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6 Degrees Entertainment

Book Reviews
Gray Matters
By: John Gastil - Cosmic Egg Books, $16.38

Description: Can the digital networks that record our footprints hold us steady when dementia threatens to push us off the path?

This question has real stakes for data analyst Charlie Sanders. His best hope for a father succumbing to Alzheimer’s comes from assistive technology that Charlie helps design for a scrappy startup.

Despite early successes, Charlie has growing doubts about the motives of each of his colleagues - the eccentric CEO in Seattle, the call center guru in India, and the Trump-loving Aussie transplant who keeps the books.

His worries grow when the company takes on a clandestine client who occupies the Oval Office. Will Charlie keep his father and his country on track, or turn a whole generation into glitches?

Verdict: As you may well be able to immediately ascertain from the title of this riveting book, author Gastil writes about our brains, or moreover, how they begin to fail us and come the end (much like the opening of the story being told) how aging has us seemingly focused only on where are youthfulness went, the upcoming pine box, and who we really were and are now.

From the off we see things through Barry, Charlie Sanders’ fathers eyes and still-cognate, for the most part, sometimes, mind. The son works as a data analyst for his own lowbrow startup company whose internet algorithm The Loop contains a newly-created app called The Walker Talker, and which is proud to state that it can help aging people suffering from dementia.

But trust me when I say that Gray Matters is oh-so much more than simply that, for it encompasses a collective myriad of other subject matters, that, if listed in full now, you would swear blind couldn’t ever become so connected to the throbbing nerve story line of a cure-all pill for dementia.

But that’s the beauty of this technological and political allegory-strewn book, for Gastil leads you graciously by the hand down each and every neural pathway, stopping only to open a door into a seemingly tangential subject matter, acting as if to close it, yet leaving it tantalizingly ajar, and then moves forward with the main plot thread; always knowing that a door subplot left ajar can, most always, in books at least, provide some elegantly crafted layers of prose to the subject matter at hand.

As we read on, we learn that so-called “smart devices” are connecting those entwinned with the startup (both receivers and suppliers) to a network that they can easily navigate through the plethora of seemingly endless choices and decisions, whilst providing acute personal guidance on what a person is supposed to do based on their medical history, of course.

But as we quickly discover, there is a glitch in the system, let alone within one of the main components of all this new technology, a chip called The Compass and which controls those very same devices, that ends up actually performing a form of brainwashing to those who use them.

A manmade algorithm that was built to supposed predict how people will think, act, and react, well, as they say, now has a ghost in the machine and without freedom of thinking, without self-awareness, what happens next?

Given that we actually do have those things, currently, Gray Matters will have you thinking What if? for quite a while after you have finished with it, and will, much like it did me, have you re-reading it to pull together the collective warning signs that life within the story had made clear; and that nobody had paid heed to.

Sure, it can be a little overwhelming at times, as Gastil goes deep within certain chapters to ensure that the reader is, quite literally, on the same page as the knowledge that he is himself trying to impart, but nonetheless, Gray Matters is a quite fascinatingly poignant read and will have you interested in reading seamlessly between chapters, the subject matter not only sweeping through you as you turn each page, but infiltrating your mind to make you yourself become more, well, self aware.

About the Author: John Gastil is Distinguished Professor in the Departments of Communication Arts and Sciences and Political Science at Penn State University, where he also serves as Senior Scholar at the McCourtney Institute for Democracy.

He earned his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison but is now a loyal Nittany Lion. The National Science Foundation has supported numerous large-scale research programs in which Gastil served as a principal investigator, including work that led to the publication of Hope for Democracy (2020), The Jury and Democracy (2010), and dozens of peer-reviewed articles.

Gastil has worked on campaigns for federal, state, and local office in California and New Mexico, but his research and writing focuses on improving democracy, not winning elections.

In 2020, UK imprint Cosmic Egg Books published his debut novels, Gray Matters and Dungeon Party (available in all formats). Gastil resides in State College, PA.

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