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Interesting Look at the Increasingly Interconnected World
on April 10, 2011
We live in an increasingly interconnected world. To some extent this observation has been true for the past few centuries, as the incredible rise of transportation networks dramatically reshaped our sense of locality, distance, and connectedness. However, the rise of the Internet has given a new, and many would argue, exponential impetus to the connectivity that is all around us. There is no shortage of books and articles that are giddy with excitement about this, and I myself am a big fan of this trend. Thanks to Internet I've been able to connect and re-connect with countless friends around the globe, and the opportunity for entertainment, information and communication on the Internet seem to be boundless. Finally, the rise of smartphones has ensured that many of us are constantly connected no matter where we are. Nonetheless, this "overconnected" life that we lead leaves many people feeling uneasy, or even worried about what this all means for the way that we live, work, and interconnect with each other. In the overconnected world it is increasingly hard to keep all our roles separate from each other. It has become important to step back and reconsider all the implications of the growth of connectivity, and William Davidow's book "Overconnected" aims to do exactly that. It is written as a cautionary tale about many disasters that have been fueled by the overly connected information world that we live in.
The book is very well written and is accessible and thought provoking. The impetus for its conception seems to have been the bursting of the housing bubble in 2008 and the consequent financial and economic crash. Since 2008 gallons of ink have been spilt on "explaining" what really caused this crash, and Davidow comes with his own explanation. In his view the financial crisis, even though in some sense inevitable, was greatly facilitated by the unprecedented level of informational connectivity. As soon as the news of the instability of few financial institutions was perceived, the entire financial system became greatly unbalanced. According to Davidow, without Internet the scale of the crisis would not have been this large.
It is hard to ascertain how plausible this explanation is. The book is in general very thin on stating the connection between various crises and developments on the one hand, and the role that the increasing connectivity had played. The arguments are very hand-wavy for my taste, and Davidow himself admits on several occasions that he either doesn't have all the required facts, or is not familiar with all the intricacies of particular situations. The default paradigm that is used throughout the book is that of feedback control, but even here I am not sure where does the connectivity come in the play. For me the most unpersuasive claim in the entire book was that the stock market crash that caused the Great Depression would have been even worse had the Internet (or its equivalent) existed back then. The facts seem to be pointing in the opposite direction: the 2008 economic crisis, despite all its dire effects, is much more benign than the Great Depression.
The strong points of the book are the writing style and the historical background for many case studies that are used. Davidow is a skilled and imaginative writer, and the book is a pleasure to read. I've learned many interesting new facts about the rise of Chicago, Pittsburgh, Silicon Valley, and the unfortunate and very bizarre economic growth and decline that Iceland has undergone over particularly short time. I was always curious about what made this tiny island nation an epicenter of financial turmoil in 2008, and this book has largely answered most of my questions.
My ratings for this book are as follows:
Clarity and style: 5 stars
Content: 5 stars
Persuasiveness of arguments: 3 stars
Overall rating: 4.33 stars