24 Oct 2019 03:19pm

Book reviews: personal data

Damian Bradfield’s observations about how our personal data is handled online may not have the answers to our concerns, but do push the debate

books 630 nov 19
Caption: A look at books on the use of personal data and the use of one author's personal time

Damian Bradfield

The Trust Manifesto, Penguin Business

Imagine you are in a shoe shop and pick up a pair of trainers, but then decide to check out a few other places before you make a decision. Imagine the seemingly helpful assistant in the original shop follows you home. Wherever you turn, he is holding up a picture of the trainers. Even when he pops up uninvited in your living room, he seems to think it’s fine to invade your personal space. At this point, anyone who does their shopping online will have to laugh at Damian Bradfield’s analogy.

His book The Trust Manifesto, an attack on how our data is handled online, is both vivid and funny. In the Big Data “boomtown”, information is “scraped from every section of our lives”, and yet the data miners are “never satisfied”. Bradfield himself helped found the file sharing service WeTransfer in Amsterdam, and the book draws sharp comparisons between Dutch-style fiscal conservatism and the Silicon Valley [pictured, above] hunger for profits that drives firms into ethically murky waters. Facebook comes in for a particular lambasting for its promotion of a hypocritical transparency where information is “expected from you, the consumer, but never from them”.

Yet creepy shoe shop assistants aside, Bradfield rarely delves into the specifics of how data is being used to track us. Attempts to regulate it, such as GDPR, only get a passing mention. Some of the most unnerving questions, such as whether devices are listening to us, are neither debunked nor confirmed. Instead space is dedicated to entire transcripts of interviews that could be boiled down to a few paragraphs. As a result, the book is unlikely to make many converts among those who prize convenience over privacy. But the problem Bradfield identifies is real. The Trust Manifesto may not change the internet. Still, it’s a start.

Hisham Matar

A Month in Siena, Viking

Someone describing in detail the month they spent in an art gallery is the stuff of dinner party nightmares. Unless, of course, they are Hisham Matar. The British-Libyan writer, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2017 for his memoir The Return, confesses early on in his latest book that he has long been “mysteriously fascinated by the Sienese School of painting”. He decides – as Pulitzer prizewinners can – to spend a month in the Italian city of Siena and look at these paintings from the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries. Just like the painting that grabs your attention in a room of otherwise impenetrable works, the resulting book is arresting.

A Month in Siena captures the exile’s longing – Matar writes of the “biscuits with fennel seeds that are identical to those of my Libyan childhood” and strikes up a friendship with a fellow Arabic speaker. He portrays the city with keenly-observed details, like the cemetery bench catching the last of the sun: “a good place to cry”. His internal wanderings are equally picturesque, ranging from marital love to the Black Death’s impact on culture. Matar might have gone to Siena, but like any good artwork, his can be enjoyed from afar.

Julia Rampen is a writer and editor specialising in culture, politics and finance