Book Bits | 14 July 2018

Copycats and Contrarians: Why We Follow Others… and When We Don’t
By Michelle Baddeley
Summary via publisher (Yale University Press)
Rioting teenagers, tumbling stock markets, and the spread of religious terrorism appear to have little in common, but all are driven by the same basic instincts: the tendency to herd, follow, and imitate others. In today’s interconnected world, group choices all too often seem maladaptive. With unprecedented speed, information flashes across the globe and drives rapid shifts in group opinion. Adverse results can include speculative economic bubbles, irrational denigration of scientists and other experts, seismic political reversals, and more. Drawing on insights from across the social, behavioral, and natural sciences, Michelle Baddeley explores contexts in which behavior is driven by the herd. She analyzes the rational vs. nonrational and cognitive vs. emotional forces involved, and she investigates why herding only sometimes works out well.

Trade Battles: Activism and the Politicization of International Trade Policy
By Tamara Kay and R. L. Evans
Summary via publisher (Oxford University Press)
Trade was once an esoteric economic issue with little domestic policy resonance. Activists did not prioritize it, and grassroots political mobilization seemed unlikely to free trade advocates. The passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in the early 1990s was therefore expected to be a fait accompli. Yet, as Trade Battles shows, activists pushed back: they increased the public consciousness on trade, mobilized new constituencies against it, and demanded that the rules of the global economy protect the collective rights and common good of citizens. Activists also forged a sustained challenge to U.S. trade policies after NAFTA, setting the stage for future trade battles. Using data from extensive archival materials and over 215 interviews with Mexican, Canadian, and U.S. trade negotiators; labor and environmental activists; and government officials, Tamara Kay and R.L. Evans assess how activists politicized trade policy by leveraging broad divisions across state and non-state arenas.

Give People Money: How a Universal Basic Income Would End Poverty, Revolutionize Work, and Remake the World
By Annie Lowrey
Interview with author via Recode
Often lumped under the label of “universal basic income,” but not always universal in fact, these policies would give everyone (or everyone under a certain income level) enough money to stay above the poverty line, but not so much that they would be able to stop working. On the latest episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher, journalist Annie Lowrey explained why the tech sector has started talking about this seriously: “They’re terrified” of the future they might create.

Valley of Genius: The Uncensored History of Silicon Valley (As Told by the Hackers, Founders, and Freaks Who Made It Boom)
By Adam Fisher
Introduction to excerpt via Vanity Fair
In 1996, as the World Wide Web was taking off, Larry Page and Sergey Brin watched from the sidelines. Unlike the rest of Silicon Valley, they weren’t interested in using the Internet to buy and sell stuff, or to read and publish stories, or even to score Grateful Dead tickets. They wanted to use it, rather, to get their doctorates. The Web was the uncharted frontier of computer science, and Page and Brin were hardly interested at all in the Web’s content—what they wanted to understand was its shape.
As such, Google, in its capitalist incarnation, was kind of a mistake—an accidental by-product of graduate-student whimsy and curiosity and preposterous dreams. The company itself was almost literally founded at Burning Man, which is apt, because the true point of Google was always to get as far-out as possible: to build cars that drove themselves, an elevator that could reach into outer space, even someday (a day that seems to be approaching rather quickly) a true, general artificial intelligence.