Book Review: Nick Bilton’s ‘I live in the future and here’s how it works’

Nick Bilton’s book is both conversational and clever, making it accessible for readers who are not knowledgeable or well versed with new technologies. However, the title of Bilton’s novel, ‘I live in the future and here’s how it works’, is misleading, as much of what he describes has either already occurred or is applicable to the current media landscape. It is important to note that his novel was written three years ago, which is a lengthy amount of time in the fast paced world of technology; however, a majority of Bilton’s focus is on the presentation of past scientific studies which demonstrate our ability to adapt to technology, instead of speculating on future developments. Therefore, while Bilton’s writing is richly descriptive, it lacks both practical application and technical expertise. While Bilton uses the porn industry to demonstrate the importance of customizing content for consumers, he does not specifically mention what many identify as the key to lost revenues: big data. Although recording user’s actions online (often referred to as clickstream data) has “become a necessity for the success of websites and other online businesses” (Bucklin et al., 2009, p. 35), Bilton fails to go into detail about data mining strategies. A discussion on the ability of the Internet to allow for “fast, easy, and unobtrusive collection of detailed information on individual activities” would have fit seamlessly into Bilton’s emphasis on the customization and personalization of consumer experiences (Bucklin et al., 2009, p. 35).

Moreover, Bilton offers a thorough description of technology’s ability to offer us personalized options and to improve our cognition, but he does not entertain any arguments surrounding privacy concerns and industry challenges. Bilton is justified in claiming that the customization of content and personalized experiences must be explored by industries, but he does not discuss that the immense amount of clickstream data confronts “researchers with the need to store and process very large amounts of information” (Bucklin et al., 2009, p. 45). Moreover, many individuals feel that current EU and U.S. regulatory frameworks “leave consumers privacy and personal data unprotected in the context of profiling and behavioural advertising” (King et al., 2010, p. 604). Due to these skepticisms surrounding online privacy, firms are challenged to “seek ways to overcome these concerns and persuade consumers to share their information”, such as engaging in trust building (Kim et al., 2009, 188). This question of “whether profiling unduly interferes with consumers’ personal autonomy and liberty” highlights the importance of viewing the architecture of the Internet with a critical eye, and would made Bilton’s analysis of the digital revolution more exhaustive (King et al., 2010, p. 595).

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Bilton rightly emphasizes the importance of anchoring communities, and their ability to help users navigate mass information flows online. However, he does not consider the assertion that these communities may also limit the perspectives and information sources users encounter. Since media users look to individuals in their network to help filter content, the reliance on these search and recommendation systems exercises a “powerful influence on what users ultimately consume” (Webster et al., 2012, p. 42). Due to this degree of influence, it is important to consider how certain information regimes can “promote or mitigate processes of audience fragmentation.” (Webster et al., 2012, p. 42) Bilton fails to address “growing evidence that despite an abundance of choice, media content tends to be replicated across platforms” (Webster et al., 2012, p. 51). Moreover, despite the enormity of information presented online, many search and recommendation algorithms “direct attention to popular products or outlets” (Webster et al., 2012, p. 52). Therefore, while Bilton’s stance on anchoring communities provides a strong argument for how we are able to manage the overwhelming amount of information online, it fails to speculate whether the architecture of the Internet may at times render the wisdom of our networks unreliable.

Bilton’s praise of new technologies is often unfaltering, leaving the reader with without the knowledge necessary to view digital architectures with a critical eye. According to Lessig (2006), “many of us haven’t a clue about how networks work” and therefore we “have no clue about how they could be different…we assume the way we find things is the way things have to be” (p. 32). Code makes up the architecture of the Internet and regulates our behavior online, as it strategically enables certain functions while disabling others. What is particularly concerning is that the individuals who determine these codes “can achieve regulatory ends, often without suffering the political consequences that the same ends, pursued directly, would yield” (Lessig, 2006, p. 136). In other words, the architecture of the Internet makes “invisible regulation easier” (Lessig, 2006, p. 137). Therefore, while Bilton sees the advent of the digital revolution as an exhilarating time, it is also important consider the invisible hand that guides its construction, with sober eyes.

In many ways, Bilton is a techno-optimist, and as a result, is both thorough and persuasive in convincing the technochondriacs of the world that they have nothing to fear. Bilton richly articulates the advantages of new technology and our ability to adapt to more stimulating forms of digital storytelling; however, he seems to greatly overlook both the challenges and consequences of this new digital landscape, which weakens these arguments. Therefore, while Bilton’s I live in the future and here’s how it works provides a coherent media roadmap for individuals just starting to get their feet wet in the sea of digital innovation, it may leave those who are more immersed with new media wanting more. 

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