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Strangers in a Strange Land

Edward W. Felten

BLOWN TO BITS: Your Life, Liberty, and Happiness after the Digital Explosion. Hal Abelson, Ken Ledeen and Harry Lewis. xviii + 366 pp. Addison-Wesley, 2008. $25.95.

The Internet and digital technology change everything, or so we have been told by a generation of pundits, entrepreneurs and authors. They’re wrong: Some things change, but many don’t. Put people in a new online environment, and what do they want to do? Mostly, they want to gossip, shop and chat with friends and family—the same things they want to do offline. Technology may change, but human nature is constant. As with a foreign country, the key to understanding the digital world is to recognize what changes when you cross the border, and what stays the same.

In Blown to Bits, Hal Abelson, Ken Ledeen and Harry Lewis offer a kind of travel guide to this new world. The book highlights what is unfamiliar about the territory, while reassuring readers that the comforts of home are still available. This certainly isn’t the first guidebook to the digital future—indeed, it’s not even the first one to be titled Blown to Bits—but it is one of the best.

The book opens, shrewdly, by telling the story of a woman named Tanya Rider. In September 2007, her car skidded into a ravine near Seattle and she was trapped for eight days in the wreckage, until the police used records of her mobile phone’s location to find and rescue her. Thanks to the digital signals regularly emitted by her phone and stored by the wireless network’s digital servers, she survived her ordeal. But why wasn’t she rescued sooner? There was initially some difficulty with classifying Rider as missing, so her privacy rights at first prevented the police from using her cell phone records to locate her. It was only their false suspicion that her husband had harmed her that eventually gave them the legal right to her records.

The same mobile-phone tracking technology that helped the police find Tanya Rider can be used to track all of us, every day. This possibility of mass tracking of individuals by the government or large companies opens a rich public policy debate, trading off the free flow of information against the risk of abuse. We’re happy that the police were able to save Rider, but if tracking becomes available to every government and company in the world, we can imagine what the worst of them might do. We need some kind of safeguard on the power to track people. But where will we draw the line, and how can we constrain governments accustomed to ignoring the rule of law? We are only starting to wrestle with these issues.

Subsequent chapters of the book introduce readers to different provinces of the digital world, each offering its own new capabilities and raising its own new conundrums. Our actions leave digital footprints, which can be accumulated and mined to predict our behavior; digital documents hide layers of meaning that can be unwrapped at inconvenient times; search engines make obscure digital data findable and deletions from the record infeasible; cryptography hides messages and activity from view; digital information can be easily redistributed without permission; and malicious digital speech can do great harm. The authors are reliable guides to each province, explaining its geography, telling instructive stories about its history and laying out the important decisions facing its citizens.

Perhaps the one place the authors slip up is in relying on slogans to introduce readers to the technologies themselves. The specific technical descriptions are good, but the initial introduction to digital technology, in the first chapter, is less than enlightening. The authors introduce seven “koans,” pithy slogans that are supposed to characterize the digital realm. This is an odd approach to explanation, given that in Zen Buddhism, koans are deliberately inscrutable, meant to distance the mind from purely rational thought. Sure enough, the book’s koans range from the useful (“more of the same can be a whole new thing”) to the questionable (“perfection is normal”) to the ambiguous (“there is want in the midst of plenty”). Get past the koans, though, and the technical descriptions in later chapters are informative and clear, as befits a book written by skillful and experienced teachers.

On the whole, Abelson, Ledeen and Lewis are reliable tour guides. No single book can fully explain a vast country and culture. Good travel books don’t try to tell you everything about the territory, but they do orient you, keep you safe, introduce you to the natives and offer you a lifetime of exploration. Newcomers to the digital world would be well advised to slip a copy of Blown to Bits into their backpack or download a copy onto their e-book reader.

They’d be well advised, too, to strike up conversations with the natives. Citizens of the digital world seem to be a chatty bunch, which is a good thing, as they have so much to talk about. It’s a happy coincidence that digital technologies, which raise so many policy debates, also provide the greatest forum for debate that was ever invented.

Edward W. Felten is professor of computer science and public affairs at Princeton University. He is also director of Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy.

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