The Best Tech Books of 2020 Are All About Giving Power to the User
These 21 books about technology and its impact on society are crucial to understanding our fractious future
There was a quiet but serious shift in mainstream thought about technology underway this year, even before everything went to hell. Most years, the release schedule for tech books is brimming with startup hagiographies, founder profiles, tech guru memoirs, and business and management tomes, with a few “critical” titles thrown in — your exposés and polemics and kids-are-using-their-phones-too-much tirades.
This year, which I observed from my high and mighty perch as editor of OneZero’s books department, the ratio seemed to be firmly reversed — the blow-by-blow accounts of tech world goings-on, like Steven Levy’s Facebook: The Inside Story, were considerably outnumbered by works voicing criticism, antagonism, and counternarratives.
Authors have fully metabolized the techlash, in other words. For the last half-decade, the abuses of Silicon Valley giants and the social effects of their products became unignorable to the commentariat, and the catalyzing power of the Bad Election in 2016 ushered in a new era of criticality for an industry that had held onto its halo for most of the new century. It’s obviously not the first year in which plenty of critical tech books were published, but it was one of the first where, en masse, authors who had either thoroughly absorbed that criticism or experienced what inspired it themselves were working in the dominant mode of the genre. (It should be noted, given the tech world’s notoriously masculine makeup, how many of these authors are women.)
2020 marked a turning point in the fight for the user of a platform, not the owner.
Take the nigh-undisputed blockbuster tech book of the year, which was not a rollicking founder bio or a behind-the-scenes tell-all of startup X but a quietly cutting and uniquely lucid memoir about the surrealities and iniquities in the tech industry. It was Anna Wiener’s Uncanny Valley that made the New York Times top 10 books of the year list and landed on countless others. It was subversive but also nuanced and considered; it took the full weight of the products and social forces that tech companies had unleashed into consideration.
The best books about technology this year tended to contain this spirit — critical eyes cast by those who have most deeply felt the landscape blasted by tech. 2020 marked a turning point in the fight for the user of a platform, not the owner. Here are the best of them, in one author and book editor’s humble opinion.
Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener
Wiener’s memoir about being lured into and navigating the tech industry ranks as one of the very best portraits of what life in Silicon Valley is like for the rank-and-file white-collar worker subject to the whims of the founders’ quixotic and profit-driven quests to disrupt this or that business and for a woman subject to its endless flow of toxicities. But it succeeds so wildly as literature because Wiener situates herself as a proxy for the reader’s own likely growing disillusionment with an industry that once promised so much, felt so exciting and new, then laid bare its realities, its ugly reiterations of the same gross power imbalances and excesses as what came before. (The canniest trick is how Wiener writes with a singular voice, wry then poetic, and yet she’s all of us, sifting through the souring accumulated weight of the headlines and blunders and blogs and dominion.)
Because there are no proper nouns, no companies named — a choice that proved not only effective stylistically but also in generating free promotion by inspiring reams of lists and speculations about the references — the effect mirrors our own often hazy memory of these ephemeral products and companies and personalities: startups that blazed then fizzled, platforms we complained about, and founders who may be forgotten but are stitched into the fabric of our collective digitized malaise.
It’s an epic, melancholy book about the nexus of capital and power in an epic, melancholy time.
Read our interview with Anna Wiener and Jessica Powell, conducted just a month or so before the pandemic hit in March 2020.
Lurking by Joanne McNeil
My friend Claire Evans called McNeil’s masterful memoir/history of digital life “a long-overdue people’s history of the internet.” (Having written her own stellar book about the women who built the web, Evans would know.) Though I might tweak it to something like “the first person’s history of the internet” told through the lens of one who’s been so very online — and is often, as we know, a solitary and solipsistic figure. Lurking is both deeply informative and beautifully written, a history not of the exploits and derring-do of the men who built the modern world but of the people on the other end who are left to navigate it.
Like Uncanny Valley, Lurking is striking in its ability to draw on the author’s specific experience to effectively generalize a collective one — growing up and then existing continuously online while making sense of the platforms and products that colonized our attention and our social lives. McNeil writes about her time on early web message boards, then Friendster, then MySpace, buying her first flip phone, and so on — then goes on to reveal the power dynamics and systems animating those products.
It’s a remarkable, impeccably researched book. It might be the best book I’ve ever read about the internet.
We ran a lovely excerpt of Lurking earlier this year.
The Logic book boom:
What Tech Calls Thinking by Adrian Daub
Blockchain Chicken Farm by Xiaowei Wang
Voices From the Valley by Ben Tarnoff and Moira Weigel
Subprime Attention Crisis by Tim Hwang
Mixing a compelling academic critique of technology with popular history and incisive journalism, Logic is one of the best new tech publications going. Hell, it’s one of the best new publications going period.
This year, Logic partnered with Farrar, Straus & Giroux to release four short books — and I am here to swear on my life that every single one of them is good. What Tech Calls Thinking, by Stanford professor Adrian Daub, is maybe the most outright pleasurable; an erudite yet hilarious and barbed takedown of the philosophies that many of Silicon Valley’s elite use to construct their worldviews. Blockchain Chicken Farm is up there, too; it’s a wonderful, eye-opening tour of the technological landscape in rural China, where an economic development plan designed by the central government to spur the areas outside its megacities into becoming innovation hubs. (Sound familiar?) It’s a vital book about a poorly understood place.
This year, ‘Logic’ partnered with Farrar, Straus & Giroux to release four short books — and I am here to swear on my life that every single one of them is good.
Voices From the Valley is a series of illuminating interviews with tech workers at every tier of the hierarchy, from cafeteria worker to founder; and Subprime Attention Crisis convincingly argues that the internet ad bubble is about to burst. Hwang examines the architecture and perverse incentives that led us to the precipice and lays out a new way forward or two.
Read the piece Daub wrote for OneZero about the philosophy that enables tech CEO to feel comfortable playing the victim, and our feature by Paris Marx that draws on Hwang’s book to consider the internet after advertising.
Abolish Silicon Valley by Wendy Liu
Liu was a Google intern, then helped launch her own tech startup, and now wants to burn Silicon Valley to the ground (figuratively, of course). She aims to replace it with a model of developing and deploying technology that is equitable and democratic instead of profiteering and oligarchic — seems reasonable to me! Liu’s book is part memoir, part manifesto, and, despite the no-holds-barred title, is an approachable, even breezy read. If the pandemic hadn’t picked up steam just as it dropped, Abolish Silicon Valley would have been the source of much discussion — and plenty of hand-wringing among the elites. I suggest we give it a second wind in 2021.
Read our debate between Liu and Alex Kantrowitz about how to fix — or replace — Silicon Valley.
Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto by Legacy Russell
Russell’s electric cyberfeminist manifesto argued that glitches in a given system offer us a moment to evaluate the system at large — and a unique opportunity to fix them. The myriad, rapid succession of glitches in our corrupt systems made this an irresistible concept in 2020: Black Lives Matter and movements to defund the police rose up in the face of mass injustice, opening up some spaces for genuine reform and expanding the frontiers of possibility.
It’s an urgent, compelling read and one we should take to heart as the glitches promise to cascade in coming months and years.
Automation and the Future of Work by Aaron Benanav
Simply put, this is the best book published about automation in 2020 — and maybe the best of the last few years. Benanav is a sociologist whose research suggests, convincingly, that accelerating automation is not the source of our labor woes despite what the “robots are taking our jobs” futurist cohort proclaims. Rather, the culprit is a chronic undersupply of decent jobs period. The problem is not that robots have replaced too many human workers: It is that developed economies have stopped growing fast enough to provide good jobs to all those who need them in a capitalist society. Workers are more productive than ever, yet output is falling, not rising, in most developed nations.
It’s a bold, crucial, and well-supported call to rethink the automation theory that is roundly accepted as gospel in most tech circles.
How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism by Cory Doctorow
Okay, so we’re a little biased here. OneZero published its first book this year, the short but essential (again, just our opinion!) argument from Doctorow that in order to really tackle surveillance capitalism in any meaningful way, you have to tackle tech monopolies first. It’s a forceful argument, at turns caustic and playful, and it’s eminently readable, too.
Read the online version in its original format, or stay tuned for the print version, which will drop in January.
The marquee big-budget narrative tech tales:
No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram by Sarah Frier
Facebook: The Inside Story by Steven Levy
Always Day One by Alex Kantrowitz
Just because there was a surfeit of powerful critical memoirs, manifestos, and narrative arguments this year doesn’t mean there weren’t also good old-fashioned tech barnstormers in the mold of Hackers or Hatching Twitter or Steve Jobs.
Frier’s well-reported and briskly written No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram beats with a narrative pulse and had much to offer in the way of insights about how the most culturally important social network was built — methodically, calculatedly, and via a massive sale to Facebook. Speaking of Facebook, veteran tech reporter Levy released Facebook: The Inside Story (the two “inside stories” are not related though the companies now are), which, while treading rather familiar ground, offered a new nugget or two about the character and motivation of the mostly impenetrable Mark Zuckerberg. And Always Day One: How the Tech Titans Plan to Stay on Top Forever by Kantrowitz, a friend of OneZero, brought to bear a wealth of new reported details about the inner workings of the major tech oligopolies.
Given that Always Day One seemed, in the title at least, almost diametrically opposed to Liu’s Abolish Silicon Valley, I organized a debate between Kantrowitz and Liu; it took place over the early pandemic months and is a lively, valuable dialogue between two rising stars in tech literature.
From the academic presses and critical tech theory:
Technologies of Speculation by Sun-ha Hong
Too Smart by Jathan Sadowski
The Innovation Delusion by Lee Vinsel and Andrew L. Russell
Algorithms of Oppression by Safiya Umoja Noble
Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code by Ruha Benjamin
There was a bounty of new critical thought about technology and society from the academic publishing press this year. I’ll start with what I consider to be the most alarmingly overlooked: Hong’s Technologies of Speculation from NYU Press. Hong argues that surveillance technologies, from the NSA apparatus exposed by Eric Snowden to the Fitbits we slap on our wrists, are ultimately highly subjective systems — data collection is an incredibly inexact and often highly arbitrary process. As such, it opens up spaces for corporations and users to impart their own mythologies and speculations; sometimes that’s cyberpunk tropes, sometimes it’s corporate marketing materials — either way, we should be aware of these new pipelines as they help create magical thinking about tech that can lead to biases and exploitation down the road.
Too Smart by Sadowski is a deft critical dissection of the rush toward “smart” interconnected technologies, which serve to create a vast, for-profit network of surveillance and data extraction tools for corporate interests. The Innovation Delusion is a long-overdue corrective to the gospel of innovation in Silicon Valley that helps let the final gasps of air out of the buzzword’s already deflated tires.
And in a year that saw uprisings across the nation turn out to protest deadly racist policing — and the militarized and highly technologized forces that turned out to put them down, it felt crucial to revisit the ways our tech itself is infected with racist biases. Though they are not new, I reloaded both Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression, which exposes how and why Google’s search results are (still) racially biased and Benjamin’s Race After Technology, which examines how new technologies can encode old white supremacist ideas into emerging systems. It’s well worth revisiting both.
Read an excerpt of Too Smart and further work by the author here on OneZero as well as an important selection from Algorithms of Oppression.
The books about how technology is frying the planet:
All We Can Save, edited by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine K. Wilkinson
Future Earth by Eric Holthaus
How to Blow Up a Pipeline by Andreas Malm
Finally, there were a number of very good books about the crisis the planet’s facing due to the mass proliferation of some rather old technologies that remain stubbornly in use — coal-fired and gas-burning power plants and the oil-powered internal combustion engine in particular. All We Can Save features essay after essay of pure fire written by the women who cover and comprise the climate movement; honestly, it’s like a greatest hits of modern climate writing. Future Earth is a panoramic vision of the days and years to come under climate change, even if we act commensurate with the scope of the crisis. And How to Blow Up a Pipeline is the provocative book about the climate crisis I didn’t know I needed. It argues that it’s high time the environmental movement adopted more, ahem, aggressive tactics in the name of preserving a livable climate given the abject failure of all other routes to this point.
Read one of the great essays that was adapted for All We Can Save, “Home Is Always Worth It” by Mary Annaïse Heglar, and an excerpt of Future Earth, which also happens to feature Heglar, here on OneZero.