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What I’ve been reading this month

Just three to mention this month.

New Dark Age by James Bridle

This is a well-researched reflection on the relationship between humans and computers, published in 2018. Bridle’s central point, I think, is that we often don’t have a great understanding of how technology we rely upon undertakes its work, and the development of new technologies like artificial intelligence clouds this further. In turn, this reflects back on us, clouding our own understanding of the world around us.

There were two specific points in this book which challenged some pre-existing conceptions I had held.

The chapter on YouTube transformed my understanding of the site. I had no idea that, for example, violent parodies of Peppa Pig are on there, and can be served to children by YouTube’s algorithm (which continually plays back to back videos if left—I hadn’t even clocked that!) I also hadn’t realised how much bizarre autogenerated content existed on the platform. I had thought that there was some reasonable content moderation, possibly because I hadn’t understood the true quantity of uploaded material.

I also had no idea that the NSA had cracked some prime number factors commonly used in encryption, nor that mathematical developments like this are routinely kept out of scientific journals—harming the development of the science—effectively as a cyber warfare strategy. I was a bit bowled over by that revelation, though perhaps I shouldn’t have been so naive.

Throughout, Bridle writes with real perception and clarity. This book has changed and better informed my view of technology as an adjunct to human thought. There was a lot to ponder in here.

House Arrest by Alan Bennett

This is a slim selection of diary entries from March 2020 to March 2021, capturing Bennett’s experience of lockdown and the pandemic, including the re-making of his Talking Heads TV series. As always, Bennett also shares gossipy anecdotes from earlier in life and reflects with horror on the state of modern politics.

This is a very short book, but brought half an hour or so of the unique joyful warmth that always runs through Bennett’s diaries.

Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston

I picked this up after seeing it featured in a New York Times piece which called it “a turning point for the genre” which had sold more than 1.3 million print copies. It’s also won numerous awards. I was disappointed.

The plot concerns a romance between the twenty-something son of a female President of the United States and a similarly aged Prince of the United Kingdom, younger brother of the third in line to the throne. There are many interesting questions to dissect in this scenario, but none of them are addressed in this frothy romance.

I found this superficial and poorly researched: there was a section where I struggled to follow the geography until I realised that the author thought that Buckingham Palace was in Buckingham, which was a part of London. Somehow, there is a lot of discussion of the political impact of religious objections to the relationship in the States, but no mention of the monarch’s role as Head of the Church of England. The writing is also unforgivably clunky in parts.

I think, at heart, this just wasn’t the book I expected it to be. From a “turning point for the genre” I think I expected something more considered, grounded in reality and exploratory, but instead this just seemed like a ten-a-penny by-numbers romance.

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