Books That Have Inspired Me
This blog describes my own privacy journey as a non-technical person. I've been describing specific steps I have taken and tools I have tried to use in order to take back some level of control over my own data and online behaviour.
But the decision to go that route is not without context. Below is a description of some of the books that have helped put a privacy mindset into me.
1984 - George Orwell - 1949
I read Orwell's novel when I was 17 for a school exam. It was tough to get through some parts, but there are scenes in that book that feel as fresh when I remember them today as they were when I read them. One example is when Winston describes having sex with an old, toothless prostitute in the dark. He feels aversion, but goes through with it, a blind act of rebellion against the party. However, it's the ending of the novel that really got to me. I had read tragedies before, but never a tragedy so complete as this. The idea that one's private, most intimate thoughts and feelings could be manipulated by the state was made terrifyingly real by Orwell's ending.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance - Robert M. Pirsig - 1974
I read this book in my early twenties. You could call it a novel - it has a protagonist, and a story about a road trip. But it really is a book about ideas. I refer to this in my post about managing your own disk drives. As someone who has always preferred reading books and writing in journals over, for example, taking a radio apart to see how it works, I found this book's messages about technical-mindedness and the idea of Quality inspiring. Pirsig argues that there are two perspectives human beings have when they interact with the physical world. One type of human sees closed systems that can be bought and used but need experts to fix. The other sees physical objects as specific instances of a general blueprint, a concept. I started my privacy journey many years after reading this book, but the Pirsig's message that it is always better to see the objects we interact with as just being specific versions of a blueprint helped remove fear of trying out new software, or 'breaking' my devices.
The Origin of the Species - Charles Darwin - 1859
I came from a deeply religious background and naturally transitioned to a secular, scientific world-view. Personal shifts in perspective can take a long time. The idea of 'onboarding' is big in privacy discussions, but there isn't as much attention paid to how long it takes for an idea to germinate and develop to the point where someone might want to learn more and take action. What I learned from reading The Origin of the Species is how compelling it is when someone starts with the seed of a true idea and follows it through to its logical conclusions. The idea in Darwin's book is that death is key to improvement of life in the universe. The death of generations allows for mutations to develop blindly over time into success stories of survival, simply because there are so many individuals in every generation.
The true idea that kicked off my privacy journey is that companies and their products should have limited power over me. Companies are not people and therefore cannot be confronted in the same way. Individuals who are not in positions of power cannot do much against the direction companies are taking the world in, which, in our case, is a watering down of privacy. What we can do decide what to opt into and opt out of, educate ourselves, resist and push back against normalisation of bad ideas, and create communities and share our experiences.
Understanding the Digital World - Brian W. Kernighan - 2017
I picked up this book because I liked the look and the feel of the cover. I was becoming interested in computers and digital privacy, and found myself drawn to hitherto undiscovered sections in book store: computers and economics. Kernighan is a professor in the Computer Science Department at Princeton University. He clearly explains how computers and the Internet work to a layperson. His book gave me the background knowledge that I needed to help me better understand what the privacy tools I was adopting were doing. He also showed me that it is possible to break big ideas into smaller, more manageable parts, which inspired this blog.
Digital Minimalism - Cal Newport - 2019
I discovered Cal Newport when he was interviewed by Sam Harris on his Making Sense podcast. In that conversation, Newport explained how the constant stream of digital communication we are expected to be hooked into at work is counterproductive to getting things done well, as that requires focused attention. What I found interesting about Newport is that he is a computer scientist writing about the impact of social media from the perspective of an outsider; he has had very little authentic experience on these platforms. His conclusions in the book are surprising, and he exposes some of the more pernicious, behind-the-scenes decisions that led to 'attention engineering'.
The Markdown Guide - Matt Cone - 2020
Matt Cone's short guide for writing with Markdown is an example of the great content I began discovering after I started becoming interested in digital privacy. I had decided to write this blog using Herman's Bear Blog platform, and so I had to learn how to format my writing using Markdown. I am impressed by the clarity of this guide, the light-hearted tone and the generosity to put great educational content out for free. Another example of such a free educational text is Mastering Monero by Serhack. What would we do without these generous teachers?
The books we read shape our minds. Good books can helps us develop better minds. Good writers model how logical ideas can stand up to scrutiny; it often takes a whole book to do this well. We get to use a lot of wonderful technology today, but I still believe the brain-to-brain technology of the written word is the most powerful we've ever had. I want to encourage everyone to take time to read good books.
Robert Pirsig Association webpage
Brian Kernighan's website
Cal Newport on 'Making Sense' with Sam Harris
The Markdown Guide, free webversion (via Github) and $5 PDF book version
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