In this memoir and treatise on how computers and algorithms continue to shape our understanding of the world, Auerbach recounts his childhood spent drawing ferns with the programming language Logo on the Apple IIe, his adventures in early text-based video games, his schooling as an engineer, and his work at Microsoft and Google.
Bitwise: A Life in Code, David Auerbach’s thoughtful meditation on technology and its place in society, is a welcome effort to reclaim the middle ground. Auerbach ... recognizes the very real damage it is causing to our political, cultural and emotional lives. But he also loves computers and data, and is adept at conveying the awe that technology can summon, the bracing sense of discovery ... The book is a hybrid of memoir, technical primer and social history. It is perhaps best characterized as a survey not just of technology, but of our recent relationship to technology ... but what’s really distinctive about this book is his ability to dissect Joyce and Wittgenstein as easily as C++ code ... Auerbach’s polymathishness is impressive; it can also be overwhelming. This is not a book that wears its knowledge lightly, and the trail is sometimes meandering, littered with digressive pathways and citations. It’s hard to pin down a clear line of argument. Still, this doesn’t really detract from the overall pleasure of reading. Bitwise is best approached as a series of essays and snippets. This is one of those books you dip in and out of ... We need guides on this journey—judicious, balanced and knowledgeable commentators, like Auerbach.
Auerbach is on solid ground in his analysis, but his logic can sometimes be crude and impersonal. In one chapter he presents a critique of Facebook’s many options for a user’s gender identity ... 'People may not be using terms like ‘pangender’ or ‘biracial’ in fifty years, much less two thousand,' he writes, either unaware or indifferent to the fact that this terminology was hard-won ... Whatever the case, Bitwise bears out the impression of Auerbach as an intelligent translator of the digital world with an insensitive streak ... The memoir form makes the book work, however, because it focuses a very broad subject through the microhistorical lens of a single person. In Auerbach’s case, the first-person voice allows him to sidestep the problem of technological determinism, a grand theory of the effect technology has on our minds. It doesn’t make this INTJ likable, necessarily. But Bitwise is a valuable resource for readers seeking to understand themselves in this new universe of algorithms, as data points and as human beings.
Auerbach argues convincingly that systems that record and analyze our data have the potential to shape our online and offline experiences, yet he writes too many tangents offering perspectives on gaming, nerd culture, and parenting ... A critical warning from a programming expert on computation's ability to shape our lives. Readers of first-person accounts of tech's coming of age will appreciate this insider point of view.