Welcome to our weekly un-paywalled Books Digest where we round-up the new books you should, and shouldn’t, be reading. This week features Women of Rothschild by Natalie Livingstone and Trust No One: Inside the World of Deepfakes and Principles for Dealing with the Changing World Order: Why Nations Succeed and Fail by Ray Dalio.
For more books take a look through our Books Digest Archive.
Women of Rothschild: The Untold Story of the World’s Most Famous Dynasty by Natalie Livingstone (John Murray Press), £17.39
Few names are as loaded with meaning as Rothschild. In her latest work, Natalie Livingstone chronicles the lives of the women bearing the name and the enormous contribution they made to the dynasty, a subject which has gone largely unexamined and under-appreciated. Until now.
This reassertion works on two levels. First, Livingstone highlights their overlooked competence in typically masculine domains. For instance, the “thrill” matriarch Hannah Rothschild found in trading rentes (French government bonds) and Miriam Rothchild’s scientific writings on, of all creatures, the humble flea. Second, she emphasises the real importance of the feminine sphere in the worlds of finance, business, and politics. A dinner invitation is rarely just that and is rather means of forging alliances in any number of fields, from the cloth trade to the establishment of the state of Israel.
The sections on the lives of the later Rothchild women are naturally enriched by the number of texts, letters, interviews available. The stories of Miriam and the rebellious Nica are especially captivating with their contributions to the scientific and music worlds. However, rather than allowing the lives of the very first Rothchild women to become patchy retellings, Livingstone blows life into even the most casual textual references to them to reveal fully formed women. Of course, this requires a little imagination, but Livingstone’s speculations are never fanciful and are sourced from a logical empathy.
Livingstone also does an outstanding job of communicating the family’s often-contradictory nature: their embrace of both Jewish and Gentile traditions, their unbelievable wealth and yet, their outsider status within the Christian aristocracy which so frequently depended on Rothschild support to only abandon the family when help was requested in return. A particularly biting instance of this was when the Duke of Wellington spoke and voted against the Jews Relief Act of 1858, despite the English Rothschilds continually backing his military campaigns.
It is also worth mentioning that this book is beautiful. The jacket glints with gold embellishments; illustrations of butterflies and photographs are peppered throughout. This is a stylish and captivating tour through the three-century long history of one of Europe’s most intriguing and sprawling family trees.
Trust No One: Inside the World of Deepfakes by Michael Grothaus (Hodder & Stoughton), £15.55
In 1969, there was a chance that the legendary Apollo 11 mission could have gone awry as millions of people watched events unfold on their television sets. Of course, as we all know, it was an epoch-making success, and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin returned safely. But according to one video online, there was no “giant leap for mankind”, and the astronauts never returned. “Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace,” the instantly-recognizable Richard Nixon gravely states in a video online.
But it transpires that this video is not at all real; it is, in fact, AI-generated synthetic media. The posthumous deepfake was created for a project titled “In Event of Moon Disaster” by media artists Francesca Panetta and Halsey Burgund at MIT to shed light on deepfakes and their sizeable implications for our digital ecosystem. The book Trust No One: Inside the World of Deepfakes hops aboard this information campaign to educate, inform, and warn people of the risks of deepfakes.
In the book, journalist and author Michael Grothaus dives down the rabbit hole of synthetic media, interviewing both victims and perpetrators of this reality-altering technology to explore the benefits as much as the risks. Grothaus even hires a deepfaker called “Brad” to see just how easily deepfakes can be used beyond matters of political satire and non-consensual porn but to also “resurrect” the dead or show someone committing a crime they never committed.
After seeing first-hand the sophistication of this technology, Grothaus rightly wonders whether they’ll come a time when nation-states weaponize deepfakes for nefarious means. What if one state used it to rewrite history as Stalin did in the 20th century? What if one state used deepfake technology to create footage of another sanctioning an act of terrorism that could lead to a full-out war? Grothaus’ book is chock-a-block of these what-ifs, and luckily, for now, they will remain merely hypotheticals. The page-turner of a book stresses that deepfakes are a ticking timebomb and that we, the public, need to educate ourselves before we herald in a zero-trust society where seeing is no longer believing. “It is only we, in the present, who can act to protect our future,” concludes Grothaus, “and the time is now.”
So if you’re looking for a greater understanding of the wild world of deepfakes, how they are created, their benefits and harms as well as their stomach-churning implications; Trust No One is a great place to start.
Principles for Dealing with the Changing World Order: Why Nations Succeed and Fail by Ray Dalio (Simon & Schuster Ltd), £17.39
Besides making enough money to make King Croesus jealous, Dalio has noticed an overlap between seismic shifts – such as the USA over-taking Britain as the leading world power – and certain factors, such as spiralling debts, socio-political conflict and low-interest rates. That should sound familiar. Across 500 pages and a similar number of graphs, Dalio argues that the fundamentals of human nature and evolution mean we are destined to follow this cycle through to its conclusion. His argument that education is the leading driver of development is particularly valuable, since it is an area in which China is rapidly catching up.
Even more importantly, Dalio provides a handy guide to making a mint from all these changes. But as valuable as his advice may be for your bank balance, his theme is mirrored by his book’s wearyingly predictable circularity. His ideas are fascinating, but they have been expressed in far more engaging fashions by luminaries such as Daron Acemoglu, James Robinson, and Niall Ferguson.
Buy this book if you want an insight into the fundamental changes reshaping our world, but not if you want to be entertained.