THROWING ROCKS AT THE GOOGLE BUS

HOW GROWTH BECAME THE ENEMY OF PROSPERITY

A powerful exposé of an underdiscussed downside to the digital revolution.

Rushkoff (Theory and Digital Economics/CUNY, Queens; Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, 2013, etc.) looks behind marketing hype to examine the nexus of digital technology and the economy.

Taking issue with those who extol the virtues of the intermediary role of platforms like taxi-service replacement Uber or hotel alternative Airbnb, the author relentlessly peels back layers of confusion and obfuscation and reveals how these successful businesses have been brought into existence on the back of the government's original investment in the Internet. In Rushkoff's view, online businesses—whether the older, established ones like Amazon, Netflix, and Paypal or newer startups—are best seen as extensions of the advertising and marketing industries. He contends that it is the users of these companies that constitute their major “product,” and their “likes,” reposts, and “favorites” became vastly important (books and movie rentals are just means to the end). User preferences and data become grist for the mill of big data companies, who execute complex analytical work-ups for their customers. These digital platforms have consistently wreaked havoc across broad sectors of the market—one of the earliest and most obvious examples is what Amazon did to the book business. “Monopolistic commerce platforms are not true peer-to-peer systems,” writes the author, “and they are anything but freeing.” The results are often job loss, declining living standards, and depreciated assets. As Rushkoff shrewdly notes, “the job of the company is to extract value from local communities and pay it to investors. Its customer base, as well as its employee population, ultimately grows poorer.” The author then extrapolates further: “you can only extract value from a region or market segment for so long before it has nothing left to pay with.” Rushkoff hopes that the software creating the problems can also help organize a shift toward more equitable solutions.

A powerful exposé of an underdiscussed downside to the digital revolution.

Pub Date: March 1, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-61723-017-2

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Portfolio

Review Posted Online: Dec. 19, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2016

GOOD ECONOMICS FOR HARD TIMES

Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.

“Quality of life means more than just consumption”: Two MIT economists urge that a smarter, more politically aware economics be brought to bear on social issues.

It’s no secret, write Banerjee and Duflo (co-authors: Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way To Fight Global Poverty, 2011), that “we seem to have fallen on hard times.” Immigration, trade, inequality, and taxation problems present themselves daily, and they seem to be intractable. Economics can be put to use in figuring out these big-issue questions. Data can be adduced, for example, to answer the question of whether immigration tends to suppress wages. The answer: “There is no evidence low-skilled migration to rich countries drives wage and employment down for the natives.” In fact, it opens up opportunities for those natives by freeing them to look for better work. The problem becomes thornier when it comes to the matter of free trade; as the authors observe, “left-behind people live in left-behind places,” which explains why regional poverty descended on Appalachia when so many manufacturing jobs left for China in the age of globalism, leaving behind not just left-behind people but also people ripe for exploitation by nationalist politicians. The authors add, interestingly, that the same thing occurred in parts of Germany, Spain, and Norway that fell victim to the “China shock.” In what they call a “slightly technical aside,” they build a case for addressing trade issues not with trade wars but with consumption taxes: “It makes no sense to ask agricultural workers to lose their jobs just so steelworkers can keep theirs, which is what tariffs accomplish.” Policymakers might want to consider such counsel, especially when it is coupled with the observation that free trade benefits workers in poor countries but punishes workers in rich ones.

Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-61039-950-0

Page Count: 432

Publisher: PublicAffairs

Review Posted Online: Aug. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2019

WHY FISH DON'T EXIST

A STORY OF LOSS, LOVE, AND THE HIDDEN ORDER OF LIFE

A quirky wonder of a book.

A Peabody Award–winning NPR science reporter chronicles the life of a turn-of-the-century scientist and how her quest led to significant revelations about the meaning of order, chaos, and her own existence.

Miller began doing research on David Starr Jordan (1851-1931) to understand how he had managed to carry on after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed his work. A taxonomist who is credited with discovering “a full fifth of fish known to man in his day,” Jordan had amassed an unparalleled collection of ichthyological specimens. Gathering up all the fish he could save, Jordan sewed the nameplates that had been on the destroyed jars directly onto the fish. His perseverance intrigued the author, who also discusses the struggles she underwent after her affair with a woman ended a heterosexual relationship. Born into an upstate New York farm family, Jordan attended Cornell and then became an itinerant scholar and field researcher until he landed at Indiana University, where his first ichthyological collection was destroyed by lightning. In between this catastrophe and others involving family members’ deaths, he reconstructed his collection. Later, he was appointed as the founding president of Stanford, where he evolved into a Machiavellian figure who trampled on colleagues and sang the praises of eugenics. Miller concludes that Jordan displayed the characteristics of someone who relied on “positive illusions” to rebound from disaster and that his stand on eugenics came from a belief in “a divine hierarchy from bacteria to humans that point[ed]…toward better.” Considering recent research that negates biological hierarchies, the author then suggests that Jordan’s beloved taxonomic category—fish—does not exist. Part biography, part science report, and part meditation on how the chaos that caused Miller’s existential misery could also bring self-acceptance and a loving wife, this unique book is an ingenious celebration of diversity and the mysterious order that underlies all existence.

A quirky wonder of a book.

Pub Date: April 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5011-6027-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Jan. 1, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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