It’s been both a good and a bad year for terminally online tech doomers. The good — if you want to call it that — has come from feeling vindicated. One need not wear a tinfoil hat to believe that many tech companies would love for us to live in their metaverses, where we can attend virtual Justin Bieber concerts, toil for NFTs and go in debt to buy digital real estate. The bad, of course, comes from so many gloomy prognostications coming true. We’re not quite living in pods and eating bugs, but in some ways we’re not that far off either.
Sometimes a book is the best way to help a friend in need. The holidays are also a great time to disengage from the news cycle (sans Protocol) and chew on a few big ideas. The books on this list grapple with some of the worst elements of technology but still manage to provide a hopeful message. None are naively optimistic; they’ll hold up to scrutiny from even the most cynical among us. And hopefully, as has been the case for me, they help put things in perspective so you can focus on what really matters over the Holidays: winning family grudge matches of Catan.
'Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America'
Alec MacGillis, 2021
In a sentence: A story of how Amazon has changed the U.S., told through the lens of workers, families, politicians and cities.
Why it made the list: MacGillis does a masterful job of weaving together intimate personal narratives and big-picture political analysis. The political stakes feel higher because you feel an intimate connection with the lives of those affected by the company’s decisions. In an interview with Protocol earlier this year, MacGillis said, “A big goal of my book is to get the average upper-middle class consumer to reckon more with what's behind the one-click — all the strenuous exertions that that one-click sets off within the warehouses.”
Key quote: “[Amazon’s] approach to tax avoidance was a veritable Swiss Army knife, with an implement to wield against every possible government tab. There was the initial decision to settle in Seattle to avoid assessing sales tax in big states such as California. There was the decision to hold off as long as possible on opening warehouses in many large states to avoid the sales taxes there. Amazon employees scattered around the country often carried misleading business cards, so that the company couldn't be accused of operating in a given state and thus forced to pay taxes there. In 2010, the company went so far as to close its only warehouse in Texas and drop plans for additional ones when state officials pushed Amazon to pay nearly $270 million in back sales taxes there, forcing the state to waive the back taxes.”
'What Tech Calls Thinking'
Adrian Daub, 2020
In a sentence: A skeptical guide to the ethos of Silicon Valley, which traces its present state to thinkers such as Marshall McLuhan, Ayn Rand, René Girard and Joseph Schumpeter.
Why it made the list: As a professor at Stanford, Daub saw firsthand how Silicon Valley entices young, ambitious minds. He told Protocol in an interview: “I worry about the way in which the tech industry is proffered to my students as an easy answer, when I have the impression that it is no such thing.” So while “What Tech Calls Thinking” is ultimately critical of the Silicon Valley ethos, it also appreciates the appeal. Daub doesn’t strawman any arguments, rendering the book a quick (160 pages) and sober guide to tech’s intellectual landscape.
Key quote: “Confronted with the uncanny smoothness of their ascent, Silicon Valley’s protagonists fetishize the supposed break and existential risk entailed in dropping out of college to found a company. Confronted with the fact that the platforms that are making them rich are keeping others poor, they come up with stories to explain why this must necessarily be so. And by degrading failure, anguish, and the discomfort to mere stepping-stones, they erase the fact that for so many of us, these stones don’t lead anywhere.”
'How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy'
Jenny Odell, 2019
In a sentence: A book that seeks to understand why “nothing is harder to do than nothing” and what we as individuals can do to change that.
Why it made the list: The past two years have made “How to Do Nothing” more relevant than ever. Screen time soared during the pandemic and tech companies are vying for even more of our attention. At the beginning of the book, Odell clarifies, “the villain here is not necessarily the Internet, or even the idea of social media; it is the invasive logic of commercial social media and its financial incentive to keep us in a profitable state of anxiety, envy, and distraction.”
Key quote: “After all, it is public opinion that social media exploits, and public opinion that has no patience for ambiguity, context, or breaks with tradition. Public opinion is not looking to change or to be challenged; it is what wants a band to keep making songs exactly like the hit they once had. Conversations, whether with oneself or with others, are different. The book you are reading—as I would guess is the case with most books—is the result of many conversations I’ve had over the course of many years, in my case with both humans and nonhumans.”
'Uncanny Valley: A Memoir'
Anna Wiener, 2020
In a sentence: A young professional leaves her job in New York publishing to work in Silicon Valley, where she becomes first enchanted by and then eventually alienated from the tech world.
Why it made the list: Wiener makes incisive, funny and sometimes tragic observations throughout the narrative. I really enjoyed Wiener’s stylistic decision to refer to people and things in the abstract. For instance, venture capitalist and prolific tweeter Paul Graham shows up as “an English computer scientist who was the startup ecosystem’s closest thing to an intellectual'' and Allbirds become “a pair of unembellished, monochrome merino-wool sneakers.” This makes the book more readable for those who aren’t as fixated on tech culture, and for those who are, it’s fun to guess the references. (If you still can’t figure them out, there’s an unofficial Medium page I discovered after reading it.)
Key quote: “For a long time, I harbored the belief that there was a yearning at the heart of entrepreneurial ambition, a tender dimension that no one wanted to acknowledge. Some spiritual aspect beneath the in-office yoga classes and meditation apps and selective Stoicism and circular thought-leading. How else to explain the rituals and congregations, the conferences and off-sites, the corporate revival meetings, startup fealty and fanaticism — the gospel of work, modernized and optimized? I was committed to the idea of vulnerability.”
'Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet'
Yasha Levine, 2018
In a sentence: A sweeping overview of the intertwined history between the U.S. military and Silicon Valley.
Why it made the list: “Surveillance Valley” will change the way you think about the tech sector. It muddles tidy narratives about innovation and the divide between the public and private sectors. It’s also a useful lens to understand the U.S. government’s approach to tech regulation. For instance, I remember thinking of this book during the 2020 House hearing in which Rep. Matt Gaetz probed Sundar Pichai about Alphabet’s decision to withdraw from Project Maven due to ethical concerns.
Key quote: “Political scientists and sociologists began to dream of using cybernetics to create a controlled utopian society, a perfectly well-oiled system where computers and people were integrated into a cohesive whole, managed and controlled to ensure security and prosperity. ‘Put most clearly: in the 1950s both the military and U.S. industry explicitly advocated a messianic understanding of computing, in which computation was the underlying matter of everything in the social world, and could therefore be brought under state-capitalist military control — centralized, hierarchical control,’ writes historian David Golumbia in The Cultural Logic of Computation, a groundbreaking study of computational ideology.”
Aldous Huxley, 1962
In a sentence: In a narrative that blends fiction and philosophy, a British journalist wakes up on an island and encounters a utopian society.
Why it made the list: “Island” serves as the utopian counterpart to “Brave New World,” which I consider the most prescient British science fiction of the 20th century (sorry, George). The narrative can be a bit clunky — don’t read it expecting a thrilling plot — but it allows Huxley to cover a lot of ground, depicting his ideals surrounding technology, religion, medicine, military, economics, sport and family. Huxley ultimately shows that his utopia wouldn’t survive, so “Island” is less a prescription for structuring a perfect society than a guide on how to live a more meaningful life within an imperfect one.
Key quote: "'For specialization,’ Mr. Menon agreed, ‘but not in the sense you people ordinarily use the word. Specialization in that sense is necessary and inevitable. No specialization, no civilization. And if one educates the whole mind-body along with the symbol-using intellect, that kind of necessary specialization won't do much harm. But you people don't educate the mind-body. Your cure for too much scientific specialization is a few more courses in the humanities. Excellent! Every education ought to include courses in the humanities. But don't let's be fooled by the name. By themselves, the humanities don't humanize. They're simply another form of specialization on the symbolic level. Reading Plato or listening to a lecture on T. S. Eliot doesn't educate the whole human being; like courses in physics or chemistry, it merely educates the symbol manipulator and leaves the rest of the living mind-body in its pristine state of ignorance and ineptitude.'"
'Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist'
Paul Kingsnorth, 2017
In a sentence: Essays challenging the narrative that technology can save us from ecological catastrophe.
Why it made the list: My description sounds bleak, but this book isn’t about the futility of addressing climate change through technology. It isn’t advocating for anything, really. It’s just one man — Kingsnorth — recalling his love of nature, his attempts to save nature through activism and his eventual disillusionment with that movement. Even if you reject its premise, “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” is a worthwhile read given the unique viewpoint it presents and the beautiful, melancholic writing.
Key quote: “Personally, I have always been with Orwell and with D. H. Lawrence: the techno-industrial culture dehumanises us, sucks out of us some animal essence, which it is impossible perhaps to explain but can be clearly intuited by those who are paying attention. But we can’t react to this by trying to globalise or politicise these intuitions. We don’t have to be ‘activists’, campaigning to try and make our particular view of virtual technology the dominant one. This kind of approach is doomed to fail and will likely lead to despair, just as the attempt to prevent climate change and environmental crisis in this way is leading to despair. There are tides in the affairs of men, and standing on the beach ordering the waves back does not make you brave or forward-thinking.”
'The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age'
Sven Birkerts, 1994 (reissued 2006)
In a sentence: Essays about how technology has eroded our capacity to read and, by extension, the literary tradition.
Why it made the list: This is the book I was most excited to add to the list. It isn’t particularly affirming — Birkerts often admits that he’s straining to sound hopeful. But what the book lacks in feel-good moments it more than makes up for with poignant prose. It also bears a sense of urgency as Birkerts suggests the digital age has “altered our cognitive apparatus — speeding up, learning to deal with complex assaults of stimuli — in such a way that we can no longer take in the word as it is meant to be taken in.”
Key quote: “I do not anticipate a future utterly without books, or bereft of all discourse about ideas, or entirely given over to utilitarian pursuits. No, what I fear is a continued withering-away of influence, a diminution of the literary which brings about a flattened new world in which only a small coterie of traffic in the matters that used to be deemed culturally central. My nightmare scenario is not one of neotroglodytes grunting and wielding clubs, but of efficient and prosperous information managers living in the shallow of what it means to be human and not knowing the difference.”
'Voices from the Valley: Tech Workers Talk About What They Do—and How They Do It'
Ben Tarnoff and Moira Weigel, 2020
In a sentence: A collection of interviews with people who live and work in Silicon Valley.
Why it made the list: “Voices from the Valley” is a collection of long-form interviews. The interviewees, kept anonymous, come from many walks of life: there’s a data scientist, a masseuse, a PR person, a startup founder and a chef. The anonymity allows them to be particularly candid.
Key quote: [A tech “storyteller” asked about start-up slogans.] “At the end of the day, very few people in their self-accounting are comfortable with thinking of themselves as deliberately inflicting harm. So those missions might be seen as a form of rationalization, as a way for the company to engage in ‘cause washing.’ The more charitable view is that those phrases can actually help lead to the right outcomes. I’ve seen a lot of situations where the mission has been invoked at a critical juncture and it’s helped refocus things in the right direction.”
'Trip: Psychedelics, Alienation, and Change'
Tao Lin, 2018
In a sentence: A book about psychedelics and Terence McKenna that blends elements of personal narrative and nonfiction.
Why it made the list: McKenna has a legion of disciples in Silicon Valley, where psychedelic drugs continue to play a role in defining the culture (or so I’m told). Tim Ferriss told the New Yorker in 2016 that “ayahuasca is like having a cup of coffee here [in San Francisco].” There are so many books on this topic — Michael Pollan’s “How to Change Your Mind” comes to mind — but I chose “Trip” because of its unique narrative approach. Lin also happened to write “Taipei,” one of my favorite new fiction books of the year, though it wasn’t tech-related enough to make the list.
Key quote: “Before encountering McKenna, I’d felt only alienated, mostly, by the admittedly little I’d read, seen, and heard about psychedelics. People seemed to me superstitious, irrational, hyperbolic, dishonest, and/or incurious when discussing them, even and sometimes especially if they were advocating them. Not unexpectedly, people seemed satisfied to express and embody the same stereotypes—and embodying stereotypes is something I do too, an example being my ‘whatever it takes’ mind-set—about psychedelics that had kept me away from them most of my life.”