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Book Review: The Sustainable Network: The Accidental Answer for a Troubled Planet by Sarah Sorenson

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A recent story on 60 Minutes, "Sabotaging the System," reported in scary detail how our networks are susceptible to cyberattacks. Cyberterrorism, identity theft, stalking — the list of problems continues eternally, it seems. In her new book, The Sustainable Network: The Accidental Answer for a Troubled Planet, sustainability consultant Sarah Sorensen argues the flipside to these frightening stories. How often, she posits, does one see the headline "Network unlocks power of computing devices, creates goodwill, economic prosperity, and social change"? Sorensen outlines ways that our current technology can address environmental, economic, and social issues plaguing our world.

Before suggesting how technology we already possess can enact change, Sorensen defines her terms. In the first chapter, she explains how the word network encompasses more than just the Internet: instead, the network is "the foundation for the world's global communications infrastructure, which includes the Internet, as well as all the private domains of individuals, companies, governments, and institutions." She stresses that the network is interactive and "symbiotic," enabling conversations among people and even objects. The key, however, is the network's sustainability — in other words, she states, "the network offers us a sustainable platform for change, but we must in turn sustain it."

Another important element to her argument is what she calls the "Sustainable Network Law": "the more broadband that is made available to network users, the faster innovation occurs — all of which ultimately fuels the next generation of working tools and applications that can take advantage of that broadband reach," she writes. The more people have access to the network, Sorensen posits, the more innovations will occur, and these innovations may solve environmental, economic, political, and social problems.

The author clearly feels passionate about her topic; throughout the book, she enthusiastically states that the global network is our best hope for "sustainable change of our time," and cites exhaustive research and case studies to argue this point. She does acknowledge the current limitations of the network, however, and provides practical, if well-known, advice on how to conserve energy, how to protect your identity online, and even how to make the most of a doctor's visit by using the Internet. At times Sorensen is too thorough — she spends the first half of the book defining terms and explaining how the network can enable individuals and companies to become environmentally responsible. While these are noble goals, they have been discussed ad infinitum in other books and articles, and The Sustainable Network provides little new information and insights. Her definition of the network could have been confined to one chapter, as she repeats the information several times in different chapters. Reading 41 chapters that essentially present the same information in various ways is quite daunting.

The strongest part of The Sustainable Network is when Sorensen discusses how the network was partially responsible for President Barack Obama's 2008 election. This election demonstrated, according to Sorensen, "how the network can make any democracy more powerful, more personal, and even more inspirational by allowing its citizens to participate on a grand scale." Through numerous stories and statistics, she argues her case and adequately illustrates the network's potential impact on future elections.

Overall, Sorensen offers the reader some convincing ideas as to how the network's worldwide reach can empower previously marginalized groups, further democracy, and even tackle climate change. In these economic times, the notion that we can cause change with tools we already possess is appealing. Sorensen could have argued her position in half the length of the book, thereby avoiding repetition. The environmental section also presents little in the way of new information in terms of energy conservation. Finally, it is unclear as to The Sustainable Network's target audience. Is she intending on reaching business owners? Individuals? Politicians? Her definitions of the network are clear but seem too elementary for experienced technology users. A clear description in the introduction would lend some focus to the book, enabling Sorensen to target specific parties that could best utilize the network for change. Despite these limitations, The Sustainable Network does provide another perspective on the network's potential for creating positive change.

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