The Bleeding Edge

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This is an entertaining book. Hughes has a genuinely pleasing turn of phrase, for example: “The data explosion — how the cloud became a juggernaut”.

The book makes many interesting comments about the history of computing both in terms of software and hardware. And undoubtedly Hughes is on the right side of history and wants to explode the idea that capitalism is the most technologically dynamic system possible. However, there’s a but coming, and it is rather a long one.

Hughes’s ambition in this book is, laudably, to show how inequality leads to a limiting of both technology and people, physically rather than psychologically. He does this in a wide ranging narrative, from Ancient Egypt to the Middle Ages to the present.

The main thrust is around the development of the modern computer; Hughes has spent most of his career working in that sphere.

However, there is a difficulty with the narrative. This is supposed to be an analytical text, veering towards a manifesto. But it’s too “stream of consciousness”, too romantic and too unstructured to support the thesis.

For instance, early in the book Hughes declares that more equitable societies produce a lower carbon footprint. Using statistics, developed by Danny Dorling, comparing Eco-credits to Gini coefficients, Hughes produces a table which does not appear to support his argument. Perhaps the data base in this case is too limited to reach safe conclusions, but it does leave the reader nervous about other facts in the book.

Then there’s the problem of how Hughes portrays equitability. He looks at enclaves in order to show that equality is possible and produces technological leaps.

Thus he talks about the early development of software among an egalitarian group of southern Californian phone hackers, or early computers in the Second World War where post office engineers collaborated with academics. But he does not acknowledge that war is inevitably thoroughly unequal or that those hippies were reliant on their privileged background.

Towards the end Hughes shows how, when workers are self-organised, there can be tremendous achievements.

In Allende’s Chile a nationwide system of low-tech computers and fax machines known as Cybersyn was designed “to help manage the economy in real time. The system helped to frustrate two waves of ‘capital strikes’.”

It has to be said that Hughes does have an understanding of the nature of capital: “Firms cannot hope just to make a living; they have to make a killing consistently or perish.”

Finally, despite its frustrations this is an enjoyable read, which may become popular, has some strong redeeming features and is worth reading.