The best books on how technologies have transformed our societies, international relations, and economies

Why am I passionate about this?

In spite of many setbacks, living standards have trended upwards over the last 10,000 years. One of my main interests as an economist has been to understand the sources of this trend and its broad effects. The key driving force is new technologies. We are better off than our Victorian ancestors, not because we have more of what they had but because we have new things, such as airplanes and indoor plumbing. However, these new technologies have also brought some unfortunate side effects. We need to understand that dealing with these successfully depends, not on returning to the use of previous technologies, but on developing newer technologies such as wind and solar power.


I wrote...

Book cover of Economic Transformations: General Purpose Technologies and Long-Term Economic Growth

What is my book about?

A lifetime of economic policy advising teaches me the importance of technology. To this end, my co-authors and I discuss in Chapters 4-5 how 24 important technologies have transformed our lives over the millennia. Chapter 6 locates institutional changes in the Middle Ages as an important cause of the Industrial Revolution that turned episodic into sustained economic growth. Chapter 7 argues that this Revolution did not occur in China because it lacked the key institutions present in the West. Chapters 16-17 consider the policy implications of technology being continually evolving rather than constant or changing for unexplained reasons, as often assumed in economics textbooks.

A guide to navigating the book's more challenging parts (those not referred to above) is available at [email protected].

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of How the West Grew Rich: The Economic Transformation of the Industrial World

Richard G. Lipsey Why did I love this book?

This highly readable, best-selling book explains how the West’s free-market economies grew rich while others stagnated. (1) The West provided the freedom to innovate in products processes and organizations while other societies resisted these activities. (2) The West’s diffusion of economic power from a centralised political sphere to a decentralized economic sphere was essential in establishing and maintaining this freedom. (3) The West’s market-based institutions allowed successful innovators to earn large gains while unsuccessful innovators and non-innovating firms suffered losses. (4) The growth of Western science nurtured economic growth produced by innovators who were typically well-versed in engineering and Newtonian mechanistic science.

By Nathan Rosenberg, L.E. Birdzell, Jr.,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked How the West Grew Rich as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

How did the West,Europe, Canada, and the United States,escape from immemorial poverty into sustained economic growth and material well-being when other societies remained trapped in an endless cycle of birth, hunger, hardship, and death? In this elegant synthesis of economic history, two scholars argue that it is the political pluralism and the flexibility of the West's institutions,not corporate organization and mass production technology,that explain its unparalleled wealth.


Book cover of The Word and the Sword: How Techniques of Information and Violence Have Shaped Our World

Richard G. Lipsey Why did I love this book?

The author provides a fascinating and readable account of how eight technologies transformed social and political-military structures. His four military technologies are: metal weapons, first bronze, then iron; heavy cavalry, whose introduction had much to do with the declining ability of the Roman empire to defeat the barbarians; artillery, that ended the Medieval use of castles as fortresses; steam transport that facilitated spatial movement in a way that foot and horse travel could not. The four informational technologies are writing, that created the first efficient bureaucracies; printing, that spread literacy to the masses; mass media that allowed information (and misinformation) to penetrate deeply into society; and the modern ICT revolution whose consequences were not fully obvious when the author wrote.  

By Leonard M. Dudley,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Word and the Sword as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Dudley attempts to impose a pattern on the entire history of human civilization. He shows how the major transformations in the character of social life have been determined by eight significant innovations: four new ways of dealing with information - writing, printing, mass media and integrated circuits; and four new ways of organizing the applications of violence - metal weapons, artillery, steam transport and heavy cavalry. Military and informational technologies are so crucial because they are instrumental in holding states together, while innovation in itself tends to produce new economies of scale.


Book cover of The Medieval Machine: The Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages

Richard G. Lipsey Why did I love this book?

When we began our research on our book, we were surprised to read challenges to the conventional view we had been taught that the Middle Ages were a time of largely stagnant Western societies. The source of this new view is in several books, including the one recommended here. Gimpel challenges the traditional view writing instead: “The Middle Ages introduced machinery into Europe on a scale no civilization had previously known.” He goes on to chronicle the ingenuity that architects, engineers, and other technicians devoted to innovations in agriculture, light industry, construction, and mining ̶ innovations that anticipated, and were often credited to, later figures of the Renaissance.

By Jean Gimpel,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A close examination of the industrial life and institutions of the Middle Ages and of that inventiveness that laid the foundations for our present technologically oriented society


Book cover of Scientific Culture and the Making of the Industrial West

Richard G. Lipsey Why did I love this book?

Using the modern view of science, many economic historians have sought to diminish the effects of science on the technologies in the 18th and 19th centuries. This wonderful book by a sociologist documents how science, as it was then practiced, pervaded the whole structure of British society, from preachers teaching that Newton had revealed the architecture that God had imposed during creation, to a journal teaching Newtonian science to women. As Jacob puts it: “The role of science…was not that of general laws leading to the development of specific applications. Instead it…[provided] the theoretical mechanics and the practical mathematics that facilitated technological change. Brought together by a shared technical vocabulary of Newtonian origin, engineers and entrepreneurs…negotiated…the mechanization of workshops or the improvement of canals, mines, and harbours.

By Margaret C. Jacob,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Scientific Culture and the Making of the Industrial West as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book seeks to explain the historical process by which in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries scientific knowledge became an integral part of the culture of Europe and how this in turn led to the Industrial Revolution. Comparative in structure, Jacob explains why England was so much more successful at this transition than its continental counterparts.


Book cover of The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths

Richard G. Lipsey Why did I love this book?

This book fills the gap on the place that the State plays in modern technological advances. It agrees with our subsequent research that the non-market sector plays a critical part in modern technological change. As the author says: “From the Internet to biotech and even shale gas, the US State had been the key diver of innovation-led-growth—willing to invest in the most uncertain phase of the innovation cycle and let business hop on for the easier ride down the way.”

By Mariana Mazzucato,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In this sharp and controversial expose, Mariana Mazzucato debunks the pervasive myth that the state is a laggard, bureaucratic apparatus at odds with a dynamic private sector. She reveals in detailed case studies, including a riveting chapter on the iPhone, that the opposite is true: the state is, and has been, our boldest and most valuable innovator. Denying this history is leading us down the wrong path. A select few get credit for what is an intensely collective effort, and the US government has started disinvesting from innovation. The repercussions could stunt economic growth and increase inequality. Mazzucato teaches us…


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Coma and Near-Death Experience: The Beautiful, Disturbing, and Dangerous World of the Unconscious

By Alan Pearce, Beverley Pearce,

Book cover of Coma and Near-Death Experience: The Beautiful, Disturbing, and Dangerous World of the Unconscious

Alan Pearce Author Of Coma and Near-Death Experience: The Beautiful, Disturbing, and Dangerous World of the Unconscious

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

As a journalist, I'm driven to find stories that have not been covered before and to make clear the incomprehensible. I like people, and I like asking questions. I've covered wars and disasters, and on any given day, I could expect to see people at their very worst and at their very best. With my book about comas, I've met some of the finest people of my career, doctors, nurses, and other clinicians who are fighting the system, and coma survivors who are simply fighting to get through each and every day. This is the story I am now driven to tell.

Alan's book list on consciousness that demonstrates there is more to life than we know

What is my book about?

What happens when a person is placed into a medically-induced coma?

The brain might be flatlining, but the mind is far from inactive: experiencing alternate lives rich in every detail that spans decades, visiting realms of stunning and majestic beauty, or plummeting to the very depths of Hell while defying all medical and scientific understanding.

Everything you think you know about coma is wrong. Doctors call it 'sleeping' when in reality, many are trapped on a hamster wheel of brain-damaging, nightmarish events that scar those that survive for life. Others are left to question whether they touched levels of existence previously confined to fantasy or whether they teetered on the brink of this life and the next. Coma is not what you think.

Coma and Near-Death Experience: The Beautiful, Disturbing, and Dangerous World of the Unconscious

By Alan Pearce, Beverley Pearce,

What is this book about?

Explores the extraordinary states of expanded consciousness that arise during comas, both positive and negative

Every day around the world, thousands of people are placed in medically-induced comas. For some coma survivors, the experience is an utter blank. Others lay paralyzed, aware of everything around them but unable to move, speak, or even blink. Many experience alternate lives spanning decades, lives they grieve once awakened. Some encounter ultra-vivid nightmares, while others undergo a deep, spiritual oneness with the Universe or say they have glimpsed the Afterlife.

Examining the beautiful and disturbing experiences of those who have survived comas, Alan and…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the Industrial Revolution, international relations, and the Middle Ages?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the Industrial Revolution, international relations, and the Middle Ages.

The Industrial Revolution Explore 66 books about the Industrial Revolution
International Relations Explore 260 books about international relations
The Middle Ages Explore 406 books about the Middle Ages