The best books about technology and democracy

Who am I?

I’ve always loved technology. I like the constant change, the sense of creativity and invention, of how it can act as an incredible force for good and human progress and betterment in the world. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t tinkering with gadgets—taking radios apart to mend them or learn how they worked; designing electronic circuits for music synthesis; programming computers. But I’ve also always been interested in politics and the complex intersection of technology and public policy. So much so that most of my working life has been spent at this intersection, which is why I love these books—and hope you will too.

I wrote...

Fracture. The collision between technology and democracy-and how we fix it

By Jerry Fishenden,

Book cover of Fracture. The collision between technology and democracy-and how we fix it

What is my book about?

A world of technological innovation and transformation increasingly surrounds us. Yet one of the most important aspects of our lives remains a notable exception: our governments. The result is a growing digital/policy divide, an existential gulf between governments’ capabilities and citizens’ needs and expectations. Meanwhile, adversaries from hostile states to cyber criminals exploit technology to undermine security, stability, prosperity, and trust in democracy.

Fracture explores the recent, current, and emerging landscape to help politicians and policymakers better understand and exploit digital technologies and practices to learn smarterreact faster, and adapt better.

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The books I picked & why

The Hidden Persuaders

By Vance Packard,

Book cover of The Hidden Persuaders

Why did I love this book?

If you think a book from 1957 doesn’t have anything to tell us, think again.

I loved this book when I discovered it as a teenager. It opened my eyes to how we’re all influenced and manipulated in our daily lives. Packard warned us, long before the age of social media, that if we weren’t careful, we’d lose our trust in democracy and our sense of freedom.

It sparked an early, and enduring, interest in how we need to remain externally vigilant, not only to obvious assaults on democracy, but also to less visible forces.

By Vance Packard,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

"One of the best books around for demystifying the deliberately mysterious arts of advertising."--Salon

"Fascinating, entertaining and thought-stimulating."--The New York Times Book Review

"A brisk, authoritative and frightening report on how manufacturers, fundraisers and politicians are attempting to turn the American mind into a kind of catatonic dough that will buy, give or vote at their command--The New Yorker

Originally published in 1957 and now back in print to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, The Hidden Persuaders is Vance Packard’s pioneering and prescient work revealing how advertisers use psychological methods to tap into our unconscious desires in order to "persuade" us…

Future Shock

By Alvin Toffler,

Book cover of Future Shock

Why did I love this book?

I remember first reading Future Shock after buying a battered, orange-coloured paperback edition at a bargain price from one of the second-hand bookshops that once saturated London’s Charing Cross Road.

It hadn’t really occurred to me before how much the increasingly rapid technological changes around us might create a sense of shock—‘future shock’— for some people. It changed my thinking about the influence of technology on our world and the impact it has on people, society, economics, and politics.

Even after all these years, many of Alvin Toffler’s insights and ideas remain just as topical today.

By Alvin Toffler,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Future Shock as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • The classic work that predicted the anxieties of a world upended by rapidly emerging technologies—and now provides a road map to solving many of our most pressing crises. 

“Explosive . . . brilliantly formulated.” —The Wall Street Journal 

Future Shock is the classic that changed our view of tomorrow. Its startling insights into accelerating change led a president to ask his advisers for a special report, inspired composers to write symphonies and rock music, gave a powerful new concept to social science, and added a phrase to our language. Published in over fifty countries, Future…

Book cover of The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

Why did I love this book?

Carl Sagan was a huge influence when I was younger, helping to popularise science, and this book encourages us to be more questioning and critical in our thinking.

One of Sagan’s phrases has stayed with me ever since: “The methods of science—with all its imperfections—can be used to improve social, political, and economic systems.”

In an age when truth and objectivity are under assault, and opinions and prejudice are given as much weight as facts and evidence, we need a more rational, scientific, and objective approach to politics to help restore a much-needed sense of balance and sanity to our world.

By Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Demon-Haunted World as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A prescient warning of a future we now inhabit, where fake news stories and Internet conspiracy theories play to a disaffected American populace

“A glorious book . . . A spirited defense of science . . . From the first page to the last, this book is a manifesto for clear thought.”—Los Angeles Times

How can we make intelligent decisions about our increasingly technology-driven lives if we don’t understand the difference between the myths of pseudoscience and the testable hypotheses of science? Pulitzer Prize-winning author and distinguished astronomer Carl Sagan argues that scientific thinking is critical not only to the…

Book cover of Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy

Why did I love this book?

I found this such an exciting and timely book.

Cathy O’Neill’s exploration of how big data and algorithms reinforce inequality and injustice became my ideal “leave behind” gift for politicians who’d swallowed too much “big data”/“algorithmic magic” snake oil from the tech bros.

Like the hidden persuasion unmasked by Vance Packard in the 1950s, these hidden models increasingly have significant (negative) socioeconomic and political consequences, often for those already most disadvantaged. It’s a reminder of how technology can undermine and poison the roots of democracy.

By Cathy O’Neil,

Why should I read it?

9 authors picked Weapons of Math Destruction as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'A manual for the 21st-century citizen... accessible, refreshingly critical, relevant and urgent' - Financial Times

'Fascinating and deeply disturbing' - Yuval Noah Harari, Guardian Books of the Year

In this New York Times bestseller, Cathy O'Neil, one of the first champions of algorithmic accountability, sounds an alarm on the mathematical models that pervade modern life -- and threaten to rip apart our social fabric.

We live in the age of the algorithm. Increasingly, the decisions that affect our lives - where we go to school, whether we get a loan, how much we pay for insurance - are being made…

Book cover of Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor

Why did I love this book?

From the moment I picked this up, it gripped me.

Virginia Eubanks writes in an incredibly immersive and engaging style, making her book as compulsive as a work of fiction—and equally hard to put down. It exposes the deeply toxic consequences of the way automated decision-making increasingly dominates our public institutions, creating a sort of “twenty-first century digital poorhouse”.

This automated inequality denies citizens their humanity and any sense of agency, condemning them to the sort of negative moral judgments and cycle of decline and despair that would have been familiar to Charles Dickens in his day. 

By Virginia Eubanks,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In Indiana, one million people lose their healthcare, food stamps, and cash benefits in three years-because a new computer system interprets any application mistake as "failure to cooperate." In Los Angeles, an algorithm calculates the comparative vulnerability of tens of thousands of homeless people in order to prioritize them for a shrinking pool of housing resources. In Pittsburgh, a child welfare agency uses a statistical model to try to predict which children might be future victims of abuse or neglect.

Since the dawn of the digital age, decision-making in finance, employment, politics, health and human services has undergone revolutionary change.…

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