I read more books on tech and social media this year than I do in a typical year because I was researching for and writing a book of my own. I love reading book lists this time of year, so I figured I should provide one of my own to you. I highly recommend all these books, and I’ve provided some quotes from them to give you a taste. Some of them weren’t released this year, but I read them this year, so they make the list. :-) Enjoy!
5) The Attention Merchants by Tim Wu
This book is a great history of how people have been farming attention throughout history, with a focus on the more modern medium of the internet. Great book and helps you see how the sort of online marketing strategy that takes place today isn’t entirely new.
Individually, we have the power to ignore, tune out, and unplug. At certain times over the last century, the industry has asked too much and offered too little in return, or even been seen to violate the public’s trust outright. At such moments, the bargain of the attention merchants is beset with a certain “disenchantment,” which, if popular grievance is great enough, can sometimes turn into a full-fledged “revolt.” During those revolts—of which there have been several over the last century—the attention merchants and their partners in the advertising industry have been obliged to present a new deal, revise the terms of the arrangement. We may, in fact, be living in such a time today, at least in those segments of the population committed to cord-cutting, ad-avoiding, or unplugging. We are certainly at an appropriate time to think seriously about what it might mean to reclaim our collective consciousness.
Ultimately, it is not our nation or culture but the very nature of our lives that is at stake. For how we spend the brutally limited resource of our attention will determine those lives to a degree most of us may prefer not to think about.
4) Lurking by Joanne McNeil
Of all of these books, this is probably the one with the best pure writing. Joanne is a wonderful writer and she does such a great job painting a picture of the internet and its effects on us. This book was super influential in the book I wrote. Below is a great example of her tremendous writing, I think.
The story of the internet is not a tale of sanctuary taken for granted and trod on. The internet was never peaceful, never fair, never good, but early on it was benign, and use of it was more imaginative, less common, and less obligatory. Blight always lurked beneath the internet’s enchantments, and beside the chaos is wonder. It is an ether that fills the abyss of time and loneliness. It is a venue for curiosity and longing. Life online is powered by traits and conditions in opposition: anonymity and visibility, privacy and transparency, real and fake, centralized and and decentralized, physical and digital, friend and stranger, autonomy and constraint, with an operational clash of values between human ambiguity and machine explicitness. Humanity is the spice, the substrate, that machines cannot replicate. At its worst and at its best, the internet extracts humanity from users and serves it back to other users.
3) Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now by Jaron Lanier
If you happened to watch The Social Dilemma you will likely remember the cool guy with the funny hair. That’s this guy: Jaron Lanier. This is the shortest book on the list and probably the most accessible to someone who isn’t a social media nerd. If you’re new to reading about tech and social media, this is the best book on the list for you to read, probably.
The core process that allows social media to make money and that also does the damage to society is behavior modification. Behavior modification entails methodical techniques that change behavioral patterns in animals and people. It can be used to treat addictions, but it can also be used to create them.
The damage to society comes because addiction makes people crazy. The addict gradually loses touch with the real world and real people. When many people are addicted to manipulative schemes, the world gets dark and crazy.
2) The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff
In contrast with Lanier’s book, this is the most complex, nerdiest book on the list by far. This book is a tome in every sense of the word. I think there are like 200 pages of endnotes at the back. You may remember Zuboff from The Social Dilemma too as she was a contributor. Lots of anti-capitalism sentiment, so be aware of that—I had to skim some stuff on that just because it wasn’t as interesting to me as the tech parts. This book was paradigm shifting for me and I would list it in the top 5 most formative books for me all time, I think.
Surveillance capitalism commandeered the wonders of the digital world to meet our needs for effective life, promising the magic of unlimited information and a thousand ways to anticipate our needs and ease the complexities of our harried lives. We welcomed it into our hearts and homes with our own rituals of hospitality. As we shall explore in detail throughout the coming chapters, thanks to surveillance capitalism the resources for effective life that we seek in the new digital realm now come encumbered with a new breed of menace. Under this new regime, the precise moment at which our needs are met is also the precise moment at which our lives are plundered for our behavioral data, and all for the sake of others’ gain.
1) No Filter by Sarah Frier
Sarah Frier is winning award after award for this book and deservedly so. This book is a great history of Instagram and a fascinating look into the machinations of some of the most influential people and companies in the world. The writer does a great job humanizing this story and it feels far from a dry history book. So good, and I highly recommend it for anyone interested in Instagram and its backstory.
The way the story ended for the Instagram founders, with their tense departure from the company in 2018, is not the way it will end for the rest of us. Instagram is now so entangled with our daily lives that the business story cannot be detached from its impact on us. Instagram has become a tool with which to measure cultural relevance, whether it’s in a school, in an interest-based community, or in the world. A substantial portion of our global population is striving for digital recognition and validation, and many of them are getting it through likes, comments, followers, and brand deals. Inside and outside Facebook, the story of Instagram is ultimately about the intersection of capitalism and ego—about how far people will go to protect what they built and appear successful.