You may be so busy getting back to the new normal that you haven’t had time to settle down with a good book. But if so, you’re missing critical insights about tech and the tech industry in a plethora of new books. They can help any of us become better businesspeople and citizens. Here are summer reads every well-rounded Techonomist should explore.
The StartUp Wife by Tahmima Anam
In this clever satire, Anam pokes fun at startup culture. Her book is deliciously devilish and oh-so-meta. The protagonist (the wife) has an idea for an app to help non-religious people devise their own rituals. The app is coded and designed by her, but her husband becomes the fund-raiser, the face of the company and ultimately a sort of messianic figure for the masses of followers. The fictitious companies Anam imagines emerging from accelerator programs will have you cackling. This story of tech as its own god obeying its own masters of the universe is profound.
The Code Breaker by Walter Isaacson
Biology is overtaking tech as the next frontier. And at the top of the innovation pyramid is gene editing. Isaacson’s book traces the intrigue in the scientific community surrounding the CRISPR gene editing breakthrough. through his protagonist, Jennifer Doudna. She received the Nobel prize for her work with CRISPR and genome editing along with her colleague, Emmanuelle Charpentier, in 2020. Who was first to publish? Whose data was accurate? Who was taking the enormity of being able to edit genes and potentially affect the future of the human race seriously enough? It’s a story of scientific intrigue, a cutthroat community that rivals Silicon Valley, a race for world dominance, and women scientists. Like tech’s yin and yang, gene editing can be used to eradicate disease but also to create sci-fi perfect humans. Isaacson is no stranger to documenting innovation. His numerous other biographies have looked at everyone Steve Jobs, Leonardo DaVinci, and Benjamin Franklin, among others. He is our master chronicler of innovation.
The Genius Makers: The Mavericks Who Brought AI to Google, Facebook, and the World by Cade Metz
NY Times technology reporter Cade Metz spins the tale of shaping AI, the arms race for our times, through eccentric personalities mostly working in behemoth companies like Amazon, Google and Facebook. His engaging style and meticulous reporting details the meetings, discussions, and twists of fate that led to today’s neural networks and AI algorithms. It sounds complicated but in his telling is anything but tedious. The narrative hinges on characters like the enigmatic Geoffery Hinton (great-great-grandson of logician George Boole) who forges a theory of neural networks and winds up at Google. You meet San Francisco based OpenAI, a “non-profit” backed by billions of dollars from backers including Elon Musk. Open AI’s GPT3 language has enabled AI to create everything from psychotherapy sessions to journalistic articles. And you visit DeepMind Technologies in London, a subsidiary of Alphabet/Google. Its founder, Demis Hassabis, is also on the cutting edge. Metz’s book is a cautionary tale of frenzied scientists pursuing AI, often without considering the implications, as well as an international race pitting China against the US. As the LA Times review concludes, reading the book “may help all of us challenge Silicon Valley’s blithe dismissal of the world it is creating.” I hope it does.
A Thousand Brains by Jeff Hawkins
Jeff Hawkins was half of the duo that created the Palm Pilot, the first commercially-successful handheld personal assistant. But his passion now is reverse engineering how the brain works. A self taught neuroscientist, Hawkins is a contrarian, believing that you can’t engineer Artificial Intelligence until you understand human intelligence. The secret may, according to his book, lie in “cortical columns,” a part of the neocortex (a part of the mammalian brain). Each column contains upwards of a hundred neurons, and the neocortex contains millions of them. Hawkins thinks cortical columns attach reference frames to objects as well as abstract concepts. Rather than a central control room in the brain, he suggests that these columns negotiate and vote among themselves to help humans navigate their world.
Amazon Unbound by Brad Stone
Brad Stone, Bloomberg’s top technology journalist, just can’t get his fill of Amazon. In fact, he may know more about the company and the perception of it than even Jeff Bezos. In this meticulously researched sequel to his 2013 best seller, The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, Stone takes on the Amazon story in chapters devoted to specific initiatives. Amazon Unbound looks at how Alexa, born from Bezos’ vision of a $20 speaker and microphone whose brains would live the cloud, unleashed a new kind of computing. It documents the failures of some projects (Amazon Fire) and the successes of others (AWS), with attention to the unique processes and analysis that determine every move Amazon makes. Next Day Delivery, Prime Video, the Amazon Go stores, how the company picks its next physical location (including the sad saga of the botched move to Queens, NY)–what becomes clear is that from the top down, Amazon innovates with precision, its focus on the consumer experience while never taking its eyes off the moneyball.
An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination by Sheera Frankel and Cecilia Kang
There’s a glorious canon of Facebook literature including The Facebook Effect by Techonomy’s own David Kirkpatrick and Steven Levy’s three-years-in-the making, well-researched tome Facebook, the Inside Story.
Cecilia Kang and Sheera Frankel both report for The New York Times. Frenkel covers cybersecurity while Kang focuses on regulatory issues. They capture Facebook’s story in the critical era between the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the Jan 6th insurrection — perhaps the most fraught time in the company’s history. Frenkel and Kang conclude that Zuckerberg tends to believe that free speech will drown out bad speech, which, given the evidence, seems incredibly naive. In an NPR interview with Terry Gross, Frenkel says “Trump had over 30 million (Facebook) followers. He not only managed to bring audience and relevancy to Facebook, he created this constant sort of churning stream of information that people couldn’t help take their eyes off of.” The book outlines just how good Trump was for Facebook’s business as well as just how much the company could have clamped down on hate groups before the insurrections but chose not to. It’s an object lesson in the fraught dangers of navigating between free speech, disinformation and personal privacy.
The Every by Dave Eggers
Marvel Comics meets Big Tech. Remember Eggers’ satire The Circle, about a fictitious, suspiciously Google-or-Facebook-like organization that brainwashes the minds of its well-educated, naive workers as it methodically demolishes the privacy of its users? In this sequel, The Circle’s search capabilities get merged with the world’s largest e-commerce company to create the world’s largest company. The protagonist, a woman ex-forest ranger named Delaney Wells, is on a mission to destroy The Every from the inside out. This book should be read at the beach, though sadly the plot is becoming all too plausible.