My favourite books of 2014

In 2014 I managed to mostly read books on a theme of making technology, and how it expresses our values.

Here’s a list of books I loved most last year. Let me convince you they’re worth your time.

The Boy Kings

In The Boy Kings Katherine Losse describes her time at Facebook, from the moment she took a customer support position, through becoming Mark Zuckerberg’s personal writer, to finally selling her stock and leaving.

It’s a brilliant story. Losse tells it through her experiences as a sole female humanities graduate thrown into the world of entitled and privileged engineers. A world in which truly they are kings. She details her increasing discomfort with the way Facebook mediated human relationships, the way it collected and presented data, and with the behaviour of her co-workers.

In her recollections, she is often the only person questioning the direction the product takes, and whether some of the features can have negative impact on site’s users.

Through the many anecdotes about engineers unable to see through their gender bias, unable to relate to people not like them, especially people with less money and privilege, a picture of a modern startup emerges. It’s a world filled with fanatical dedication to startup’s success, and disregard for the wider impact the product might have on the world, beyond making the shareholders rich and famous.

Losse made me feel exactly how she describes she felt. I felt the initial excitement of working on something that was going to be really big. I could then taste how the excitement slowly began turning into doubt and disillusionment. Losse was beginning to question the reality of the product and the workplace. Is it okay to take people’s stories and tell them back to them, stripping away their control? And is it okay to demand people devote their entire lives to their job and never question anything? The more the startup machinery demanded total commitment, and the more relationships were mediated through Facebook, the more doubt was taking over.

Losse’s account of the power games, and the dynamics involved in extracting as much work from employees as is humanly possible is thorough and gripping. In some ways it could be a story of any company, tech or not, but knowing more about the work culture at Facebook makes it a lot easier to see why Facebook is what it is.

Cybernetic revolutionaries

In Cybernetic revolutionaries Eden Medina talks about Chilean Project Cybersyn, through which she paints the history of Chile from the time Salvador Allende was elected in 1970 to his execution in 1973 by the military who staged coup d’état.

Project Cybersyn was an attempt to use technology to help the government manage the economy, using near-real-time data about the state of different industries. It was an extremely ambitious undertaking at the time, and was going to be a huge innovation when finished, despite using only existing technologies. The ambition was cut short by Pinochet’s totalitarian regime that took over in 1973.

Before that, however, the people involved in the project made conscious decision to design technology to embody specific values. This is rare even today. Most technology seems like it’s made by people who think of it as a neutral and apolitical thing, and of themselves as neutral and unbiased. That, of course, can never be true, so to hear a story of people creating technology that can express the values and political leanings of its creators explicitly is particularly interesting.

It is even more interesting to hear that to encourage the use of technology, its values and politics needed to be downplayed, and it had to be presented to its users as a neutral tool.

Even when portrayed as neutral, reading of the technology helps realise the motivations of people who created it. As Medina says in the book’s introduction:

Technologies are historical texts. When we read them, we are able to read history.

As the project progressed, it was becoming clearer and clearer that many of its aspect were not going to work. So much of it relied on redesign of existing power structures within industries. Technological aspects of the project, though ambitious, turned out to be possible and useful, but the social aspects of it caused difficulties. The story of Cybersyn, against a backdrop of Chilean revolution, is absolutely fascinating.

Rise of the videogame zinesters

This is the book that made me want to make games.

In this very short book Anna Anthropy sets out to convince you that games need you. They need your contributions: the way you look at the world, and the way you think. Without them, she argues, games as a medium are poorer.

Anthropy takes you for a tour or the amazing things you can achieve with games that aren’t possible in other media. Games, she says, are the most powerful form of self-expression.

This book is a call for the democratisation of game-making tools, so that everyone can express themselves. The point isn’t to make great games, the point is to make games that describe many lives, and many worlds, and many different experiences.

I’m down with that.

ZZT

Ostensibly, ZZT by Anna Anthropy is a book about a game.

I played ZZT as a child, with my little sister. Somehow it made its way to my home on a 5.25 inch floppy disk. I could play it on the first computer my family had, which had no hard-drive and the operating system had to be loaded into memory from a disk.

The disk with ZZT wasn’t labelled, and our copy was in German. I was too young to speak German, and I’m not sure my sister could even read yet. At the time we called the game “Robot” because that’s what we called the playable character (which looked a bit like ☻).

I remember being gripped by the game for months. It was full of puzzles and very difficult. Two of my cousins caught wind of that and decided to help. They spoke German so they were able to progress through the puzzles that required understanding of text. We kept figuring things out, but never finished it.

What we didn’t discover was that the game came with a level editor, essentially allowing you to make your own games from the pieces provided. You had some characters and colours at your disposal. Using a basic scripting language you could create new worlds.

I say that this book is ostensibly about ZZT, because it is really about a million different creations that the ZZT editor enabled. Anthropy describes a proliferation of incredibly personal stories of (mostly) young people, being told through interactive environments, only sometimes fitting a classification of a “game”.

Anthropy’s way of talking about games is still very new to me. She doesn’t talk about the games so much as she is talking about how they’ve impacted her life. It really speaks to me.

At one point she describes a game that questioned gender norms, which is pretty adventurous for a game even in 2014, never mind in the nineties. She talks about games in which she was able to really become a female character, and how it made her, a transgender kid, feel. Not everyone can relate to what it’s like to be a trans kid, but many of those feelings she talks about — of being isolated, unable to name one’s own feelings and thoughts, being focused on creative exploration to the point where one forgets the surrounding environment for days on end — those feelings are universal.

Hacker, hoaxer, whistleblower, spy

Gabriella Coleman spent a considerable amount of time on IRC listening and talking to various people who at some point identified as part of Anonymous. It formed a huge body of research she wrote up in Hacker, hoaxer, whistleblower, spy. It helps to understand what Anonymous is, how it works, and what are the group’s achievements.

She managed to gain enough trust to be invited to witness conversations happening in multiple secret channels. She also notes that she realised that even more secretive channels existed of which she wasn’t aware at the time, and many members of Anonymous remained so secretive that she never got the chance to find out about them, never mind speak to them.

She stressed that Anonymous never was a one, clearly defined group. Many people operated under that banner, and collectives came together and fell apart frequently, sometimes only in order to perform a specific task.

During Arab Spring I paid a lot of attention to Anonymous, as they frequently appeared in the press. This book took me again through some of the things I remembered: the role of the Anonymous in bringing certain information about Arab Spring to mainstream media, their principled stance on certain issues, like internet freedom, and their morally questionable destruction of companies they saw as enemies (for example HB Gary).

This book is a very rich account of the events as they unfolded, from a point of view the spectating public was not privy to. Coleman reports on the discussions within Anonymous about the validity and morality of certain tactics. There was no agreement on whether DDoS was a legitimate form of protest, and whether releasing private information was in every case justified. With the benefit of hindsight we get to understand the influence of FBI, as they turned some of the people heavily involved into informants and agent provocateurs.

Hacker, hoaxer, whistleblower spy humanises the people involved. Coleman’s approach earned her enough trust for some people to open up about their lives. Sabu, for whom total secrecy was becoming no longer necessary once his involvement with FBI began, let Coleman understand his motivations much more deeply than other people involved.

Whether you followed the activities of the Anonymous and Lulzsec or not, it’s a gripping study of a group of people discovering activism, and realising that their skills allow them to grab headlines.