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Book review: The Sustainable Network

The Sustainable Network

The global network is a nebulous thing that many of us take for granted. What began simply as a way to connect up a few computers has grown into something greater than the sum of its parts. It seems to be an unstoppable force. Could it also be a transformative force? Could our global network enable us to tackle some of the world’s toughest problems? What challenges do we face in realizing this potential?

These are the core questions author Sarah Sorenson tackles in ‘The Sustainable Network: The Accidental Answer for a Troubled Planet.’

Despite its relative youth, the global network (by which the author means not just the Internet, but all of the connections that link together the planet’s computing devices) has already dramatically changed the way humans connect and communicate. Sorenson’s message is that this network, ‘the only global tool we have,’ is also the best tool we’ve ever had to affect change on a global scale, so we must do what it takes to sustain and nurture it.

If you pick this up thinking it’s going to be about green technologies because the word ‘sustainable’ is in the title, you’d be wrong. The network can be a sustainable force in the sense that it connects everybody and everything in the human world, mitigating the need for travel, replacing physical objects with digital products, fostering business across great distances, driving social change, promoting democracy, saving energy, and more. It is, in short, a platform to ‘sustain global development, opportunities, and change’ — the connective tissue that allows us to tackle big problems in new ways. The question, then, is can we sustain this network given future challenges like burgeoning global demand, security threats, privacy concerns, and energy demands?

Sorenson believes we can, if we’re smart about it. Through forty-one chapters sprinkled copiously with real-world examples, facts and figures pulled from various industry reports and news articles, the author outlines what the network is, what it’s capable of today, and the pivotal role it could play in coming decades. Here’s what she concludes:

The network is our best chance to set in motion changes that can be shaped to deliver a 21st-century definition of the greater good. It has all the elements: it is pervasive, reaching across the globe and connecting people to information and opportunity; it can reduce our material consumption and conserve precious natural resources; it can make governments accountable to people they serve; it can level the playing field and lower barriers of entry to the entire global marketplace; it can mobilize people so they have a voice; and it can foster collaboration, accelerate innovation, and spur the development of solutions to some of the world’s toughest problems.

That’s pretty heady stuff, but she makes a good case. Take, for example, net efficiencies. Sorenson details how the network enables technologies such as smart buildings, intelligent transport, and just-in-time supply systems to create efficiencies that could potentially reduce carbon emissions by 15-40 percent. The network also enables individual microloans that improve the lives of tens of thousands of people in the developing world through sites such as Kiva.org. And consider the pivotal role the Internet played in the 2008 U.S. presidential elections; or witness how the network now makes it possible for individuals to deliver boutique products from design to production from the home, all with little to no overhead. The potential and reach of the network to affect change across the spectrum of human interests and activities is truly great.

However, the network will only be able to deliver if it continues to grow in a sustainable way. This leads to Sorenson’s “Sustainable Network Law,” which posits that “the more broadband made available to network users, the faster sustainable network innovation occurs.” Makes sense to me. Witness the effect of increasing smart phone usage on 3G network competition. But Sorenson isn’t just talking about iPhones here. What she’s saying is that user experience derived from better, more robust networks will drive more user demand. This, in turn, will drive more network innovation. This innovation will fuel more user adoption, ad infinitum. It’s an interesting point. The concept of a sustainable network may hinge on this holding true. I read this as an industry call to action to get out there and build more network capacity.

This leads to the question of who this book was written for. For the most part, the prose seems squarely aimed at a lay audience. For instance, a large portion of the book consists of term and concept definitions, and some of the chapters offer up specific ‘steps you can take.’ But at times, Sorenson seems to be directing her pen at the industry within which she works as a sustainability consultant. And then there’s the blurb on the back cover of ‘The Sustainable Network’ that says this book is a ‘call to action for the individual, governments, markets, and organizations to put the power of this network to good use.’ I think that may be a call out to too many groups. While I get the point and largely agree with her, I think Sorenson aims a bit too wide on this front.

That said, this book delivers a good overview of what the network is (and its potential going forward) for people like me who are not experts in this area, although at times I felt that Sorenson used a bit too much ‘inside baseball’ terminology and industry jargon. Yet I couldn’t help but get a little swept up in the author’s optimism: a sense of the potential of the global network to change our lives. Sure, the obstacles are steep. Sorenson acknowledges this in great detail through several chapters. But the upside is that the network is arguably one of the best tools we’ve ever had to deal with a wide range of human problems.

I enjoyed the read, with a few caveats. For one, the book is sparsely populated with images, many of which look like photocopied screen shots. It would have benefited greatly from full-color images, charts, and graphs to help the reader along. Also, some of the chapters felt less like part of a book and more like a compilation of individual research papers. To be fair, this is in no small part due to the subject matter. Given that the network is a global entity that reaches into almost every facet of our lives, it’s surely no easy task to seamlessly cover all aspects of it in 300 pages.

Still, what Sorenson has assembled here is a fresh way at looking at a potentially dry topic. I think many authors and pundits tend to look at the world of technology with a dystopian lens, so I was not put off by an optimistic view of where this connective technology could lead.

I think the book is empowering in that it raises awareness about the potential of the network, and it emphasizes how we all play a role in harnessing and protecting that power. But for the average reader, I think the greatest strength of the book has more to do with fostering network literacy. That’s not a bad thing. I started this book with a sense that I knew quite a lot about the global network, but soon realized I didn’t know much at all about it.

It’s a given these days that computer literacy is no longer just beneficial, it’s essential. Perhaps we should think of the global network in the same way. In this sense (whether or not you share Sorenson’s vision), ‘The Sustainable Network’ is a solid read as a primer. You’ll walk away knowing a lot more about what we’re talking about when we talk about the network.

Why did I just review a book?

In December, O’Reilly Media hosted an interesting promotion on their Facebook page. They offered up free copies of several of their new offerings. For each featured book, the first three people to chime in proclaiming interest in reading that book got a free copy. In return, O’Reilly asked for participants to post a review (not a positive review, just a review) of the book in some online forum. So, you guessed it, I decided it might be fun.

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