This past year was the cap to an exhausting decade and 2020’s list of must-read books reflects that. Yes, there are the usual chronicles of tech companies, but there are also books that attempt to understand the world we live in as a result of the innovations of behemoth corporations.
The 2010s have been characterized by a reckoning over Silicon Valley social values. Founders who built companies from the dirt of their garage floors with taglines like “don’t be evil” are being held to account for their track records. Organizing tech workers are asking their powerful employers to free victims from arbitration clauses and stop equipping deviant executives with golden parachutes when they sexually harass employees. They are asking for equal treatment for contractors. They are asking for ethical use of the technology they build.
These books also provide an opportunity to reflect on living life online and how this grand experiment has failed. Social media has turned out to be more effective at manipulating the masses than connecting them. Rather than democratize education, a greater access to information has polluted the truth in chaotic ways. Rather than freeing us, an onslaught of content has fried our brains and crippled our emotional well-being.
Here are eight books to help you untangle the impact of technology as we head into the next decade.
Mindf*ck by Christopher Wylie
Christopher Wylie, the pink-haired punk that first brought our attention to Cambridge Analytica, has written a memoir of his time at the political consulting firm. Cambridge Analytica is infamous for obtaining detailed information on tens of millions of Facebook users, which it used to sway voting behavior in several elections in favor of right-wing candidates. MindF*ck serves as a guidebook for understanding Cambridge Analytica’s elaborate campaign and the social manipulation mechanisms it used. Wylie also attempts to exonerate himself as he explains how a person who identifies as gay and liberal can be absorbed into a project that directly conflicts with their personal ethics.
While this is a story about the unraveling of one CEO, it is really a bigger story about a certain kind of storied founder that was once held up as gold standard and has now fallen ungracefully from the unmerited favor of the church of Silicon Valley. During his time as CEO of Uber, Travis Kalanick exemplified the kind of brash arrogance that retains its power through equity and super-voting shares. He flouted the law repeatedly on his way to the top, and his company was massively successful as a result. Then came the dissent from the overworked employees inside Uber. A blog about sexism and abuse inside the company set off a wave of problems for the ride-hailing giant, and as the company attracted more scrutiny, its previous above-the-law attitude no longer served it. Kalanick was ultimately dethroned unceremoniously.
Much of this story has already played out before our eyes in news stories (many of which were written by Isaac for The New York Times). But in book form, Uber’s rise and flatline breeze by cinematically. It is an opportunity to realize that while Kalanick suffered brutally in the press, he’s doing fine now, and that oftentimes, the bad guys win.
Sandworm by Andy Greenberg
For a long time, in the U.S. at least, it has been easy to ignore geopolitical conflict. The brutality of war rarely touches U.S. soil, and we aren’t usually forced to think about the devastation it causes elsewhere. But as war goes digital, it is getting harder to retain the privilege of ignorance. Andy Greenberg, a writer for Wired, tells the story of how nations struggle for power online to wield influence offline. “Sandworm” refers to a group of Russia-backed hackers who conducted a years-long espionage campaign targeting Ukraine. It is fascinating historical document that renders the often bland world of cybersecurity as a human tale that warrants our deepest attention.
Goliath by Matt Stoller
While perhaps a dense read, Goliath is a text for our time. The book starts in post-Sherman Act America, when the country decided it was pro-competition and anti-monopoly. Keeping American free of the grasp of monopoly has been difficult ever since (and even more so as the nature of what constitutes a monopoly has changed). If the burden of capitalism feels especially weighty, Goliath will give you the historical context for that emotion.
Ruha Benjamin is an author, adjunct professor at Princeton, and organizer of Just Data Lab, an organization that brings together activists, artists, and researchers to think critically about how data can be used for justice work. In her latest book she draws our attention to the role of technology in upholding the structures of racism and oppression. She calls it the new Jim Code, a play on Jim Crow, which refers to state laws created in the post-Civil War South aimed at separating and marginalizing black Americans. Benjamin dissects bias in artificial intelligence, looking at the ways people who are not white are routinely underserved by technology. She also questions the construction of new data systems that determine who is worthy and who is a risk, and how these decisions restrict who gets access to loans, housing, and all of the other fixtures that comprise a life.
Andrew Marantz, a writer for The New Yorker, sought to find out what the internet was doing to our brains. In his search, he ended up in some of the darkest corners of the web. His book explores how white supremacists and anti-Semites came to dominate public conversation, partially framed around a concept called the Overton Window. The Overton Window represents ideas that society has already come to accept, acting as a way to conceptualize society’s headspace at any given moment. Outside the window are unacceptable, radical ideas. Today, the Overton Window has been heavily adopted by online extremists as a way to push American views in a direction that might once have been considered unthinkable. Marantz’s book looks deeply at these groups, so his audience can understand them, in the hopes that ultimately something can change.
I hesitate to put this book on the list, because it is likely to put you in an extremely nihilist mood. But you will be the wiser. Zuboff details the intricate ways in which your data and future behavior are used for profit by examining how companies have gotten rich off of a resource that is still unregulated (also known as you and me). Zuboff looks at how this happened and tells us where surveillance capitalists want it to go next (hint: it’s nowhere good).
It should surprise no one that author and artist Jenny Odell is a birdwatcher, since it is an activity that is inherently unproductive and yet wonderful all the same. Her book harnesses that spirit into an ode to anti-capitalism that masquerades as a how-to guide. The burnt-out masses know the attention economy as the thing that we are all mercilessly hooked into for our livelihoods. It is made of Instagram posts and Tik Toks and email and articles and blogs and Amazon.com. Odell suggests that if we resist the attention economy and instead do nothing, we’ll be happier for it. It is preaching the gospel of nonattachment for the digital age—and is a reprieve from the tyranny of the last decade.