Technology is fast. Good books are slow. In the time it takes to write and publish a quality work of nonfiction that explores how technological progress is changing our lives — for better or worse — a thousand startups can bloom and fade. Blink, and you missed a paradigm shift. It’s an old story, well known to both Wall Street and Silicon Valley: making sense of what is happening is a lot harder than quickly cashing in on it.
The good news is that the deeper we get into our digital transformation, the more time smart reporters and writers and thinkers have had to digest the swiftly tumbling kaleidoscopic tech zeitgeist. Of the 20 years since the World Wide Web broke mainstream, 2014 may go down as the best year yet for meaty, meaningful books on the challenges and promise of technological change. Whether it’s the oncoming invasion of our robot overlords, the latest extraordinary advances in cyber-warfare or the privacy implications of social media and big data, we’ve harvested a delightful bumper crop this year. The big takeaway: Society is catching up to the implications of all that the computer has wrought.
Enough preamble — let’s get to the good stuff: Here are my nominees for the ten best technology books of the year, in no particular order.
The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies
By Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee
Make no mistake — the robots are definitely coming. Most likely we still have a few decades before full-fledged AIs capable of writing their own nuanced books (not to mention, end-of-year top 10 lists!) arrive on the scene, yet there is little question that recent advances in automation have significantly restructured job markets and the economy.
Brynjolfsson and McAfee are two researchers at MIT amply conversant in both technology and economics. What makes The Second Machine Age so essential is that it steers a careful course between the two default positions that dominate so many prominent books on technology: on the one side, fear, loathing and panic; on the other, pollyannish triumphalism.
The authors carefully document the latest economic research on how recent technological change may be contributing to growing economic inequality and competitive pressure on workers, while at the same time arguing that there is ample room to translate the undeniable productivity gains unleashed by innovation into widely shared prosperity. But how to make that happen requires action. Society has to make choices: nothing is inevitable. As the robots get smarter, so too must we. Which means, at the very least, beefing up our social welfare systems and investing more in education.
In February, I moderated an appearance by Brynjolffson and McAfee at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club. My closing question to the two men was: so, are we going to figure this out? McAfee said yes. Brynjolffson wasn’t so sure…
The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power
and Culture in the Digital Age
By Astra Taylor
Ranting about how the Internet is destroying culture is easy. Writing a nuanced, fact-based argument that portrays both the pros and cons of technological change as it applies to the ongoing evolution of politics and creative expression, while also outlining a positive path forward, is really, really hard. In The People’s Platform, Astra Taylor executes the task with algorithmic precision.
Her over-riding thesis? Here’s a taste: “Material and social conditions have not given way to will and imagination. Neither the body nor its social context has become irrelevant. The disparities of the off-line world have not been upended and we do not have equal access to the tools of creative production and capacity to attract an audience.”
But I’m not even going to try to summarize the details that bolster those assertions with steel girders — to do so would subtract precisely the nuance that makes The People’s Platform so compelling. Let’s just put it this way: if you’re looking for one single book to introduce you to the complexities of how technological change has affected journalism, music, advertising and privacy, a book that both acknowledges the amazing things that the Internet and computers have delivered unto us, while at the same time making an undeniable case that we can do better, you won’t go wrong with The People’s Platform.
Countdown to Zero Day: Stuxnet and the Launch of the World’s First Digital Weapon
By Kim Zetter
Countdown to Zero Day is an astonishing book. Ten years ago, the notion that state-backed hackers could or would be designing targeted cyber-weapons aimed at crippling nuclear weapon manufacturing facilities would have seemed the stuff of purest science fiction. But in 2014, it’s the stuff of mundane reality.
Zetter displays equal facility in reporting two thorny narratives; the duplicitous struggle by the state of Iran to develop the capability to build nuclear bombs, and the arcane intricacies of state-of-the-art computer virus science. We’ve got weapons of nuclear mass destruction and weapons of digital mass destruction; a geopolitical technothriller that needs no James Bond to make it sexy.
Zetter’s narrative is remorseless. Her reporting is extraordinarily thorough; and the implications are challenging. Because as she prosecutes her case, you can’t help realize that there’s a bigger, more open-ended story worth tracking. If Stuxnet happened, what else is going on? What are Chinese, Russian and American state-backed hackers unleashing on each other? As the world’s infrastructure becomes increasingly digital, every computer and every phone is a potential battlefield. Just ask Sony.
Dataclysm: Who We Are When We Think No One’s Looking
By Christian Rudder
As the founder of the popular online dating site OKCupid, Christian Rudder discovered he had access to an extraordinarily intimate and revealing database: the truths, and lies, that people tell when they are trying to get a date. In this witty and informative book, he tries to make sense of it all.
The top line is depressing and predictable. Guess what: men are sexist pigs, and we’re all pretty racist. But the bottom line is more provocative. The data collected by Rudder is just one sliver of the vast amounts of information that are being collected about us by a legion of online clearinghouses. Rudder’s methodology has been questioned by some smart critics (maybe we aren’t quite that racist!), but the quibbles shouldn’t obscure the larger point — as we blunder through our online lives we are revealing extraordinarily detailed portraits of ourselves to retailers, advertisers, search engines and everyone else offering services through our phones or laptops. Some restraint is probably in order.
Geek Sublime: The Beauty of Code, the Code of Beauty
By Vikram Chandra
In literary circles Vikram Chandra is well regarded as a novelist, with special attention to his sprawling novel about India, Sacred Games. But he also turns out to boast some bonafide geek credentials. He put himself through graduate school as a programmer, and has spent years thinking about code with the same deep attention he gives to his fictional characters.
The result is a marvelous little book, an exploration of how software code works and what it means that is full of unexpected detours into such topics as ancient Indian philosophy, the programming-code-like structure of Sanskrit, and gender dynamics in the software industry. Working with the tools of assembly language and his own immaculate prose, Chandra builds out a theory of creative expression that is both intimate and personal, yet spans thousands of years of history and culture. Things that one may have once thought obscure — how, actually, does code work, become clear. Things one never knew one was interested in, such as the tenth century teachings of the great Indian philosopher Abhinavagupta, become irresistibly engrossing. Geek Sublime is a journey into places you may never have known existed, but is rooted in the code that makes the modern world work. If there’s a better example of how sophisticated our understanding of this new world is, I haven’t read it, yet.