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Blown to bits: your life, liberty, and happiness after the digital explosion (2nd ed.)
Abelson H., Ledeen K., Lewis H., Seltzer W., Pearson, Boston, MA, 2020. 336 pp.  Type: Book (978-1-348500-17-9)
Date Reviewed: Jun 9 2021

Technology has generated cultural anxiety throughout history [1]. Digital technologies are no exception. Digitalization anxiety greatly relates to high levels of uncertainty regarding the implications brought by “the integration of [digital] technologies in all aspects of daily life, which inevitably changes the way information is presented and processed and thus how people communicate, work, and live” [2]. Inflating this anxiety is the feeling that digital technology is increasingly powerful and possibly uncontrollable.

Blown to bits aims to explain, in a nontechnical way, the actors and mechanisms that control the digital information environment. The book primarily focuses on issues related to information collection, governance, and dissemination. A very interesting though less elaborate addition to this second edition concerns analytics and the algorithms that are used for making decisions, relying on artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning technologies.

In more detail, the different chapters shed light on the complementary aspects of the information management territory, namely privacy, gatekeeping, security, ownership, broadcasting, freedom, and bias. Each chapter provides a nice history and technology primer on a certain topic, and describes how digital technologies affect the norms, practices, and laws of society. Furthermore, it discusses the economic and political forces that have shaped relevant legislation in the US.

In all cases, real-life stories are used to illustrate the human consequences. Although the authors claim in the introduction that “technology is neither good nor bad,” each chapter reads as a cautionary tale that mostly stresses the pitfalls rather than the opportunities created by technology. However, the aim is not to cause further anxiety, but rather to raise the level of understanding regarding the responsible use of digital technologies, as well as the need for regulating the use of technology without banning its creation.

Overall, Blown to bits is a highly approachable read that treats the challenges of digital information management not just from a technical standpoint, but also from a societal standpoint. It is mainly addressed to anyone affected by digital technologies (actually everyone) without supposing any prior knowledge.

The narrative is uneven at times, favoring either technical issues (for example, cryptography in chapter 3) or social issues (for example, juridical details of digital rights management in chapter 6). Readers with a strong social science background might find the former more informative, while readers with a technical background might have the opposite experience.

Reviewer:  Evangelia Kavakli Review #: CR147283
1) Mokyr, J.; Vickers, C.; Ziebarth, N. L. The history of technological anxiety and the future of economic growth: Is this time different?. Journal of Economic Perspectives 29, 3(2015), 31–50.
2) Pfaffinger, K. F.; Reif, J. A. M.; SpieƟ, E.; Berger, R. Anxiety in a digitalised work environment. Gr Interakt Org 51, (2020), 25–35.
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