A VW Beetle

Book Reviews

Launched by Hitler and adopted by hippies, the VW Beetle's story is a deep and complex one.

Allen Lane

Who Owns the Future?

By Jaron Lanier, £20, ISBN 978-1846145223

How much is a tweet worth? How about a 'like' on a Facebook page? Or data aggregated from a week's worth of personal Google searches? Granted these are not the sort of questions that keep your average person awake at night. But if dreadlocked polymath Jaron Lanier is right they should. According to Lanier, the emerging digital economy has succeeded in concealing the value of the information it relies on.

The ordinary people who use free services such as Twitter, Facebook and Google are, he argues, uncompensated sources of valuable data. And giving this information away for free may be equivalent to them digging their own graves with a teaspoon. Great wealth is flowing to the corporations who aggregate and route the raw materials that they have acquired for nothing. In the connected age, information advantages turn into power advantages, leaving the rift between the have and the have nots wider than ever. The end game is hyper-unemployment and social chaos.

To explain his ideas, Lanier draws on everything from Greek mythology and pop culture to poststructuralist philosophy and Keynesian economics. It's quite a trip. And if his ideas aren't enough to tie most readers' minds in knots it's likely his prose will be. Using a freewheeling, hip style, Lanier's language is as far out as any of his ideas. Chapter titles include 'The weird logic of extreme creepiness' and 'The robotic bedpan', for example.

The text is similarly littered with rich metaphors that, while undoubtedly inventive, do occasionally lead down dead ends resulting in extensive footnotes. It's worth noting that Lanier is credited with inventing the term 'virtual reality' and it does at times feel like he's straining too hard to coin further neologisms here. His christening of large tech companies such as Amazon or Facebook as 'siren servers' seems unlikely to catch on. His passion, however, is obvious. It's clear he has spent a great deal of time and effort working through the ideas in this book. The scenarios are undeniably well thought out and there's plenty to chew on for those willing to jump through some linguistic hoops.

No doubt some will see the book as a prophetic warning about an approaching digital apocalypse while for others it will be little more than a work of post-millennial paranoia. The truth is more likely to be somewhere in between.

Jason Goodyer



Secret Montreal: An Unusual Guide

by Philippe Renault

What do we know about Montreal? Most of our readers are probably aware that it is the world's largest inland seaport (on St Lawrence River) as well as the second largest French-speaking city (after Paris). My knowledge of Québec's biggest metropolis (yet not its capital) is somewhat deeper than that, but only because my son lives there and I have visited more than once. Yet even for me, leafing through Philippe Renault's compact guide-book – Jonglez's latest addition to its award-winning series of 'local guides by local people' – was one big revelation. Or rather dozens of smaller revelations and mini-discoveries.

Little did I know, for example, that this bilingual city is officially the planet's most coveted planespotters' paradise. Whereas most of the world's airports keep tightening their access rules, Pierre-Elliot-Trudeau International remains very planespotter-friendly, even encouraging, for on more than one occasion planespotters were able to inform the airport authorities about potential dangers around the airfield!

This little-known fact shows Montreal's general atmosphere of friendliness and acceptance. That was probably why it was chosen as the permanent venue of the world's biggest annual fireworks festival. No other international metropolis that I know of proudly showcases a giant milk bottle in its centre – a symbol of Québec's ever-so-thriving dairy industry.

Very few E&T readers who visit Montreal would know (unless they read 'Secret Montreal' first, that is) that next to the famous 31m-high, illuminated cross above the Mont-Royal – at the very top of Saint Joseph Oratory – is an observatory offering a view of the whole city. This observatory is the highest point on the whole of Montreal Island.

One place that you simply cannot afford to miss is iMusée at 1691 boulevard Pie-IX – the museum of computer history, and one of the best of its kind. In it, you can travel back in time and feast your knowledge-hungry engineers' eyes on such technological relics as the 1983 Apple Lisa, the first computer with a graphic interface.

The only thing for me to add here is: happy Jonglez-assisted journey, or, as they say in Montreal, bon voyage!

Vitali Vitaliev



Goodbye for Now

by Laurie Frankel, £12.99, ISBN 978-0755392810

A new literary and cinematic genre is shaping up in front of our eyes. I would call it 'techno-fiction', or 'e-fiction', or – even better and more up-to-date – 'apps fiction'. Its best samples have so far been encouraging.

One of the latest additions to this new genre is Laurie Frankel's 'Goodbye For Now', a Seattle and cyberspace-based novel which, to me, echoed Charlie Brooker's recent Channel 4 drama 'The Black Mirror'. I was also reminded of some real-life pronouncements by my good friend Ian Pearson, an E&T contributor and one of Britain's top futurologists, who talks in his articles about the option people may face in the future: to die or to emigrate to cyberspace and carry on living there as bodiless e-creatures, or androids.

Let's put aside, for a moment, the scientific solidity of Pearson's hypothesis and consider 'Goodbye for Now' as one of its literary manifestations.

Seattle-based (just like the author) software engineer and MIT graduate Sam Elling is a self-confessed computer geek. First, he writes a programme for a 100 per cent successful Internet dating site and gets sacked as a result: indeed, if every match is a success how can the dating company keep making money? Sam nevertheless acquires something much more important; his own ideal partner ' Meredith Maxwell.

The couple live happily until Livvie, Meredith's beloved granny, dies of cancer. So disconsolate is Meredith that, to pacify her, Sam writes another computer programme – RePose – an app that allows dead people to communicate with the living by emails, using the online data accumulated during their lifetime.

The app gets hugely popular, and when Meredith herself perishes in a car crash, the couple stay in touch by electronic letters until the deceased Meredith chooses to put a stop to their correspondence: Make new memories. Forget pieces of me and of us. It's okay. I hold us in my perfect memory. I'll be right here, waiting for you. Love. Meredith – such are the last words of her very final e-letter to Sam..

The reason behind the success of this new genre of 'apps fiction' is simple: its best specimens try to tackle the old eternal issues of love, death, faith and betrayal with the new, 21st century literary devices. This goes some way to proving that, despite all the new technologies among us today, the age-long human problems, and literature itself, are here to stay and can be reached without any new 'apps' by simply reading a good book.

Viitali Vitaliev

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