Stross imaginatively takes present day technology and brings it to its natural manifestation in the near-future world of the book. Behavioral targetinStross imaginatively takes present day technology and brings it to its natural manifestation in the near-future world of the book. Behavioral targeting, maker-culture, big data analysis, ubiquitous wifi and its effects on privacy, mechanical turk crowd-sourced police work. All of it's totally plausible, and all of it feels insidiously close. Circumstances that make for exciting crime narrative end up giving present-day readers pause; Stross is dealing in socio-technical implications of these technologies.
Stross also manages to draw out these implications by inflicting these technologies on the common man. His police detective isn't an early-adopter, tech-savvy gadget freak; she's using the tools that have made their way into her chosen line of work. Watching the effects of technology on the common man gives weight to his extrapolations.
He also successfully plays with the failure of over-hyped technologies - AI, the persistence of spam, video conferencing, etc.: "Working teleconferencing is right around the corner, just like food pills, the flying car, and energy too cheap to meter."
At first I struggled with the second person narrative voice. It felt gimmicky, and weirdly hovered between feeling privvy to first person internal monologue and omniscient narrator hopping between characters' consciouses across chapters. But Stross's experimental voice reveals its purpose with hints of agency and ownership in passages like this:
(If you're one of the piece-workers in a mechanical turk--or one of the rewrite rules inside Searle's Chinese room--the overall pattern of the job may be indiscernible, lost in an opaque blur of seemingly random subtasks. And if you're one of the detectives on a murder case, your immediate job--determining who last repaired a defective vacuum cleaner--may seem equally inexplicable. But there's method in my motion, as you'll learn for yourself.)
The effect was strangely satisfying, once it's purpose is revealed (but I won't go so far is to give that away).
I walked away from this book with a sense of reinforcement that I'm asking the right questions of technology and data and their impacts on society. Stross makes vivid some of the worst-case scenario uses of contemporary tech, and while somewhat alarmist, it's helpful to work through these near-future extrapolations to get on the right side of things today.
I wanted to like this more, but I found I kept coming up short. As the NYTimes review aptly puts it, this is not a history of private life, but ratherI wanted to like this more, but I found I kept coming up short. As the NYTimes review aptly puts it, this is not a history of private life, but rather of modern life.
It often reads more like a highlighted dictionary of historical word usage and evolutions of meanings (by way of their usage in the home) than it did a history. I suppose this should come as no surprise, given the author's predilection for titling his other books outright as "dictionaries." It seems the OED and the Dictionary of National Biography were key sources for Bryson. Those, alongside Pepys' dear diary, it seemed we were getting an expanded, if loosely organized, essay on Bryson's highlighted readings of these sources.
The biggest problem is with the framing and lens of the story itself: Bryson's former parish house. Its history provided a convenient cap, giving Bryson permission to avoid expansive historical research beyond the nineteenth century. It also enabled a Euro-centric, if not entirely Anglo-centric focus. While limiting in some ways, the house was often so loosely used it felt ignored. So much so that even Bryson has to remind himself what he's doing: “We might pause here for a moment to consider where we are and why.” Chapters like the one on the study became increasingly frustrating; instead of presenting a history of the place of business in the home, it actually turned out to be wholly concerned with the grimy details of the vermin that we used to, and in some cases, still live with, all loosely based on the premise that the study is where Bryson most often catches mice... And sentences like this are hardly an apology for bad organization and editing: "If you have wondered in recent pages what the abundant wealth of Americans in the Gilded Age has to do with a downstairs corridor in an English house, the answer is: more than you might think."
More egregious were the numerous statements of how much Bryson (by way of his filtered expert research) doesn't know: "That can't have been the case surely, but what really happened we will never know." Even if thoroughly true, these admissions were exasperating to read, especially when presented in such a nonchalant, shrug-of-the-shoulders kind of way.
Despite it's shortcomings, I plowed through hoping for some redeeming morsels. I enjoyed the attention paid to the distasteful and dangerous ingredients adulterers used to add to food to stretch their profit margins - sounds a lot like modern day China! Details like this gave a sense of just how bad living was then, with the reminder that things do get better - perhaps shenanigans like these are just part the growing phase becoming a developed (ie comfortable) society? And yet, has the world not learned from past mistakes already made? I found myself making these of connections while reading, wishing Bryson was doing a little more himself to make the past present, if only in contrast, in a more thoughtful way.
Perhaps it's worth giving other Bryson books a chance? This was my first of his. Or maybe I was reading the wrong book. Maybe I was really looking for Rybczynski's Home: A Short History of an Idea instead. We'll have to see… ...more