The Hype Machine by Sinan Aral

The Hype Machine is a book about social media—about its power and influence, and about what might need to be done to lessen its negative effects. Sinan Aral defines ‘the Hype Machine’ as the digital social media technologies that have particularly taken off over the last decade or two and considers how they do what they do, helping us to interact, engage, live our lives, and do a whole load more, but also how they impact our decisions, elections, and lives. Aral then goes on to lay out proposals for what could be done to regulate these technologies in ways which might have concrete impact.

As someone who reads a fair few books about popular technology and social media, what made The Hype Machine distinctive (other than the insistence on calling social media ‘the Hype Machine’ throughout the book) was the amount of research cited and used throughout. Whether done by Aral and his team or by others, the book provides a lot of references to research and studies on the actual impact of social media and how it works in different ways, from our brains to network effects. This makes it a good choice if you’re looking for a book on these technologies which balances accessibility with linking to academic studies. It is also notably up to date, with a prologue specifically discussing COVID-19 and references throughout to social media in 2020, which in some ways can blur the lines in debates around privacy and digital technologies through pandemic measures and tech companies’ involvement in these.

This is also a useful look at the two directions social media is being pulled in: towards greater openness, but also greater privacy and security. Aral outlines some of the issues and debates around these, making it a useful introduction for people new to some of these ideas, as well as proposing ways of managing the two areas. The later part of the book focuses on the future and on what should be done in terms of regulation and people’s behaviour, which is useful for starting discussion though (probably naturally) I had some questions about some parts (and as the focus of the book is on the US, the regulation was mostly focused on there).

The Hype Machine is a handy book for my work personally, and an interesting read for anyone who wants to think about how social media works and the effects it has been having over recent years. For my tastes, it lets the tech companies off a bit too much and occasionally falls into thinking that technology can always solve technology’s problems, but Aral often gives multiple sides to a debate and makes it obvious that things often aren’t clear cut.

The System / The Tangled Web We Weave by James Ball

This book, published as The Tangled Web We Weave in the US and The System in the UK, is a look at the internet and how it works, from its inception and the physical infrastructure that makes it work to the companies and money that control many of the platforms and interactions we have with the web. Ball outlines how the internet is a result of decisions, market forces, and government actions, and concludes by looking at the action that can be taken to try and change it to ensure it works for the vast majority, not the few who control it.

Ball provides a useful summary, in different chapters, of different areas of the system that is the internet, starting with its origins and then looking at the physical cables and service providers, then at the tech industry and possibilities of government and other surveillance. The book is designed for complete beginners to reading about these areas, trying to avoid using jargon that isn’t explained and not going into technical depth. This makes it particularly useful for people either looking at the internet from more of a social science viewpoint but wanting to know how it works, or for people who want to know more of the history and issues surrounding the internet and how it is controlled.

A useful starting point or general overview for anyone interested in the internet and how it works and is used, this book is an accessible option hopefully likely to inspire further reading or action, particularly as Ball concludes with a call for change, for fighting for tech companies actually paying the taxes they should and not being allowed to use unfair labour conditions as well as for better treatment of people’s data. What probably is needed next is more accessible information on how this might happen, but it is important that books like this, aimed at people not necessarily up to date on these tech issues, are published.