Good People, Good Books, And Zoom: STP Online Book Club

Master’s student, KAIST Graduate School of Science and Technology Policy
Ern Chern Khor

As the COVID-19 pandemic has made it difficult to resume offline lectures, the last fall semester was another online semester for KAIST students. This has brought a huge impact on the learning experience, lacking the social settings which are important for discussions between students. In regard to this, efforts are made to maximize online learning experiences in KAIST. As an initiative of Professor Jeon Chihyung, the head of KAIST Graduate School of Science and Technology Policy, the first STP book club started last September, to raise awareness among KAIST students on science and technology issues, and also to serve as an opportunity to connect students who share same interests, regardless of their academic majors. There are two book clubs, which focus on English and Korean language respectively. The book club hosts one discussion session per month on Zoom. As a tutor for the STP English book club, I am glad to share some interesting discussions and thoughts of the members about our readings.

Kick-off Meeting

By spreading the words on social media, we were able to reach KAIST students who are interested in reading and discussions. We received a lot of applications, which were honestly, more than my expectation, considering the heavy coursework faced by students in a regular semester. This might be because students were looking for opportunities for interactive events during the virtual semester. The kick-off meeting was first held to introduce the members, explain the motives of the book club, and discuss the future schedules. Surprisingly, we have members from 11 different countries, which are the Philippines, Turkey, Nepal, Kazakhstan, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Korea, United Kingdom, India, plus Malaysia. Although not all of the members were able to participate in further real-time discussions, it is still amazing to recognize how diverse the KAIST community is, and their active participation in meaningful events held in English. We tried our best to provide physical books but some have had to read e-books. It is interesting to think about how pandemic has changed our forms of studying. During one regular semester and one winter break, our plan is to read and discuss four books on different topics but all related to science and technology issues.

The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future

‘The Inevitable’ is a book written by Kevin Kelley which was first published in 2016. The book discusses technological forces that are bringing a huge impact on our lives. This book is chosen as the first book as it is introductory but at the same time informative and well-summarized in 12 chapters. The chapters are linked to each other but have distinctive focuses on certain technological forces. It is interesting to think about why the author used the word ‘forces’ to describe technological influence. ‘Force’ can imply pressure and threat, as technology has brought significant changes to almost all aspects of our society and on our planet. It seems like anyone who could not follow the technological trend would have a hard time surviving. On the other hand, ‘force’ can imply interaction and strength. There are so many more things we can do with new technologies. Our ability has reached somewhere we had not imagined. What a subtle way of using terms. 

We started with discussing the author’s background, to help understand his writing style. Kevin Kelley is the founding executive editor of Wired magazine, who has focused on the digital culture. He was born in Pennsylvania and he studied geology at university. His career as an editor of the Whole Earth Review has centered on the cybernetic social vision. ‘The Inevitable’ is his eighth book, motivated to give guidance regarding current and future technological trends and what they mean, not only to people who work in the tech area, but to everyone. Although an advantage of the book is being easy to understand, some book club members see this as a point they do not like about the book. As we are students with fundamental knowledge in technology, the explanations on certain technological concepts could seem a little redundant. However, it serves the introductory purpose well, providing a general view of current technological changes.

Our members like how the book gives a well-organized view of the internet and artificial intelligence (AI) development. The rich information is unified and connected so that readers can understand the reasoning behind the technological impacts. However, one main critique on the book is that the view is too optimistic. The author tried to picture a future where we can make impossible things possible with technology but did not mention much about the negative side brought by technology. However, this is understandable because the book is aimed to encourage people to not feel fear about the ‘inevitable’ progress but to embrace it, so the tone tends to be more positive and encouraging. The author believes that technological progress can take place in different forms but we could never stop the progress. On the other hand, just like what the author mentions in the book, we may feel uncomfortable with fast-moving changes and be pushed back. It is a piece of good advice to be embracing new changes brought by technologies when they challenge our existing ways of living, even though they are in the beginning stages of development when efforts yet need to be made to reduce harm and optimize their benefits. 

During book discussions, we shared how the book content can be related to our personal experiences and other books and films. Our members feel very relatable to the book content on how the ways we interact, consume, manage our resources, and even our habits have changed because of technology. For instance, the ‘Tacking’ chapter has mentioned how our data, including our health conditions, preferences, social life, are connected and tracked. The documentary film ‘The Social Dilemma’ was recommended by one of the members to relate social networking issues in our discussions, especially social media platforms are designed to make people addicted for more profit. Some members also mentioned how they experienced resistance to new technologies, mostly on physical experiences such as virtual reality (VR). This feeling of resistance can actually affect a lot of people during this pandemic when we have to rely more on online tools for our daily tasks. Good guidance to understand new technologies becomes more critical for the public, as what is given in this book.

One day, even you and I, who are relatively adapting better to new technologies for now, might also have a hard time catching up with technological changes in the future. An inspiring discussion was to think about how these technological forces can act differently to different people. Do women experience the same influences as men do? Does an older adult experience the same level of resistance as a teenager? How about a visually impaired person? How about people on low incomes? We started by being aware of the differences and will continue this discussion throughout the semester. They are issues easily forgotten by young adults like us. When our members think about technological forces from our own perspectives, it can be less of a big deal as we can understand, adapt to, and even be part of the development of new technologies. These can be different stories for other people, or even for us. We can also become part of ones, being left out in the technological flow. Future technologies the author tried to picture are actually not very far from our expectations, but their real impact cannot be predicted. Thanks to the diverse background of our members, we had a wonderful 2-hour book discussion.

<Figure 1> First book discussion meeting

Future Crimes: Everything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It

As the first book gave an introductory and a more optimistic view, the second book is aimed to bring a deeper thought about the dark side of technological development. ‘Future Crimes’ is a book written by Marc Goodman, first published in 2015. This book focuses on the hidden dangers of accelerating digitalization. As we are enjoying more convenient connections, there are groups trying to take advantage of our data for their own interests, including nation-states, transnational organized crime groups, foreign intelligence services, hacktivists, military personnel, industrial spies, and others, who are seemingly far from our daily lives. The public has little information about them and not enough awareness of how vulnerable we are to their attacks. This book shows the behind stories to the public and raises the alarm about cybersecurity. Kevin Kelley, the author of our first book, gave a comment on ‘Future Crimes’: “This is a wakeup call.”[1] This book is great for a follow-up after our introductory book, but it is packed with much more information compared to the first book. In addition, our members were getting busier in the latter half of the semester when final exams are around the corner. So, some members gave their book reviews in written form and I will include their thoughts in the discussions below.

As always, we first had to understand the background of the author and his motivation for writing the book. Marc Goodman worked as a futurist-in-residence with the FBI and a senior adviser to the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL). He is the founder of the Future Crimes Institute and also the Chair for Policy, Law, and Ethics at Silicon Valley’s Singularity University. His expertise is in cybercrime, cyber terrorism, and information warfare. The book is written based on his own experiences, as an expert who keeps working to battle next-generation security threats. His motivation is to warn innocent people who welcome new technologies without questioning much about them. His vision is to fight crimes by crowdsourcing, starting by opening the door to the underground world of the technology industry. ‘Future Crimes’ is his only book now, but he focuses on lectures.

In contrast to the reviews of the previous book, our members including me were shocked and frightened by the content of this book. A quote by Gloria Steinem is included in the book, “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off”.[2] I gave a wry smile while reading this line. The author first began to talk about how hackers can hack inside your device easily, and even worse, your cloud data and your Google account. Hackers target not only individuals, but also banks, firms, infrastructure, basically everything connected with information. But this is just the beginning of the story. Data brokers are earning billions of dollars from the data we give for free. Because of the huge profit, any regulations will be strongly opposed by those who hold the data, so it is barely unregulated by the government. We are the products, not the customers, and we are not protected. However, even though all these things are going on, it seems like our lives are not affected. Some of our members said they did not put much attention to this because they think there are better targets, such as some rich people or important people. 

Marc Goodman has used the word ‘warning’, so it does not mean we will be harmed right away, but we are at high risk. Our private data is stored and monetized without us realizing it, but we still use these online applications every day, because they are free and easy to use. The author revealed the fact that these data can be stored for a really long time because there is no regulation on the time limit of data storing by companies like Google and Facebook. Everything seems good until we become one of the targets, and the cost of being targeted is more than just money. We discussed the indirect cost of cybercrime. Cybercrime not only brings a huge direct cost, but it can cost more when victims lose trust on technology. They can become very cautious, and even avoid online transactions and activities. Cybercrime makes the future pictured in ‘The Inevitable’ more difficult. One of our members shared her grandfather’s experience as a victim of an online scam. Since then, he is not considered to be able to manage his own money, so other family members do it for him. He also avoided using online services. Another member shared a famous incident of Bangladesh Bank robbery, which was a theft of about one billion US dollar owned by citizens, by hacking into the federal reserve bank. This not only caused huge economic loss, but the loss of citizens’ trust. 

The book discusses more than ‘cybercrime’. Goodman called future crimes that are coming soon the ‘next-generation security threats’. While the former part of the book is mostly based on cases witnessed by the author, the latter part is based on predictions with his understanding of technological trends. These future crimes sound like something coming out from sci-fi movies, like AI crime bots, bio-snatchers, hackers with quantum computers… But they can happen in real life, just like what we are experiencing now seem like sci-fi for people who lived before. One of our members from the physics department is actually doing research regarding quantum computing. Although the technology is still in its early stage and only owned by a few labs in the world, our members anticipate it becoming more common in the future. However, we need to be critical and rational when facing these emerging next-generation technologies, because there are also companies and research groups taking advantage of the hype for investment but not giving promising results in the tech industry. We discussed a few examples in the meeting, such as Theranos and MIT lab’s food computer. In short, we need to always stay aware but no need to feel panic.

<Figure 2> Second book discussion meeting

Future Plan

Although it had been a busy semester, our book club members enjoyed reading these two books and shared their opinions with each other. I am glad to find that our members are passionate about technology and society issues, and have dedicated their precious time to think deeply about these issues. In the winter semester, we will read and discuss another two books: ‘Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor’ and ‘Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think’. The former one is a work of investigative journalism about social injustice by Virginia Eubanks, who is the only female author we will discuss this semester. On the other hand, the latter one is chosen as a book to mark a good ending of our discussion this semester. As we have read different books and exchanged different opinions, the book can help us arrange our thoughts, as it emphasizes a good thinking habit to carry opinions with strong supporting facts and avoid an overdramatic worldview.

As it is the first semester of the STP book club, I expected a lot of challenges in forming an online book discussion culture. Thanks to the commitment of our members, we have gradually formed our way of making good discussion, even though we could not meet offline. A tip to conduct an online book discussion is to set a few simple questions for members before the meeting, for example, “what do you like and not like about the book?”. This method does not give too much pressure but still prepares members for the real meeting. Another tip is to prepare a few related topics related to the book, that members can discuss one by one throughout the meeting. The topics can be started by throwing good questions, for example, “is everyone at equal risk from cybercrime?” Besides, it is good to make use of some other online communication tools, such as KakaoTalk, so that members can share any related thoughts or resources to others. However, there is still lots of space to improve for more effective online discussions. The future plan is to explore ways to make online discussions more engaging. A way we may try in the future is to hold debate sessions in the meeting to create more sparks of thoughts.

<Figure 3> STP magnet bookmarks

Finally, I would like to express my gratitude to Professor Jeon and our department staff who gave full support and provided complimentary books to the book club members. It is a meaningful initiative that benefits all students in KAIST. The department also supported printing magnet bookmarks designed by myself as gifts for book club members. It has been a challenging but enjoyable experience as a book club tutor. Leading the discussions need a critical way of thinking and reading other resources, but I have learned a lot from the books, the discussion preparation process, and most importantly, our members. These experiences have made the study life of our members and mine more interesting and purposeful during this pandemic, and what we need are simply good books, good people, and zoom.

[1] 「Praise to Future Crimes by Marc Goodman」,

[2] Steinem, G. and Baker, S. D. (2019), The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off: thoughts on life, love, and rebellion, Random House.

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