (of which there are no significant local sources) as their currency, so they actually took something like half the silver from the Americas. In China, this ended up leading to a liquidity crisis when the mine in Potosi was exhausted which resulted in the Ming not being able to pay the troops for defense against the Manchu, so malaria indirectly caused the fall of the Ming dynasty. The Manchu then tried to exterminate the pirates who traded the silver with the Philippines, but couldn’t quite because they were hooked on tobacco at this point (thanks to the Amazonian variety having been smuggled to Virginia). But they did get a lot of the pirates fleeing into the hills with sweet potatoes and maize, which resulted in the deforestation of the hillsides thereby destroying the incredibly intricate and careful Confucian-era water management schemes, which led to the epidemics of flooding that China saw until they initiated their modern dam projects.

I’m just scratching the surface — it’s dense and intricate and in places nearly unbelievable. I loved it.

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood

It begins with African talking drums and the curious poetry they contain embedded in their beats, and from there embarks on a tour of all of information theory. We learn of entropy and Claude Shannon, of Babbage and Ada Lovelace, of the way that “a noisy line” is encoded into our very genome, of Maxwell’s Demon and the telegraph and even a small bit of number theory.  And it goes further, into quantum computation, tracing the way in which you can regard just about everything — the physical world itself — as information, data to be parsed and represented, in more and less accurate ways.

It does contain an excellent overview of information theory itself, but more importantly, it is a cultural history of information itself, how it spread and was conveyed. As this is the great cultural tide of our time since Gutenberg (and indeed, the book culminates with talk of Twitter), it resets yor entire view of what culture is and means.

I was struck by the chapters getting across the great shift we have undergone, from information’s scarcity to today’s utter overload — by the example given of Beethoven not knowing Bach’s music, while today we know it all. For me this rings true in the way in which all styles of music seem to be popular at once these days, with top hits featuring banjos and swing jazz and Motown and Delta blues all mashed together. With everything at your fingertips, even the context of why they might fit together is yet more information, and today’s child grows up in a world in which everything in the past is still the right now, because you can no longer even tell the dustier facts by their presence in dustier pages. In music, this leads to the Amy Winehouses and Adeles, who may as well have been born a few decades too late. In games, it is the 15 year old NES aficionado (my own son loves to talk about his collection of original Gameboy games… a platform that died while his mother and I were still dating).

The power of this book is also in drawing connections, connections between means of communication and the underlying math of communication itself. Through the course of the book we come to understand why computing is the way it is, and also, most critically, that information is not meaning. It ends on a note of awkward transcendence:

We are all patrons of the Library of Babel now, and we are the librarians…

The library will endure; it is the universe… We walk the corridors, searching the shelves and rearranging them, looking for lines of meaning amid leagues of cacophony and incoherence… every so often glimpsing mirrors, in which we may recognize creatures of the information.

 The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You

The third book essentially takes the above two and applies them to the present moment. If virtual cultures are a new form of globalization that basically threaten the very notion of the nation-state; and if they, as virtualities, are premised entirely on the concepts of information and information theory, well, then, that means that we are not only at the verge of a Panopticon but also in the curious place where there are people who control those mirrors, and decide what we know about ourselves.

In short, this book is about the fact that we have set up our digital world to lie to ourselves. Repeatedly. We have built it, step by step, to confirm our biases and to never show us anything that troubles our placidity.

This is not a new thing; our buttons have always been pushed by media in whatever way earned media the most money. Well, these days our “libraries” — meaning, our search engines — and our “newspapers” — meaning the blogs we read — are tailored to us. The example I typically give of this phenomenon is what happens when you log out of Google (which I know, you never do!), and then search for “abortion.”

Google takes your IP address, the ZIP code it gets as a result, the sum of all the cookies it might have, and figures out whether you’d rather see Planned Parenthood or a right-to-life website as your top result. If you’re logged in and you have a Google+ profile, it’ll be the first result on a vanity search. The circulars you get, the identity files that companies maintain about you and sell to third parties… the ads that follow you from site to site to site… and yes, the news you get and the (certainly false) picture of the world you get, built to show you only what you would normally be shown.

Personalization services give you what they think you want, you see. And you are tracked and dissected and bucketed quite a lot. But there’s no filter for “I like variety” or “I like surprises” or “I like things I didn’t know I liked.” That’s why most citizens of the United States think that they know about the world, when in fact the world’s news almost never makes it past the borders. It’s how China maintains a great firewall, and how there could be thousands of North Koreans gathered to mourn the man who essentially built an alternate reality for an entire nation.

I love it that say, Amazon knows what books I have bought and liked and therefore offers up apropos selections for further reading. But the long-term result, which we see manifested clear as day, is that Republicans do not read books by Democrats, and vice versa. It is that millions of people who Tweeted yesterday saying “What is SOPA or PIPA and why is Wikipedia dark?” The information, it is out there. But it always reflects us right back to ourselves… well, that and a suitable, well-targeted banner ad.

We can go back to 1493 to see the long-term results of this sort of short-sighted thinking. “Recommended for You” is the cultural equivalent of China’s blindness with the Potosi silver mines.

Taken together, these three books give much to ponder. I can’t recommend them enough.

  3 Responses to “The books I gifted in 2011”

  1. You might find this article interesting:


    Yeah, consider the source. But, it shows that the “filter” may not be quite as strong as we first believe; it also reinforces the concept of “weak ties” that we have. (Weak ties are were most people get job leads, for example, since strong ties either don’t work in the right industry [family] or work at places we are currently or recently working at.)

  2. I have a brother who works as an Internet marketer — I have posted about him here before. He builds filter bubbles for a living. They definitely exist and work, and I have seen the metrics on it.

    In reading the article, I get the sense that “not as strong as we thought” isn’t saying they’re not there… but I do find the article at least a little bit reassuring. 🙂

  3. The latter two of the three books you listed I read as well last year. The first though… Omg I LOVED Connections growing up. It’s going on the top of my list.

    My top recommendations from last year were:
    Super sad true love story
    The Master Switch
    And latter two of your three above.

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