The best books that tell a cautionary tale about world-changing technology

Evan I. Schwartz Author Of The Last Lone Inventor: A Tale of Genius, Deceit, and the Birth of Television
By Evan I. Schwartz

Who am I?

Starting college in 1982, just as the personal computer became TIME’s first non-human “person of the year,” I got fascinated by how such a powerful technology could change the world and what other marvels might be next. After all, whenever a new thing arrives, humans make choices of how to use it, and those choices alter life on planet Earth in unforeseen ways. I majored in computer science and became a tech journalist, writing for BusinessWeek, WIRED, and MIT Technology Review. I set out to write the little-known story of how a prior screen, television, was born, wondering whether it would turn into a cautionary tale.

I wrote...

The Last Lone Inventor: A Tale of Genius, Deceit, and the Birth of Television

By Evan I. Schwartz,

Book cover of The Last Lone Inventor: A Tale of Genius, Deceit, and the Birth of Television

What is my book about?

A Brigham Young University science major named Philo T. Farnsworth tells his girlfriend that he’s got a way of capturing lightning in a bottle. The lone inventor drops out of college to try to create and commercialize all-electronic television. Farnsworth believes the technology will educate the public through mass lectures and unite humanity. After Farnsworth’s first major demonstration in 1928, the resulting publicity catches the attention of RCA CEO and NBC founder David Sarnoff, who becomes determined to control television in the same way he monopolizes radio. 

When Sarnoff claims credit for its invention and introduces television at the 1939 Worlds Fair, Farnsworth fails to stop him. And so the power of transforming perception into reality was baked into television from its very birth.

The books I picked & why

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American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer

By Kai Bird, Martin J. Sherwin,

Book cover of American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer

Why this book?

“Father of the atomic bomb” is not the legacy anyone might wish for oneself. Yet that was the plight of Oppenheimer, a leading theoretical physicist in the 1940s. The authors spotlight the harnessing of the “awesome power of the sun” and how heroic he was for his country in a time of war. But then there’s post-Hiroshima Oppenheimer, confronting the consequences of what he had done. He proposed international cooperation over the controls of atomic materials. He thus paved a path for keeping the world safe. In doing so, he made powerful enemies, like the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover, who believed Oppenheimer should not be trusted with government secrets. What emerges is this lesson: you cannot suppress a powerful invention. Rather, the takeaway parallels the Promethean myth: potentially dangerous new technologies are like the fire stolen from the Gods. We must take great precautions as to how they are used, or we should not use them at all. 

Silent Spring

By Rachel Carson,

Book cover of Silent Spring

Why this book?

Credited with the launch of the modern environmental movement, Silent Spring is that rare work that alters the course of human history. Yet it remains revelatory today, due to the author’s beautiful writing and storytelling. Rachel Carson grew up in an idyllic riverside town in Western Pennsylvania, an area sandwiched between coal-fired steel plants that polluted the landscape. She went on to study biology and ecology in college. She had already established herself as one of the nation’s top science writers when she became alarmed at the non-military uses for DDT as a pesticide that was being sprayed widely over crops. Her investigations into ecosystem-destroying, cancer-causing chemicals led to the banning of DDT and other toxic poisons. Carson died of cancer not long after her national bestseller was taken seriously by President Kennedy. The book and her testimony in Congress helped lead to the establishment of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which gave us a shot at preserving our environment. 

2001: A Space Odyssey

By Arthur C. Clarke,

Book cover of 2001: A Space Odyssey

Why this book?

Written in conjunction with the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick’s masterful 1968 film, this sci-fi novel is breathtaking in its scope—moving from humanity’s history to its future, from the discovery of hand tools on the ancient African savannah to the launch of artificial intelligence into space. Arthur C. Clarke, in his year 2000 audio introduction, emphasizes how he set out to create a powerful story that would not go obsolete once humans do set off on space missions. He hit that mark, as both the film and the novel are enduring classics that perpetually serve up an urgent message: do not let our technology be the master of us. We must be masters over our technology. Most chilling, of course, is the destructive AI known as HAL, the prototype character for so many sci-fi tales to come.

The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook: A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal

By Ben Mezrich,

Book cover of The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook: A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal

Why this book?

As with the creation of 2001, this 2009 book was written simultaneously with a screenplay, by Aaron Sorkin for The Social Network. As author Ben Mezrich admits up front, entire scenes and stretches of dialog are made up, making this account of Mark Zuckerberg’s real experiences conjuring Facebook as a student at Harvard more like a work of fiction. While the book is wildly entertaining, it falls way short as a cautionary tale about the social media platform that would end up doing damage to our democracy as a petri dish of misinformation and manipulation. Only at the very end of the 2010 movie do we receive notes of alarm, thanks to the film’s closing song. “Now that you know who you are,” the Beatles sing in "Baby You’re a Rich Man", “what do you want to be?” It suggests that Facebook’s business plan was doomed to be all about the money, not the morality. 

AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order

By Kai-Fu Lee,

Book cover of AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order

Why this book?

I love science fiction about robots and machines with human-like intelligence. But this book is not that—at all. Instead of focusing on the far-off vision of superintelligence that may never arrive, it’s about the many smaller transformations that AI is putting into action in the real world, creating new efficiencies by automating what unskilled or skilled humans do. A Chinese technology investor who headed Google China before coming to Silicon Valley to work for Microsoft and Apple, Kai-Fu Lee urges both geopolitical superpowers to embrace the responsibilities of harnessing AI for good, rather than letting it control us. And so, we may have our ultimate match. The book leads to questions of whether we’ll survive as a species, given that it sometimes seems we’re getting dumber and dumber as the technology grows smarter and smarter.

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