Pax Technica, by Philip N Howard (Yale University Press, £16.99)
Bucking the recent trend towards digital doomsaying, Philip Howard’s new book takes a cautiously optimistic look at the internet’s latest evolution. As we move towards a world where our smart devices know more about our daily lives than our closest friends, Howard argues that this will usher in a new era of political stability. He, somewhat grandly, refers to this state as a “Pax Technica,” likening it to previous historical eras such as the Pax Britannica (1815-1914), when industry closely aligned itself with government policy and practice, resulting in a period of relative peace. While there is some legitimacy in that comparison of a dominant power driving global unity, this time it’s less about humans learning to happily co-exist and more about our struggle to fully comprehend the forces we face. The cracks in Howard’s utopian vision of our hyper-connected future start to show in his inability to reach a clear conclusion about how we might best govern ourselves. The downsides of our data-drenched society are there for all to see—the use of social media by extremists such as Islamic State to spread their message, the recent hacking of Sony’s emails and the ever-expanding surveillance of citizens around the globe. Howard acknowledges these threats, while balancing them with positive examples—popular uprisings such as the Arab Spring enabled by social media, a digital mapping project used to save a failed state. But amid all this flip-flopping his argument stalls. If it’s true that the internet of things will be “the most powerful political tool ever created” with over 30bn devices networked worldwide, then the debate needs to move, rapidly, beyond this sweeping assessment of its promises and perils to ascertain how best it can serve the almost 8bn people on this planet.