Is our technology a reflection of our humanity -- or has it become the other way around? These half-dozen titles from 2011 explored the connection between who we are, and what we’ve built.
“Steve Jobs” By Walter Isaacson (Simon & Schuster, 630 pages, $35) Walter Isaacson’s warts-and-all portrait of Apple’s auteur manages the difficult feat of capturing Jobs’s particular genius without succumbing to his fabled “reality distortion field.” Reserve special pity for the succession of poor saps tasked at various times with managing the unmanageable enfant terrible.
“Ghost in the Wires” By Kevin Mitnick with William L. Simon (Little, Brown, 413 pages, $25.99) Accurately subtitled “My Adventures as the World’s Most Wanted Hacker,” this memoir tracks his exploits in cracking supposedly secure systems at corporations, government agencies and educational institutions. Even greater than his technical skills, it turns out, was his ability to manipulate people, particularly the drones and bureaucrats who unwittingly held the door open for his invasions.
“Idea Man” By Paul Allen (Portfolio/Penguin, 358 pages, $27.95) Microsoft’s co-founder serves up less-than-flattering portraits not only of Bill Gates but also, perhaps inadvertently, of himself. In the most memorable scene, Gates schemes to dilute his partner’s Microsoft holdings even as Allen is battling cancer. It’s also one of the few times Allen sheds his passive-aggressive persona enough to stand up for himself.
“Worm: The First Digital World War” By Mark Bowden (Atlantic Monthly Press, 245 pages, $25) The author of “Black Hawk Down” tells the story of a sort of Justice League of Nerds assembled on the fly to battle the enormous, potentially devastating Conficker computer worm. As a narrative, “Worm” suffers from the fact that, like the Y2K changeover a decade ago, Conficker has so far turned out to be a non-event. As a cautionary tale, though, it’s distinctly unnerving in its implications.
“I’m Feeling Lucky: The Confessions of Google Employee Number 59” By Douglas Edwards (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 416 pages, $27) Looking for a little technology startup where he can pad his resume and grab some free sushi, a newspaper marketing man finds himself in charge of brand management at a fledgling search engine. It’s 1999, and he embarks on a Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride through Silicon Valley and beyond. The ride and the book are at their best in the early days; both become less fun as Google grows from scrappy if arrogant underdog to digital colossus.
“Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less From Each Other” By Sherry Turkle (Basic, 360 pages, $28.95) Having sex with robots may not turn out to be such a good idea, MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle suggests in this disconcerting look at humans’ continuing efforts to draw comfort and solace from inanimate objects. She sees us approaching what she calls “the robotic moment,” when we’re ready to accept interactions with our technology as equal, and in some ways superior, to our often-messy interactions with each other. You may never view your iPad the same way again.