Two very different but equally revealing reviews of the legacy of the Cold War are among our pick of the new technology books.
Allen Lane/WW Norton
Command and Control/Thermonuclear Monarchy
By Eric Schlosser/Elaine Scarry, £25/£25, ISBN 978-1846141485/ 978-0393080087
Here we have two very different books united by one theme: thermonuclear Armageddon, or what can go wrong when too much power is in the hands of too few people.
Eric Schlosser’s ‘Command and Control’ is the swashbuckling result of the research of a journalistic investigation into the seven-decade development of a global nuclear arsenal. Elaine Scarry’s ‘Thermonuclear Monarchy’ is a work of deadly serious political science by an analyst dwelling on the constitutional implications of giving a democratically elected president sovereign-like autocracy. For those who think the consequences of the Cold War are fading, both books will be eye-openers.
Schlosser, whose two previous books are inquiries into the murky worlds of fast food and the American recreational drugs black market, quotes Leonard Cohen and has a conversational style. He’s interested in the effort to control nuclear weapons and how to ensure that they don’t go off by accident. Scarry, on the other hand, takes as her opening position the much-quoted statement by US President Richard Nixon during his impeachment hearings, in which he said: “I can go into my office and pick up the telephone and in 25 minutes 70 million people will be dead”.
The underlying similarity shared by these positions is that they fundamentally address the social contract entered into by both politicians and technologists as they plan to defend their soil and people by escalating the threat of attack. Whilst it takes more than one party to start a fight, both books are about America. The main difference between the two is that, while Schlosser has no editorial interest in the high-level diplomacy behind arms control treaties, Scarry argues that abolition can, through a reinterpretation of the American Constitution, protect foreign populations as well as bring about disarmament and international security.
As Schlosser says, “thousands of nuclear warheads still sit atop missiles belonging to the United States and Russia, ready to be launched at a moment’s notice. Hundreds more are possessed by India, China, Pakistan, Israel, North Korea, Great Britain and France”. And, whilst no nuclear weapon has been responsible for the destruction of a city since 1945, the fact that they still exist means that, for Schlosser “there is no guarantee that such good luck will last”.
Meanwhile, Scarry invites us to consider a scenario where nuclear attack can be compared with a series of trapdoors, on which any given target nation is poised, and which may open at the whim of a solitary political leader. Despite the fact that the technology that allows us to open the doors is implemented with something bordering on miraculous infrequency, the threat remains, and given the ‘colossal asymmetry’ between the individual with his hand on the lever and the millions of citizens under threat, the political outcome is that those under threat will be forced to stay on as good terms as possible with those foreign leaders.
Paradoxically, it is the powers with the control that appear to wish to be seen as generous for not deploying their technology against those with less ability to defend themselves. From the outset, Scarry rails against the unfairness of weapons designed to kill millions in the hands of a small number of people, while Schlosser frankly marvels at the fact that it is through the work of ordinary men and women that a global nuclear holocaust has been averted. Two books united by one theme. Both terrifying.
Game Changer: Game theory and the art of transforming strategic situations
By David McAdams, £17.99, ISBN 978-0-39323-967-6
Two criminals are on charges that carry a maximum prison sentence of five years but they are also suspected of armed robbery, which carries 20 years. They are put into solitary confinement and each told separately that if they confess to armed robbery they walk free and the one who doesn’t confess will get 20 years. If they both confess, they both get ten years.
Known as the ‘prisoner’s dilemma’, this famous game is a favourite of David McAdams, a professor at Duke University’s school of business in the USA, who has written ‘Game Changer’ as a how-to manual for applying game theory to all aspects of life. McAdams likes the dilemma because it can encompass many situations (from getting children to eat their greens to ensuring cod fish stocks don’t collapse) in which everyone is worse off when they pursue self-interest.
The publisher’s cheesy promise - that, after reading this book you can “always enjoy a strategic advantage to your competitors” - disguises a well-written account of wide-ranging real-world situations that show the nuts and bolts of game theory and its strategies such as regulation, cartelisation, enabling retaliation, building trust, and leveraging relationships.
One nice example under ‘regulation’ is how you induce reluctant pharmaceutical companies to develop drugs for neglected diseases. The Eliminating the Neglected Diseases (END) Amendment, passed in the US in 2007, allows any pharmaceutical company that develops a drug for neglected diseases to get another blockbuster drug moved to the front of the FDA review queue. After a bumpy start, several drugs are in the pipeline, including ones for river blindness and dengue fever, which infects 50 to 100 million people per year.
I’ll put it down to McAdams’ skill as writer that much of game theory seems to boil down to thinking yourself into someone else’s shoes, which is always recommended.
Sonic Wonderland: A scientific odyssey of sound
By Trevor Cox, £20, ISBN 978-1847922106
The pace and breathless enthusiasm of this book initially seems at odds with the idea of simply stopping for a moment to listen. It’s a whirlwind trip around the world with an expert guide, allowing us to listen to a vast range of unusual sound phenomena, from the tiniest click to the loudest roar. There are whispering galleries, booming sand dunes, echoing mosques, and a fascinating selection of sonic sculptures, and Cox’s writing style keeps up its own frenetic rhythm. We’re rattled along at a furious pace, seemingly whisked from desert canyon to giant oil tank to thundering waterfall within the space of a page or two. The author keeps the science at a pretty basic level, with simple arrow diagrams and waveform illustrations to show how sound gets bounced around or absorbed by different environments.
As an acoustic engineer, Cox has a wealth of real-life sonic problem-solving experience to draw on. I was particularly intrigued by the story of the Royal Festival Hall’s embarrassingly brief reverberation time, a shortcoming which resulted in chronically dull-sounding orchestral performances but which wasn’t obvious until the building was completed. One solution would have been to physically raise the roof, something that the architects and builders were understandably loath to do. Instead, a brilliantly conceived electronic deception was devised with artfully placed microphones, speakers and delay circuits hidden in the structure to create an artificial reverberation.
Cox’s obsession with sound takes us into space, to hear the fridges on the International Space Station and find out what a church organ would sound like if you took it to Mars.
He’s an engaging author, but his descriptive powers are tested to the limit by the subtleties of his subject matter. It’s no criticism of the writing to recommend a visit to the associated website www.sonicwonderland.co.uk, which features sound files of some of the places and phenomena in the book.
The Second Machine Age
By Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, £17.99, ISBN 978-1480577459
If you look at a graph charting the progress of human social development, two important things stand out immediately. First is that for roughly 8,000 years the line is virtually horizontal, and second at around 1775 (the year James Watt’s steam engine was introduced) the line bends upwards sharply to become almost vertical. It was technology such as the steam engine that heralded the Industrial Revolution, or the first machine age, and according to the authors of ‘The Second Machine Age’, it was the “first time our progress was driven primarily by technology - and it was the most profound time of transformation our world has ever seen.”
Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee are both scholars at the MIT Center for Digital Business, and it is their reasonable contention that it was the advent of digital technology, where computers are doing “for mental power… what the steam engine did for muscle power”, was the point at which the second machine age dawned. Whether or not the new machine age bends the curve as dramatically as Watt’s innovation - and it’s hard to see how it could - “it is a very big deal”. Their book is a convincing attempt to explain both how and why.
For the authors, there was a critical moment when they recognised their need to investigate the implications of the new digital era. Put bluntly, they both noticed that there was a pivotal phase during which computers changed from being “laughably bad at a lot of things for a long time” to suddenly becoming “very good”. Their research led to three conclusions: change was fast, change was good and yet inevitably brought with it “unpleasant consequences” that needed to be managed. Just as the Industrial Revolution created social malaises of smog-filled cities and child labour, the second machine age has effectively meant that we need fewer people to carry out tasks. This is a situation that is already resulting in social consequences as far-reaching as any of those we saw in the 19th century.
‘The Second Machine Age’ leads us through the authors’ three conclusions about what they call “brilliant technologies”, dealing initially with the nature and origin of change, from Moore’s Law to artificial intelligence. The book’s central section deals with the two critical concepts of ‘bounty’ and ‘spread’ - in other words, what benefits are to be had from this brave new world and what are the economic implications when the rewards are not distributed equitably. The concluding section looks at the consequences for society if we confuse the notions of technology assisting, rather than actually defining, the future.
One of the most telling quotations the authors select to illustrate their point is that of Antoine de Saint-Exupery, who with great foresight and a degree of pessimism, wrote that “the machine does not isolate man from the great problems of nature, but plunges him more deeply into them”.