The best books about data that will blow your mind

Why am I passionate about this?

I can’t explain my lifelong fascination with the strange dance between culture, power, and technology. Maybe it’s because I grew up as a math whiz with a deep love of music or because I read too much sci-fi under my blanket by flashlight when I should have been getting my beauty sleep. I was lucky to become friends with Jesse Gilbert at the age of 14 - we goaded each other into spending our lives researching, writing about, and playing with tech in a cultural context. We wrote this book together as a way to bring our decades-long dialogue into the public eye and invite a wider range of people to participate in the conversation.

We wrote...

The Secret Life of Data: Navigating Hype and Uncertainty in the Age of Algorithmic Surveillance

By Aram Sinnreich, Jesse Gilbert,

Book cover of The Secret Life of Data: Navigating Hype and Uncertainty in the Age of Algorithmic Surveillance

What is our book about?

It explores the unpredictable and surprising ways in which surveillance, AI, and ubiquitous algorithms impact our culture and society in the age of global networks. Its basic premise: no matter what form data takes, and what purpose we think it’s being used for, data will always have a secret life. How this data will be used, by other people in other times and places, has profound implications for every aspect of our lives—our relationships, our professions, and our politics.

Cutting through the hype and hopelessness that so often inform discussions of data and society, The Secret Life of Data demonstrates how readers can play an active part in shaping how digital technology influences their lives and the world at large.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of Labyrinths

Aram Sinnreich Why did I love this book?

Shortly after college, I was at a house party, and I headed into one of the hosts’ bedrooms to escape the ruckus. This book was sitting on their desk, and the cover looked intriguing, so I picked it up and started reading. I must have been there for an hour or more, reading story after story, while the party raged outside the door. 

Reading Borges felt like the discovery of the wellspring from whence everything else I loved had sprung. Here was fiction written in the earliest moments of the data revolution, fearlessly pursuing infinity and somehow capturing it so efficiently that it could be contained within a few pages of printed text.

Of course, “The Library of Babel” had been a touchstone in computer science and information science circles long before I discovered it, and it’s still the best shorthand way to express certain important concepts. It might be the single most insightful work of fiction about the internet, even though it was first published in 1941 (the same year that digital computing pioneer Alan Turing published The Applications of Probability to Cryptography).

Anyone with an interest in data science, statistics, information science, probability theory, or head-trippy speculative fictional narrative should have a copy of this book on their bedside table.

By Jorge Luis Borges,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked Labyrinths as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The groundbreaking trans-genre work of Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) has been insinuating itself into the structure, stance, and very breath of world literature for well over half a century. Multi-layered, self-referential, elusive, and allusive writing is now frequently labeled Borgesian. Umberto Eco's international bestseller, The Name of the Rose, is, on one level, an elaborate improvisation on Borges' fiction "The Library," which American readers first encountered in the original 1962 New Directions publication of Labyrinths.

This new edition of Labyrinths, the classic representative selection of Borges' writing edited by Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby (in translations…

Book cover of Chaos: Making a New Science

Aram Sinnreich Why did I love this book?

My friend Jesse Gilbert handed me his copy of Chaos in 1992 or 1993, shortly after he read it for a college class. “You have to read this book,” he insisted. “I need to talk about it with you.”

Chaos theory, which is the subject of Gleick’s nonfiction book, has become such a dominant trope in global fiction, the popular imagination, and meme culture that younger folks probably don’t realize how completely new this way of thinking was for most of us when the book was first published in 1987.

In the 1980s, science fiction and popular tech narratives were all about robots and spaceships, with a heavy dose of late-Cold War nuclear anxiety. Then Gleick published Chaos. Suddenly, it seemed like everyone was interested in fractals, parallel universes, and virtual worlds. The concepts of bounded infinities and multi-dimensional topographies opened up not just new types of narratives but a new kind of hope for a future in which we could escape the post-industrial prison of the 20th Century.

The dot-com internet boom was buoyed on this wave of (irrational?) optimism, and helped to fuel it. But I’m convinced that this new era in techno-social imagination was ushered in originally by Gleick’s book.

By James Gleick,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Chaos as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Uncover one of the most exciting frontiers of modern physics in this fascinating, insightful and accessible overview of Chaos theory.

'An exceedingly readable introduction to a new intellectual world' Observer

From the turbulence of the weather to the complicated rythmns of the human heart, 'chaos' is at the centre of our day to day lives. Cutting across several scientific disciplines, James Gleick explores and elucidates the science of the unpredicatable with an immensely readable narrative style and flair.

'An awe-inspiring book. Reading Chaos gave me the sensation that someone had just found the light-switch' Douglas Adams

Book cover of Distributed Blackness: African American Cybercultures

Aram Sinnreich Why did I love this book?

André Brock gives no fucks and takes none. As an academic, so many of the books I read—even the good ones—are couched in cautious language and speak from an imaginary non-place of dispassionate objectivity. Brock throws all that out the window and writes an impassioned, embodied, joyful, agitated, confusing, brilliant, opinionated, insightful, and ultimately, empirically supportable book, in his own unmistakable voice, about how and why Black people use the internet.

Though the book has many valuable findings and has already changed the practice of internet studies since its publication, the thing I love most about it is Brock’s own playfulness and his celebration of the social and political value of playfulness.

His key point is that data aren’t objective or neutral and that computing machines aren’t cold and calculating (even if that’s their job). Data and computers, he argues, are made by people and used by people, and the way we use these tools helps us express our identities and strengthen our communities — even when they’ve been designed to prevent us from doing so.

By Andre Brock, Jr.,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Distributed Blackness as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner, 2021 Harry Shaw and Katrina Hazzard-Donald Award for Outstanding Work in African-American Popular Culture Studies, given by the Popular Culture Association
Winner, 2021 Nancy Baym Annual Book Award, given by the Association of Internet Researchers

An explanation of the digital practices of the Black Internet
From BlackPlanet to #BlackGirlMagic, Distributed Blackness places Blackness at the very center of internet culture. Andre Brock Jr. claims issues of race and ethnicity as inextricable from and formative of contemporary digital culture in the United States. Distributed Blackness analyzes a host of platforms and practices (from Black Twitter to Instagram, YouTube, and app…

Book cover of The Internet in Everything: Freedom and Security in a World with No Off Switch

Aram Sinnreich Why did I love this book?

Full disclosure: Laura DeNardis is a good friend and former colleague of mine. But I was a fan before I was a friend, and thus far, The Internet In Everything is her crowning achievement, so I feel very comfortable listing it here as an absolute must-read.

When Laura told me she was going to write this book, my first thought was, “I wish I’d thought of that!” and my second thought, a nanosecond later, was, “Thank goodness I didn’t because she’ll do it a million times better.”

DeNardis is the reigning monarch of Internet Governance Studies, meaning she researches all the weird laws, policies, technologies, businesses, agencies, and practices that have built the internet and keep it ticking. You’d think the subject would be boring or impenetrable to us mere mortals, but her genius is in making it not only understandable but downright fascinating.

She understands the internet the way surgeons understand the human body or the way musicologists understand a song — from the inside out, with the ability to focus on every scale while never losing sight of the whole thing. And by the time you finish the book, you’ll feel like you do, too.

By Laura DeNardis,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Internet in Everything as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A compelling argument that the Internet of things threatens human rights and security

"Sobering and important."-Financial Times, "Best Books of 2020: Technology"

The Internet has leapt from human-facing display screens into the material objects all around us. In this so-called Internet of things-connecting everything from cars to cardiac monitors to home appliances-there is no longer a meaningful distinction between physical and virtual worlds. Everything is connected. The social and economic benefits are tremendous, but there is a downside: an outage in cyberspace can result not only in loss of communication but also potentially in loss of life.

Control of this…

Book cover of Proving Ground: The Untold Story of the Six Women Who Programmed the World's First Modern Computer

Aram Sinnreich Why did I love this book?

I’ve always been a big fan of books that explode the “great man” myth and lift the curtains to show all of the unsung heroes behind history’s greatest accomplishments. The sociologist Howard Becker’s classic Art Worlds did this for creative professions, and Kathy Kleiman’s Proving Ground does the same thing for digital computers.

The birth of modern computing is usually credited to the mathematician Alan Turing. But the actual work of programming the world’s first general purpose digital computer, named ENIAC, was undertaken by six remarkable women mathematicians (Kathleen McNulty, Jean Jennings Bartik, Frances Elizabeth Snyder, Frances Bilas Spence, Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer and Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum) whose names were left out of the history books.

Author Kathy Kleiman has made it her life’s work to restore these trailblazers to their rightful place at the beginning of the data revolution that has radically changed global society over the past 80 years. In a global digital computing industry still plagued with sexism and credited to erstwhile “great men,” this book is a breath of fresh air and a welcome correction to the history books. 

By Kathy Kleiman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Proving Ground as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A fascinating, forgotten story of the six brilliant women who launched modern computing.

As the Cold War began, America's race for tech supremacy was taking off. Experts rushed to complete the top-secret computing research started during World War II, among them six gifted mathematicians: a patriotic Quaker, a Jewish bookworm, a Yugoslav genius, a native Gaelic speaker, a sophomore from the Bronx, and a farmer's daughter from Missouri. Their mission? Programming the world's first and only supercomputer-before any code or programming languages existed.

These pioneers triumphed against sexist attitudes and huge technical challenges to invent computer programming, yet their monumental…

You might also like...

The Oracle of Spring Garden Road

By Norrin M. Ripsman,

Book cover of The Oracle of Spring Garden Road

Norrin M. Ripsman Author Of The Oracle of Spring Garden Road

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Too often, I find that novelists force the endings of their books in ways that aren’t true to their characters, the stories, or their settings. Often, they do so to provide the Hollywood ending that many readers crave. That always leaves me cold. I love novels whose characters are complex, human, and believable and interact with their setting and the story in ways that do not stretch credulity. This is how I try to approach my own writing and was foremost in my mind as I set out to write my own book.

Norrin's book list on novels that nail the endings

What is my book about?

The Oracle of Spring Garden Road explores the life and singular worldview of “Crazy Eddie,” a brilliant, highly-educated homeless man who panhandles in front of a downtown bank in a coastal town.

Eddie is a local enigma. Who is he? Where did he come from? What brought him to a life on the streets? A dizzying ride between past and present, the novel unravels these mysteries, just as Eddie has decided to return to society after two decades on the streets, with the help of Jane, a woman whose intelligence and integrity rival his own. Will he succeed, or is it too late?

In the tradition of Graham Greene, this is a book about love, betrayal, and life’s heavenly music

The Oracle of Spring Garden Road

By Norrin M. Ripsman,

What is this book about?

“Crazy Eddie” is a homeless man who inhabits two squares of pavement in front of a bank in downtown Halifax, Nova Scotia. In this makeshift office, he panhandles and dispenses his peerless wisdom. Well-educated, fiercely intelligent with a passionate interest in philosophy and a profound love of nature, Eddie is an enigma for the locals. Who is he? Where did he come from? What brought him to a life on the streets? Though rumors abound, none capture the unique worldview and singular character that led him to withdraw from the perfidy and corruption of human beings. Just as Eddie has…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in communication, chaos theory, and programmers?

11,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about communication, chaos theory, and programmers.

Communication Explore 66 books about communication
Chaos Theory Explore 9 books about chaos theory
Programmers Explore 22 books about programmers