The 10 Most Important Info-Tech Policy Books of 2010

by on December 10, 2010 · 15 comments

Wow, what a year for cyberlaw and information technology policy books!  Both in terms of number of titles and the gravity of the books released, 2010 was one of the biggest years of the past decade (perhaps matched only by 2006 or 2008 in terms of significance).  So, here’s my annual list of the Most Important Info-Tech Policy Books of 2010.

First, however, as is the case each year [see my 2008 & 2009 lists], I need to repeat a few disclaimers.  First, what qualifies as an “important” info-tech policy book is highly subjective, but I would define it as a title that many people — especially scholars in the field — are currently discussing and that we will likely be referencing for many years to come.  But I “weight” books in the sense that narrowly-focused titles lose a few points. For example, books that deal mostly with privacy issues, copyright law, or antitrust policy do not exactly qualify as the same sort of “info-tech policy book” as other titles that offer a broader exploration of policy issues / concerns. For that reason, “big picture” info-tech policy books tend to rank higher on my lists.

The second caveat: Merely because a book appears on my list it does not necessarily mean I agree with everything in it. In fact, as was the case in previous years, I found much with which to disagree in my picks for the most important books of 2010 and I find that the cyber-libertarianism I subscribe to has very few fans out there.

With those caveats in mind, here are my choices for the Most Important Info-Tech Policy Books of 2010.

(1) Tim Wu The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires

In The Master Switch, Tim Wu claims that information industries are prone to “cycles” that generally advance from “open” to “closed” and he correctly notes that regulatory capture and bureaucratic mismanagement are major culprits. “Again and again in the histories I have recounted,” he says, “the state has shown itself an inferior arbiter of what is good for the information industries. The federal government’s role in radio and television from the 1920s through the 1960s, for instance, was nothing short of a disgrace… Government’s tendency to protect large market players amounts to an illegitimate complicity … [particularly its] sense of obligation to protect big industries irrespective of their having become uncompetitive.”

Wu is correct. Strangely, however, he never seems to draw any lesson from that “disgrace” and “complicity.” Indeed, sometimes within a line or two of raising such concerns in his book, Wu seems to dismiss those findings entirely and proposes giving the government far more power to play games within the information sector. If Wu believes what he said about the dangers of regulatory capture and bureaucratic bungling, why is he so eager to empower the State to do even more meddling in information technology sectors?

When it comes to solutions, Wu fails to conduct any serious cost-benefit analysis of the trade-offs associated with an aggrandizement of State power in the name of countering the supposed evils of private power. The solutions Wu offers are typically presented as cost-free options. Yet, Prof. Wu’s primary solution, a so-called “Separation Principle,” would have a devastating impact on high-technology innovation and competitiveness. Claiming that information industries are too important to be governed by traditional laws and regulations, Wu advocates a sweeping industrial policy that would separate information industries into three buckets — content, distribution, and devices — and keep them segregated by force of law. Integration and cross-sector arrangements would essentially become illegal in this system of information apartheid.

Mysteriously, Wu is adamant about this not being a regulatory solution, instead preferring to call it a “constitutional” approach. But such semantic sophistry can’t disguise the fact that his regime would be an ambitious industrial policy for America’s information economy. Entire companies and sectors would need to be undone, and all future technological innovation would need to be subjected to regulatory classification proceedings to determine in which bucket they belong.  Ironically, therefore, Wu’s proposed approach would greatly empower the same regulators that he claimed drove previous industries into the ground! They would have even more sway over the future of technological innovation, media policy decisions, and free speech issues. Again, Wu never address the potential downsides or costs of his proposed approach even though we know that, when it comes to regulation, there is no free lunch. Something has to give.

In sum, I believe Wu’s hyper-pessimistic worldview and extreme recommendations are unwarranted and I made my reservations known in a 6-part series of essays about his book.  [See Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.]  Nonetheless, The Master Switch is a profoundly important book that we’ll be debating for many years to come.

Listen to Jerry Brito’s “Surprisingly Free” podcast discussion with Tim Wu here.

(#2) Kevin Kelly – What Technology Wants

Kevin Kelly has written a terrifically interesting book that is actually two books in one. The bookends (Parts 1 and 4) are pretty out there. In those portions of the book, Kelly aims to prove that “the technium” – “the greater, global, massively interconnected system of technology vibrating around us” — is a “force” or even a living “organism” that has a “vital spirit” and which “has its own wants” and “a noticeable measure of autonomy.” “The technium is whispering to itself,” he says. At times, Kelly sounds like he’s longing for humanity’s assimilation into the machine or The Matrix. “We can think of technology as our extended body,” he says. He speaks repeatedly of human-machine “symbiosis.” “We are now symbiotic with technology” and, apparently, that symbiotic bonding can get pretty intense as “humans are the reproductive organs of technology.” Sounds a little kinky, but what the hell does that even mean? I think those are the weaker sections of the book. He sounds like one of those enviro-extremists who proselytizes about Gaia theories of Earth as a spirit or deity.

But Kelly redeems himself with eight absolutely stunning chapters in the middle two sections of the book. Gone is most of the Gaia-like talk of the technium as a living organism. Kelly instead focuses on explaining to us in plain terms the progression of technology in our lives and how we’ve come to cope with it. He notes, for example, that “Over the centuries, societies have declared many technologies to be dangerous, economically upsetting, immoral, unwise, or simply too unknown for our good. The remedy to this perceived evil is usually a form of prohibition. The offending innovation may be taxed severely or legislated to narrow purposes or restricted to the outskirts or banned altogether.”

But banning technology never works, he argues, largely because humans adapt and embrace new tools and developments. “[H]istory shows that it is very hard for a society as a whole to say no to technology for very long.” “Prohibitions are in effect postponements” and “wholesale prohibitions simply do not work to eliminate a technology that is considered subversive or morally wrong. Technologies can be postponed but not stopped.”  Importantly, Kelly doesn’t turn a blind eye to the downsides of technology. In fact, he is refreshingly candid about the trade-offs we face. He argues that, “If we examine technologies honestly, each one as its faults as well as its virtues. There are no technologies without vices and none that are neutral. The consequences of a technology expand with its disruptive nature. Powerful technologies will be powerful in both directions – for good and bad. There is no powerfully constructive technology that is not also powerfully destructive in another direction, just as there is no great idea that cannot be greatly perverted for great harm… This should be the first law of technological expectation: The greater the promise of a new technology, the greater its potential for harm as well.”

Quite right. But then Kelly then goes on to masterfully discuss the dangers of applying the “precautionary principle” to technological advancement. Kelly correctly argues, is that because “every good produces harm somewhere… by the strict logic of an absolute Precautionary Principle no technologies would be permitted.” (p. 247-8) Under such a regime, progress becomes impossible because trade-offs are considered unacceptable. This doesn’t mean humans shouldn’t try to foresee problems associated with new technologies or address them preemptively. But that can be done without resisting new technologies or technological change altogether. “The proper response to a lousy technology is not to stop technology or to produce no technology,” Kelly argues. “It is to develop a better, more convivial technology.”

In sum, I loved the middle sections of What Technology Wants, but I could have done without the silly “technology-as-organism” theories found in the opening and closing chapters. Overall, however, Kevin Kelly has written a book that demands our attention. We will be talking about What Technology Wants for many, many years to come.

See my complete review of the book here, and make sure to listen to Kelly’s interesting podcast discussion with Jerry Brito here.

(#3) Jaron LanierYou Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto

Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget is an intriguing but highly pessimistic look at the impact of the Internet and digital technology on our lives, culture, and economy. Like other Net skeptics, Lanier worries about the loss of individuality, the rise of “mob” behavior, the dangers of free culture, and the rise of a new sharecropper economy in which a small handful of capitalists are supposedly getting rich off the backs of free labor. As a respected Internet visionary, a gifted computer scientist, an expert on virtual reality, and a master wordsmith, the concerns Lanier articulates here deserve to be taken seriously — even if one ultimately does not share his lugubrious worldview. And I don’t.

He rightly castigates extreme varieties of quixotic techno-utopianism, which he labels “cybernetic totalism,” or the belief by some extreme digital age optimists that a “hive mind” or “noosphere” is coming about. It’s a vision of the Net as an organism powered by the wisdom of crowds. Lanier thinks such thinking is all bunk and, worse yet, that it has dangerous ramifications for humanity and individuality. He also asks us to think twice before taking too big of a gulp of the “free culture” kool-aid and extreme varieties of cyber-collectivism, which I wholeheartedly agree with.

But his critique is too sweeping and he refuses at times to acknowledge the many legitimate innovations associated with open source software or Web 2.0 technologies. He also gets so caught up in his critique of the free culture movement that he unfairly indicts the entire digital generation and wrongly claims most modern culture is moribund and little more than “a petty mashup of preweb culture.” Sorry, but I just don’t buy that. And it’s entirely subjective, anyway.

I also found Lanier’s “lords of the cloud” critique of social networking and advertising unpersuasive. Lanier seems to believe that Google, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and other Web 2.0 sites are all just part of the hive mind indoctrination scheme. Or, at a minimum, they are turning our brains into Jello, he claims, and destroying our individuality. But here Lanier is guilty of a form of hyper-nostolgia about those mythical “good ‘ol days” when all was supposedly much better. The Web 1.0 world was any better than today’s cyberspace; it had its own share of problems. And today’s leading cloud companies aren’t exploiting us or manipulating our minds by offering us great platforms or free services. Indeed, they are offering us wonderful new avenues for self-expression and interaction with others.

Lanier doesn’t seem willing to leave room for a middle ground position that rejects extreme techno-utopianism and the most extreme elements of the free culture mindset, but which also acknowledges there is much good to be found in modern digital culture and online life. Despite that, his book is easily one of the most important information technology policy books of recent years.

My lengthy review of Lanier’s book is can be found here.

(#4) Nicholas CarrThe Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains

Rich with historical anecdotes and replete with scientific surveys and evidence, The Shallows is a book that demands your respect whether you are comfortable giving it or not. And many people won’t be. After all, Carr is a bit of a skunk at the cyber-garden party. I mean, how dare he suggest that all is not wine and roses with our glorious new world of instantaneous connectivity, abundant information flows, and cheap (often free) media content! Obviously, most of us want to believe that all adds up to a more well-rounded worldview and greater wisdom about the world around us. Carr is skeptical of those claims and The Shallows is his latest effort to poke a hole in the cyber-utopian claims that sometimes pervade discussions about Internet. Although, ultimately, he doesn’t quite convinced me that “The Web is a technology of forgetfulness,” he has made a powerful case that its effects may not be as salubrious as many of us have assumed.

But the ultimate question is: Do the costs really outweigh the benefits? Is it the case that these technologies “turn numb the most intimate, the most human, of our natural capacities — those for reason, perception, memory, emotion”? I think that goes a bit too far. Importantly, Carr doesn’t really ever answer the crucial question: Were we really better off in the decades prior to the rise of the Net? Did we really read more and engage in the more contemplative deep-reading and thinking he Carr fears we are losing because of the Net? Count me among those who think that — whatever most of us are doing in front our our computers most nights, and no matter how distracting it is — it has to be better than much of the junk we wasted our spare time on in the past!

It would have also been nice to have seen Carr offer up some personal suggestions for how we each might better manage cognitive overload, which can be a real problem. In a brief “digression” chapter entitled “On the Writing of This Book,” Carr does mention some of the steps he took personally to make sure he could complete The Shallows without being driven to distraction by the Web and digital technologies. But he doesn’t dwell on that much, which is a shame. A bit of a self-help can go a long way toward alleviating the worst forms of cognitive overload, although it will continue to be a struggle for many of us.

Despite the reservations I raised in my review of the book, Nick Carr’s The Shallows is beautifully written and will be required reading in this field for many years to come.   And make sure to check out this “Surprisingly Free” podcast conversation that Jerry Brito had with Carr back in June.

(#5) Clay ShirkyCognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age

If you are an avid reader of everything Clay Skirky pens, then the chapters you’ll find in his new book, Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in the a Connected Age, will seem quite familiar.  We’ve seen or heard most of the material in Cognitive Surplus many times before and I think we got the point: The Internet and digital technology has freed up an enormous amount of time for more productive / worthwhile endeavors that was previously squandered — most by too much coach potato television consumption. He spells out his thesis a bit more eloquently on pg. 63:

The harnessing of our cognitive surplus allows people to behave in increasingly generous, public, and social ways, relative to their old status as consumers and couch potatoes. The raw material of this change is the free time available to us, time we can commit to projects that range from the amusing to the culturally transformative. […] Flexible, cheap, and inclusive media now offers us opportunities to do all sorts of things we once didn’t do. In the world of “the media,” we were like children, sitting quietly at the edge of a circle and consuming whatever the grown-ups in the center of the circle produced. That has given way to a world in which most forms of communication, public and private, are available to everyone in some form. (p. 63)

Shirky spends 200+ pages here trying to bolster that claim in various ways. But, again, I’m not sure he needed to. The notion that the Net has made us and our culture better off seems fairly uncontroversial to most of us. But Shirky also overplays his hand at times and tries to read a bit too much into the significance of the rising cognitive surplus.  It’s less likely to reshape politics or civic spirit, for example, as much as he seems to suggest.

My longer review of Cognitive Surplus can be found here and you’ll want to listen to Jerry Brito’s very interesting “Surprisingly Free” podcast discussion with him here.

(#6) Barbara van SchewickInternet Architecture and Innovation

Barbara van Schewick’s book is an extended — and I do mean extended — love letter to the “end-to-end” principle and Net neutrality.  Weighing in at almost 600 pages, van Schewick goes on much longer than she needed to make her core argument: The structure of the current Internet is sacrosanct and must be preserved. Deviations from end-to-end or “neutrality,” however defined, are to be discouraged or disallowed. “[D]ifferent ways of structuring the Internet result in very different environments for its development,” she argues.  “If left to themselves, network providers will continue to change  the internal structure of the Internet in ways that are good for them, but not necessarily for the rest of us,” she says. (p. 377)

Of course, we’ve heard all these arguments made ad nauseam in the Net neutrality wars, but to her credit, van Schewick makes them far more eloquently in this book than they have ever been made before.  She does a particularly good job of walking the reader through the guts of the Internet’s current architecture.  The layman will find the book quite challenging in light of its highly technical nature, however.  But her grasp of the subject is impressive.

Unfortunately, van Schewick doesn’t spend much time addressing the downsides associated with expanding regulation of the Internet.  There’s no acknowledgment of the danger of regulatory capture, regulatory creep, or bureaucratic meddling with highly complex systems.  She seems to assume regulators will be immune to such tendencies and, more surprisingly, have a crystal ball with which they can view the wisdom of current regulatory actions. She argues, for example, that in some cases “regulators will need to shape the technology before it is deployed.” (p. 388)  This suggests a return to the sort of anticipatory, “Mother, May I” regulatory regime America began turning away from following the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.  Do we really want the FCC micro-managing every important innovation and business decision in these fast-moving, complex markets?   Experimentation with different digital architectures would essentially become verboten under van Schewick’s paradigm.

When it comes imposing “an engineering design principle” from above, van Schewick claims that “the broad version [of the end-to-end principle] provides much more flexibility for the evolution of the network’s core than is often assumed.” (p. 389)  Yet, she never spells out what she means by that and how much flexibility she would allow in terms of core innovation before having regulators intervene.  For those of us who favor a more dynamic, experimental, and evolutionary approach to markets and technical engineering determinations, van Schewick’s approach looks like one that would freeze current high-tech markets and networks in stone.   Her occasional lip-service to the trade-offs involved in this process are appreciated but, ultimately, unbelievable since she always comes down in favor of maximizing opportunities or innovation at the edge of networks relative to the core. Innovation at the core of networks is every bit as important as innovation at the edge, however. We don’t want stagnation at the core of networks or else the applications that ride on them will suffer.

(#7) Milton MuellerNetworks and States: The Global Politics of Internet Governance

Milton Mueller’s Networks and States isn’t the most important information technology policy book of the year, but it was easily my favorite.   Mueller’s book continues his exploration of the forces shaping Internet policy across the globe. What Mueller is doing in his work in this book and elsewhere is becoming the early chronicler of the unfolding Internet governance scene. He meticulously reports on, and then deconstructs, ongoing governance developments along the cyber-frontier. He is, in effect, a sort of de Tocqueville for cyberspace; an outsider looking in and asking questions about what makes this new world tick. Fifty years from now, when historians look back on the opening era of Internet governance squabbles, Milton Mueller’s work will be among the first things they consult.

Mueller’s goal in Networks and States is two-fold and has both an empirical and normative element. First, he aims to extend his exploration of the actors and forces affecting Internet governance debates and then develop a framework and taxonomy to better map and understand these forces and actors. He does a wonderful job on that front, even though many Net governance issues can be incredibly boring. Mueller finds a way to make them far more interesting, especially by helping to familiarize the reader with the personalities and organizations that increasingly dominate these debates and the issues and principles that drive their actions or activism.

Mueller’s second goal in Networks and States is to breathe new life into the old cyber-libertarian philosophy that was more prevalent during the Net’s founding era but has lost favor today. Mueller says his “normative stance is rooted in the Internet’s early promise of unfettered and borderless global communication, and its largely accidental and temporary escape from traditional institutional mechanisms of control.” Mueller makes a convincing case for giving cyber-libertarianism, or what he calls “denationalized liberalism,” another chance; a chance that it really never had. “At its core,” Mueller continues, “denationalized liberalism favors a universal right to receive and impart information regardless of frontiers, and sees freedom to communicate and exchange information as fundamental and primary elements of human choice and political and social activity.” Moreover, “this ideology holds a presumption in favor of networked, associative relations over hierarchical relations as a mode of transnational governance,” he argues. “Governance should emerge primarily as a byproduct of many unilateral and bilateral decisions by its members to exchange or negotiate with other members (or refuse to do so).” Finally, he says, “a denationalized liberalism strives to make Internet users and suppliers an autonomous, global polity.” In essence, it’s about free will, freedom of action, and freedom of association. It’s essentially classical liberalism for the Information Age. Mueller admits that “such an ideology needs to answer tough questions about when hierarchical exercises of power are justified and through which instruments they are exercised.” But he continues on to make the case for “question[ing] the scope of national sovereignty over communications.” “The governance of the Internet needs to explicitly recognize and embrace the principle that there are limits to national sovereignty over the flow of information,” he says.

Mueller has made a beautiful case for cyber-libertarianism and he has given the movement its marching orders: “In short, we need to find ways to translate classical liberal rights and freedom into a governance framework suitable for the global Internet. There can be no cyberliberty without a political movement to define, defend, and institutionalize individual rights and freedoms on a transnational scale.”   Even if you aren’t compelled to join the cause, however, I highly recommend you pick up Mueller’s Network and States, anyway. It’s a terrific survey of the current state of Internet governance and an important work of political science since it offers us a useful spectrum of Net governance viewpoints.

My longer review of Networks and States is here and here’s Jerry Brito’s podcast discussion with Mueller about his book.

(#8) Ronald J. Deibert, John G. Palfrey, Rafal Rohozinski, and Jonathan Zittrain (eds.) – Access Controlled: The Shaping of Power, Rights, and Rule in Cyberspace

Smartly organized and edited, Access Controlled is essential reading for anyone interested in studying the methods governments are using globally to stifle online expression and dissent. There is simply no other resource out there like this; it should be required reading in every cyberlaw or information policy program.

The book, which is a project of the OpenNet Initiative (ONI), is divided into two parts. Part 1 of the book includes six chapters on “Theory and Analysis.” They are terrifically informative essays. The beefy second part of the book provides a whopping 480 pages of detailed regional and country-by-country overviews of the global state of online speech controls and discuss the long-term ramifications of increasing government meddling with online networks.

The book also offers a useful taxonomy to illustrate the three general types of speech and information controls that states are deploying today. Throughout the book, various authors document the increasing movement away from “first generation controls,” which are epitomized by “Great Firewall of China”-like filtering methods, and toward second- and third-generation controls, which are more refined and difficult to monitor.

The individual authors seem to adopt a somewhat gloomy outlook toward the long-term prospects for “technologies of freedom” relative to “technologies of control.” But I think it’s vital to put things in some historical context in this regard. It’s important to recall that, as a communications medium, the Net is still quite young. So, is the Net really more susceptible to State control and manipulation than previous communications technologies and platforms? I’m not so sure, although it’s hard to find a metric to compare them in an analytically rigorous fashion. It’s certainly true that the State has access to more data about its citizens than in the past, but it’s also true that we have more information about the State than ever before, too! And, again, we also have access to more of those technologies of freedom than ever before to at least try to fight back. Compare, for example, the plight of a dissident in a Cold War-era Eastern Bloc communist state to a dissident in China or Iran today. Which one had a better chance of getting their words (or audio and video) out to the local or global community?  And what do the recent Wikileaks episodes teach us in this regard?

Despite those small quibbles, Access Controlled is an indispensable resource that belongs on the bookshelf of anyone who covers information technology policy and wants to better understand global Internet regulation.  Very highly recommended.  My complete review of the book is here.

(#9) Richard A. Clarke and Robert K. KnakeCyber War: The Next Threat to National Security and What to Do About It

Clarke and Knake’s book is important if for no other reason than, as they note, “there are few books on cyber war.” Thus, their treatment of the issue will likely remain the most relevant text in the field for some time to come. They define cyber war as “actions by a nation-state to penetrate another nation’s computers or networks for the purposes of causing damage or disruption” and they argue that such actions are on the rise. And they also claim that the U.S. has the most to lose if and when a major cyber war breaks out, since we are now so utterly dependent upon digital technologies and networks.

At their best, Clarke and Knake walk the reader through the mechanics of cyber war, who some of the key players and countries are who could engage in it, and identify what the costs of such of war would entail. Other times, however, the book suffers from a somewhat hysterical tone, as the authors are out here not just to describe cyber war, but to also issue a clarion call for regulatory action to combat it. A bigger problem with the book is the complete lack of reference material, footnotes, or even an index. If you’re going to go around sounding like a couple of cyber-Jeremiahs, you really should include some reference material to back up your gloomy assertions of impending doom.

The authors go after ISPs and many other companies for supposedly not caring about cyber-security. In reality, those companies have powerful incentives to make sure their networks are relatively safe and secure to avoid costly attacks and retain customers who demand their online information and activities be trouble-free. And most ISPs take steps not just to guard against malware and other types of cyber attacks, but they also offer customers free (or cheap) security software as part of a growing suite of gratis services (anti-virus, parental controls, e-mail, etc).

Clarke and Knake would like to see government impose a fairly sweeping set of new rules on ISPs to better secure their networks against potential attacks. In true deputize-the-middleman fashion, they want ISPs to engage in a great deal more network monitoring (using deep-packet inspection techniques) under threat of legal sanction if things go wrong. They admit there are corresponding costs and privacy concerns, but largely dismiss them and essentially ask us to just get over those concerns in the name of a safer and more secure cyberspace. They do, however, say they would be willing to have a “Privacy and Civil Liberties Board” appointed “to ensure that neither the ISPs nor the government was illegal spying on us.” I doubt that will soothe the fears of those who (like me) are fundamentally suspicious of government snooping.

Overall, Clarke and Knake have written a book that is worth reading, but suffers from hyperbolic rhetoric and a serious lack of documentation. Readers should also seek out other perspectives on cyber-security issues, which take a more reasoned approach to the issue.   Read my longer review of Cyber War here.

(#10) Adrian JohnsPiracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates

I can’t remember the last time I read a book that qualified as a “magisterial treatment” of an issue (I suppose it would be Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change), but Johns’ book on piracy certainly qualifies as one.  As the subtitle makes clear, it’s a sweeping 400+ year history of the intellectual property wars.

This mammoth tome was a real struggle to finish since Johns leaves no stone unturned in his exhaustive overview of the history of intellectual property and piracy.  I read it over the course of 6 months because it felt like I was running a marathon to get through each chapter. I needed a big break between each one.  So, pick it up and get ready to pace yourself for the long slog through this important book.  And don’t jump ahead!   Some of the most interesting stories are from the early battles about the very concept of copyright and intellectual property.  I particularly enjoyed the chapter on the early American experience, which began with widespread piracy of English works as a method of undermining the tyranny of the Crown. (Reminded me of how we still screw Cuba by denying trademarks in their cigars just to stick it to Castro).

Johns offers a fairly objective narrative throughout the first 500 pages, but toward the end his own views start to emerge:

“[Enforcement] issues, it seems, have dogged intellectual property policing throughout its history, because of he nature of the enterprise.  They continue to do so today in new forms and media.  Large-scale, intensive, and internationally coordinated antipirate enforcement is sometimes justifies–the effort against counterfeit medicines is a relatively clear example–but in other cases the public good is not so evident.” (p. 507-508)

He goes on to suggest that IP may need to be rethought given new realities. “Intellectual property being a relatively recent concept, it ought to be possible to conceive of an alternative to it that suited the twenty-first century rather than the nineteenth,” he argues.  (p. 515)  Yet, the only alternatives he suggest — prizes, subsidies, compulsory licenses — are decidedly nineteenth century in nature.  That leaves him with few other options other than to suggest that the entire concept of IP should potentially be rethought, or that it may perhaps be fading anyhow in light of recent development in the information age, anyway.  IP defenders, however, should not let that discourage them from reading this book. It’s an insightful, interesting, one-of-a-kind history of this contentious subject.

(Listen to Jerry Brito’s “Surprising Free” podcast discussion with Adrian Johns here.)


Honorable Mentions:

* Rob FriedenWinning the Silicon Sweepstakes: Can the United States Compete in Global Telecommunications?

Frieden’s book argues America has lost its edge in the global telecommunications and broadband race and that government must intervene to set us back on the right course.  What’s the proper course?  He suggest it’s the forced access infrastructural-sharing regime for communications and broadband networks that existed for several years following the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.  (UNE-P, TELRIC, line-sharing, etc) That regime was largely abandoned, however, after it became evident to most market analysts and economists that, despite the best of intentions, infrastructure-sharing did little to promote investment and innovation.

Frieden suggests all that legal and economic thinking was flawed and that we should go ‘back to the future’ with telecom / broadband policy.  I’m not buying it for one minute, but if you’re looking for a blueprint for resurrecting yesterday’s regulatory regime, this book is it.

Here’s a conversation Jerry Brito had with Rob Frieden on his podcast back in March.

* Daniel Lathrop and Laurel Ruma (eds.) – Open Government: Collaboration, Transparency, and Participation in Practice

Open Government is a terrific collection of 34 essays covering the full gamut of transparency and “Government 2.0″ issues.  The collection was published by O’Reilly Media and Tim O’Reilly himself has one of the best chapters in the book on “Government as a Platform.” “The magic of open data is that the same openness that enables transparency also enables innovation, as developers build applications that reuse government data in unexpected ways.” (p. 25) This explains why in their chapter on “Enabling Innovation for Civic Engagement,” David G. Robinson, Harlan Yu, and Edward W. Felten, of the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University, speak of “a new baseline assumption about the public response to government data: when government puts data online, someone, somewhere will do something valuable and innovative with it.” (p.84) “By publishing its data in a form that is free, open, and reusable,” they continue, “government will empower citizens to dream up and implement their own innovative ideas of how to best connect with their governments.” (p. 89)  The book also includes a terrific chapters by my TLF colleagues Jim Harper and Jerry Brito.  This is an indispensable resource for your bookshelf. Pick it up.

*William Powers – Hamlet’s BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age

Powers is a gifted storyteller and his walk though the history of philosophy and technology makes this slender volume an enjoyable, quick read. He begins by reminding us that “whenever new devices have emerged, they’ve presented the kinds of challenges we face today — busyness, information overload, that sense of life being out of control. These challenges were as real two millennia ago as they are today, and throughout history, people have been grappling with them and looking for creative ways to manage life in the crowd.”

His key insight is that is that humans can adapt new technology, but it takes time, patience, humility, and a little effort. “The key is to strike a balance,” he says, between “the call of the crowd” and the “need for time and space apart” from it. The problem we face today is that all the pressure is on us to be what he calls “Digital Maximalists.” That is, many of us are increasingly out to maximize the time spent in front of various digital “screens” whether we have made the determination that is really in our best interest or not. It has just gradually happened, Powers argues, because “The goal is no longer to be ‘in touch’ but to erase the possibility of ever being out of touch.”

Even though Powers clearly leans more toward the techno-pessimist camp, what I like best about his book is that he generally avoids a preachy tone and excessive hand-wringing. He isn’t one of those pessimists who adopts a holy-than-thou, the-rest-of-you-just-don’t-get-it attitude. In fact, there’s a great deal of self-deprecating humor in the book as Powers explains how he is struggling with the same issues the rest of us are and trying to figure out how to strike the right balance in his own life. Importantly, he notes that each of us will strike that balance differently. “[E]veryone has to work that out for himself. We’re all different, and there’s no one-size-fits-all way to balance the outward life and the inward one.” That is a crucial insight. There’s nothing worse than a techno-skeptic who tells us they have discovered the one true path to enlightenment or happiness — especially when it entails giving up new technologies that can have so many beneficial upsides. Indeed, Powers argues that “It’s never a good idea to buy into the dark fears of the techno-Cassandras, who generally turn out to be wrong. Human beings are skillful at figuring out the best uses of new tools. However, it can take awhile.”

Indeed, the struggle with information clutter will continue. Assimilating new communications and entertainment technologies into our lives has always been challenging, but, thanks to excellent advice like that offer by William Powers in Hamlet’s BlackBerry, I am optimistic that we humans can do so sensibly and be happier — and wiser — for it in the long-run.

Here’s my complete review of Hamlet’s Blackberry and make sure to listen to Jerry Brito’s discussion with Powers here.

* Robert W. McChesney & John Nichols – The Death and Life of American Journalism

If my list was of the most important media policy books of the year, McChesney and Nichols’ book would be a shoo-in for the top spot. It’s easily the most significant text on media policy in the past few years.  It’s also the most horrifying.  In their world of “post-corporate” newsrooms, the State serves as the primary benefactor of the Fourth Estate.  Billions would flow from bureaucracies to media entities and individual journalists in the name of sustaining a “free press.” And this new media welfare state is funded by steep taxes on our mobile phones, broadband connections, and digital gadgets. McChesney and Nichols model their $35 billion annual “public works” program for the press after the Works Progress Administration of the New Deal era. Their media WPA would include a “News AmeriCorps” for out-of-work journalists, a “Citizenship News Voucher” to funnel taxpayer support to struggling media entities, a significant expansion of postal subsidies, a massive new subsidy for journalism schools, corporate welfare for newspapers sufficient to pay 50 percent of the salaries of all “journalistic employees,” and more. It’s a veritable industrial policy for the press that resembles a Soviet-style five-year plan.

Who pays the bill and how much will the takeover cost? McChesney and Nichols take a remarkably cavalier attitude about it: “The money must be spent and we will worry about where it comes from later.” Such “we’re-all-dead-in-the-long-run” reasoning seems to be the dominant philosophy in Washington policy circles these days. But the estimated $35 billion annual price tag for a “public works” program for the press should give us pause. Moreover, like every other corporate-welfare program (think agriculture subsidies), a journalistic welfare state would no doubt grow in scope and cost over time.

McChesney and Nichols suggest several potential funding sources for the program, many of which would end up burdening commercial media providers in order to subsidize their noncommercial/public media competitors. They advocate a four-part tax plan that would include: a 5 percent tax on new purchases of consumer electronics, which they estimate would bring in $4 billion a year; a 3 percent tax on monthly ISP & mobile-service bills (estimated at $6 billion a year); a 2 percent sales tax on advertising (estimated at $5 to $6 billion a year); and a 7 percent tax on broadcasters’ spectrum licenses (estimated to sap another $3-6 billion a year from an already reeling industry). In other words, they would tax every device and network in your house to transfer money to the federal government to set up a journalistic welfare state.

What McChesney and Nichols essentially advocate is a radical form of media redistributionism — with struggling private entities and others forced to the fund public or non-commercial media outlets they desire. That is, what they seek is not so much a bailout for the familiar private media that has served America so well for two centuries, but rather a massive wealth transfer from one class of media to another, with the stipulation — which they repeat numerous times in the book — that state-subsidized entities are to forgo private advertising revenues, copyright protection, and any affiliation with corporate parents. These restrictions are an essential part of their push for a “post-corporate,” government-controlled press. Indeed, it would virtually make such a press a self-fulfilling prophecy, since copyright laws and advertising have been core ingredients of a successful private media system in the U.S. They’re also why we haven’t had to resort to massive public subsidies for media, as many other nations have.

The Death and Life of American Journalism is a troubling book, but I will give it this: For those of us who still care about our fundamental First Amendment freedoms and a truly free and independent press, McChesney & Nichols’ book clearly draws the battle lines for the future of media and provides a fresh reminder about what it is we’re fighting for.

My longer review of this troubling book can be found here.



Couple of others…

  • Nick Bilton –  I Live in the Future & Here’s How It Works. I didn’t have a chance to formally review Bilton’s interesting book, but make sure to listen to Bilton’s appearance on the “Surprisingly Free” podcast here.
  • Lee BollingerUninhibited, Robust, and Wide-open: A Free Press for a New Century I had a very hard time taking this book seriously since Bollinger proposes the creation of a massive U.S. propaganda machine.  Bollinger doesn’t just want our government to help out a bit at the margins like it currently does; he wants the State to get under the covers, cuddle tight and become intimate lovers with the Press.  And then he wants the Big Press to project itself more, especially overseas, to compete with other State-owned or subsidized media enterprises.  It’s almost as disturbing as the McChesney and Nichols book referenced above.  Read my short review of Bollinger’s book here.

Let me know what I’ve missed and tell me what you think is the most important info-tech book of 2010!

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