Best Books on the Impact of Technology on Society
For most of my life, I’ve been an avid reader of fiction — in fact, as a child and young teen, I grew up wanting to be a writer.
In the past few years, my interests led me toward nonfiction, with a specific emphasis on books that explored the impact of technology on both an individual and societal level.
In response to the volume of information available to us that technology has wrought (a subject of a book on this list), the format in which I read has evolved from print to eBooks and, now, audio.
As technology moves from the realm of the visible to the invisible; embedded, pervasive computing that adds intelligence to even the most mundane objects and experiences — there will be an inevitable, ongoing conversation about the consequences, unintended or otherwise.
The books on this list run the gamut, from unabashed enthusiasm for our coming robot overlords, to heartfelt expressions of anxiety about whether what we’re giving up is worth what we’re getting in return.
In reverse chronological order, from most recently read backwards:
Tim Wu’s excellent previous book, The Master Switch, a treatise on Net Neutrality was certainly a candidate for this list. In this new book he covers a no less urgent topic, that of the history and potential future of the Attention Economy. He explores the origins of marketing and advertising and posits the inevitable and necessary pendulum between utility and invasion of the tactics marketers use to harvest our attention, generate demand and, hopefully, help us discover products and services that we actually need.
Zuckerman challenges the conventional wisdom about the effects of globalization or, rather, how symmetrical and pervasive it really is. In many cases, it has been easier for the effects to be felt in the world of atoms than that of bits. Ambitious, far-reaching and counter-intuitive.
Following Susan Sontag’s analysis of photography and Marshall Mcluhan’s of television, Heffernan explores the impact that the internet has had on broader culture. Taking the position that the internet should be viewed as art, no matter how crude the forms it takes and using this as a lens to view everything from animated GIFs to Twitter to Tumblr.
A quick and thoroughly enjoyable read that dives into insights that Rudder gleaned from user data on OkCupid that exposes the dichotomy between who we present ourselves to be in real life and the truth of who we are, based on how we behave online.
In a remarkably short period of time Uber and Airbnb have gone from fringe ideas to mainstream ways of life. Sundararajan, an NYU economics professor, delves into the wider socioeconomic implications of the dominant players in the sharing economy, start-ups in the space and the ancillary players and ideas, projecting a variety of scenarios of how it will all play out.
An unfortunate, and persistent, side-effect of unmediated connectivity and easily accessible, public, pseudo-anonymous platforms like Twitter is the mob mentality they tap into, facilitate and amplify. Ronson analyzes it from multiple angles, from his own propensity to participate, to interviews with victims of online mobs and fellow perpetrators. He explores whether this is something that is inherent within society or whether it is something that technology has bred.
Christian has an unusual background, a poet with degrees in Computer Science and Philosophy. Putting these skills to good use, in 2009, he participated as a human confederate in the annual Loebner Prize — a competition to determine which Artificial Intelligence chatbot is the “Most Human Computer”. It also presents an award to the “Most Human Human”. Delightfully obscure and willfully niche, the author teases out the wider implications with great style.
Using self driving cars as a starting point, two MIT professors interrogate past and present trends to project the likely impact of autonomous technology on the work force. They look at what the jobs of the future are likely to be and how, as a society, we should prepare for a world that is likely to be quite different from the one we know today.
Virtual Worlds by Benjamin Woolley
Written in 2011, prior to the current renaissance that Virtual Reality is going through, this is nevertheless a seminal work on the topic. Providing historical and philosophical context, Woolley makes an argument for the aspects that separate VR from other technologies and, while eschewing hyperbole, the likely degree of impact it’s likely to have on our future.
The most comprehensive history of computing that I’ve read. It draws a continuum from the Victorian era of Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace’s Difference Engine and how the theories that underpinned it could only be fully realized when technology caught up in the 1940s, with the work that Alan Turing and John Von Neumann did, through to contemporary times. Fascinating to see how long ideas can incubate before they’re brought to life.
Interface Culture: How the Digital Medium — from Windows to the Web — Changes the way We Write, Speak by Stephen Johnson
Among my favorite books on this list as it comes at the topic from a completely different angle and shines a light on so many forgotten and abandoned ideas. Though published in 1997 it’s probably more relevant today than it was then. Johnson, who is now more well known for his PBS series How We Got To Now posits that software engineers, coders and product managers are the true artists and artisans of our current era. That User Interface and Experience design, given the increasing role it plays in how we experience the world around us, is likely to have a more profound impact than even the most revered paintings, photographs, novels or films. Just amazing and, of course, only available as a used paperback.
If, like me, you agree that Michael Mann’s Blackhat is one of the more unfairly overlooked films of the past few years, then this is a book for you. True to form, Mann’s film is meticulously researched and has some of the most realistic depictions of hacking and social engineering this side of Mr. Robot. In interviews with the cast and crew of the film, they cited Kingpin as the primary basis for both narrative elements of the script as well as making it as authentic as possible, which Poulsen confirmed in an interview. Equal parts absorbing and terrifying.
As misunderstood as they are feared (or, by some, ridiculed) the hacker collective known as Anonymous in emblematic of how the loose ties that technology provides can be marshaled to organize people around a common mission, even if it’s more like herding cats than deploying an army. To whatever extent is reasonably possible, this book lifts the lid on several key figures in the early days of Anonymous, many of whom were caught and prosecuted — illuminating how things got started, the extent to which we can function totally online and how fraught and apt to unravel such online existences can be. It shares several players with and makes a perfect companion to the epic Wired article, The Untold Story of Silk Road Part 1 | Part 2
Lewis’ trademarked approach and idiosyncratic style that has served him well in so many other works is used to great effect here, that tracks the rise of pioneering firms such as Silicon Graphics and Web 1.0 companies like Netscape and the man behind them all, James Clark. It gives insight into the prevailing forces behind the the first dotcom boom and bust as well as how companies from that time laid the foundation for, and are templates of, today’s startups.
I could just as easily have put Kelly’s more recent book, The Inevitable on this list but What Technology Wants is more meandering and consequently, more thought provoking and covers much of the same ground, albeit in a more embryonic form. It views technology as a living organism rather than an abstraction of servers and cables. By doing so, Kelly tries to understand what its imperatives are and, by doing so, what the likely consequences for us are.
An early VR pioneer, Lanier has long maintained a dialectic on the balance between humanity and technology. In this book, he asks hard questions about the inherent design of Web 2.0 — its approach to User Identity and the role that algorithms play in our lives.
Turkle’s book splits into two halves, the first of which, somewhat unexpectedly, explores the role that robots, specifically adult care robots, currently play and are likely to play, in our lives. She uses this as a premise to further explore central role that communications applications, from Instant Messaging, to Video Chat, to social media, now play in the world and the impact that this seems to be having on our real world relationships.
Given the size of the video game industry, and the dominant cultural force that it has become, there are surprisingly few books that cover the various aspects of the industry — though David Kushner has made something of a cottage industry out of it and his books Masters of Doom and Jacked are both very worthwhile. But they cover the industry. Bissel’s goal with Extra Lives is very different. He comes at it as a video game player, an addict. It’s a personal testimonial about the ways in which his addiction effected his life, exploring the agony and ecstasy of inhabiting virtual worlds and getting lost in their stories.
How one reads is possibly even more important than what one reads — this is what Johnson posits in this book. In a world of infinite supply of what we could read/watch/listen to, how do we determine what we should consume? The book helps you become a more discerning consumer of media, guiding one away from clickbait and toward primary sources, urging one to consciously introduce conflicting points of view into what you read.