We’re living on a planet of ants

We’re living on a planet of ants


Susanne Foitzik is a proud myrmecologist: an entomologist who specializes in ants (it was a new vocab word for me, too). Her lab at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich studies the dynamics between slave-making ant species, which capture ants of other species and get them to work for them, and the host species they exploit. What genetic changes have turned a species of diligent worker ants like Temnothorax longispinosus into ravaging hordes of slave makers like Temnothorax americanus?

And what induces the enslaved ant workers to rise up in revolt, killing their oppressor’s pupae? (This is not metaphorical; it really happens). Ant eggs and larvae don’t yet make a species-specific scent, so the enslaved nursemaids caring for them think they’re rearing the young of their own colony. Once the babes hit the pupal stage, though, they start to stink like the slave-makers they are destined to become and their caretakers realize they’ve been duped. At that point they “bite the defenseless young insects to death, rip them to shreds, and throw them out of the nesting chamber.”

A labor of love

Dr. Foitzik really, really loves ants—even the slave-making kind. That love shines through on every page of her new book, Empire of Ants: The Hidden Worlds and Extraordinary Lives of Earth’s Tiny Conquerors, co-authored with Olaf Fritsche. She loves them so much, in fact, that she’s chosen to start each chapter with her charming drawings of different ant species engaged in their daily activities (see example above). 

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#ants, #biology, #book-review, #gaming-culture, #science


Gift Guide: The best books for 2020 recommended by VCs and TechCrunch writers (Part 1)

Welcome to TechCrunch’s 2020 Holiday Gift Guide! Need help with gift ideas? We’re here to help! We’ll be rolling out gift guides from now through the end of December. You can find our other guides right here. This is Part 1 of the Best Books gift guide. Part 2 with even more selections will be posted shortly.

2020 was a tough year for all of us, but a strong one for books (how often do you get to say that?). Sales are up, driven by lockdowns, boredom, and the need for escape. Yet, 2020 also felt like a watershed year for media in general, a time when we started to deeply question the value of real-time communications driven by fear.

Books are no guaranteed antidote to the daily grind of the information economy, but they do provide room for readers and authors to breathe, to take stock of where we are and where we are going. Not in the moment, but of the moment. Whether that means escaping into the lives of fictional characters on another planet, or understanding the lives of others on our very own, books provide the material that can help us rethink all that’s going on and what happens next.

So I’m delighted to share nine book recommendations from my fellow TechCrunch writers as well as a few VCs on what to read in 2020. Some books are a few weeks old, others a few years, but they all made an impact on the lives of their reviewers this year as we confronted one of the most challenging times in recent memory.

This article contains links to affiliate partners where available. When you buy through these links, TechCrunch may earn an affiliate commission.

Dark Mirror: Edward Snowden and the Surveillance State by Barton Gellman

Penguin Random House, 2020, 448 pages
Recommended by Zack Whittaker, Cybersecurity Editor at TechCrunch

Dark Mirror tells the story of how its author, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Barton Gellman, became embroiled in reporting one of the biggest leaks of highly classified documents in a generation, thanks to former NSA contractor turned whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Gellman was one of only a handful of people given a copy of the cache of “top secret” documents swiped by Snowden in 2013. The documents revealed the enormous scale of the U.S. government’s surveillance capabilities — and those of its allies. The book is written largely in first-person, and it shines a brand new light on the Snowden disclosures and published stories that followed, the mistakes that were made, as well as new revelations that were never previously told.

You learn more about Snowden, his character and temperament, how he collected thousands of classified documents from right under the NSA’s nose, how he came to “meet” Gellman for the first time, and what motives led the whistleblower to go public.

You also follow how Gellman sourced, vetted, and fact-checked some of the most significant findings from the documents — with help from researchers Ashkan Soltani and Julie Tate — from revealing the PRISM slides, to the jaw-dropping moment that Gellman recounted telling a Google engineer how the NSA was secretly siphoning off data from its private datacenter links. Gellman spares no detail of his years-long journey in covering the documents, and isn’t one to shy away from revealing his own struggles — not least trying to protect the cache from spies both at home and abroad, and fearing that he too could become a target.

Gellman brings a fresh perspective and hindsight on the narrative you might have followed in the aftermath of the scandal, and fills in the blanks during a period of time that had the world in turmoil. And yet seven years after the first of many stories broke, Dark Mirror continues to spill details never known before in every chapter. His storytelling is exquisite, even if you’ll never want to use the internet again after reading it.

Price: $20 from Amazon

The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap by Mehrsa Baradaran

Belknap Press (Harvard University Press), 2017, 384 pages
Recommended by Liz Sisson, Chief Operating Officer of Urban Us

Anyone who manages money, invests in others’ livelihoods or lives in America should read The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap by Mehrsa Baradaran, an associate dean and professor at the University of California-Irvine and a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.

Baradaran’s 2017 book explores the past efforts to create economic inclusion in the United States, how they have not succeeded and how any real attempts to improve the wealth gap would need to improve access to capital, among other solutions.

The book digs into financial institutions and policies that are responsible for creating and maintaining racial inequalities in the United States. Baradaran covers the racial wealth gap and its relation to banking as well as the history, political theories, policies and people who maintained the long-standing racist institutions with access to capital and therefore wealth. The book also addresses the idea that wealth is not the same as equality.

A median white family in America has 13 times more wealth than that of a median Black family. The Color of Money explains why that wealth gap continues, and why it tripled between 1984 and 2009, through history and an examination of government policies such as redlining and GI Bills as well as discriminatory behaviors.

Baradaran teaches the reader about the long history of financial institutions such as community banking, Black banks, mortgage lending and government programs (e.g. CDFI, CRA, GSE, OMBE and FDIC) that have played a role in these systems. She also investigates the limitations of capitalism due to segregation and exploitation during the Reconstruction era, the Great Migration, the New Deal era, Jim Crow, and throughout the neoliberal, trickle-down, small government, and war on drugs policies of the 1970s, 80s, 90s and beyond.

The book introduces the philosophies of many leaders, from Frederick Douglass to Martin Luther King Jr., and Presidents Nixon and Reagan who argued that financial prosperity through Black capitalism (banking, ownership, boot straps and entrepreneurship) was the answer to equality. The author argues these ideas are not magic bullets to fix centuries of poverty and abysmal economic opportunity due to discriminatory government, banking policies and generally resource-poor communities. The book breaks down the stereotypes of self-help dogma that tout “save more, don’t spend so much or pull yourself up” and rejects the idea that those who are not wealthy just need more financial literacy or mentorship. “Self-help microfinance cannot overcome macro inequality and systemic racism.”

Deploying capital and creating economic opportunity in VC and in startups means it’s important to understand the racial wealth gap and the history of banking, credit and capital in the United States. As a society, we should constantly be learning from our past mistakes to ensure we are making better and equitable decisions for the future. The Color of Money is a necessary work that pushes us to correct those past wrongs.

Price: $15 from Amazon

The Death of the Artist: How Creators Are Struggling to Survive in the Age of Billionaires and Big Tech by William Deresiewicz

Henry Holt and Co. (Macmillan), 2020, 368 pages
Recommended by Danny Crichton, TechCrunch Managing Editor

The internet has completely upended the production of art (often labeled as “content” in the capitalist jargon du jour). When it first came to wide attention, the internet seemed like an invention of infinite promise for creatives — a medium of open expression and a network of new human connections that offered faster and broader access to the most brilliant minds of the world. Old barriers crumbled, and cyberspace would be the new basis for an ambitious era of art.

Along the way, the internet also decimated the economic foundations of the modern art world, and despite the media’s obsession with platforms like Kickstarter, Patreon, and Substack, has done almost nothing to underwrite the old middle-class careers that were once available to artists.

William Deresiewicz, the famed essayist of The Disadvantages of an Elite Education and a book on how colleges produce Excellent Sheep, turns his attention to the creator market and the economics of art. He’s both an observer and a participant, having left his decade-long teaching stint at Yale to go full freelancer. For the book, he interviewed about 150 creators across a range of fields, from painting and sculpture to writers and illustrators, and what he finds is, perhaps unsurprisingly, depressing.

In short, the economics of art today are terrifying. Platforms like Spotify pay a pittance for art, and the so-called “mid-list” works of artists are increasingly valueless. The internet may have millions of creators bopping around, but few of those people are getting paid, and an extremely small number are getting paid well. Like in so many other knowledge fields, there is an extreme superstar effect on the internet where a handful of artists can have all while almost all other artists have none.

While the descriptions of the salaries and lack of benefits offers some of the emotional heft of the book, Deresiewicz’ goes on to explore the history of the funding of the arts, from Renaissance patrons to the modern world of grant and foundation money, attempting to place our current predicament into context. He manages to critique everyone, from artists who refuse to adapt to the capitalistic structures of today to the art schools that profit off the indebtedness of their students. I was expecting a polemic, and got a reasonable slice of analysis instead.

It’s an eye-opening book, but necessarily incomplete. For the reality is, there are too many humans who want to produce art, and too few consumers who want to pay to observe and enjoy it. That supply and demand mismatch isn’t going away anytime soon. While the author has some interesting ideas about copyright and intellectual property commons and what not, the reality is that the plight of the artist is most definitely not a problem that has been solved by Silicon Valley technologists.

Most of the book isn’t revolutionary, but in many ways, few economics are for art. The Death of the Artist reminds us that the consumer choices we make do influence the kind of art we get — and the future prognosis isn’t good.

Price: $20 from Amazon

A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II by Sonia Purnell

Penguin Random House, 2019, 368 pages
Recommended by Ron Miller, TechCrunch enterprise reporter

When you look back at World War II, you no doubt have heard about the male leaders and generals on all sides of the conflict. These are the people history typically remembers, but you don’t usually hear about the unsung heroes, who operated in the shadows doing the hard work that wins wars.

One such person is a woman named Virginia Hall.

Author Sonia Purnell tells her remarkable story in the ironically titled A Woman of No Importance. As it turns out, Hall was incredibly important, and she single-handedly helped organize the resistance in Nazi-occupied France, moving stealthily around the country, constantly on the run from the Gestapo and French authorities, while somehow maintaining contact and passing valuable information to England.

She did all this not only as a woman in a world that didn’t take women seriously, remarkably, she also accomplished this with only one leg. Hall lost one of her legs in a hunting accident and used a wooden prosthetic, making her even more conspicuous for the authorities who were constantly on her trail.

Hall, who grew up in Baltimore, traveled overseas as a girl and developed a fondness for France. Even after the hunting accident, she drove an ambulance in France when the Germans attacked in 1940, simply wanting to help. Later after returning to London, she somehow talked her way into a new spy network that was being formed by the English government. They lacked personnel who knew France and had contacts, so they took a chance on her. She rewarded them richly with a body of work that would help change the war. Later, she would work for the precursor to the CIA, the Office of Strategic Services, when America joined the war.

Among her accomplishments were building a network of spies, safe houses and supply routes. She quietly helped organize French resistance and once in place, made sure they had money, weapons, food and training. She once engineered a daring escape of her colleagues, who were being held captive by Nazi authorities in a well-guarded prison camp. She climbed over the rugged Pyrenees mountains through deep snow to safety in Spain when she had to escape the country.

In spite of these accomplishments and many more, she of course had to deal with overt sexism along the way, and Purnell tells how she was often required to report to men who were inferior in every sense. Often she just went her own way, bypassing the system and simply getting the job done.

While there were awards and accolades after the war, she mostly ignored them and seemed content to be a person who operated in the background. She later worked for the CIA, where again she had to deal with sexism and a general lack of respect for her accomplishments.

Hall should be a figure who is remembered and revered by history — a role model for all, a woman whose dogged persistence, intelligence and savvy helped win the war. I couldn’t put this book down, constantly astonished by her feats of daring and bravery, and by the fact that such an amazing person could have been lost to history if not for this impeccably researched book.

Price: $16 from Amazon

Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike by Phil Knight

Scribner (Simon & Schuster), 2016, 400 pages
Recommended by Nicole Quinn, partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners

I was a competitive sprinter for many years. It’s how I cleared my head and maintained equilibrium, so the book I recommend to founders is Shoe Dog, Phil Knight’s story of how he started his career selling low-cost running shoes and turned it into a $160 billion empire.

I remember reading Shoe Dog for the first time shortly after it was published, under the arches at the Knight Management Center at Stanford, where I had just finished my degree while also working on my own startup. That building was named after Phil Knight, who received his MBA from Stanford and had donated $105 million to the university.

One of the things I like about this book is that Knight was one of the first to discover the power of influencer marketing — most famously Nike’s connection with Michael Jordan in the 1980s. The deal was a partnership of equals between an up-and-coming company and a rising superstar, and it completely transformed the worlds of both sports shoes and celebrity endorsements.

Knight’s account of that partnership taught me to never take my own partnerships for granted. I consider myself lucky to work with influencers like Gwyneth Paltrow and Lady Gaga on Lightspeed portfolio companies Goop and Haus Laboratories respectively. By treating these as true partnerships of value and respect, we can aspire to achieve what Nike and Jordan did with theirs.

Shoe Dog also drove home for me the incredible importance of word-of-mouth marketing. Knight writes about what happened when his first full-time employee, Jeff Johnson, walked around in a pair of Blue Ribbon Tigers: “People kept stopping him and pointing at his feet and asking where they could buy some neat shoes like those.”

When we analyzed Calm and Cameo to join our portfolio, we looked closely at their potential for generating word of mouth and were impressed with both. As in the early days of Nike, word of mouth is still one of the leading indicators of a brand with staying power.

Knight’s book also teaches us about the power of thinking globally. Back in 1980, Knight was already plotting to use Nike’s foothold in Japan to expand into China. Today, many strong U.S. brands still underperform in other countries. One of the key reasons Lightspeed has opened offices in China, India, Israel, and London is to offer insights and advice for companies that seek a more global footprint.

Finally, Shoe Dog has made me grateful for all the funding options we have today for startups. Back in the early 1970s, when Knight was trying to build Nike into a global brand, IPOs weren’t necessarily a celebration. They were often the only way organizations could raise the capital they needed to reach the next level. “If we didn’t go public, we risked losing everything,” Knight writes. He didn’t want to do an IPO, but it was his only option to scale the company.

That’s a different universe than the one we live in now, with all the different investment rounds and funds available to startups today, which allow companies to take as long as they need before filing for a public offering, assuming they decide to take that path.

These are just some of the reasons why I would recommend Shoe Dog. It perfectly captures the entrepreneurial spirit I see in the people and companies I work with each day and inspires me to help them follow in Knight’s footsteps.

Price: $11 from Amazon

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick

Vintage (Penguin Random House), 2011, 544 pages
Recommended by Danny Crichton, TechCrunch Managing Editor

Information — what it is, when’s it true, and what’s it for — has been one of the most persistent themes in tech the past few years. There are now dozens of works on misinformation, algorithmic propaganda, and “fake news” trying to help us wade through the epistemology of the modern world. Yet, this isn’t the first time that humans have gone through an information revolution, nor is it likely to be the last.

James Gleick wrote The Information almost a decade ago, but the book feels more relevant than ever. In it, he provides a full historical overview of what we mean by information, how it gets organized, and how it gets transmitted from person to person. It’s an absolutely fascinating lens to view history by, and represents one of the best examples of the power of synthesis to redefine our perspective on the world.

What’s all here? The invention of the alphabet and the dictionary. The use of drums and flares to signal danger and communicate over distances. The telegraph and the telephone. The development of mathematics and particularly the mathematics of information theory. Quantum and classical computing. All wrapped up into an overarching narrative about the human need for more knowledge and understanding of the universe. You also get to meet a cast of luminaries along the way including some of the most brilliant minds in physics, mathematics and computer science.

Gleick focuses mostly on the theory and the invention of the technologies themselves, with occasional digressions into the social ramifications of these communications technologies. I would have liked more of the latter, as one pattern you notice with each wave of communications technology is that there are distinct short-, medium-, and long-term changes that each induces. Given how much acceleration around information we have had the past decade or two, it’s quite palpable to observe just how much more change is to come that’s already been set in motion.

In short, The Information is a deeply-researched and enticing historical journey, one that encourages us to contextualize the overwhelming changes happening in our world.

Price: $16 from Amazon

Lifespan: Why We Age—and Why We Don’t Have To by David A. Sinclair with Matthew D. LaPlante

Atria Books (Simon & Schuster), 2019, 459 pages
Recommended by Alex Iskold, managing partner of 2048 Ventures

David Sinclair, professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, dedicated his life to the research of aging. The central idea of Lifespan, his latest book, is that humans aren’t actually programmed by nature to age and die. Instead, Sinclair argues that heart disease, Alzheimer’s, cancer and other major causes of death are all manifestations of one single disease — aging. He then explains how cutting-edge science in coming decades will help substantially slow down, and eventually reverse aging, enabling people to live to 150 years old and beyond.

The book contains a fascinating mix of Sinclair’s research, practical advice on anti-aging, implications for healthcare and medicine, philosophy of anti-aging and mind-bending societal implications of substantially longer lifespan

Price: $15 from Amazon

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Bloomsbury, 2005, 864 pages
Recommended by Anthony Ha, TechCrunch writer

I’ve had a copy of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell on my shelf for years, but I never felt motivated enough to start the (literally) thousand-page tome until its author, Susanna Clarke, was profiled a few months ago in The New Yorker.

Boy, do I feel dumb for waiting. The novel is an absolute pleasure from beginning to end, and as soon I’d started it, I found myself trying to steal free time to read another 10 pages (or 50, or 100 …)

The novel takes place in an alternate England where magic is real — or so we’re told. By 1806, when the story opens, faeries have disappeared, and the only magicians are “theoretical,” spending their time researching magical history rather than casting real spells.

Gilbert Norrell, a rather stodgy and reclusive scholar of the magical arts, changes all that. When challenged by The Learned Society of York Magicians, Mr. Norrell reveals his powers by bringing an entire cathedral’s work of statues to life. He then proceeds to London, where he hopes to revive the practice of English magic. Eventually, he trains an equally talented magician named Jonathan Strange — Strange is younger, more dashing, and more impulsive, and the pair’s friendship soon turns into a rivalry.

That’s just the barest outline of the story, which encompasses everything from the Napoleonic wars, the cost of bringing your loved ones back from the dead, and the history of a mysterious figure known as the Raven King. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell fully justifies its length — if anything, it packs an entire trilogy’s worth of plot into a fast-paced single volume.

Beyond the pleasure of finding out what happens next, I luxuriated in the opportunity to spend time with the characters and world that Clarke created. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell seem like real people, while its alternate history (often revealed in playful footnotes) feel like real history.

And, more than any novel I can recall, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell makes magic seem like something indescribably strange — not just a writerly trick or trope, but a hidden layer of reality that only a talented magician (or talented writer) can reveal.

Price: $10 from Amazon

Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang

Knopf (Penguin Random House), 2019, 368 pages
Recommended by Danny Crichton, TechCrunch Managing Editor

We ran an experimental book club on the short story collection Exhalation, which explores a variety of themes about connection, humanity, and a nice bit of time warp. Chiang has a preternatural ability to devise interesting plot devices and extend them into beautiful fractals of thinking and reflection. Definitely read the book, and check out our story-by-story discussion from earlier this year on TechCrunch:

Price: $15 from Amazon


#book-review, #gift-guide-2020, #tc


Is the internet advertising economy about to implode?

Advertising drives the modern digital economy. Whether it’s reading news sites like this one or perusing your social media feeds, advertising is the single most important industry that came out of the development of the web. Yet, for all the tens of billions of dollars poured into online advertising just in the United States alone, how much does that money actually do its job of changing the minds of consumers?

Tim Hwang has a contrarian stance: it doesn’t. In his new book published as a collaboration between Logic Magazine and the famed publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux, he argues in “Subprime Attention Crisis” that the entire web is staring into an abyss of its own making. Advertising is overvalued due to the opaqueness of the market, and few actors are willing to point out that the advertising emperor has no clothes. Much like the subprime mortgage crisis, once people come to realize the true value of digital ads, the market could crater. I found the book provocative, and I wanted to chat further with Hwang about his thoughts on the market.

Hwang formerly worked at Google on policy and has developed many, many projects across a whole swath of tech-oriented policy issues. He’s currently a research fellow at Georgetown’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

TechCrunch: Let’s dive straight into the book. How did you get started on this topic of the “subprime attention economy”?

Tim Hwang: There were two incidents where I was like, something is going on here. I was having conversations with a couple of friends who are product managers at Facebook, and I remember making the argument that that there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that this whole adtech thing is maybe just mostly garbage. The most interesting thing that they said was, “Oh, like, advertising works but we can’t really tell you how.” That’s like talking to someone from the national security establishment and they’re like, “Oh yeah, we can stop terrorists but, like, we can’t tell you exactly how that goes down.”

I think one thing that got me really interested in it was how opaque a lot of these things are. The companies make claims that data-driven programmatic advertising really is as effective as it is but then they’re kind of strangely hesitant to show evidence of that.

Second, I was doing research with a lot of people who I think you’d rightly call sort of tech critics — strong critics of the power that these platforms have. I think one of the most interesting things is that even among the strongest critics of tech, I think a lot of them have just bought this claim that advertising and particularly data-driven advertising is as powerful as industry says it is.

It’s a kind of strange situation. Tech optimists and tech pessimists don’t agree on a whole lot, but they do seem to agree on the idea that this sort of advertising works. That was what I wanted to explore in the book.

Why don’t we talk a bit about the thesis?

The thesis of the book is really quite simple, which is you look around and basically our modern experience of the web is almost entirely shaped by advertising. The way social media is constructed, for example, is largely as a platform for delivering ads. Engagement with content is really good for creating profiles and it’s really good for delivering ads. It really has been the thing that has powered the current generation of companies in the space.

As you sort of look closer though, it really starts to resemble the market bubbles that we know of and have seen in other places. So explicitly, the metaphor of the book is the subprime mortgage crisis. I think the idea though is that you have this market that is highly opaque, there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that the value of ads is misidentified, and you have a lot of people interested in boosting it even in spite of all that.

For the book, I wanted to look at that market and then what the internet could look like after all this. Are there other alternative business models that we want to adopt for the web going forward?

#adtech, #advertising-tech, #book-review, #digital-advertising, #facebook, #finance, #google, #online-advertising, #tim-wu


Sniff Petrol’s wonderfully interesting book of boring car facts: A review

A book sits on a desk

Enlarge / Yes that’s a door handle on the front cover, but do you know which door handle? (credit: Jonathan Gitlin)

If you’re the sort of person who reads Ars Technica, there’s a good chance you appreciate the finer details in life. You know, the tiny nuggets of information other people might leave out, like a 12-part history of the Amiga, told over more than a decade, or just why the kerning in the OS X Terminal was so objectionable. If you’re feeling seen right now, and you’re looking to amass more obscure facts that you can use to educate the normies in your life, do I have the book for you. It’s called A Medium-Sized Book of Boring Car Trivia, and it’s written by Sniff Petrol, aka Richard Porter, a British automotive journalist and writer whose work you almost certainly know from Top Gear and The Grand Tour, even if you didn’t know that you knew that. (See? Another way to “well, actually” your less erudite friends.)

The experience of reading this book was a little like the first time I played Forza or Gran Turismo online. Up until then, I thought I was pretty good, but realized quickly there are some true aliens out there, with skills that are the benchmark to aspire to. When it comes to knowing random car facts, Porter is up there.

Some of the trivia is recent, like the fact that Jaguar’s current supercharged V6 actually uses the same engine block as the V8, just with two cylinders blanked off. That’s either a wonderful example of British engineering efficiency or of its audaciously cheeky laziness. Maybe both. Other facts date back a bit, like explaining how you can tell the true color of a 1996 Volkswagen Polo Harlequin, seen below:

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#book-review, #cars, #gaming-culture, #sniff-petrol, #trivia


If we could see alternate realities, would we want to take a look?

Well, here we are. After many weeks (and a somewhat inconsistent publishing schedule), we have arrived at the final story of Ted Chiang’s Exhalation collection, number nine of nine. It has been a fun journey reading each of these speculative science fiction stories, and I do think they have much to tell TechCrunch readers. Even if you missed some of the discussions, these stories are timeless: What’s Expected of Us was first published in 2005. So jump in now, or jump in later — they will be waiting for you when you are ready.

Today, we have a fantastic work on the meaning of the choices in our lives and what happens when we have more information about ourselves in alternative timelines. It’s a story that combines quantum entanglement with freedom of the will, connecting technology to the very core of what makes us human. We will talk about Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom, and then some concluding thoughts on the whole *Exhalation *collection for those who have walked with us every step of the way.

Some further quick notes:

  • Want to join the conversation? Feel free to email me your thoughts at bookclub@techcrunch.com (we got a real email address!) or join some of the discussions on Reddit or Twitter (hashtag TCBookClub)
  • Follow these informal book club articles here: https://techcrunch.com/book-review/. That page also has a built-in RSS feed for posts exclusively in the Book Review category, which is very low volume.
  • Feel free to add your comments in our TechCrunch comments section below this post.

Reading Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom

This short story is a beautiful fusion of speculative science fiction and philosophy, punctuated with several plot turnabouts and rivulets of thrill.

The story centers around an invention called the prism, which is a quantum communications device. When triggered, a prism will cause a binary divergence in future timelines. In one timeline, the prism lights up its LED red, while in the other timeline it lights up blue. What’s critical is that the prisms in the now diverging timelines are connected together, and the device has a “pad” that allows for limited communications between the two timelines before the pad expires its capacity.

With the right prism, people can talk to themselves in other timelines to explore what might have happened if different decisions were made. For instance, someone could accept a marriage proposal if the prism’s LED turned red or reject it if the prism turned blue. Through the device, users can observe how their lives might have been lived — entailing all kinds of psychological consequences in the process.

It’s not surprising then that the plot partly revolves around a support group for people obsessed with prisms. One person, Jorge, struggles with the fact that he committed a violent act in this timeline, but then determines that he didn’t in any of the other timelines he was able to connect to. What does this say about his character? Does the fact he almost always doesn’t commit the violence show that he has a strong and stable character, who occasionally makes mistakes? Or does the evidence prove that there is a monster waiting beneath the surface, always just waiting for the right moment to strike?

Throughout the story, there is a latent question about how we use role models in our decisions. In our world, we can model ourselves off of celebrities or famous people, mentors and coaches, or even historical figures we’ve read about in biographies. Yet the prisms shrink this intrinsic distance — we can model ourselves after literally ourselves.

That opens up avenues for envy and jealousy. When our role models find success, we have the emotional distance to observe and reflect, and perhaps change our own actions in response. But when those models are ourselves, suddenly we can’t help but think that there must be something wrong with us if our counterparts in other timelines are doing well and we are not.

So we dwell on our choices, particularly on the major prophetic decisions that we feel our whole lives revolve around. Much like the prisms and the quantum split that happens inside the device, we ourselves have moments of binary decision-making. If we are angry, do we slash the tires of the car of the person who put us in that position? Do we pull the trigger on a gun?

In one case, Dana, a therapist and a facilitator of the prism support group, harmed her best friend Vinessa in high school during a field trip. When a teacher enters their hotel room on an inspection and sees rows of pills, Dana blames Vinessa, sending her life in a different direction:

It was as if, before that night, Vinessa had been balanced on a knife’s edge; she could have become either what society considered a good girl or a bad girl. Dana’s lie had pushed her off the edge, onto the side of being bad, and with that label the course of Vinessa’s life had taken a different direction.

Yet, Chiang is deeply skeptical of these binaries. We start to see glimmers of this as he explains the quantum dynamics behind the prisms, arguing that even a single atomic difference in different timelines can lead to massive changes in weather patterns and ultimately the macro events that build each of those worlds. This butterfly effect means that our decisions have far more chaotic consequences than we can anticipate. As the author explains, “Many worried that their choices were rendered meaningless because every action they took was counterbalanced by a branch in which they had made the opposite choice.”

Yet, much like the last story we read, this story doesn’t jump to nihilism. Quite the opposite, it argues that our decisions are really reflections of our character, and therefore our character constrains the probabilities of our actions in future timelines. Nat, our main narrator, asks during a support group session:

“But when I have a choice to do the right thing or the wrong thing, am I always choosing to do both in different branches? Why should I bother being nice to other people, if every time I’m also being a dick to them?”

The facilitator Dana responds with:

“But if you act compassionately in this branch, that’s still meaningful, because it has an effect on the branches that will split off in the future. The more often you make compassionate choices, the less likely it is that you’ll make selfish choices in the future, even in the branches where you’re having a bad day.”

While all future possibilities are always present, our innate character determines the gravity wells that most timelines fall into. Vinessa is angry at Dana for her lie, but as we later learn, she would have been angry in pretty much every scenario that Dana might have selected. No matter how she handled the situation, Vinessa would have gone through her downward spiral, leading to the story’s core message: “If the same thing happens in branches where you acted differently, they you aren’t the cause.”

We can’t control the past, and we certainly can’t control alternative timelines. But we can control our actions today, and those actions are going to accumulate to affect every single diverging timeline in the future. Yes, sometimes our other selves might have gotten luckier, or may have faced an unexpected tragedy. Yes, if we knew this we might experience envy, jealousy or horror. But ultimately, all the possibilities in the world are ultimately circumscribed by ourselves. We can only ever really do what we choose to do.

Some concluding thoughts on Exhalation

We’ve come to the end of Exhalation, and in light of the book’s symbol, we can take a breath now to take a look at all that Chiang has put together with these various stories.

To me, the most prominent message that resonates throughout the book is that contingency has no control over our own actions. In many of the stories in this set, Chiang places a new technological object, whether it’s a time-travel gate, digients and virtual worlds, or the prisms in this last story, and shows how humans react to their fresh capabilities.

One would think that these technologies would immediately change who we are or how we react. After all, if we can time travel, communicate through timelines, or completely change our perspective in virtual worlds, shouldn’t that radically change our identities? Wouldn’t we be entirely different people?

And yet, Chiang makes his point stridently clear: no. The characters inside each of us are hardly fixed of course, but they absolutely affect how we use — for good and evil — these new technologies. Humans are going to do what they are going to do, and they are going to do it with whatever tools they have available to them. That’s not to say that technologies shouldn’t be held accountable for the actions they afford their users. But ultimately, it’s a reminder that we each have control over our own actions, and we have the right to judge others for the actions they take when confronted with new options.

We are ultimately all connected, and that means that our actions don’t just affect ourselves, but all people everywhere through the air, through quantum mechanics, and through the physical laws of our world. Trust yourself, but also understand how we can control our actions for a better world. If that isn’t a message for startups and technology in 2020, I don’t know what is.

#book-review, #science-fiction, #ted-chiang


Why you can’t overlook the small details in the pursuit of innovation

This week, we read a very short story, The Great Silence, as we start to head toward the end of Ted Chiang’s Exhalation collection. This story asks questions about how we connect with nature, and also how to think about innovation and where new ideas come from.

We will finish the remaining two stories in the collection in the coming week, and then it will be time (sadly!) to change books. I’ll announce the next book in the book club hopefully shortly.

Some further quick notes:

  • Want to join the conversation? Feel free to email me your thoughts at bookclub@techcrunch.com (we got a real email address!) or join some of the discussions on Reddit or Twitter (hashtag TCBookClub)
  • Follow these informal book club articles here: https://techcrunch.com/book-review/. That page also has a built-in RSS feed for posts exclusively in the Book Review category, which is very low volume.
  • Feel free to add your comments in our TechCrunch comments section below this post.

Reading The Great Silence

This is a quite short story with a simple message. The narrator is a parrot discussing humanity’s quest to seek out artificial life elsewhere in the universe. The parrot, observing these actions, reflects on why humanity spends so much time looking for intelligence elsewhere, when it itself is intelligent, and located right next to us. The devastating line Chiang delivers comes toward the end:

But parrots are more similar to humans than any extraterrestrial species ever will be, and humans can observe us up close; they can look us in the eye. How do they expect to recognize an alien intelligence if all they can do is eavesdrop from a hundred light-years away?

The author offers us some obvious points to think about around environmental destruction and species extinction, and those are obvious enough that I think any reader can sort of surmise how the story connects to those issues.

So I want to instead connect this discussion to a theme dear to the heart of TechCrunch readers, and that is the quest for science and innovation.

To me, Chiang isn’t just criticizing our disdain for the animal species around us, but is also critiquing an innovation community that constantly strives for the big and “shiny” discoveries when so many smaller and local discoveries have yet to be made.

We invest billions of dollars into satellites and telescopes and radar arrays hoping to capture some fleeting glimpse into an alien world somewhere in the galaxy. And yet, there are deeply alien worlds all around us. It’s not just parrots — Earth is filled with species that are incredibly different from us in physiology, behavior, and group dynamics. What if the species most alien to our own in the whole galaxy is located right under our noses?

Of course, there would be huge headlines in finding even a single-celled organism on another planet (assuming there was even some way to detect such life in the first place). But that is precisely the type of narrow-minded, novelty-seeking behavior that Chiang is pointing out here.

Nonetheless, innovation can be a weird beast. It isn’t hard to look around the Valley these days and be dismayed at just how adrift a huge part of the industry is. We are creating more “smart” products than ever, yet huge social challenges and scientific frontiers remain completely unfunded. It’s easier to raise funding to start up an upgraded handbag company with a new brand and marketing strategy than it is to build an engineering team to push quantum computing forward.

There are certainly many valid arguments for moving our money to more “worthwhile” pursuits. Yet, fresh ideas that change industries can sometimes come from the oddest places, with even frivolous products occasionally creating fundamental advances in technology. Facebook as a social network might be a time sink for its users, but its huge scale also triggered all kinds of new data center infrastructure technologies that have been widely adopted by the rest of the tech industry. Solving a frivolous problem became the means to solving a problem of more depth.

In the end, you need to seek answers. Don’t overlook the obvious around us or get inured to the quotidian challenges that may just be the fount of innovation. Maybe figuring out the communication of parrots does nothing for us. Or maybe, exploring that area will open up whole new ideas for how to communicate and understand the neural patterns of speech. We can’t know until we tread along the path.

Now, to take one aside before we close out: Exhalation is a collection of previously-published short stories, but Chiang manages to work in his arch-symbol of breath and air into this piece in a fairly tight way:

It’s no coincidence that “aspiration” means both hope and the act of breathing.

When we speak, we use the breath in our lungs to give our thoughts a physical form. The sounds we make are simultaneously our intentions and our life force.

It’s a symbol we saw most substantively in Exhalation (the short story itself, not this whole collection) which we talked about a few posts ago. It’s a gorgeous little motif, and Chiang nicely embeds it to create an empathetic connection between humans and animals.

Some question about Omphalos

For the next and penultimate short story Omphalos, here are some questions to think about as you read the story.

  • What is the meaning of belief? How does belief influence both our views on our place in the world and our approaches to science and the scientific method?
  • Does existence and existentialism flow from external symbols or internal rationales?
  • How do religion and science mix? How did Chiang frame this narrative to make this question easier to contend with?
  • The story focuses on the dynamics of archaeology and astronomy — why these two disciplines and not some other field of science?
  • What’s the ultimate message of the story? Or is there more than one that can be read into the text?

#book-review, #books, #science-fiction, #ted-chiang