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Book Review: Blown to Bits

By Kat Tanaka Okopnik

BTB.RVW 20080831
%A   Hal Abelson, Ken Ledeen, Harry Lewis
%C   Boston, MA
%D   2008
%G   ISBN-10: 0-13-713559-9
%G   ISBN-13: 978-0-13-713559-2
%I   Pearson Education, Inc.
%O   http://bitsbook.com
%P   366 pages
%T   "Blown to Bits: your life, liberty, and happiness after the digital explosion"

I don't usually get this effusive about any book, but the authors of Blown to Bits have written a must-read handbook on the most important political questions we face regarding the present and future of technology. Whether you're already familiar with these issues because you're the go-to guy for all your less-techie friends, or you're the bewildered by technology sort, Abelson, Ledeen, and Lewis have laid out the background and the analysis with in-book citations as well as pointers to sources and references available on the World Wide Web.

In the preface it is noted, "The book emerged from a general education course we have taught at Harvard, but it is not a textbook." The course they refer to is "Quantitative Reasoning 48 . . . a course on information for non-technical, non-mathematically oriented students". Each chapter starts with a real news story that illustrates the topic, and then continues with discussion. It's all written in a very approachable, almost conversational style, with short, easy to digest sentences. They succeed where many others fail, being informative without being patronizing or pedantic.

Chapter 3, for example, is entitled "Ghosts in the Machine: Secrets and Surprises of Electronic Documents". In 35 pages, they explain preservation of information ("redacted" documents, change tracking, metadata), compression, file formats, secrecy, archives, and a sidebar on "Open Document, Open Source, and Free". Just that section alone is the subject of numerous other books, but Blown to Bits has another five chapters with just as much breadth of information. Chapter 4 covers search engines, Chapter 5 explains cryptography, Chapter 6 discusses copyright and peer-to-peer filesharing. Chapter 7 deals with computer crimes and censorship. Chapter 8 goes into traditional broadcast media and the (U.S.) Fedecral Communications Commission.

The majority of the book deals with the U.S. first, but these issues are transnational, and global impact is not neglected.

In keeping with the net-savvy approach and background of the authors, readers are encouraged to participate in ongoing discussion at the book's Web site (http://bitsbook.com).

Those of us living in democracies bear a responsibility to safeguard freedoms, and the foundation of the power to do so is knowledge. Grab a copy of Blown to Bits and get the insight and vocabulary to explain these important issues to others. Send a copy to your elected representatives - we need people in power who actually know how the Internet and other technologies work, and why it's important.

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Bio picture

Kat likes to tell people she's one of the youngest people to have learned to program using punchcards on a mainframe (back in '83); but the truth is that since then, despite many hours in front of various computer screens, she's a computer user rather than a computer programmer.

Her transition away from other OSes started with the design of a massively multilingual wedding invitation.

When away from the keyboard, her hands have been found wielding of knitting needles, various pens, henna, red-hot welding tools, upholsterer's shears, and a pneumatic scaler. More often these days, she's occupied with managing her latest project.

Copyright © 2008, Kat Tanaka Okopnik. Released under the Open Publication License unless otherwise noted in the body of the article. Linux Gazette is not produced, sponsored, or endorsed by its prior host, SSC, Inc.

Published in Issue 154 of Linux Gazette, September 2008