The Best Tech Books of 2017 (Part I)On December 29, 2017 by Sally
In 2017, Silicon Valley’s reputation as a rule-bending-but-ultimately-well-intentioned industry finally attracted some scrutiny. So it’s no surprise that many of the year’s best tech books grapple with the unsavory side effects of our favorite apps and gadgets. In keeping with our year-end tradition, we’re telling you the tech books that are worth your money. (And in case that doesn’t convince you, we’re also giving you a sneak peek: Each recommendation comes with an excerpt.)
In the recommendations we offer you today, Brooke Erin Duffy examines the sexism and financial precocity that pervades the social media influencer economy, and Sara Wachter-Boettcher digs into tech’s many head-scratching oversights (maybe you don’t want your scale to congratulate you via app notification every time you drop a pound!). Meanwhile, Trebor Scholz and Nathan Schneider envision a fairer, brighter future of the internet, and Jason Fagone highlights the accomplishments of a woman codebreaker whose work went for decades largely unacknowledged—still an unfortunate reality for many women in tech today.
This batch of selections also includes Erik Malinowski’s look at how the Golden State Warriors used Silicon Valley-style thinking to skyrocket themselves to greatness, and Zeynep Tufekci’s exploration of how digital technologies are reshaping protests. Check out our second set of recommendations for historical deep dives into the Valley’s past, as well as, yes, a few more ruminations on technology’s detrimental effects on our lives. Just in time for you to actually read as many books as you swore you would in 2017.
— Miranda Katz
Betaball: How Silicon Valley and Science Built One of the Greatest Basketball Teams in History
By Erik Malinowski
It’s a difficult feat to write a sports book that appeals to readers who aren’t obsessives. But with Betaball, Erik Malinowski has done just that—and that’s coming from this non-sports enthusiast. While the book fulfills its promise of showing how startup-style thinking and hard science elevated the Golden State Warriors to NBA glory, it doesn’t read like a report to investors or an attempt to recast sports in Silicon Valley rhetoric. Rather, Betaball is a deeply reported look at seven dramatic years of the Warriors’ team history, zeroing in on vivid characters and suspense-filled moments to deliver a gripping narrative.
READ AN EXCERPT FROM BETABALL
Take, for example, Malinowski’s recreation of the 2016 Western Conference playoffs, in which star player Stephen Curry suffers a nasty knee sprain while going up against the Houston Rockets. The injury was dire: As Malinowski tells it, “There was no guarantee Curry would return at all”—and the entire team’s future is thrust into jeopardy. Which, of course, makes it all the more satisfying when, two weeks later, Curry returns to score a record 17 points in a 5-minute overtime period, securing his team’s victory against the Portland Trail Blazers—and his own title of the NBA’s Most Valuable Player.
Even if you’re not interested in the game-by-game metrics that made the once hapless Warriors into champions—I certainly wasn’t—Malinowski has written a compelling and important case study of how startup-style thinking can be applied outside the tech industry. — Miranda Katz
(Not) Getting Paid to Do What You Love: Gender, Social Media, and Aspirational Work
By Brooke Erin Duffy
There’s a mantra among us crazy millennials: “Do what you love.” And the throng of twenty-somethings that have transformed their passions for beauty, health, or fashion into careers as social media influencers seems to be doing just that. The lifestyle is enviable; the work seems easy. But in (Not) Getting Paid to Do What You Love, Brooke Erin Duffy debunks the belief that these women have it made by illustrating the immense pressure and uneven power dynamics at play.
READ AN EXCERPT FROM (NOT) GETTING PAID TO DO WHAT YOU LOVE
Duffy’s exposé draws on three years of interviews with dozens of social media producers, and the depth of her research is evident in her insights. Her investigation reveals the tireless work and immense scrutiny that goes into every post, which are each painstakingly designed to be both “on brand” and “authentic.” (Many of these posts earn no income for their creators.) The book centers on millennials, but it offers insight to readers of all ages. Duffy’s exploration of sexism, as well as her probe of the gig economy, makes this an interesting and informative read for anyone—even those who aren’t following Instagram’s foodies and fashionistas. — Ricki Harris
Ours to Hack and to Own
Edited by Trebor Scholz and Nathan Schneider
Imagine a different type of Silicon Valley. One where the spoils of the tech boom weren’t concentrated in the hands of a select few founders; where new streaming services and distribution platforms didn’t threaten the traditional revenue streams of creative industries; where on-demand workers didn’t have to beg their algorithmic bosses for fairer treatment. There’s a name for that vision: platform cooperativism, a term coined by The New School professor Trebor Scholz in December 2014. This year, Scholz and journalist Nathan Schneider published a playbook for making that vision a reality.
READ AN EXCERPT FROM OURS TO HACK AND TO OWN
Ours to Hack and to Own is a practical guide for rethinking the future of work and rebuilding a fairer internet. In the utopia that Scholz, Schneider, and dozens of contributors illustrate, the technologies we’ve come to take for granted—from Uber to Amazon and Airbnb—would be refashioned as cooperatively-owned and collectively governed entities. Mark Zuckerberg, they suggest, might put his Facebook shares in a user-controlled trust, so that those billions of people could have a say in what happens with the data that the platform collects. That’s just one of the bold proposals put forth by dozens of contributors, who envision a more just online future. At times, Ours to Hack and to Own may read like a pipe dream—but it’s also a much needed reminder that a better internet is possible. — Miranda Katz
Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest
By Zeynep Tufekci
“Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.” The historian Melvin Kranzberg coined that phrase in 1985, but the aphorism feels especially fresh at present. So it’s fitting that Twitter and Tear Gas, Zeynep Tufekci’s book on social movements in the digital age, is bookended with Kranzberg’s quote. Online protest has a well-trod origin story, and Tufekci chronicles it well. Led by mammoth social platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, the rise of the networked web provided opportunity for dissidents and outsiders to amplify their voices and build community online. Technology alone didn’t launch protest (despite journalists’ sweeping statements) but the systems allowed for new connections, which built into movements, which, in turn, toppled governments, launched leaders, and created a new mode of resistance, birthed on the internet.
READ AN EXCERPT FROM TWITTER AND TEAR GAS
Yet there’s no such thing as a perfect tool. In the Middle East, where social media allowed revolutionaries to document abuse uncensored, “the lack of gatekeepers felt empowering, and it was,” Tufekci writes. But these same tools that upended hierarchy also provided a new one. Social media companies can silence users with a wonky algorithm, narrow terms of service, or a glut of misinformation that buries the facts.
These innovations will likely lead to both grand and catastrophic outcomes which, from the middle of any moment in history, are impossible to foresee. “There are many parts of the world where there was no electricity just a decade ago, and where now even children have cell phones—and there still may not be electricity,” she writes. Tufekci has no unifying theory, but she’s comfortable living with ambiguity. The best we can do is to keep marching forward, while asking the right questions about progress. — Alexis Sobel Fitts
Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech
By Sara Wachter-Boettcher
In Technically Wrong, Sara Wachter-Boettcher holds a magnifying glass to the tech with which we interact everyday. On a case-by-case basis, Wachter-Boettcher carefully analyzes the apps and algorithms that run our lives, pointing out their inherent biases, flawed algorithms, and blatant design oversights. But unlike other doom-and-gloom reviews, Wachter-Boettcher offers solutions. For every failing to which she draws our attention, Wachter-Boettcher also explains how the technology came to be, how it’s managed to persist, and the practical steps tech companies might take to mitigate or repair the damage moving forward.
READ AN EXCERPT FROM TECHNICALLY WRONG
The book takes on Silicon Valley’s tendency to dismiss any user experience outside of a decided-upon norm as an “edge case.” This approach is flawed, and you can see its effects in the industry’s notorious lack of diversity. In reality, we are all edge cases, she argues. Instead, let’s call them “stress cases,” and try addressing them, rather than labeling them as issues on the fringe that are beyond concern. The book moves quickly from one topic to the next, never boring you but never missing a beat. One anecdote after another will have you saying, “Oh yeah! I have seen that!” and will leave you wondering how, even in this post-euphoric era of Facebook, you’ve managed to stay blind to so many of tech’s shortcomings. — Ricki Harris
The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies
By Jason Fagone
The 20th century giant of the dark art of cryptography is William Friedman, whose pioneering work in codebreaking in the 1920s and 1930s would prove instrumental in World War II—and indeed, was foundational in the creation of the National Security Agency. Accounts of his feats usually mention his wife, Elizebeth, who was a partner in his activities. But as Jason Fagone chronicles in his serendipitously timed biography, Elizebeth Smith was very much Friedman’s equal, with a personal story even more compelling than her pioneering husband’s.
READ AN EXCERPT FROM THE WOMAN WHO SMASHED CODES
Fagone is the beneficiary of a previously under-accessed trove of material, including Elizebeth’s letters, daybooks, and other papers. He mines these to document the amazing arc of his subject’s life, often in stunning detail. In a moment straight out of a Dickens novel, a young woman is whisked to a totally bonkers science colony outside Chicago and assigned to help an eccentric matron prove that Shakespeare’s plays were actually authored by Francis Bacon. While working on the project, she meets and eventually marries Friedman—but during World War II she came into her own, leading an effort to uncover the activity of Nazi spies in this hemisphere.
The cryptography the Friedmans’ learned—and invented—was so valuable that even in the late 1950s, NSA agents confiscated their papers because of the secret techniques they explained. But Elizebeth’s story is especially resonant in light of our belated recognition of the struggles of women in tech. As Fagone ably demonstrates, Ms. Friedman was not only crypto pioneer and a patriotic spycatcher, but also an inspiring role model. — Steven Levy