Off-Topic: Sex, Bombs, and Burgers Review

I just read the book Sex, Bombs, and Burgers, written by technology journalist Peter Nowak. The summary (minus some unnecessary hyperbole) from the book’s website reads:

Peter Nowak argues that most of the major technological advances of the last sixty years have stemmed from the trio of billion-dollar industries that cater to our basest impulses. From Saran Wrap to aerosols, digital cameras to cold medicine and GM foods to Google, many of the gadgets and conveniences we enjoy today can be traced back to either the porn, military or fast food industry.

This certainly sounded interesting. And the book was a good read. However, it was not a great read.

I applaud the research that Peter Nowak has put into the book, and all the fun anecdotes collected. Certainly makes for good conversation pieces and it explained a few long-standing mysteries to me. For example, the story about The Lena, which was a picture that kept popping up when I was doing desktop publishing in the early 1990s, without any explanation for why. It is a fun read, fluent and quick.

However, the book leaves me slightly disappointed and a bit annoyed.

It is a book that I consider to be “light fact” – with a title that plays on the “heavy scholar”-class book Guns, Germs, and Steel. It is nowhere near that book in depth, rigour, or explanation power. A bit presumptuous, simply.

The book is indeed very focused on the post-world-war-2 era, which makes some sense. But it would have been much more satisfying if Nowak had gone back and drawn the lines from antiquity forward. Also, it would have been nice with some contrasting between the Cold War’s strong drive to take on almost any technology with the 19th century’s somewhat more conservative military approach to new technologies like steam power. It is also a bit US-centric, and slightly chauvinistic in places. Sure, the US has led many innovations (and still does) – but a more global perspective would have made the book a bit more compelling.

If you look closely at the arguments being made, I have to find a bit of a fault with the inclusion of the porn (sex) industry. Sure, porn has been an early adopter of several new communications technologies, from the printing press and on. But it is not an innovation industry of its own, it is just an early adopter with some amount of money to spend. It certainly makes for a good provocative book title, but it is not really well reasoned. I would say that vanity is a better prime driver – showing off wealth and sophistication by consuming very expensive luxury goods has historically been an important financier of both fine arts and fine technology. It even ties back to sex – since in the end, strutting your stuff like a peacock is about capturing a fine specimen of the opposite sex.

The food (burger) industry is more apropos, since it is a huge enterprise industry of the kind that has traditionally both picked up on new innovations and set up labs to do its own innovation. No fault with that. But there are other industries that have done the same, including telecoms and computing.

Where the book really goes off and annoys is when Nowak switches from describing little-known facts in history to preaching and predicting the future. That just does not fit into the flow and premise of the book. Nowak talks about how automatic translation will make our online friendships span the globe – which is prediction, not description. And one that sounds a bit more like techno-hype than reasoned analysis. He does the same for robotics, maybe because robots are not really yet a part of everyday life, or he does not find industrial robots interesting enough.

The worst bit is the strange and misplaced discussion on genetically modified organisms. Their connection to the war theme is a bit a tenuous, and the lashing out at the EU for being skeptical and wanting to move slowly is pretty unreasoned. Nowak sounds like either a lobbyist wanting to get things marketed globally, or a techno-evangelist who thinks that technology can solve all problems. Which is a bit strange, since in other places in the book Nowak does address the many problems that modern technology has introduced along with the problems it solved. Still, his bias is very much on the benefits side rather than the risks involved.

In summary, a nice little collection of anecdotes that is worth reading in order to understand the funny background of many things we take for granted today. But it is no more than that, and be prepared for some out-of-scope chapters that preach and predict rather than describe the facts.


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