The best books on data ethics (and data politics)

Who am I?

Colin Koopman researches and teaches about technology ethics at the University of Oregon, where he is a Professor of Philosophy and Director of the interdisciplinary certificate program in New Media & Culture.  His research pursuits have spanned from the history of efforts in the early twentieth century to standardize birth certificates to our understanding of ourselves as effects of the code inscribed into our genes.  Koopman is currently at work on a book that will develop our understanding of what it takes to achieve equality and fairness in data systems, tentatively titled Data Equals.


I wrote...

How We Became Our Data: A Genealogy of the Informational Person

By Colin Koopman,

Book cover of How We Became Our Data: A Genealogy of the Informational Person

What is my book about?

We are now acutely aware, as if all of the sudden, that data matters enormously to how we live. How We Became Our Data excavates the early moments of our rapidly accelerating data-tracking technologies and their consequences on how we think of and express our selfhood today. The book explores the emergence of mass-scale record-keeping systems like birth certificates and social security numbers, as well as early data techniques for categorizing personality traits, measuring intelligence, and even the production of racializing data. This all culminates in the “informational person” and the “informational power” we are all now subject to.

Blending philosophy, history, political theory, and media theory, How We Became Our Data presents an illuminating perspective on how we have come to think of our personhood—and how we can resist its erosion.

The books I picked & why

Shepherd is reader supported. We may earn an affiliate commission when you buy through links on our website. This is how we fund this project for readers and authors (learn more).

Exposed: Desire and Disobedience in the Digital Age

By Bernard E. Harcourt,

Book cover of Exposed: Desire and Disobedience in the Digital Age

Why this book?

Harcourt’s Exposed takes the reader inside the contemporary social, political, and legal configurations that haunt our online lives by paradoxically pulling on the strings of our desires and wants. Harcourt exposes how the insidious technologies of mega-cap high-tech coax out of us a desire to expose ourselves, that too-familiar desire to share so much (and so often too much) online. Harcourt is one of the leading voices in contemporary critical theory and at the same time a practicing death-penalty lawyer. He knows both the inside of our political-legal systems and can gain a broad view of the wider social dynamics of social media. 

Exposed: Desire and Disobedience in the Digital Age

By Bernard E. Harcourt,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Social media compile data on users, retailers mine information on consumers, Internet giants create dossiers of who we know and what we do, and intelligence agencies collect all this plus billions of communications daily. Exploiting our boundless desire to access everything all the time, digital technology is breaking down whatever boundaries still exist between the state, the market, and the private realm. Exposed offers a powerful critique of our new virtual transparence, revealing just how unfree we are becoming and how little we seem to care.

Bernard Harcourt guides us through our new digital landscape, one that makes it so…


Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code

By Ruha Benjamin,

Book cover of Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code

Why this book?

Race After Technology develops a crucial perspective on the ethical and political fault lines of both contemporary social media and their longer history. Far from functioning as the neutral technologies that they are often presented as, Benjamin shows how “default discrimination” is built into platform after platform, algorithm after algorithm, and therefore expressed in click after click. If you hold out any hope for technological neutrality in a racially-unequal society, this book will transform your expectations and sober your stance. It will also inspire you to redouble your commitments to building a more equal technological future.

Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code

By Ruha Benjamin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Race After Technology as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From everyday apps to complex algorithms, Ruha Benjamin cuts through tech-industry hype to understand how emerging technologies can reinforce White supremacy and deepen social inequity.

Benjamin argues that automation, far from being a sinister story of racist programmers scheming on the dark web, has the potential to hide, speed up, and deepen discrimination while appearing neutral and even benevolent when compared to the racism of a previous era. Presenting the concept of the "New Jim Code," she shows how a range of discriminatory designs encode inequity by explicitly amplifying racial hierarchies; by ignoring but thereby replicating social divisions; or by…


Files: Law and Media Technology

By Cornelia Vismann, Geoffrey Winthrop-Young (translator),

Book cover of Files: Law and Media Technology

Why this book?

This book dazzles me every time I read it. It will change the way you think about files and how such humble little documents can help rule our lives. Vismann’s Files is not the easiest going, but it is filled with enough history and detail that one can just join for the ride and follow along. The late Cornelia Vismann died too young but she still managed to leave us with this truly transformative account of the relation between law and the data systems upon which all law always relies. Through a careful history that stretches from parchment scrolls to mid-twentieth-century secret intelligence files to the desktop computer, Vismann excavates the way in which the ethics, politics, and legality of social systems are highly dependent upon data designs.

Files: Law and Media Technology

By Cornelia Vismann, Geoffrey Winthrop-Young (translator),

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Quod non est in actis, non est in mundo. (What is not on file is not in the world.) Once files are reduced to the status of stylized icons on computer screens, the reign of paper files appears to be over. With the epoch of files coming to an end, we are free to examine its fundamental influence on Western institutions. From a media-theoretical point of view, subject, state, and law reveal themselves to be effects of specific record-keeping and filing practices. Files are not simply administrative tools; they mediate and process legal systems. The genealogy of the law described…


W. E. B. Du Bois's Data Portraits: Visualizing Black America

By The W E B Du Bois Center at the Universi,

Book cover of W. E. B. Du Bois's Data Portraits: Visualizing Black America

Why this book?

W.E.B. Du Bois is widely acknowledged as the leading activist for racial equality of his generation. But until very recently little had been known of his deep commitment to the pursuit of equality within and through data technology. As Du Bois was preparing notes for his famous 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk, he was also preparing an exposition of what we would today call “infographics” (or what the editors of this volume aptly call “data portraits”) for exhibition at the 1900 Paris Exposition world’s fair. This volume handsomely reproduces for the first time a full-color complete set of Du Bois’s charts, graphs, maps, and ingenious spirals. A beautiful book to live with, it also subtly transforms one’s understanding of the history of racial progress and inequality in America.

W. E. B. Du Bois's Data Portraits: Visualizing Black America

By The W E B Du Bois Center at the Universi,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked W. E. B. Du Bois's Data Portraits as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"As visually arresting as it is informative."-The Boston Globe

"Du Bois's bold colors and geometric shapes were decades ahead of modernist graphic design in America."-Fast Company's Co.Design

W.E.B. Du Bois's Data Portraits is the first complete publication of W.E.B. Du Bois's groundbreaking charts, graphs, and maps presented at the 1900 Paris Exposition.

Famed sociologist, writer, and Black rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois fundamentally changed the representation of Black Americans with his exhibition of data visualizations at the 1900 Paris Exposition. Beautiful in design and powerful in content, these data portraits make visible a wide spectrum of African American culture, from…

From Hieroglyphics to Isotype: A Visual Autobiography

By Otto Neurath,

Book cover of From Hieroglyphics to Isotype: A Visual Autobiography

Why this book?

This book offers a beautiful data portrait of one of the most energetic polyglots of the first half of the twentieth century. Otto Neurath is famous among philosophers for his monumental effort to unify the sciences in an encyclopedic presentation. His metaphor of science as a massive flotilla out at sea repairing itself as it goes beautifully encapsulates the self-correcting enterprise of the sciences. This book offers another angle into Neurath’s life and work. Isotype was conceived by Neurath and collaborators as a universal picture language that can transcend borders, tongues, and divisions. Another grand dream of early-twentieth-century unification, with all its inevitable failings, is beautifully reproduced in this book.

From Hieroglyphics to Isotype: A Visual Autobiography

By Otto Neurath,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked From Hieroglyphics to Isotype as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in information technology, African Americans, and race relations?

6,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about information technology, African Americans, and race relations.

Information Technology Explore 18 books about information technology
African Americans Explore 473 books about African Americans
Race Relations Explore 146 books about race relations

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Map, Exploratory Data Analysis, and Semiology of Graphics if you like this list.