The best books on how technology is ruining everything

James Poskett Author Of Horizons: A Global History of Science
By James Poskett

Who am I?

I grew up with digital technologies. It was the 1990s. Things could only get better. Or so we were told… I went to study computer science at Cambridge in the 2000s. Switched subjects a few times, and ended up with a degree in the history and philosophy of science. By the time I graduated, life had changed. The world economy was on the brink of collapse, China was on its way to becoming a superpower, and right-wing nationalism was on the rise. That experience absolutely shaped me as a historian and writer. The world of science and technology suddenly seemed a lot more politically fraught.

I wrote...

Horizons: A Global History of Science

By James Poskett,

Book cover of Horizons: A Global History of Science

What is my book about?

We are told that modern science was invented in Europe, the product of great minds like Nicolaus Copernicus, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, and Albert Einstein. But this is wrong. Science is not, and has never been, a uniquely European endeavour.

Horizons pushes the history of science beyond Europe, exploring the ways in which scientists from Africa, America, Asia, and the Pacific fit into the story. Challenging both the existing narrative and our perceptions of revered individuals, above all this is a celebration of the work of scientists neglected by history.

The books I picked & why

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Stand Out of Our Light: Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy

By James Williams,

Book cover of Stand Out of Our Light: Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy

Why this book?

This is a rare book. It is written by a philosopher. It can be read in an afternoon. And it will change your life. Forget your next self-help book. Read this instead. In Stand Out of Our Light, James Williams gives a straightforward (but extremely satisfying) account of the digital ‘attention economy’ and what is wrong with it. Williams used to work for Google, before he realised that things weren’t quite right. After all, the world built by big technology companies isn’t the one many of us would choose.

Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism

By Safiya Umoja Noble,

Book cover of Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism

Why this book?

The online world doesn’t just hold our attention, it also shapes our beliefs. Safiya Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression documents the disturbing ways in which digital technologies reinforce racism. Even a simple Google search isn’t free from bias, often returning straightforwardly racist stereotypes as part of its auto-complete function. The image results are even more shocking. For a long time, Google’s motto was “Don't be evil.” It’s hard to take that seriously after reading this book.

Superior: The Return of Race Science

By Angela Saini,

Book cover of Superior: The Return of Race Science

Why this book?

In recent years, there has been a disturbing resurgence in scientific racism. From conferences at leading universities to government advisors, racist ideas that were supposed to have disappeared decades ago turned out to have been hiding in plain sight. Angela Saini’s hugely important Superior sets out the history and politics of post-WW2 racial science in detail. Combining science, journalism, and history, Saini shows how new technologies like genetic testing are being used to reinforce old ideas concerning racial differences. This is an essential call to confront the legacies of scientific racism that are still with us.

The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy

By David Graeber,

Book cover of The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy

Why this book?

Everyone hates bureaucracy. But no one hated it quite like the late David Graeber. Amongst all of Graeber’s intoxicating books, this is my favourite. Utopia of Rules finally made me understand what exactly was so pernicious about bureaucracy. (Short version: it does the opposite of what it promises.) Graeber also sets out, with typical lucid prose, how new technologies, particularly digital technologies, are making everything even worse.

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 spend a lot of time thinking about the relationship between science in Europe and Asia. Most of my work is historical. But I’m also interested in the future. In AI Superpowers, Kai-Fu Lee gives a first-hand account of the development of artificial intelligence in China and the United States. This book also made me realise that, if you want to know what the future of the digital world will look like, you need to look to China. Even since this book was published, many of the features that Lee describes as characteristic of digital technology in China are now commonplace in the United States and elsewhere. An essential, if somewhat terrifying, vision of the future.

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