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Best Books of 2016

Our editors’ picks for the best books of 2016, and some they’re eagerly anticipating.

The Ethics of Invention: Technology and the Human Future
By Sheila Jasanoff

Jasanoff is a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government who methodically questions the “heedless rush” to embrace innovation. “Whose duty is it in today’s complex societies to foresee or forestall the negative impacts of technology?” she writes. She’s no Luddite. But rather than accepting with “fatalistic determinism” whatever technology companies make possible, she is arguing for greater democratic participation in shaping the direction of technology.

Rise of the Machines: A Cybernetic History
By Thomas Rid

Social networks, robot vacuums, cyberattacks, and a president who tweets. Thomas Rid illuminates how much our technologically mediated reality owes to an idea known as cybernetics, made famous by mathematician Norbert Weiner in 1948, that has inspired dreamers in places as diverse as the Cold War-era Pentagon to the free-thinking Californians who kick-started online culture.

Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Failure and Random Fortune in Silicon Valley
By Antonio Garcia Martinez

An often funny and irreverent look at Silicon Valley and its inhabitants from a true insider, Chaos Monkeys is an important reality check on a culture that takes itself far too seriously. Silicon Valley is ripe for skewering and few have done it better than Antonio Garcia Martinez.

Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy
By Cathy O’Neil

After a few years of hype about big data, now we're getting a better understanding of what's at risk in the relentless drive to gain efficiency from analyzing statistics that imperfectly model the world. O'Neil, herself a data scientist, shows the perils of relying on algorithms to guide everything from hiring to policing.

Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World 
By Adam Grant

Wharton professor and New York Times opinion writer Adam Grant digs into what defines the people who change the business world. There are plenty of surprises. There’s a way to procrastinate well, and yes, it can be good (in some moderation). First mover advantage is a myth (be an improver on an idea instead). Doubt can be a motivator. If don’t have time to read the book, here’s Grant’s Ted talk on the topic.

Alibaba: The House that Jack Ma Built
By Duncan Clark

Read about Jack Ma’s path from humble beginnings to building Alibaba into China’s dominant digital platform, a company that would issue the largest public offering of shares in history with its $25 billion IPO. The book gives insight into how Ma has used personal charm and a background as a civil servant to help position the company positively with government authorities.

Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions
By Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths

The authors posit that principles of computer science might help us solve our human problems. Beyond giving insight into algorithms themselves, the book shows how these principles can be applied both to practical matters like how to organize your inbox, and to deeper human challenges, like how to connect with others.

The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds
By Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis has turned his remarkable ability to report and explain complex topics toward Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, a pair of academic psychologists whose work together revolutionized economics, and has had a deep impact on sports, medicine, and other fields. By exposing the impact of human irrationality on the way we think and behave, the pair’s work recognizes and explains why we humans do some of the foolish things we do. 

The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future
By Kevin Kelly

A founding editor of Wired magazine, Kelly optimistically peers into the future with this book about intelligent things. This is not a list of technologies so much as 12 different trends that smartly designed things might support: sharing, tracking, accessing, filtering, and so on. The book tends toward the sweeping and upbeat and, like any prognostication, will be wrong about some things, but it’s likely to be right on many things, too.

The Gene: An Intimate History
By Siddhartha Mukherjee

Siddhartha Mukherjee’s exhaustive history of genetics comes at a time of incredible progress in the field: We have learned to sequence our genetic information with increasing ease, and now scientists want to create a synthetic human genome. Mukherjee explores the ethics of using genetics to make better versions of ourselves.

The Art of Invisibility: The World's Most Famous Hacker Teaches You How to Be Safe in the Age of Big Brother and Big Data
By Kevin Mitnick with Robert Vamosi
February 2017

Kevin Mitnick used to be the world’s most wanted hacker. These days, he’s an oft-quoted computer security expert who runs his own consultancy. Both experiences make him well qualified to teach people how to stay safe online. This book won’t be as entertaining as Mitnick’s 2012 bestseller, Ghost in the Wires, which detailed his hacker exploits, but it will likely be useful.

Lab Girl
By Hope Jahren

This memoir is about scientific and personal discovery, and about what drives human curiosity and passion—in this case, about plants, flowers, seeds, and soil, which Jahren has dedicated her life to studying.

Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, From Missiles to the Moon to Mars
By Nathalia Holt

The first rocket engineers in the 1940s and 1950s were a group of little-known women at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. This delightful true story details how these women “computers,” as they were known then, calculated rocket trajectories by hand and were responsible for helping launch the first American satellites.

The Upstarts: How Uber, Airbnb, and the Killer Companies of the New Silicon Valley Are Changing the World
By Brad Stone
January 2017

Journalist Brad Stone has a knack for profiling reticent yet hugely successful technology entrepreneurs and explaining how their companies have shaped our lives. He did it in his 2013 book The Everything Store, about Jeff Bezos and Amazon, and is set to do it again in his upcoming book, The Upstarts, which focuses on Uber cofounder Travis Kalanick and Airbnb cofounder Brian Chesky. A lot of ink has already been spilled on these and other “New Silicon Valley” companies, but Stone should bring solid reporting and incisive analysis to the conversation.

Rethinking Capitalism: Economics and Policy for Sustainable and Inclusive Growth 
Edited by Mariana Mazzucato and Michael Jacobs

A series of essays by a number of prominent economists spells out why our policies have failed to address rising income inequality, slow productivity growth, and an overall sense that something is wrong with the economy. Not everyone will agree with the fixes, but Mazzucato and her colleagues do an excellent job in diagnosing the ailments. 

Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies
By Calestous Juma

A fascinating historical look at the struggles faced by new innovations, by Calestous Juma, the director of the Science, Technology and Globalization Project at Harvard Kennedy School. It includes chapters on coffee, margarine, and transgenic crops, but has plenty of lessons to teach us about the debates around today’s newest technologies.

A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy
By Joel Mokyr 

Joel Mokyr argues that our obsession with pushing health, wealth, and prosperity to ever-greater heights isn't something innate or inevitable. Rather, it's a relatively recent invention, brought about by several accidents of history. Nevertheless, that drive has become so potent—and it has been so unimaginably beneficial to humanity—that Mokyr says we need it now more than ever if we're going to solve the increasingly tough challenges facing the world.

I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life 
By Ed Yong

Ed Yong is one of the few writers eloquent enough to make a book about bacteria sound beautiful. Both deeply informative and immensely entertaining, Yong examines the complex microbial systems in us and around us with fascination and wonder, prompting the reader to consider the invisible yet innate connections between humans and our environment in a different light.  



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