The summer holiday season is already more than halfway, but if you’re still looking for an easy, yet intelligent and thought-provoking read, I highly recommend Venomous Lumpsucker, by Ned Beauman.
It’s a common trope that the best way to understand the human condition is through literary fiction, and Venomous Lumpsucker does not disappoint in this regard. It is a work of dystopian science-fiction set in the near future, and it does an excellent job warning of the dangerous roads our society is traveling down, not by evil design but rather by low-grade selfishness and general apathy.
Central to the novel is the environmental destruction wrought by our social, economic and political system and our deeply flawed attempts to do something about it. Beauman effortlessly skewers a swathe of issues, chief among which our misplaced faith in the ability of markets to solve our problems, but also covering regulatory capture and corruption, and ill-thought technological advances. And he does so with enviable clarity and succinctness, as illustrated by these few quotes.
On smart contracts:
Like making a bargain with a witch or a goblin, signing a smart contract was not just agreeing to be bound by it, it was becoming bound by it, instantly and inescapably. The reality in which you lived changed from the moment you signed it, because in essence a smart contract added a few lines to the code of every computer system around you, constraining those systems to operate within its terms.
On YouTube (albeit without mentioning it by name, and oh how recognisable this is for parents of young children…)
The majority of fake videos on the internet were created for arcane motives that had little to do with their apparent content. Sometimes they might be a feint by one algorithm to manipulate some other algorithm, part of a struggle that was completely inscrutable to any human observer.
Or, on how biological evolution might start interacting with constraints introduced by AI, here told through the story of one particular fungus. As it turns out to be a major plot device I won’t spoil it, but I thought it was perhaps the sharpest reflection on the interaction between biology and machine since The Matrix.
Altogether the book lucidly captures the spirit, follies and excesses of our time, not unlike how Jonathan Coe skewered Thatcherism in What a Carve Up. The main difference is that instead of backward-looking, Venomous Lumpsucker is forward-looking, so we may still have an opportunity to amend our ways. But alas, probably correctly, Beauman is not optimistic about our ability to do so, and the book doesn’t have a particularly have a happy ending. That probably makes it all the more worth reading.
Alternatively, if you’re looking for long reads instead of books, I thought the following were worthwhile recently.
Cosmetics used to be dominated by a handful of huge companies with a whole portfolio of brands, but the rise of social media influencers has legitimately disrupted the market. Some of the incumbents, like L’Oreal, saw the shift and jumped on the bandwagon, but those who didn’t, like Revlon, are paying the price. (Link) (FT $)
One of the chief worries about AI is how it might displace human labour, and severely disrupt our social model. In this analysis, pre-eminent development economist Daron Acemoğlu concurs that AI has the potential to do so, and hence it should be regulated. The paper presents a sober and neutral look at one of the main issues in our near future. (Link) (VoxEU)
Another main issue of our time is the widening chasm between political viewpoints in society, to the point where it endangers the workings of democracy. Interestingly, researcher Yann Algan found a significant correlation between the arrival of fast internet connections and the dwindling of social capital in UK towns. While this paper does not offer any solutions, it certainly is an interesting data point. (Link) (VoxEU)
A recurring theme in Surveilled is the tendency of technologists, knowingly or unknowingly, to recreate old business models wrapped in modern tech. But since society needs longer to catch up with regulation or social constraints for example, the new products’ lifecycle are very similar to that of other innovations in the past, such as railroads (monopolies), banking (the crash of 1929) etc. The two examples linked to here illustrate this well.
The first is on Voyager, the crypto broker that recently went bankrupt because it was more like a bank than it knew. (Link) (CoinDesk)
The second is on the business success of OnlyFans, which has engendered a whole ecosystem of service providers, including so-called “e-pimps”. Key to their success is the ability to operate out of English-speaking countries with a low labour cost, a model that’s not particularly innovative… (Link) (NYT $)
That’s all from me for now, let me know if you enjoyed any of these reccos, and enjoy the last weeks of the holiday period.