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The System - James Ball ****

The internet, whether via the web or services making use of the network such as email, is a huge part of most of our lives, both at work and socially - never more so than during the 2020 pandemic, when video meetings and remote working have proved so useful. In this insightful book, James Ball takes us under the surface of the internet to see the parts of it - both good and worrying - that we aren't usually aware of.

We start with some history, featuring an interesting interview from Steve Crocker, one of the architects of the original network. The background and technology is a topic that deserves more depth of coverage (I can recommend the book When Wizards Stay up Late to get the full picture), but it isn't the main focus of The System.

After that introductory material, Ball takes us into the competing worlds of those who provide the physical network that connects us to the internet and those responsible for the software running on it. Where in the UK, such networks typically have a telecoms background, in the US they seem more linked to cable TV companies and as such already present a business conflict as the 'cable guys' are also content providers. Here, for the first time, the contentious issue of 'net neutrality' rears its ugly head. We also see the organisation at work that attempts to manage some aspects of what can seem an anarchic, Wild West environment.

Perhaps the most important part of the book is the second section on 'the money'. Here we meet both the venture capitalists and the ad men. Most revealing is the section on advertising, where Ball takes us into the intensely complex links and mechanisms that lie behind the apparently simple process of an advert appearing on a web page on our browsers. I was fascinated and horrified by the sheer quantity of information about me that is flying back and forth at this point - most of it not to the advertiser but to other sites that have left cookies behind. Ball refers to those tedious GDPR checks for permission we get on visiting new websites, which most of us just 'OK' without reading. Guilty of doing this, I discovered I had cookies for over 4,000 websites contributing to this hidden eco-structure - I've now deleted them all and take the time to check what I'm saying Yes to. This is the most technical part of the book, covering the behind-the-scenes mechanisms. Though important, it proved the weakest part for readability as the explanation is not particularly well-written and a little dull.

Finally, we get on to the various factions attempting to provide and break security on the internet - probably worth a book in their own right.

In the end, this is not so much a book about science and technology as about business, economics and politics. It's still interesting to a popular science audience, and has important things to say, though I would have liked more on the internet's origins and technical workings. This would, however, tend to put off some of the book's intended audience. It's an important book, though, as the internet has such a huge impact on our lives and few of us really appreciate just what is going on behind the scenes.

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Review by Brian Clegg


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