A brief review of the NYTimes Tech Book Review

Don’t know if you’ve noticed, but quite a few technology-themed books are vying for a spot under your Christmas tree this year. So many, in fact, that the New York Times Book Review devoted a special issue to them back on November 3,

Now I haven’t read any of the books, but I have read this whole issue, and want to tell you about the books I’m most excited about reading.

Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better

by Clive Thompson

Clive Thompson
Clive Thompson (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is a book that seems to cover one of my favorite technology topics: Artificial Intelligence (AI) vs Intelligence Amplification (or Augmentation). John Markoff (who, like Thompson, writes for the NY Times) introduced these concepts to me in his book on he birth of personal computing in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1960s, What the Dormouse Said. Gamers and robot fans are familiar with the idea of AI. Thompson’s thesis seems closer to mine: that the real power of computers is their ability to make everyone smarter. I wrote about this earlier in the year when Douglas Engelbart died.

Dr. Douglas C. Engelbart
Dr. Douglas C. Engelbart (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Walter Isaacson, who reviewed the book for the NYTBR, points to Engelbart’s seminal paper, “Augmenting Human Intellect,” for philosophical underpinning for this idea (along with Vannevar Bush’s “As We May Think” and J. C. R. Licklider’s “Man-Computer Symbiosis,” all terrific pieces). “Thompson doesn’t delve into this rich technological and intellectual history,” Isaacson writes, “What he provides instead are some interesting current examples of how human-computer symbiosis is enlarging our intellect.”

Isaacson, who most recently wrote the big Steven Jobs biography, is now working on a new project “on the inventors of the computer and the Internet.” I may be even more excited to read that next year!

BTW, Slate Magazine is having an online “Future Tense Book Club” discussion of Smarter Than You Think with Clive Thompson on January 14. Click the link for details, and to RSVP.

The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon

by Brad Stone

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos starts his High Orde...
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos starts his High Order Bit presentation. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Jeff Bezos has been a very busy guy in 2013. His company continues to grow, acquiring the Goodreads social book review and discovery site, and building distribution centers all over the place (including a new one between Milwaukee and Chicago). He bought the Washington Post on his own, and then gave an interview with 60 Minutes featuring product-delivery drones!

Speaking of that CBS Interview: Read Porter Anderson’s take on what people missed in the 60 Minutes interview while being diverted by drone jokes.

This looks to be a pretty fair history of the man and his company.

Writing on the Wall: Social Media – the First 2000 Years

by Tom Standage

Certainly an intriguing title by The Economist’s digital editor. Reviewer Frank Rose suggests that Standage “asks us to look at media less in terms of technology — digital or analog — than in terms of the role they invite us to play.” The story goes back to ancient Rome and takes us at least through the era of radio, with pointers back to today’s controversies.

Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship and Betrayal

by Nick Bilton

This one came out in the days just before Twitter’s IPO (what a coincidence!), and has generated quite a bit of gossip. As an avid and longtime Tweeter, this should be a fun read.


What have you been reading lately? Getting any of the above for yourself or a loved one? Surprised that none of these are eBook-only (no trees harmed in production)? Discuss among yourselves!


Douglas Engelbart: Augmenting Intelligence

Douglas Engelbart
Douglas Engelbart (Photo credit: nilsohman)

It’s been a week since Doug Engelbart died. You may not know him as well as some of the other pioneers of personal computing, but he was an amazing person by all accounts.

I first learned about his ideas and life story in John Markoff’s excellent 2005 book, What the Dormouse Said: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry.

In this book, NY Times reporter Markoff describes the competition between two technological world views represented in the San Francisco Bay Area in the early to mid-1960s. Engelbart led the Augmentation Research Center at Stanford Research Institute (now SRI International), “dedicated to the concept that powerful computing machines would be able to substantially increase the power of the human mind.” Across the Stanford campus, the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab (SAIL), led by John McCarthy, “began with the goal of creating a simulated human intelligence.

“One group,” Markoff wrote, “worked to augment the human mind; the other to replace it.”

Engelbart was originally inspired by Vannevar Bush’s postwar essay, “As We May Think,” that, among other things, described the Memex, envisioned as a really smart piece of office furniture. This article from The Atlantic’s Alexis C. Madrigal tells you a lot about that encounter.

An illustration of Vannevar Bush's Memex, from Life Magazine
An illustration of Vannevar Bush’s Memex, from Life Magazine

At the ARC, Engelbart and his research team put together both concepts and devices that really form the basis of many of the bits that govern our technological lives today. Nearly all of Engelbart’s obituaries included the phrase “Inventor of the Computer Mouse.” But that was certainly not all he did. Take the time to watch what Steven Levy dubbed “The Mother of All Demos,” delivered December 9, 1968. You’ll be amazed, I think.

If you read some of these obits, you may actually conclude that Engelbart’s peaked some 45 years ago. This is not a completely unwarranted conclusion, I’m afraid. I will discuss this further in another post, as this one’s getting a little long. More links next time too!

For now, you can learn a bit more about Engelbart’s legacy in this very sharp piece from Bret Victor.

I got this Engelbart quote from Boing Boing. It’s a fitting epitaph:

“The key thing about all the world’s big problems is that they have to be dealt with collectively. If we don’t get collectively smarter, we’re doomed.” – Douglas Engelbart (1925- 2013)