2021 Book List

Published on 01 MAY 2021

January - April

I’m so late here that this will have to be trimesters rather than quarters this year. I moved to Switzerland in December and frankly have been spending more time riding my bikes than I have been reading (and certainly more than writing about reading).

Willian Irwin (and others) - South Park and Philosophy

Long-time South Park fan (since my parents wouldn’t let me watch it) and I got this book as a gift.

Victor Sebestyen - Lenin: The Man, the Dictator, and the Master of Terror

I still have a fascination for Soviet history and the Russian Revolution. One of the reasons Lenin is interesting is his mastery of what we now call “fake news”. The more I learn about this period, the less I think that the internet as a communication medium changed our society, but rather the formation of companies who can monitor people and store and monitor their information to feed them selective information to control their decisions.

James Hawes - The Shortest History of Germany

After living in Germany for two years, I finally got around to reading the book I bought when I moved there. Something becoming increasingly clear: modern borders were established very recently. In some sense I used to believe that maps were static things that were mostly in history books, but the borders in a lot of the world changed significantly in the last 100 years.

Captivating History Series - Armenian History

OK, I’ve been reading a lot of history lately, especially around the early 1900s. This book was not well done though, more about the chapter cliffhangers than anything.

Emily Parker - Now I Know Who My Comrades Are

Moving on from history into a little self-selected trilogy on internet censorship/moderation. This book followed examples in Cuba, China, and Russia to highlight various ways that nation states use electronic means to control their citizens.

Zeynep Turfekci - Twitter and Tear Gas

Zeynep never fails. This was a great book on how the internet plays a role in modern protest movements, especially how the ability to quickly organize infrastructure allows a lot more trial and error in protest. Rather than taking years to plan movements, they can pop up and the planning/infrastructure can follow.

Likewise, she analyzes the ad hoc governance structures that emerge (or fail to) within these quickly organized movements, a discussion that I think is particularly pertinent to building Web3.

The material aside, Zeynep is just someone I look up to as a writer. Her prose is clear, precise, and engaging, and I try to emulate that in the work that I do.

Nation-states and other powerful actors have often carried out clandestine campaigns of misinformation, since long before the rise of digital media. The United States has often been accused of deliberately spreading misinformation against regimes it wanted to overthrow or destabilize in many countries. Politicians have beenknown to resort to starting rumors about their opponents. None of this is without precedent. However, what is more striking in the twenty-first century is that the disinformation campaigns are not necessarily carried out to persuade people or to make them believe any particular set of alleged facts. Instead, the goal is often simply to overwhelm people with so many pieces of bad and disturbing information that they become confused and give up trying to figure out what the truth might be—or even the possibility of finding out what is true. Often, such campaigns also include a proliferation of conspiracy theories. Social media’s business model financed by ads paid out based on number of pageviews makes it not just possible but even financially lucrative to spread misinformation, propaganda, or distorted partisan content that can go viral in algorithmically entrenched echo chambers. The final effect is often not credulity that leans toward any one set of alleged facts, but a sense within people that the truth is simply unknowable, and an attitude of resignation that leads to withdrawal from politics and to a paralysis of action. This may well serve the powerful since those who want to bring about change need to convince people, whereas those who want to stay in power may need only to paralyze them into inaction.

Jillian York - Silicon Values

I interviewed Jillian two years ago on Relay Chain when she had started writing this book in earnest. It’s finally out and I ordered it right away. It’s a great follow on to Twitter and Tear Gas and focuses more on the unsustainable nature and unaccountability of the major software/social media companies.

I used to believe that it was best left out in the open, that sunlight was the best disinfectant, and counter-speech a primary tool for fighting back against it. I did—and still do—worry that by censoring hate speech in primary fora, we drive it underground and allow it to fester and that those who engage in it are artful dodgers, capable of easily finding ways to circumvent whatever prohibitions they find themselves facing. Were it not for platforms, I would still hold these views. But the trouble with platforms is not that they allow anyone to say whatever they wish, but that their very architecture is designed to monetize and capitalize on whatever is elevated to popularity, be it Kim Kardashian or calls for genocide. This fact more than any other explains why major social media companies are so often behind the curve when it comes to acting on incitement and harassment.