Attempting the Impossible: A Thoughtful Meditation on Technology

Attempting the Impossible: A Thoughtful Meditation on Technology

A review in the New York Times Book Review of Bitwise: A Life in Code by David Auerbach

What began as a vague apprehension — unease over the amount of time we spend on our devices, a sense that our children are growing up distracted — has, since the presidential election of 2016, transformed into something like outright panic. Pundits and politicians debate the perils of social media; technology is vilified as an instigator of our social ills, rather than a symptom. Something about our digital life seems to inspire extremes: all that early enthusiasm, the utopian fervor over the internet, now collapsed into fear and recriminations.

“Bitwise: A Life in Code,” David Auerbach’s thoughtful meditation on technology and its place in society, is a welcome effort to reclaim the middle ground. Auerbach, a former professional programmer, now a journalist and writer, is “cautiously positive toward technology.” He recognizes the very real damage it is causing to our political, cultural and emotional lives. But he also loves computers and data, and is adept at conveying the awe that technology can summon, the bracing sense of discovery that Arthur C. Clarke memorably compared to touching magic. “Much joy and satisfaction can be found in chasing after the secrets and puzzles of the world,” Auerbach writes. “I felt that joy first with computers.”

The book is a hybrid of memoir, technical primer and social history. It is perhaps best characterized as a survey not just of technology, but of our recent relationship to technology. Auerbach is in a good position to conduct this survey. He has spent much of his life on the front lines, playing around as a kid with Turtle graphics, working on Microsoft’s Messenger Service after college, and then reveling in Google’s oceans of data. (Among his lasting contributions, for which he does not express adequate contrition, is being the first, while at Microsoft, to introduce smiley face emoticons to America.) He writes well about databases and servers, but what’s really distinctive about this book is his ability to dissect Joyce and Wittgenstein as easily as C++ code. One of Auerbach’s stated goals is to break down barriers, or at least initiate a conversation, between technology and the humanities, two often irreconcilable domains. He suggests that we need to be bitwise (i.e., understand the world through the lens of computers) as well as worldwise. We must “be able to translate our ideas between the two realms.”

Auerbach’s polymathishness is impressive; it can also be overwhelming. This is not a book that wears its knowledge lightly, and the trail is sometimes meandering, littered with digressive pathways and citations. It’s hard to pin down a clear line of argument. Still, this doesn’t really detract from the overall pleasure of reading. “Bitwise” is best approached as a series of essays and snippets. This is one of those books you dip in and out of, surrendering to what the American travel writer Gretel Ehrlich — in a very different context — has called “ambulation of the mind.”

It’s sometimes hard to remember this, but the internet is young — a mere three decades or so have passed since its mass adoption. Our relationship to technology is still evolving, characterized by inevitable spats and rapprochements. Yet throughout these cycles, we are increasingly intimate, ever more intertwined and interdependent. The danger is that this relationship will, like so much else in our public lives, be captured by extremism: that we will be forced to choose camps, that we will divide ourselves into mutually antagonistic factions of technology lovers and technology haters. We need guides on this journey — judicious, balanced and knowledgeable commentators, like Auerbach.

Akash Kapur is the author of “India Becoming: A Portrait of Life in Modern India.”

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