Review: Untangling the Web: What the internet is doing to you

Untangling the Web: What the internet is doing to you
Untangling the Web: What the internet is doing to you by Aleks Krotoski

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As a note of disclosure, Aleks is my friend and so my thoughts on the book will obviously have some bias in them. I’d like to say otherwise, but that simply wouldn’t be true. That said:

As a long-time technophile, I experienced two reactions while reading the book: I wasn’t surprised by the findings, but I found the book at its most compelling when Aleks explored the science behind what I “believed” I already knew. That’s a deft writing trick, writing for a general audience while introducing enough geeky science to keep me interested.

If I was describing its audience for this book, I’d say this was for people who were interested in the Web and concerned about what it was doing to us because of the fear, uncertainty, and doubt that appears so often in Big Media writing. I’d happily give this to my mom on Friday, and expect that she’d have read it by Sunday night. (I say that as my mother is a voracious reader, and is interested in why things are the way they are.)

The book is a series of essays that deconstruct the concerns people express about technology in general and the Web in specific. It’s divided into four parts — Untangling Me, Untangling Us, Untangling Society, and Untangling the Future — each of which explores individual ideas that you’ve heard people discuss. Without pandering or writing down to the reader, Aleks weaves short, personal anecdotes with social science to explore the what we know and what we don’t know about the Web.

When I wrote for Wired many years ago, I often found myself debating with those who felt technology was bringing ruin to our society. As such, I found the “Untangling Us” section, which includes essays on sex, kids on the Internet, friends in social networks, dating, and hate groups, the most compelling. Aleks approaches each with an even hand, exploring the issues in great depth but always with an eye on the practical experience of the reader.

That narrative approach is not an easy task. Writers such as Malcolm Gladwell have sacrificed the science for narrative, painting pictures that don’t mesh with what we know. Aleks is a trained scientist and a writer, though, and her knowledge of both the science and the narrative structures are apparent. The writing is lively and thought-provoking.

If you’re interesting in understanding why you feel the way you do about the Web and its social nature, pick up Untangling the Web. You’ll understand the digital world around you just a little bit better.

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