6 Books for Making Sense of the Modern World

Pop quiz: It's 2020, so you should...

a) Invest in cryptocurrency

b) Lament the demise of democracy

c) Plug an AI into your brain

d) All of the above

e) None of the abo-- wait, plug an AI into what?

You don't actually need to answer that. But if you want to have an impact on the world this year, you should at least have an informed opinion about each of those topics.

Keeping up with the latest innovations in technology, politics, and society is no easy task in our rapidly changing world. It's even harder to make sense of the effects -- intended or otherwise -- that these innovations have on the complex global systems that govern our lives.

Here are 6 books that I've found helpful for understanding the present and thinking critically about the future.

Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life by Adam Greenfield

This book is an essential primer on the ways that emerging technologies are transforming the world. Highlights include an analysis of how smartphones effect our experience of reality, a deep yet accessible technical overview of blockchain, and an account of how 3D printing may provide a path to a post-scarcity future. What emerges is a thoughtful and provocative vision of the brave new world that we’re designing every day.

21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari

Best-selling author and Oxford-trained historian Yuval Noah Harari’s latest work aims to be a guidebook for the future. By analyzing current social, political, economic, and technological trends, Harari provides insight into a remarkably broad range of topics, including automation and the future of work, fake news and the crisis of liberal democracy, and the ethics of biotech and Big Data. This book provides a highly accessible and provocative introduction to some of today’s most important issues.

The Fractured Republic by Yuval Levin

Ever wonder how American politics got so messed up? Published 6 months before Trump’s election, this book gives a refreshingly thoughtful and rigorous account of the systems, forces, and ideologies that drive contemporary political society. Powered much more by research than by rhetoric, it provides valuable food for thought regardless of your political leanings.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Frankenstein is so much more than a monster story. It is an exploration of one of the most important questions of the post-Enlightenment world: what happens when humans take innovation too far? Mary Shelley’s tale of scientific hubris and unintended consequences provides a valuable sense of perspective in an age of artificial intelligence, brain machine interfaces, and other emerging technologies that demand serious ethical reflection.

New Dark Age by James Bridle

Equal parts technical paper, history book, and philosophical treatise, New Dark Age seeks to pull back the curtain on some of the most opaque aspects of modern life. By exploring the historical contexts, technical components, and future implications of complex issues like high frequency trading, climate change, and cloud computing, James Bridle sheds light on the shape of contemporary power structures and unseen systems that govern modern life.

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Ben Franklin’s famous autobiography is more than the story of a man. It’s the origin story for one of the chief ideas that has driven American culture for over 200 years: that any individual can pull themselves up from rags to riches if they just have the right character, mindset, and work ethic. This book paved the way for a distinctly American ethical system with good and bad global consequences. It will both inspire you and cause you to think critically about the virtues and values embedded in the American mythos.

Andrew is an MBA Candidate at Duke University's Fuqua School of Businesses. He has previously studied political science and philosophy and has worked as a political reformer and a consultant for tech startups. He loves hole-in-the-wall restaurants, playing blues guitar, and mountain biking with his wife.