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Book reviews

Unlikely connections, the dark side of the Internet and guides to some less well known heritage sites are among the subjects of this month’s new titles.

Particular Books

How We Got to Now

By Steven Johnson, £20, ISBN 9781846148538

The idea that history, and particularly the evolution of technology, can hinge on single pivotal events isn’t a new one. But which of those turning points turn out with the benefit of hindsight to have led in which direction depends very much on your own point of view.

Despite its title, ‘How We Got to Now’ isn’t simply a retelling of various chains of events. Instead, Steven Johnson brings us something resembling a slightly askew parlour game in which the challenge is to link a discovery from the past with an unlikely repercussion in the present day.

Johnson likens his approach to how Mexican-American philosopher Manuel De Land suggested in his unorthodox history of military technology ‘War in the Age of Intelligent Machines’ that a future ‘robot history’ written by an artificial intelligence would differ markedly from its human equivalent. “If the light bulb could write a history of the past three hundred years, it too would look very different,” Johnson points out. Much of the ingenuity that went into eliminating darkness had repercussions that at first glance would seem to have little if anything to do with light bulbs.

Across six themed chapters - glass, cold, sound, clean, time and light - Johnson celebrates the unintended consequences of seemingly minor discoveries and whimsical ideas that nevertheless had significant consequences.

The ‘long zoom’ approach, he believes, highlights some of the mundane things that we might otherwise take for granted.

‘Glass’, for example, starts at the point around 26 million years ago when some phenomenon occurred at what is now the edge of the Sahara Desert which subjected grains of silicon to heat intense enough to create glass. What follows is a familiar story of how craftsmen eventually managed to create furnaces hot enough to achieve this process themselves, via the mass migration to Venice following the fall of Constantinople that was to lead to one of the world’s first innovation hubs when glassmakers were exiled to the ‘Isle of Glass’ of Murano.

The twist here is bringing in the equally important but completely separate invention by Gutenberg of the printing press. Once books had become widely available, people who had previously assumed their vision was perfect discovered they needed artificial lenses to see properly and within a hundred years thousands of spectacle makers were thriving across Europe. From that point in the optical revolution, we’re on the more familiar path that’s led to telescopes, microscopes, fibre-optic cables, and everything they’ve made possible.

Johnson is guilty at times of exaggerating how unlikely the course of the stories he tells is. Was it really “against all odds” that a small piece of natural glass found its way from the Libyan Desert to the burial chamber of Tutankhamun, or inevitable given the high value that such an artefact would have enjoyed?

Overall though, this is a refreshing look at a number of things we probably take for granted, assuming they can be traced back to one moment of inventive genius or inspiration. As Johnson shows, the truth is much more complicated than that.

Dominic Lenton

Random House

Extreme Mean: Trolls, Bullies and Predators Online

By Paula Todd, £19.99, ISBN 9780771084034

If the apparent ease with which a reporter posing as a young woman was able to persuade Conservative MP Brooks Newmark to send compromising photos of himself over social media was surprising, public reaction to the story illustrated how the Internet is changing what is viewed as socially acceptable behaviour. For those who have grown up with the web, it appears that this kind of interaction has been normalised to the extent that they’re not sure what all the fuss is about.

Most people wouldn’t consider the sting operation that caught out Mr Newmark to have involved trolling or bullying - there doesn’t seem to have been much coercion involved - but it’s a text-book example of the stories that Paula Todd relates about how online predators work, often with more tragic consequences than a ministerial resignation. The initial approach is convincing and friendly, then once the victim has been snared the mood swiftly changes.

Todd puts her skills as a writer, lawyer and investigative reporter to work in an attempt to uncover what is at the heart of a global phenomenon. Although ‘Extreme Mean’ is sometimes distressing, and could leave any parent neurotic about letting their child loose on social media, it’s not just a relentless series of stories about the dark side the Internet. Todd has dug behind the headlines to look at what motivates this kind of behaviour and what can be done to tackle it. One of her clear messages is that together we can solve the problem, but it’s going to involve the vast majority of users who find this behaviour abhorrent

‘Extreme Mean’ begins with a warning that it isn’t for the fainthearted. The conclusion though is a positive call to action as Todd calls on readers, “Let’s take back the Internet”.

Dominic Lenton


Secret New York: Curious Activities

By TM Rives

A follow-up to a more conventional (despite the subtitle) ‘Secret New York. An Unusual Guide’, this new habitually compact volume in the award-winning JonGlez series of ‘unusual’ guide-books, follows in the footsteps of the same publisher’s guides to peculiar shops and night spots of Paris and to ‘secret’ restaurants and bars of London. Each of the above could be easily adjusted to New York too, but the ‘activities’ angle seems more relevant to the Big Apple, the city which Le Corbusier once famously described as “ a beautiful catastrophe”.

Unlike Paris or London, with their at times carefully hidden, and at times very conspicuous hedonism, New York is a place for DOING things. New Yorkers are an extremely hands-on lot; they like experiencing things rather than just looking at them; likewise, they expect visitors to the city to participate rather than simply to watch.

The activities suggested by the guide are as different and as versatile as New York itself, and quite a lot of them are technology-​related. I’m not sure if the generally peaceful and docile E&T readers would be tempted by the Westside Rifle and Pistol Range, where - after some extensive form-filling (by law, getting access to a gun in New York is difficult, and owning one is next to impossible) - one can practise shooting targets with a .22 target rifle under the guidance of an expert instructor.

The somewhat less belligerent visitors to the Big Apple will be satisfied with improving their knife-skills (kitchen knife, I stress) at Brooklyn Kitchen in Manhattan, or learning the technology of whiskey (as opposed to whisky) distilling - and, no doubt, tasting some of it too - in the Kings County Distillery, the first whiskey producer in New York since the end of Prohibition. Teetotallers and those who prefer illusions to reality can opt for learning about the beauty and oddity of holograms by examining holographic images of people and objects in Holographic Studios in 240 East Street. As its owner and operator Jason Sapan put it in an inimitable straightforward New York fashion: “The thing with holography is - everything is there!.. There’s no bullshit. Everything is there, down to the size of light wave.”

To slightly paraphrase this somewhat uncouth Big Apple pronouncement, I can confirm: the JonGlez Guide has all imaginable - and unimaginable - “curious activities” in New York listed. “Everything is there!” Just go and check it out!

Vitali Vitaliev

English Heritage

Built to Brew: The History and Heritage of the Brewery

By Lynn Pearson, £25.00, ISBN 9781848021037

Few industries enjoy as much public affection as brewing, and with small-scale operations enjoying a renaissance across the United Kingdom, Lynn Pearson provides a timely review of its ups and downs.

With a history dating back to Neolithic times, English brewing has accumulated a rich heritage. Modern large-scale operations may be hard to distinguish from any other factory, but from the Georgian brewhouses that were tourist attractions in their own right to the ornate Victorian structures, the distinctive architecture of these buildings has ensured their survival.

‘Built to Brew’ isn’t just about bricks and mortar, though. Pearson describes how the technology behind beer has evolved as a finely tuned industrial process. Detailed chapters explain what makes a brewery work, from the skills of coppersmiths and engineers to the story of how horse power was superseded by steam.

Looking to the future, there’s a review of the sites whose industrial life is over but are being redeveloped for other purposes.

Like all English Heritage books, much of the value of ‘Built to Brew’ lies in its many illustrations. A comprehensive index of sites that can be visited.

Dominic Lenton

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