Sonderbooks Stand-out

Sonderbooks Book Review of

Hidden Systems

Water, Electricity, the Internet, and the Secrets Behind the Systems We Use Every Day

by Dan Nott

Hidden Systems

Water, Electricity, the Internet, and the Secrets Behind the Systems We Use Every Day

by Dan Nott

Review posted December 19, 2023.
RH Graphic, 2023. 264 pages.
Review written September 29, 2023, from a book sent by the publisher.
Starred Review
2023 National Book Award Longlist
2023 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#3 Teen Nonfiction

Hidden Systems is graphic novel format nonfiction about some essentially important – but hidden things. In three sections, the author explains, with diagrams and drawings, how the Internet works, how electricity works, and how our water systems work.

It’s interesting that the topics are approached in the opposite order from the subtitle, which is also the opposite order from how they were developed in the real world. But taking a present to the past approach does get the information across.

At the front of the book, the author talks about what hidden systems are and how he learned about them by trying to draw them. Because so much is invisible, the metaphors we use to describe them are important. Here’s a bit from that introduction, which has a small picture accompanying each line.

A hidden system is something we don’t notice
until it breaks.

But when these systems are doing what they’re supposed to,
they become so commonplace
that we hardly see them.

Hidden systems are in the news all the time.
Usually when something dramatic happens.
(especially if something explodes)
But by overlooking hidden systems the rest of the time,
we take for granted the benefits they provide for some of us,
and disregard the harm they cause others.
These systems structure our society,
and even when they’re working,
are a source of inequality and environmental harm.

Something I appreciated about this look at the Internet, Electricity, and Water Systems is that he showed the big picture, too – how these things are physically hooked up and connected around the world.

There was a lot I didn’t know about each system: The importance of data centers for the internet, almost all the physical aspects of the electricity grid, and our frequent use of dams to run the water system.

Okay, this summary doesn’t do the book justice. Let me urge you to read it – and look at it – for yourself. (So much is communicated by the drawings!) The story of how humans have built these systems helps us think about what ways we could modify them to better work with our earth.

As he finishes up (accompanied by pictures):

We often just see the surface of our surroundings,
but by understanding these systems more deeply,
we can form our own questions about their past and future.
The answers to these questions can help us not only fix these systems
but also reimagine them –
creating a world that’s more in balance with the Earth
and that provides equitably for all people.