Sue Halpern is a regular contributor to The New York Review and a Scholar-in-Residence at Middlebury. Her latest book, the novel Summer Hours at the Robbers Library, will be published in February.
 (January 2018)

IN THE REVIEW

Bitcoin Mania

James MacWhyte at a bitcoin trading club meeting, Tokyo, February 2014

Blockchain Revolution: How the Technology Behind Bitcoin Is Changing Money, Business, and the World

by Don Tapscott and Alex Tapscott

Attack of the Fifty Foot Blockchain: Bitcoin, Blockchain, Ethereum and Smart Contracts

by David Gerard
The first time I bought virtual money, in October 2017, bitcoins, the cryptocurrency everyone by now has heard of, were trading at $5,919.20. A month later, as I started writing this, a single coin sold for $2,000 more. “Coin” is a metaphor. A cryptocurrency such as bitcoin is purely digital: it is a piece of code—a string of numbers and letters—that uses encryption techniques and a decentralized computer network to process transactions and generate new units. Its value derives entirely from people’s perception of what it is worth. The same might be said of paper money, now divorced from gold and silver, or of gold and silver for that matter. Money is a human invention. It has value because we say it does.

The Nihilism of Julian Assange

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in Laura Poitras’s documentary film Risk

Risk

a documentary film directed by Laura Poitras
About forty minutes into Risk, Laura Poitras’s messy documentary portrait of Julian Assange, the filmmaker addresses the viewer from off-camera. “This is not the film I thought I was making,” she says. “I thought I could ignore the contradictions. I thought they were not part of the story. I was so wrong. They are becoming the story.” By the time she makes this confession, Poitras has been filming Assange, on and off, for six years. He has gone from a bit player on the international stage to one of its dramatic leads.

How He Used Facebook to Win

Prototype Politics: Technology-Intensive Campaigning and the Data of Democracy

by Daniel Kreiss

Hacking the Electorate: How Campaigns Perceive Voters

by Eitan D. Hersh
That the Republicans didn’t lose can be attributed in large measure to their expert manipulation of social media: Donald Trump is our first Facebook president. His team figured out how to use all the marketing tools of Facebook, as well as Google, the two biggest advertising platforms in the world, to successfully sell a candidate that the majority of Americans did not want. They understood that some numbers matter more than others—in this case the number of angry, largely rural, disenfranchised potential Trump voters—and that Facebook, especially, offered effective methods for pursuing and capturing them.

Robert B. Silvers (1929–2017)

Robert B. Silvers in his office at The New York Review of Books, early 1980s
From its first issue in 1963, Robert Silvers was either co-editor with Barbara Epstein or, after her death in 2006, editor of The New York Review. Bob worked almost to the very end of his life, which would be no surprise to those who knew him well, including those who have written these brief memoirs.

NYR DAILY

Lost in Robo-Translation

A translation machine exhibited at a Japan electronics and information technology convention, Osaka, Japan, October 3, 2017

My device had run out of power, so I spoke into his. Words came out in Japanese, but either they were too faint to be heard above the din or they made no sense, and he shrugged. “How do you like this translation machine?” I tried. Nothing. “Does this thing work pretty well?” I asked. He finally seemed to understand what I was getting at, and spoke quickly into the device. “I have no information about that,” he said.

Facebook’s Fake News Fix

A Facebook

There is no way to know, yet, if outsourcing discernment—if that’s what polling a random collection of two billion people is—will cut down on the amount of propaganda, lying, and deception on Facebook, or if such a survey will simply replicate existing ideological divisions. But it is also unclear where the more than 50 percent of Facebook users who get their news from the site will get it now, if anywhere, since there will be so much less of it. And maybe that is the point. This diminution of news might be a way for Facebook to walk away from the public sphere—or, at least, appear to walk away—at a time when it has been taken to task for its overweening influence there.

Our Hackable Democracy

The Voting Machine Hacking Village at the Def Con hacker convention in Las Vegas, Nevada, July 29, 2017

The recent news that voting machines had been hacked for sport at the Def Con hackers’ conference, should not have been news at all. Since computerized voting was introduced more than two decades ago, it has been shown again and again to have significant vulnerabilities that put a central tenet of American democracy—free and fair elections—at risk.

Hacking the Vote: Who Helped Whom?

CEO of Cambridge Analytica Alexander Nix speaks at the 2016 Concordia Summit, New York City, September 19, 2016

In the waning days of the 2016 campaign Trump’s data team knew exactly which voters in which states they needed to persuade on Facebook and Twitter and precisely what messages to use. The question is: How did the Russians know this, too? Largely ignored in this discussion is one possibility: that the Russians themselves, through their hacking of Democratic Party records, had better information than Trump.