Writer Peter Nowak starts his survey of technology with a brave admission: the idea of linking war, porn and fast food surfaced after he saw the lurid sex tape of Paris Hilton...
The video catapulted Hilton's celebrity career. Nowak says the muddy green colours of the internet show got him wondering when he last saw night-vision on screen.
Then the penny dropped: "I remembered the first Gulf War when the United States was liberating Kuwait and the aerial bombardment was all in green hues," Nowak said by phone from Toronto, where he writes about technology for CBC Online.
From Desert Storm to salty scenes, Nowak felt he was on to something - a connection between war and consumer technology, with an immensely profitable detour into pornography.
The porn business, suggests Nowak, is full of innovators quick to sense the promise of smart ideas. The firms are small and, like the actors they hire, "flexible".
The industry jumped ahead as cameras shrunk, and as the internet developed from DVDs and lasers and before that, VCRs. Along the way it powered into the dollars.
Nowak says accurate figures are hard to come by but the porn market is said to be worth US$100 billion (which is comparable to New Zealand's GDP.)
Never a sector to stand still, pornographers have harnessed break-throughs in the field of robotics in their insatiable quest to turn a dollar. Within 20 years, reports Nowak, "anatomically functional" creatures called True Companions could be on sale in certain supermarkets.
The author concedes most people will find the idea of sex with robots sick or disturbing. But he insists robot partners are on their way and they will sell. Changing attitudes will see to it, the author argues, just as taboos against homosexuality and pre-marital sex were swept away.
Besides threatening Steve Crowe's annual line-up of pneumatic women, Nowak suggests the old fear of robots stealing work from humans could pose real risks for the prostitution industry - if it ever takes off.
Apart from Paris Hilton, Nowak acknowledges the role of another woman, Lena Sjooblom, to reinforce his view that nothing sells technology like sex. He describes Sjooblom as the "most important woman in the history of the internet". How so? Well, as an 18-year-old Swede on her OE in America, Sjooblom took time out to pose for Playboy and made the centrefold in November 1972.
At the time, a laboratory at the University of Southern California had a Defence contract to convert print photographs into digital images that could be scanned and sent across digital networks. Pictures from spy satellites and reconnaissance aircraft were tried, but researchers were desperate to use a human face.
One scientist arrived at work with the November issue and Lena's image, carefully folded to conceal the "naughty bits" was found to be just the right size for the scanning machine.
Within the IT geek world, the "Lena" picture is hailed as the world's first jpeg, and the picture became the industry's de facto standard.
Nowak interviewed Sjooblom, who is now a grandmother and lives in her native Sweden. She had little idea about the impact of her photograph. "I'm not into the internet," she told him.
Lest anyone think Nowak's book - with the full-frontal title Sex, Bombs and Burgers - is all down and dirty, he also presents a case that the food industry is the third big force behind technological leaps and bounds.
The 35-year-old says he made the link to food simply because he was getting a bit older and taking a closer look at labels on the packets in his kitchen.
"That got me interested in the sort of technologies which drive the food industry. The more I looked into it, the more I found there were links to the military with food as well."
In a nutshell, Nowak's breezy history assembles evidence that our fundamental needs - to dominate, to eat and to procreate (or at least titillate) - lie behind the staggering explosion in technology and the global economy in the last half of the 20th century.
Devices and creature comforts that we take for granted in our suburban homes - televisions, videos, computers, freezers and fast-food meals - can trace their origins, writes Nowak, to those animal appetites of food, sex and dominance.
Take, for instance, the frozen french-fry: the story behind that seemingly prosaic innovation reveals connections between battles and bellies. Idaho entrepreneur John Richard Simplot had made a bundle perfecting potato flakes, which his food scientists achieved by borrowing tips from the ancient Incas where a combination of high altitude and low temperatures created a natural form of freeze drying.
Simplot used a similar process to dry potatoes, which were then flaked and packaged for reconstituting with water or milk. He earned a fortune selling flakes to the army but needed to reinvent his business when demand dried up after the war. The breakthrough came from a company which discovered how to make frozen orange juice. Simplot's team used the technology to flash-freeze pre-cooked chips, a process which meant fries didn't turn mushy as they heated in boiling oil.
Researcher Ray Dunlap made a batch for Simplot who tasted the invention and exclaimed: "That's one helluva thing."
The potato baron beat a path to McDonald's and convinced founder Ray Kroc to try his fries. For Kroc the appeal lay in an item which no longer needed to be peeled, cut and cooked with no guarantee of consistent taste. The pair shook hands and changed fries forever.
In 1960 the average American ate 36kgs of fresh potatoes and almost 2kgs of fries. By the turn of the century they were chomping through 22 kgs of fresh spuds - and 13.6 kgs of fries, mostly from fast-food restaurants. (Little wonder that the US has such an obesity crisis: one in every four vegetables Americans consume is a french-fry, with servings containing nearly half the recommended daily fat intake.)
But back to Simplot who, says Nowak, never forgot the soldiers. In 1980 he invested in a start-up firm called Micron Technology. By 2006, the Fortune 500 company had 3500 veterans on its staff, 16 per cent of its workforce. When Simplot died two years ago the family's fortune was more than US$4.2 billion.
Nowak discovered familiar seams when he looked at genetic modification. There the products could be traced from the work big corporates like Du Pont and Monsanto did for the American war effort. In the 1950s, Du Pont microbiologist Norman Borlaug created a super wheat plant which ushered in the Green Revolution, and put food on the tables of millions in third world countries.
Fast-forward half a century and a new miracle grain emerged - this time a genetically engineered seed called Golden Rice. But while Borlaug's clever wheat caused a revolution in food production, Golden Rice, which is loaded with vitamin A and could save millions from blindness and malnutrition, remains stuck in regulatory red tape, largely because politicians - especially in Europe - are wary of granting approval to genetically modified organisms.
Nowak concedes that critics of GMOs have every reason to be wary of new technologies, when the potential impact could be disastrous. But he adds: "I take the view that when you've got one to two million kids a year dying because of vitamin A deficiency, then you've got to try everything."
Nowak agrees his account is largely an American narrative. But he suggests it is fast becoming a global story, with China and India at the cutting edge of research and investment. China is pouring money into technological research and even sharing military secrets with the United States. Huawei, a Chinese company, is constructing communications networks for the US - infrastructure, Nowak remarks, once deemed so sensitive that only Defence Department contractors got to work on it.
The author argues that technology by itself is "value neutral" but accepts that, in the wrong hands, can be destructive. In other words, it's what we do with it that matters, he asserts.
Purveyors of porn, for instance, have opened the floodgates to the degradation of women and even babies. Nowak says he talked about the ethical issues with his publishers but in the end they came down with a kind of love-it-or-leave-it approach.
"We decided not to get into the moral ramifications too far ... we wanted to stay away from that and let readers make up their own minds."
TILTING AT THE MAIDEN
In the country's book retail outlets this Easter, Peter Nowak's racy history of technology sits on shelves near another new publication from an industry insider - former Telecom boss Theresa Gattung's Bird on a Wire. It is not the first time the authors have jostled for attention.
Five years ago, when Gattung faced the gravest test of her career after the Government forced Telecom to open its business to competition, Nowak was the Herald's technology editor. It was a job at the heart of upheavals in New Zealand's telecommunications landscape and which meant Nowak frequently wrote - sometimes critically - about Gattung and her management of change.
In her book, Gattung singles out Nowak.
"One journalist in particular went for me during June: Peter Nowak, a Canadian at that stage living in New Zealand and working as a journalist for the Herald," she writes. "I didn't understand the source of his hostility, except perhaps the analogy that if the dragon was being slain, how could you be sure it was dead if the dragon handler was still there. But if the dragon was slain and the maiden was saved, what was the maiden? More investment in broadband?"
This week Nowak denied that he ever "went for her" or was hostile towards Gattung.
In an email from Toronto, he wrote: " I was far from alone in calling for her head. Under Theresa's leadership, Telecom alienated its customers (retail and wholesale) and saw its relationship with the Government deteriorate into outright hostility which, of course, led to a share price implosion and a whole bunch of unhappy investors."
"What the Government really wanted from Telecom was a change in attitude, to treat retail and wholesale customers with decency. Theresa made such overtures publicly after the crackdown in May 2006, but no one believed her. She had lost credibility with all stakeholders, so there really was no other option than for her to go. She should have known that, so playing the victim card now is rather disingenuous."
A MACHINE FOR EVERY JOB
At last count there were 55 million robots in homes around the world.
They vacuumed, mowed lawns, checked domestic security and played with kids. Experimental robots offer promise in surgery and transport.
Peter Nowak took a ride with a robot vehicle called "Boss" in the course of his research.
The brief trip around a Las Vegas carpark was not entirely successful. Despite an array of navigation gear including radar, GPS positioning, laser sensors and cameras, the "Boss" veered off line and crashed into rubbish bins.
After a brief rest, the machine came to life and resumed its journey. The problem, it transpired, was due to a failure of the vehicle's cameras to detect markings on part of the course, which led it to a sharp and unexpected turn.
The "Boss" stands at one - and as yet unproven - point in the multibillion-dollar robot industry. In the very much proven field is the Roomba, a $280 device the size of a large dinner plate - only much more useful. This smart machine cleans a room before shuttling back to its charging station.
The robot vacuum cleaner is the brainchild of iRobot - a company which took its name from Isaac Asimov's collection of science fiction stories about the interaction of humans, robots and morality. Nowak thinks the Massachusetts company is the kind of clever operator that could mint a fortune from the coming robotics revolution.
iRobot really got its start making machines which cleaned the remains of cluster bombs off military airfields. Then it won a US military contract for its PackBot, a robot with tracks instead of wheels and an extending arm designed for myriad uses including detecting explosives or biological weapons.
The PackBot won its spurs in Iraq and Afghanistan, where it pried into caves and enemy camps.
More than 2200 military machines have been deployed, and more than three million Roombas sold. Novak thinks the Nasdaq-listed firm could clean up where bigger technology rivals - such as Microsoft or IBM - might struggle, because they have shown a willingness to seize every opportunity that comes their way.