It’s not a secret that we at WIRED are very interested in AI. Even so, it’s not a secret that there are a lot of hard, and sometimes surprising, questions that come up when automation and algorithms move into new parts of our lives. This can change our jobs, economies, and even the world order. This is why this winter, we’re also interested in books that deal with these kinds of things. In our politics, how did algorithms become so important to us? When will they drive us around? How much should they know about us? These books were written by historians, journalists, and researchers, and each one looks at a very different part of the world that has been or will be changed by artificial intelligence. So, get your teeth into the algorithmic issues that will shape the years to come, then.
Driven: The Race to Create the Autonomous Car by Alex Davies
The “great man” theory says that most of history is made by big, brawny, brainy dudes (always dudes) who use brute force and genius to change the world. Ex-Wired employee Alex Davies has written a new book that disproves the idea. In Driven, Davies talks about the history of self-driving cars and the people (mostly men) who are working to make them happen. As Davies says, working together makes the dream come true. Before it doesn’t. People start suing each other. One engineer even got handcuffs. Eventually, robot cars might change how we live in the modern world. People who work for big companies like Alphabet and General Motors are trying to fix the problems with autonomous cars now. They could be a $7 trillion business by 2050, and they’re trying to do it now. Then at the start of the century, AVs were a lot of fun to play with in the classroom. Then, in 2001, a little-known clause in a funding bill gave the government money to help people make robots. Darpa held a real-life robot race across the Mojave Desert a few years after that. They are the same engineers who are making a lot of money for the world’s biggest AV companies today. Money was a good reason for many people. But one roboticist tells Davies that most people want to make things that will change the world, do things with their hands, and happen in their own time.
Another visionary said that the path of true engineering was not always smooth. People and ideas don’t always get along. There are also a lot of wild animals that get in the way of robotics. Davies’ story is very sharp. Keep an eye out for the tortoises that live in the desert. If you try to move them, they’ll pee on you. This is a book for people who don’t like the hero story, and who want to know how the business of making world-changing robots really moves. “Aarian Marshall” says this.
If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future by Jill Lepore
When was the first time that algorithmic modeling of the American electorate worked? If you said Donald Trump, you’re 56 years too late, so don’t say that. The year was 1960, and John F. Kennedy had hired a little-known company called the Simulmatics Corporation to use its new “people machine” to survey American voters, predict their behavior, and give campaign advice to the Democratic Party. Simulmatics, which Jill Lepore calls “the A-bomb of the social sciences,” is a “Cold War Cambridge Analytica.” In her book about the history of Simulmatics, Lepore talks about how algorithms were used to model people’s behavior in the early days of algorithmic behavior modeling.
A company called Simulmatics would later get contracts from the New York Times and the Department of Defense, both of which used its technology to figure out how to fight in Vietnam. Harvard historian and staff writer at the New Yorker, Lepore, makes the company’s history come to life with brilliant archival details that show how the company has changed over time. This is how her depiction of the 1960s serves as a mirror for the year 2020: Race-justice protests, technological arms races, and an election shaped by technology are all taking place in the United States at the same time. On any given page, you could change “Simulmatics” for “Facebook” and the story would still be almost right, but it would be weird. Forgotten founders: If Then is a story about the people predictors that would shape modern democracy and pave the way for today’s Silicon Valley giants. These people were called “people predictors,” and their work led to the “people predictors.” If more is learned about the rise and fall of Simulmatics, history may not have to repeat itself again. —Arielle Pardes says that.
The Hype Machine: How Social Media Disrupts Our Elections, Our Economy, and Our Health—and How We Must Adapt by Sinan Aral
When you write about the downsides of social media, you have to decide which one to focus on right away. The business model that is based on advertising? The algorithmic highlighting of content that is divisive? Partisan polarization, then? Elections can be harmed. Sinan Aral decides to take on almost all of them in The Hype Machine, which is a book about music. He has been very successful. Aral is the head of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, and he has a bird’s-eye view of the most recent experimental research into how social media works. The end result is something that looks a lot like a textbook. It’s an easy way to learn about what Facebook and Twitter are doing to our brains and our society.
Aral is not a political person. He thinks that social media has real benefits for society, and he fears that efforts to fix the harms it causes could end up taking away the good things. To avoid making his conclusions come out before what has been proven in the literature, he is careful not to make them too early. Readers who are looking for a savage attack on Big Tech will be let down. That’s not to say that Aral’s caution is bad. It’s mostly a good thing. As an example, he says that the effectiveness of social media advertising is “wildly and brazenly oversold.” You can be sure he’s taking a look at all the available evidence, not picking and choosing to make a point. The book doesn’t do very well when it comes to making policy recommendations. Aral’s dismissive treatment of the tech antitrust movement, for example, doesn’t have the same level of sophistication as his empirical analysis. “I’m a scientist, an entrepreneur, and an investor in that order,” he says at the start. That’s good. The most important thing about The Hype Machine is not what Aral thinks, but what he knows. In this case, Gilad Edelman is the person.
Predict and Surveil: Data, Discretion, and the Future of Policing by Sarah Brayne
Sarah Brayne spent parts of five years inside the Los Angeles Police Department. She rode in patrol cars, talked to top officers, and watched how the department used data and software to “predict” and respond to crime. Her own experiences and observations make her book, Predict and Surveil, stand out from other books about the negative effects of police surveillance. Brayne is a sociologist by training, and the book is based on her PhD dissertation. She talks about how and why data is used in the department. Three things stand out: First, more and more people are relying on private companies to collect and analyze data, which means they don’t have to follow the same rules as government agencies. Brayne was interested in the LAPD in part because it was an early adopter of software from Palantir, which he found interesting (which WIRED chronicled here and here). Second, how much of “predictive policing” is a feedback loop based on things that can’t be seen? One LAPD system told officers to focus on repeat offenders based on a point system. Each time a person was stopped by an officer, they got a point, which made it more likely that they would be stopped again. They also get nervous when the data lens is turned on them, like with software that tracks “productivity.” Brayne, with a few exceptions, mostly avoids academic language. Having worked in the field helps. Afterwards, an officer tells Brayne that his mother asked if she was his daughter and whether it was take-your-kid-to-work day. Her suggestions in the last chapter aren’t very surprising, but they might make you think about what you need to think about. Scott Thurm said this:
Voices From the Valley: Tech Workers Talk About What They Do—and How They Do It by Ben Tarnoff and Moira Weigel
Ben Tarnoff and Moira Weigel started Logic, a small, surprising technology magazine, in 2016. I have too many subscriptions, but Logic always brings me more happiness than any of my other subscriptions. Voices from the Valley is the name of their new book, which is a tell-all from the “people behind the platforms” in Silicon Valley. I was excited when I heard about it. But I’ll admit that I didn’t believe the premise at first. Anonymity does not guarantee that people will be honest, and it often has the opposite effect, making people into caricatures of their roles as coders, founders, and cafeteria workers, which makes them less real. Tarnoff and Weigel, on the other hand, are skilled interviewers who know how to turn small talk-killing questions like “What do you do?” into interesting and fun ones. There’s the cafeteria worker at a tech company who talks about how irritated she was when she saw tech booms from a previous life. When the countryside of Silicon Valley was being turned into manicured lawns, business was good. After months of kneading the backs of programmers (like “trying to soften old meat”), a massage therapist is worried about her hands. She talks about taking her young, code-interested daughter to campus, only to feel a sense of alienation that she can’t figure out where. These people’s stories made me want to read their memoirs. It shows that Tarnoff and Weigel did a good job. Gregory Barber:
Digitize and Punish: Racial Criminalization in the Digital Age by Brian Jefferson
A common analogy for privacy is that it’s like climate change: small decisions made by people all over the world add up to make an environment that can’t be lived in but can’t be changed. People can “go green,” but there is no way to stop the seas from warming or the air from being bad. CCTV cameras and spy planes will still be able to see you even if you throw your smartphone out of the window. Even if you drive your own car, you’ll still be tracked. Digitize and Punish: Racial Criminalization in the Digital Age is a long look at “prisonized landscapes” in New York City and Chicago, where police technology and surveillance are hidden and impossible to avoid. If the person lives in an area with a lot of technology-based policing, they will be tagged, categorized, and watched.
Jefferson talks about how long periods of not investing in these cities led to an underclass that the tech industry agreed to “manage” for the state. grants from both Homeland Security and Justice were used to make false promises about how things would change. For social investment, cities used things like body cameras that record citizens but not police officers, gang databases that record everything from a person’s tattoos to where they live. Social media likes and Instagram photos are no longer the only sources of information that police can use to find out about people. You’d never know. New York and Chicago’s police departments are very secretive, and Jefferson pays attention to both of these things. He also talks about how technology has become a part of the environment. But instead of making more places safe, these technologies have turned more places into prisons. The book is written in a way that can be hard to understand at times, but it gives a clear and detailed look at how policing has changed our digital and physical worlds. It was Sidney Fussell who came up with this.