9 Books, Blogs, & Journals for Thinking Well about Tech
Updated: May 5, 2020
This post is adapted from two posts previously published on LinkedIn in 2019.
Tech is so many things. It’s the medical device that keeps you alive and the mobile device that keeps you from enjoying the life you have. It’s a trillion-dollar web of corporate interests and a frontier of possibility for dreamers and dropouts. It’s the joy of human connection and the creeping paranoia of inescapable surveillance. In the midst of all this, evaluating the role that tech plays in our world is no easy task. Even harder is determining what role it should play.
As someone who works in tech, I try to maintain a steady diet of thoughtful content that helps me think through the big questions facing the industry today. Here are ten must-read recommendations that have shaped my thinking over the past couple years.
1. Future Ethics by Cennydd Bowles
This uncommonly thoughtful book explores the intersection of ethics, design, technology, and the future that we’re building every day. Calling on years of industry expertise and careful philosophical analysis, Cennydd tackles thorny topics like algorithmic bias, surveillance capitalism, and autonomous war with clarity and confidence. Many of the practical tools that he shares along the way have worked their way into my practice as a product manager and business designer.
2. Economic Science Fictions, edited by William Davies
I picked up this gem at the MIT Press Bookstore and read it over the subsequent four evenings while enjoying wine and pasta at Juliet in Somerville (which I recommend as highly as anything in this article). It’s a collection of essays that combine the analytical rigor of economics with the boundless imagination of science fiction to explore questions like “can we envisage a viable alternative to money as an instrument for the valuation and distribution of goods?” and “could the divergent utopias of socialism and capitalism eventually converge into a single post-capitalist dystopia of ubiquitous surveillance?.” Those are actual quotes. This book is like the Willy Wonka factory of brain candy.
3. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Frankenstein is so much more than a monster story. It is an exploration of one of the most important questions of the post-Enlightenment world: what happens when humans take innovation too far? Mary Shelley’s tale of scientific hubris and unintended consequences provides a valuable sense of perspective in an age of artificial intelligence, brain machine interfaces, and other emerging technologies that demand serious ethical reflection.
4. Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life by Adam Greenfield
This book is an essential primer on the ways that emerging technologies are transforming the world. Highlights include an analysis of how smartphones effect our experience of reality, a deep yet accessible technical overview of blockchain, and an account of how 3D printing may provide a path to a post-scarcity future. What emerges is a thoughtful and provocative vision of the brave new world that we’re designing every day.
5. Anything by Nicholas Carr
Carr is a freelance writer and one of the most original thinkers about technology and its effects on society that I’ve encountered. His blog post I Am A Data Factory (And So Are You) is downright paradigm-shifting; if you read one thing on this list, make it this. I haven’t read any of Carr’s books yet, but have been working my way through his many articles and blog posts and enjoying every one.
6. YouTheData.com by Fiona J. McEvoy
Founded by tech ethics speaker and researcher Fiona McEvoy, YouTheData explore the effects of emerging technologies on individuals, community, and society at large. The articles here are always thought-provoking, delivering timely, thoughtful analysis on topics that feel relevant to my own day-to-day relationship with technology. This is another good source for original thoughts and commentary that you’re unlikely to find elsewhere.
I’m a recent subscriber to this quarterly journal, but the one volume that I’ve received was filled with fresh takes on topics like online speech, social media addiction, and genetically modified organisms. The New Atlantis has been at it since 2003, asking the big questions about technology and human nature and the practical questions about tech regulation and governance. Articles from the current issue are available for free online so you can try before you buy.
8. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari
Best-selling author and Oxford-trained historian Yuval Noah Harari’s latest work aims to be a guidebook for the future. By analyzing current social, political, economic, and technological trends, Harari provides insight into a remarkably broad range of topics, including automation and the future of work, fake news and the crisis of liberal democracy, and the ethics of biotech and Big Data. This book provides a highly accessible and provocative introduction to some of today’s most important issues.
9. New Dark Age by James Bridle
Equal parts technical paper, history book, and philosophical treatise, New Dark Age seeks to pull back the curtain on some of the most opaque aspects of modern life. By exploring the historical contexts, technical components, and future implications of complex issues like high frequency trading, climate change, and cloud computing, James Bridle sheds light on the shape of contemporary power structures and unseen systems that govern modern life.