21 in 10, Part II: Non-Fiction

Reign of Terror (2021)

Spencer Ackerman’s Reign of Terror is not a blow-by-blow account of any particular battle or war that comprises the War on Terror, nor does it offer gritty or poetic on-the-ground reportage. For that kind of thing, there are some wonderful books like Anand Gopal’s No Good Men Among the Living or Elliot Ackerman’s Places and Names

Instead, Reign of Terror is a thematic, loosely chronological history and analysis of the War on Terror, from its origins to the ways the war ultimately came home in the form of the surveillance state, persecution of undocumented migrants, and militarization of policing. Trump has a place in the book, but largely only as an outcome created by the failures of Bush and Obama. I don’t have the quote in front of me, but Ackerman draws a really interesting corollary about the War on Terror being an utter catastrophe created to guard against what were seen as otherwise ‘inevitable’ deaths from terrorism, while at the same country lost over half a million citizens to COVID-19, deaths that should have been anything other than inevitable.

The way Ackerman links themes and concepts together means the reader doesn’t necessarily get a lot of details about specific events or characters, but ultimately his big picture approach is compelling and effective. I’m biased as a lefty Canadian, but I felt Ackerman was very objective–in interviews he’s been very blunt about mistaken pro-war sentiments early in his career–and this is not a capital “D” Democratic rant about Bush and Trump, nor is it a right-wing hitjob on Obama. It’s damning and occasionally acerbic, but the criticism always felt fair and justifiable, not preachy or melodramatic. There’s a reason this book ended up on a lot of ‘best of’ lists by actual critics.

The Secret Life of Groceries (2020)

I felt like this book has slipped a little under the radar. It’s a wonderful series of personal profiles and reportage that brings a surprising amount of humanity, wry wit, and writing panache while sketching out the supply chain behind the modern supermarket. Benjamin Lorr profiles people and reports on everything from the hard life of truckers, modern sea slavery, making it onto the shelf with marketing, the secrets of Trader Joe’s, and his own ‘undercover’ turn behind the fish counter.

This is How They Tell Me the World Ends: The Cyberweapons Arms Race (2021)

The New York Times’ Nicole Perloth has compiled a thorough and very approachable exploration of the dangerous game nationstates are playing with cyberweapons. Perloth eschews a lot of the technical detail to focus on people and introduce little vignettes and journalistic slice-of-life scenes. This tradeoff won’t satisfy those with deep familiarity of the subject matter, but it’s very appropriate for the general reader or those with a passing interest. I was familiar with the broad outlines of a number of the topics Perloth covers, but she brings a lot more humanity to it by interviewing the players on the ground. 

In many ways, the book shows American hubris and how a “the best defence is a good offence” mindset leaves the public incredibly vulnerable. This book encourages one to think of Stuxnet not exactly as a Sputnik moment, but as more of a Pandora’s Box or a tipping point.

I’d also suggest Andy Greenberg’s Sandworm (2019) for a great, full-length read specifically relating to industrial control systems, the Ukraine situation, etc. discussed in Perloth’s work.

Between Two Fires: Truth, Ambition, and Compromise in Putin’s Russia (2020)

I’m so glad I finally got around to reading this. Instead of a Russiagate polemic or reheated Cold War leftovers, Joshua Yaffa’s Between Two Fires presents a series of strongly reported vignettes of people torn by uneasy compromises–and sometimes doublethink, willful ignorance, and hypocrisy–as they try to navigate life in modern Russia. Although most of the book’s profiles are not about a typical 9-5 office worker or tradesperson (Yaffa’s subjects include human rights workers, clergy, the creative class, and business owners, among others), they do shade in a lot of detail about life and the character of the country. I suspect fans of Peter Pomerantsev’s work will find Yaffa’s approach to be familiar and of high quality.

I find it difficult to fully articulate the message of the book, but it does a really good job of detailing and meditating on those compromises that must be made to succeed in a society like 21st century Russia, and of exploring the country’s vast moral grey areas. 

Dying for an iPhone: Apple, Foxconn, and The Lives of China’s Workers (2020)

As an Apple fan and someone who aspires to be a reasonably progressive and thoughtful person, I’ve been living with some cognitive dissonance for awhile. I’m not entirely certain what to do differently going forward, but I do feel this book from Jenny Chan, Mark Selden, and Ngai Pun highlights some important things.

I’ve largely skimmed big articles and exposes about Foxconn and Apple, in part because I felt like perhaps they were unfairly targeting one company when the issues are endemic. However, given Apple’s leading role in the consumer electronics space and its gobsmacking profits, Chan et al give strong reasons for focussing on Apple, and they make a point to acknowledge that this is not simply an Apple problem, especially since Foxconn itself manufacturers products for numerous other industry giants.

The book explores several angles that I hadn’t encountered before. The exploitation of student labour in particular is disturbing, and I hadn’t been fully aware of the dynamics of internal migration (and the lack of rights associated with it) in China, nor of phenomena like the captive ‘unions’. I knew Foxconn workers are largely migrants from other parts of the country, but I was (I suppose ignorantly) taken aback by their lack of rights to public services in their new cities, and how these workers have uprooted their lives and sacrificed their health not even for what would be considered a ‘decent factory paycheque’ in relative terms, but rather basically minimum wage.

At its heart, the book conveys one of the simple truths that we have to get through our head when it comes to Silicon Valley, the tech industry, and consumer electronics: these products don’t get made without people being exploited. Full stop. And for all the talk of corporate social responsibility and gradual, iterative improvement, not nearly enough is being done. It’s hard to look at the industry-leading profit margins Apple enjoys and its unparalleled hoard of cash and consider these labour problems unsolvable. It would take relatively little effort and seemingly minuscule corporate sacrifice for Apple to ensure its subcontractors are at least treated with the dignity and the safe working environment they deserve.