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The best and worst books on tech and society I read in 2014

Discover some of the best books about technology and society from the past year, along with great science-fiction novels hinting at what's yet to come.

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Image: Alex Howard

If 2014 showed us the reach and limit of technological innovation, the endurance of "Book 1.0" might be a fitting symbol. As the use of ephemeral messaging, social networking, and "glance media" grow, the place and pace of slower, richer, deeper, and better digested books may never have been more welcome.

Last year, I started most days by checking txt messages, email, and social media and ended by reading books and magazine features in print at bedtime. Over the past decade, I've (anecdotally) found that I remember books better when I read them in physical form, versus an e-reader, and it appears that I'm not alone. Over the holidays, a newly published sleep study gave us another reason to put away our mobile devices and reach for a paper book at bedtime.

"We found that the use of these devices before bedtime prolongs the time it takes to fall asleep, delays the circadian clock, suppresses levels of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin, reduces the amount and delays the timing of REM sleep, and reduces alertness the following morning," wrote the study's authors, in the abstract. "Use of light-emitting devices immediately before bedtime also increases alertness at that time, which may lead users to delay bedtime at home. Overall, we found that the use of portable light-emitting devices immediately before bedtime has biological effects that may perpetuate sleep deficiency and disrupt circadian rhythms, both of which can have adverse impacts on performance, health, and safety."

While this study has a tiny number of participants (n=12), it is congruent with a broader body of evidence that finds reading books is good for human health. Our sleep was disrupted by the baby in the house this past year, so it's hard to judge whether I slept any better on nights when I read an iPad before bed, but the available evidence suggests that many people would be better off reading printed material. (If you just can't put down that new tablet you received this holiday, try the f.lux software to change the light of the device at night, which may help.)

If you're looking for a great book to start off 2015, there are plenty of worthy options. As always, editors at NPR, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and The New York Times published their takes on the best books of 2014, along with reader-driven picks from Goodreads and Amazon.com editors' picks.

Medium compiled an excellent selection of the best tech books of 2014, which are a bit different from most of the books that explain how to build or use technology published by my former employer, O'Reilly Media. These are books about how technology is affecting us and how we live, play, think, and work, from Julia Angwin's "Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security, and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance" to danah boyd's "It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens" to Nicholas Carr's "The Glass Cage: Automation and Us" and Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson's "The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies."

Angwin's book is a thoughtful, comprehensive exploration of what privacy means in our brave new world of digital surveillance technology. It's a sobering, deeply reported and personal book, very much a work that reflects our modern age. danah boyd's book on the social lives of networked teens presents years of research into how people, particularly teenagers, are navigating our hypernetworked world.

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Image: Amazon.com
The rest of Medium's selections is now part of my reading queue. That list grew considerably in 2014, despite my best efforts to knock down the pile of review copies that accumulated upon my desk and desktop. I managed to review Walter Isaacson's eminently readable "The Innovators" this winter, finding useful insights on innovation, and Evgeny Morozov's "To Save Everything, Click Here" last summer, exploring the risks of solutionism, but I fell behind quickly. This year, look for reviews of "Accelerating Democracy: Transforming Governance Through Technology" by John O. McGinnis and "what if?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions" by Randall Munroe, among others.

My queue always has some fiction it. I've been a fan of science fiction since I was a boy, cutting my teeth on Jules Verne, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Ray Bradbury, so it's no surprise that I read some sci-fi novels this year, too.

I tend to value both rosier views and optimistic tales of our future, featuring fewer killer robots stalking ravaged wastelands, and dystopian science fiction that warn of best intentions run awry and amok, forcing us to wrestle with difficult ethical issues. A century ago, enormous amounts of wealth, power, and influence were concentrated in the hands of a few industrialists who made fortunes from steel, banks, paper, railroads, and shipping in the Gilded Age. Today, in our Silicon Age, we face both new and old questions about the world they're building, and we move within and without. What's next?

In the past few years, Daniel Suarez has been a master at provoking good discussions. In his most recent book, "Influx," he departed from previous novels in which he explored the potential dangers of artificial intelligence and autonomous drones in our collective near-future, focusing instead on a hypothetical world in which breakthrough technologies and their inventors are locked up by a shadowy quasi-governmental organization bent upon preventing disruptive changes to society. While I preferred "Daemon," Suarez's enjoyable yarn manages to be both clearly written and entertaining.

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Image: Amazon.com
"The Peripheral," by William Gibson, jumps between the present and the future, leaving behind the near-present of his recent fiction. It's a fun ride. The same author who gave us "cyberspace" many years ago takes an idea that is becoming less fictional every day — telepresence through automata, like drones, realized through improved human-machine interfaces — and extends it in both familiar and unfamiliar ways. "Neptune's Brood," by Charlie Stross, leaps even further ahead, to the 23rd century, to a time in when humanity has become extinct and reborn numerous times and now lives on in a post-human state. Stross' dense prose and detail also offers a decided contrast in style to Gibson and Suarez.

While I can recommend those three novels, I can't do the same with "The Circle," by Dave Eggers, a book transparently aimed at pillorying social media, networked society, and the culture of technology companies without demonstrating much understanding of any of them. I read the novel in January 2014 and saw the ideas in it continue to circulate and be cited in popular culture and tech blogs throughout the year. Eggers said that he didn't talk to tech workers, visit any tech company campuses, or read any books about the world he wrote about in "The Circle." The lack of research, familiarity, and empathy showed in this caricature of online communication and collaboration. If you're looking for a fun, weird, and soulful exploration of a near-future rife with social media, Gary Shteyngart's "Super Sad True Love Story" is a much better book.

On the non-fiction side, David Zweig's book about "the value of anonymous work in an age of ubiquitous self-promotion, "Invisibles: The Power of Anonymous Work in an Age of Relentless Self-Promotion," explores some of the same themes as Eggers, from the quantification of social interactions online to the commodification of one's personal brand. The book, relatively slight at 228 pages, is a quick read that runs countercurrent to the social marketing zeitgeist of the past decade. Zweig profiles a series of professionals who quietly enable institutions, commerce, learning, and communications systems to function without recognition. In a time where there were increasing efforts to grab and hold our attention in more places, "Invisibles" is a welcome reminder of the enduring value of simply doing good work.

On that count, Randall Munroe's new book, "what if?" is all about doing good work — and showing how you derived the answer to the question. Munroe, familiar to millions of readers around the world as the creator of the popular xkcd online comic, combined the most popular answers to questions from his website with an equal amount of original material in print. The result is a work that feels like reading the completed sample problem sets of the brilliant, funny graduate assistant who proctored your exams at university, or at least it did to me, bringing back my physics classes two decades ago. (This makes sense, given that Munroe has a degree in ...physics.) "what if?" is a book that you can pick up, read several selections, laugh, and then return to browse further. I found it to be an eminently accessible discussion of frequently absurd hypothetical questions that added good humor with scientific rigor.

Unfortunately, none of the other books I reviewed this year had hilarious comics interspersed throughout the pages, including "The Internet Is Not the Answer," a new critique of digital disruption, technology companies, and a more connected society by Andrew Keen. As was the case with "Digital Vertigo," his 2012 critique of the impact of social media upon society, Keen's polemic isn't that of an academic, like MIT professor's Sherry Turkle's "Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less From Each Other," but rather an educated, literate man who observes the selfie-taking, oversharing masses on social media and sees empty narcissism and cynical profiteering, not connection and collaboration. Keen's citations and references are all drawn from recent tech or business press, compiled to support his blistering broadside on the current culture of Silicon Valley, its billionaire entrepreneurs, and the technology companies they've founded. It's a provocative book, if not ultimately an enlightening one, and comes along at a historic moment when the people and platforms Keen considers have never been more powerful.

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Image: Amazon.com
Many other books focused upon government and technology that I read this year were generally more positive about the direction of society. "Innovative State: How New Technologies Can Transform Government" mirrored the enthusiasm that its author, Aneesh Chopra, brought to his work as the first chief technology officer of the US in the first term of President Barack Obama. In it, he traces the history of innovative uses of technology in government, from the telegraph and the Postal Service in the 18th century to NASA and the internet in recent times.

"What our predecessors did with the technology of the steam age and the early industrial era, we can do with the technology of the information age," wrote Chopra.

Chopra highlighted an inflection point in the early 20th century that transformed the federal government into a "massive, hierarchical, bureaucratic enterprise to check the massive, hierarchical corporations," which included the establishment of the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Labor. After World War II, slow-moving bureaucracies were the norm everywhere, from banks to government bureaus. During that post-war period, the US government funded the GI Bill, interstate highways, federal home loans, and then the space program and a genuine "moonshot."

By the late 1980s, however, Chopra holds that it was clear the 20th century government of centralized bureaucracy wasn't working. In the decades since, while various efforts have been made to improve that status quo, many centralized paper-based bureaucracies still endure, from personnel management to veterans claims.

Chopra began his time in office when there was extraordinary optimism at the intersection of the internet, politics, and technology, leaving the administration before the federal government's highest-stakes online failure: HealthCare.gov. Since October 2013, the Obama administration has taken some important steps to avoid another HealthCare.gov debacle. Chopra discusses what happened in a postscript to the book, which could have benefitted from consideration of the root causes of other government IT failures. Selling the American people (and the world) on the ways that the Obama administration approached building a more "innovative state" may be a taller order, but Chopra makes a strong pitch for remaking public services in the 21st century, from using prizes and challenges in pursuit of open innovation to embracing open standards, open source, and agile development, to releasing open data online. If these ideas and related examples have flown under your radar, read this book.

"Americans have always understood that government is not some sacred entity with which the people should not tamper," wrote Chopra, "Nor is it an evil, external force. It is a tool. Like other tools, it needs to be revised and upgraded."

On that count, professor Andrew Russell's excellent history of open standards in the digital age was also instructive. Even if this hadn't been an academic book, I would have found it uncommonly readable, with an admirable clarity. My central takeaway is that for all of the rhetoric surrounding the "open internet" in recent years (including that generated from my keyboard or mouth) much of the early standards behind it were not quite as open as other histories of technological innovation might suggest. Russell's history explores how the forces behind open standards, open data, and open source software — their embedded ideologies, if you will — have become relevant to open government in the 21st century.

Did you read a book about technology, history, or innovation over the past year that left a lasting impression upon you? If so, please share in the comments: I'm always looking for another good read.

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About Alex Howard

Alex Howard writes about how shifts in technology are changing government and society. A former fellow at Harvard and Columbia, he is the founder of "E Pluribus Unum," a blog focused on open government and technology.

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