Tech vs society: a reading list

category: notes

Within the bubble of technologists, the future looks bright and exciting. Outside of it, worried scholars and publicists have written a lot of books about the dangers of Big Tech, surveillance and the power of the market. This is a list of some interesting reads to better understand the impact of technology on society.

This may sound depressing, and it is, to some extent. The world is doomed and it is technologists’ fault! But when we understand better how technology, the tech sector and “computational thinking” fit in the context of society, it will get easier to decide whether we should push back.

As always, this reading list is what I happened to read on the subject, there are lots of other interesting publications out there.

How power dynamics changed

I already wrote about The Age of Surveillance Capitalism before, but I wanted to re-include it here. This book really ought to be the first item on a list of books about how tech impacts society. It defines “surveillance capitalism” and shows its workings in great detail. As I said in my review, it is not a quick read, but absolutely recommended for anyone who works in tech. We’ve got to understand this if we want to make things right.

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff

Permanent Record, Dont be evil, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism

A critique of “disruptive” technologies

In his fantastic Radical Technologies, “to be played at maximum volume” as the last page says, Adam Greenfield explains and critically evaluates a wide range technologies that are supposedly the future, including internet of things, augmented reality, blockchain, 3D printing and machine learning. His angle is not “wow, exciting!”, but ”what is this, is it really as good as promised, and how will large-scale deployment impact society?”. I wish we would all adapt the same mindset when assessing new tech, because there are many reasons to oppose these “radical” technologies. Blockchain doesn’t scale, internet of things devices have major security and privacy implications and machine learning is, despite many practical applications, often not fully misunderstood (as people tend to forgot that data is not neutral, not objective and always a subset of reality). The book ends with a number of future scenarios, ranging from utopias to dystopias, which help ask the question: “what do we want a tech-driven society to look like?”

Radical Technologies by Adam Greenfield

Has Big Tech lost its soul?

Many of Silicon Valley’s big companies once started with idealistic mantras and values, like ‘Don’t be evil’ and ‘Information wants to be free’, but the tide has turned. The book shows how (excerpt from the cover):

a world where “information wants to be free” became one in which we are the product being monetized, how the geeks tinkering with motherboards in their basements grew to be arrogant billionaires monopolizing the lion‘s share of the economy, and how the “democratized” internet we were promised can threaten the very fabric of our democracy.

Foroohar brilliantly explains where it went wrong. Tech companies made their products extremely addictive with the help of behaviorist psychology. Secondly, they have become monopolies in ways we haven’t seen before by both creating the market and operating in it. Thirdly, they got heavily involved in government with far-reaching lobbying for tax cuts and deregulation and by lending their targeted advertising platforms (as well as their consultants (!) for advice) to political campaigns. All of this is enabled and strengthened by surveillance capitalism.

Foroohar backs up her arguments with extensive research, and provides solutions, too. Is it depressing? Well, slightly, but it certainly left me with the feeling that having the picture painted so clearly will help address it.

Don’t Be Evil - The Case Against Big Tech by Rana Foroohar

What government surveillance looks like

The extent of Big Tech’s collection of personal data may be extraordinary, but the government’s mass surveillance programs are as disturbing, as Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelations have shown in great detail. In Permanent Record, Snowden tells two histories: that of his own growing up and that of how the intelligence community (IC) got more and more powerful after 9/11. I found the personal stories interesting, the analysis thorough and the details thought-provoking. He makes useful semantic distinctions; for instance, he explains how metadata is more intimate than content data, because we create it unknowingly, rather than thoughtfully. The book is full of wordplay… a “permanent record” is what this book is of Snowden’s life, but also what the intelligence communmity keeps of every citizen. “Hacking” is what Snowden used to do as a kid to minimise time spent on homework, but also what would become part of his work and revelations.

Permanent Record by Edward Snowden

The impact of tech company culture on society

Super Pumped is New York Times journalist Mike Isaac’s book about Uber. It gives detailed accounts of the company’s founder, culture and attitude. Three things that are are, it turns out, closely interrelated. The book’s odd name is literally one of Uber’s corporate “values”, and yes, I too was surprised to read that this company has those (given the plethora of scandals on so many different aspects of human dignity). There are the accounts of bad things that happened, but then there’s also how the company tried to cover those bad things by hiring prominent PR firms. I understand… every organisation above a certain size will have people who work to maintain and defend the company’s public image. Sure. But this book shows it clearly Uber doesn’t care, the company carries out an agenda that benefits few and hurts many, and has its bro-y culture leak into society in many bad ways. This has definitely put Uber on the top of my list of companies I would never want to work for.

Super Pumped by Mike Isaac

Super Pumped, Hacker Hoaxer Whistlleblower, Radical Technologies

Political activism through technology

When an anthropologist studies a hacker slash activist movement, it might just yield a super interesting book about online culture. Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy by Gabriella Coleman is a investigative study of Anonymous, with a look into what they do, want and think, completed with IRC logs, which I think were a great way to provide a look into online culture. Sometimes she talks a little too much about herself, but I feel it kind of works in this context. This book gives some interesting insights into Anonymous, the “lulz” and the motivations between some of the group’s core members.

Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous by Gabriella Coleman

Comments & mentions (19)

Johan Groenen reposted this
Luc Princen replied:
Thanks Hidde! I wanted to check out more non-fiction again (after finishing the Call of Cthulhu for the 3rd time????) These suggestions are excellent!
Ruben Bos replied: ????
Sarah Higley replied: Can't have that list without Twitter and Tear Gas :) twitterandteargas.org
Hidde @ #dotCSS/#dotJS ???????? replied: Thank you! Have added to to read :-)
Marine Boudeau likes this
Luc Princen likes this
Jon Gibbins likes this
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Johan Groenen likes this
Frank replied: Een interessante leeslijst van Hidde. Alle titels gaan op mijn eigen lijst. Nu ben ik benieuwd wanneer ik er aan toe kom. Is er al een goedkoper alternatief voor Audible?
Steve Lee likes this
Christian Schaefer likes this
Stefan Judis replied:
I love that @hdv is sharing book recommendations. There are always books in that I'd love to read, too. ???? hiddedevries.nl/en/blog/2019-1…
Radimir Bitsov replied: I'm almost ready with "Permanent Record" by Edward Snowden and I can highly recommend it, too! Especially the second part of the book where he explains in details the surveillance program and the way he managed to transfer securely the documents that reveals it.
Hidde replied: thank you, glad to hear it's helpful to you! Basically started this because auto recommendations (on, like, Goodreads) gave mixed results
Hidde de Vries (@hdv) is a freelance front-end and accessibility specialist in Rotterdam (NL), conference speaker and workshop teacher. Currently, he works for the W3C in the WAI team (views are his own). Previously he was at Mozilla, the Dutch government replied:

Wow, the year only has 8 days left! Time for a review.

Like last year, I’ve divided this into highlights and things I learned.

Highlights

Projects

In the first half year of 2019, I continued my project at Mozilla’s Open Innovation team, building their People directory, and worked in the City of The Hague on accessibility and the internal design system.

In July I started a new project: at the W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), I am now working as part of the European Commission-funded WAI-Guide project. My work there is focused on improving the accessibility of/in tools that create web content, like CMSes. In short: we want more accessibility both for content editors (a good editing experience) and for end users (good output).

Apart from my work at the W3C, I’ve been doing the occasional WCAG audit and accessibility/CSS workshop in my own capacity too.

Speaking

Last year I spoke at my first conference. This year I got the opportunity to do new (and some older) talks in various places.

In March, I did a talk called It’s the markup that matters at De Voorhoede. It was part of their Future Proof Components event, and covered building accessible components, accessibility trees and the AOM.

At WordCamp Rotterdam and Inclusive Design Ghent, I shared 6 ways to make your site more accessible, based on my experience looking at common accessibility problems that front-end developers can do something about.

In October, I presented a very short lightning talk at the Web We Want session at View Source Conference, about how some accessibility problems could cease to exist if browsers would automatically fix them. The problems: zoomability, readability, color contrast and focus indication (the first three are each solved in at least one browser, the fourth has not). This talk, shockingly, won both the jury and audience award.

Also in October was a talk called Breaking barriers with your CMS at the Fronteers Jam Session (on behalf of W3C/WAI). This presented some of my recent work at WAI: it explained ATAG and the role of the CMS in accessibility efforts.

At the Design in Government Conference in November, I talked about the case for web accessibility from philosophical ethics, attending on behalf of W3C, and I did an updated version of my graphic design on the web talk in Dutch for Freshheads in Tilburg.

Then in December, I joined dotCSS to talk about the history of CSS: On the origin of cascades put some of that in a Darwin-themed talk. The venue was enormous and intimidating, and there was transport strikes, but the event itself was excellent, with a great atmosphere and very well organised.

I also did a number of in-house talks and workshops, about CSS Layout, ARIA and accessibility guidelines.

Reading

I read much more than last year (72 books so far), and have written more about books on this blog (see reading list about equality and reading list about tech and society). Reading more books helped me read less social media, watch less video and generally relax more.

Some notes:

  • Audiobooks are great as you can read them in situations where holding a book doesn’t work (e.g. walking a dog, housework)
  • To read more, finding the right books is half of the work (I mean, not literally… but it is important). I found more people to follow on Goodreads, keep a close eye on the literary supplements in the papers and love posts like 2018: books in review by Karolina Szczur.
  • Dutch libraries have ebooks and audiobooks that can be ‘borrowed’ via apps.

Writing

This year marked over 100 posts on this blog, I wrote 24 posts (including this one).

Some posts that people found interesting:

I also contributed to the Mozilla Hacks blog, writing Indicating focus to improve accessibility and How accessibility trees inform assistive tech. Thanks to Havi Hoffman for the opportunity!

Cities

This year I traveled to Antwerp, Berlin, Bristol, Essen, Ghent, Nice, Paris, Taipei and Vienna, using trains where possible, but I need to do better at that.

Things I learned

Here’s some random things that I learned about in the past year:

  • Recently I started working on an app with Svelte, the front-end framework that doesn’t ship in its entirety to the user’s runtime, but tries to compile as much as possible to vanilla JavaScript. Small bundles, yay!
  • As I started my project at the W3C, I learned a lot the standards process, the dynamics in Working Groups and the bots that help run teleconferences.
  • A large part of my work centered around authoring tools, or tools that create web content, and how they can help bring more accessibility in the world.
  • I became increasingly aware of the role of surveillance capitalism in the world.
  • I learned to love AirTable as a way to organise and plan the non-coding parts of my work, which are becoming a larger part of the whole

In any case, I’d like to thank the readers of this blog for reading and sharing the posts I’ve published, it means a lot. I wish you all a great 2020!

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