Reviewed by Tom Levenson
The last decade of the seventeenth century was a great age for London’s media junkies. Paper had become cheap enough to permit the emergence of the first real newspapers in the English-speaking world. The censors saw their reign end in 1696, the year after Parliament declined to renew the Licensing Act. With that, printers no longer had to fear harsh penalties for operating an unapproved press. Free lance journalism was emerging as a plausible way to make a sort of a living – even if one of its most prominent practitioners, Daniel Dafoe, did do his stint in debtor’s prison.
Given all that, it’s no surprise that a torrent of what we may call new media poured forth. If you had something to say and even quite modest means, you could say it – and plenty did. Readers could lay their hands on learned disputes on the question of singing in church; coiners advising the government on the best methods to prevent counterfeiting; at least one poem by a law student on the subject of long vacations.
All of these appeared in the form that truly came into its own in the 17th century. That would be the pamphlet: a modest tract, easier to write, cheaper to print, swifter to plow through than any scholar’s tome…
…All of which is to say that there is nothing new under the sun.
Flash forward roughly three hundred years, and lay your digital mitts on the subject of this review, Alanna Shaikh’s What’s Killing Us. It is an e-bite of an argument, less than forty pages to cover Shaikh’s top-ten list of global health problems. It is a pamphlet by any other name, and hence an example of one of my favorite everything-old-is-new-again gifts of the digital revolution.
One note before getting to the meat of Shaik’s work. Sharp-eyed readers will see that I’ve left unmentioned one property of What’s Killing Us. It’s a TED book, and TEDity has come in for its lumps here. This one doesn’t, or shouldn’t, in part because it does not attempt to reduce the difficult reality of global health to a trademarked Big Idea. Instead, it is an example of what TED promises but does not always deliver – a guide to thinking about a the complexity of an issue that enables – really demands that -- the reader join in figuring out what the hell to do.