This category is dominated by my interest in how people think, and what I think of as "social engineering," which is, broadly speaking, the question of how we might design a better civilization, cooperatively.
Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari.
A sweeping look at all of human history. Did you know that Homo sapiens shared the planet with several other human species? What happened to them? Brilliantly researched and written; it will change your understanding of current human society and all of its major institutions, including religion and economics. Harari once said in an interview "Detachment is my superpower," and that seems about right. He reportedly observes a month of silence every year. Again and again, I wondered why I had missed some obvious thing that Harari noticed. One of his main insights is that our power comes from our shared acceptance of imaginary structures (the financial system being one obvious example). Harari also has a new book called Homo deus, about the future of the human species in the face of advances in genetic engineering and AI.
Thinking, fast and slow by Daniel Kahneman.
An entertaining summary of several decades of creative, brilliant research into the field of cognitive science. Kahneman posits that human thinking encompasses an intuitive, 'fast', unconscious system and a logical, 'slow', conscious system, and explores the biases and mistakes that inevitably result from their uneasy marriage. Kahneman and his research partner, Amos Tversky, invented the field almost from scratch, and the story of their wildly creative work is funny and deeply interesting. The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis chronicles their friendship; it's also excellent.
Command and control by Eric Schlosser.
A history of accidents in the the US nuclear weapons program. A sampler: on two occasions, B52's dropped fully functional atomic weapons over US soil when turbulence jostled the plane and a crew member hit the manual bomb bay door release by mistake. A B52 carrying a full complement of atomic bombs crashed into a bunker full of atomic missiles, all of which caught fire. At a missile base in France, American nuclear missles were under the "control" of a lone American serviceman who walked around with an atomic missle launch key around his neck. A faulty AT&T switch once made it appear to the NORAD early-warning system operators under Cheyenne mountain in Colorado that the Soviets had simultaneously launched all of their missiles. Only the fact that US commanders disobeyed their counterattack protocols prevented the destruction of our planet.
Members of the military are alternately villains of the story who bring us to the edge of annihilation, and heroes who implement safety systems that prevent disaster in the nick of time. Three themes emerge: 1) it's a miracle that we have survived until now; 2) the military reflexively lies about every accident; and 3) only a fool would think the danger is past, or is being well-handled by the military.
The Nonsense Factory by Bruce Cannon Gibney.
This is a serious, important, and often funny critique of the legal system by a former attorney. Here is a selection of quotes to give you a taste: "Law is civilization's essential technology; there is no complex society without it. Law grants legitimate institutions a monopoly on violence, which ends vigilantism and creates order." "In the common view, law is a system of intelligible rules, made sensibly and applied evenly. That's a reasonable definition of what law should be, but not an accurate description of what law has become. Over the past century, whole fields of law have grown so bloated and confused that not even a subset of their rules can be administered consistently. To cope, law modiies or ignores its own rules on the fly, and the entire legal system is backsliding toward a regime in which the arbitrary supplants the absolute. Eventually, what calls itself law will cease to deserve the name."
"Yet the system deserves a critique, because the stakes are so high. Law holds our lives and fortunes hostage. It reserves to itself the right to kill, draft, imprison, and tax us; affirm or void our marriages; regulate what we eat and drink; control how we work; and limit what we say." "Against these powers and their abuse, citizens have limited recourse. The law grants its servants wide immunity from victim's suits." "We, the people, the notional source of legal power, are in practice the subjects of a discretionary and overbearing monarch named Law."
The war on normal people by Andrew Yang.
Andrew Yang is currently a Democratic candidate for president; a tech guy and entrepeneur. I think he's a little too young, cocky, and inexperienced to be president, at least this time, but he is the most honest politician in the race and he understands what the rest of the party doesn't, or pretends not to: that AI is changing the world; that the old contract between labor and capital is broken; that jobs aren't coming back; and that the economy needs to be re-designed--and fast--if we are to avoid serious conflict between the wealthy and increasingly desperate ordinary people. He is an excellent writer and thinker; his chapter on what "normal" means in America is particularly good.
Rise of the robots by Michael Ford.
Ford argues persuasively that this time is different; that AI and robotics are actually coming for our jobs, and that traditional models for the economy won't work. Job re-training, green jobs, labor unions, and other proposed solutions are just a Band-aid over a gaping wound that politicians are doing their best to ignore. Yet a guaranteed basic income would solve most of the problems while saving us from a nightmare in which the government tries to provide for the needs of an increasingly desperate, unemployed or semi-employed public with a dystopian spiderweb of state-run institutions. As he says, "Our fear that we will end up with too many people riding in the economic wagon, and too few pulling it, ought to be reassessed as machines prove increasingly capable of doing the pulling." The book is well-researched, convincing, and entertaining, and his proposals for what to do are solid. The unexpected success of Andrew Yang in the 2020 primaries shows that more and more people are beginning to consider the guaranteed basic income idea seriously.
Poor economics by Abhijit Bannerjee and Esther Duflo.
Duflo has been a hero of mine for more than a decade now, and just days ago, she and Bannerjee won the Nobel prize for economics. Their main contribution has been to insist that foreign development aid be implemented in a proper scientific framework, with randomized, controlled trials when possible so that we can learn what actually works. Development aid has been almost criminally useless for decades, beset by the racism, biases, prejudices, and pet theories of its funders without regard for reality in the countries where it is applied. This book is entertaining, and the story of their impeccable research yields a raft of fascinating and unexpected conclusions. If you want to know how poor people actually think and act (at least, where Duflo and Bannerjee studied it), read this. It is by far the best book I have read about poverty, development, and the economics of ordinary lives, and Duflo and Bannerjee's scientific approach should be mandatory for all development projects.
The idealist by Nina Munk is an interesting counterpoint to Poor Economics. It is about the failure of a development scheme launched by the wunderkind economist Jeffrey Sachs in Africa. Although he had rocketed to fame by turning around two economies when barely out of grad school, his aid plan in Africa was a complete fiasco, because he relied on his own hunches and didn't pay attention to the data; it is a nearly perfect example of how to do everything wrong.
The Power of Positive Deviance by Richard Pascale, and Jerry and Monique Sternin. Jerry Sternin was one of the kindest people I ever met. When he and Monique went to Vietnam to work on childhood nutrition back in the 1990s, their in-country office was broke and couldn't afford its usual programs. To make things worse, a government minister gave them just 6 months to prove that their approach worked, or they would be kicked out. Their ingenious solution relied on a obscure concept that had been labeled "positive deviance" by researchers in the 1960s. Instead of asking what the problems were, the Sternins asked, "Which people in the community have above-average outcomes (i.e., better-nourished children) without having any advantages over their neighbors?" In other words, what was working, against all odds? They spent their six months figuring out what those people were doing differently, and spreading the knowledge. Within two years, malnutrition had dropped between 65 and 85% in every village where they worked. Positive deviance is now a valuable tool in the development toolbox, and deserves to be more widely appreciated as a part of the inductive cycle of science (i.e., the process of developing new theories). The fact that the introduction to the book was written by Atul Gawande gives me some hope that it will be.
Beyond the box by Alexandra Rutherford.
BF Skinner changed the course of biology with his experiments into "operant conditioning," the study of how behavior is learned and shaped by how and when it is rewarded. He greatly advanced the field in experiments on rats and pigeons, using a setup nicknamed the "Skinner box" that made it possible to study behavior more objectively. His famous and controversial book Beyond Freedom and Dignity argued that we ought to understand that humans share most of our behavioral repetoire with animals, and that we could engineer a better human society by taking advantage of that fact, instead of pretending that vague ideas like freedom and dignity matter. Alexandra Rutherford was a student of his, and her book is the story of how Skinner's intellectual successors experimented with applying his work in the real world after his death, particularly in prisons and mental hospitals, and the mixture of promising results and failures that resulted. Despite his controversial status, Skinner's work is ubiquitous now, being the hidden foundation of the self-help genre and extending more obviously to animal behavior and cognitive science. The book is well-written, short, and interesting.
The person and the situation by Lee Ross.
This is a social science textbook, essentially, but it presents a fascinating history and overview of what social scientists have learned over the last 100 years. The main discovery is this: Although we think of ourselves and others as having strong personalities that dominate our individual behaviors, in reality, people are much more likely to respond identically to any given situation than one would guess. That is a deep and powerful lesson, with implications for building a better world.
Better and The checklist manifesto by Atul Gawande.
Gawande is a surgeon and Harvard professor who saw the potential of applying behavioral research to highly technical fields. He helped to improve medicine by asking basic questions like How do you get doctors and nurses to wash their hands? How can you make sure that a surgeon doesn't forget an important step in an operation? How do you prevent group-think? How do you make sure that a nurse who witnesses a problem is not ignored by the surgeon? He looked at other highly technical or dangerous jobs for answers. Pilots, for example, rely on checklists. Divers and climbers work in pairs, and check each other's gear. Limited command vocabularies are used to ensure clear communication. Disasters in dangerous situations like mountaineering and piloting have often been linked to social pressures to conform that caused lower-status people to be ignored; and protocols have been adopted in operating rooms, cockpits, and elsewhere to avoid such outcomes. This is a rich field for exploration and there are interesting challenges in many areas.
Consciousness and the social brain by Michael Graziano. Consciousness has been treated by scientists for millenia as an emergent phenomenon that is almost impossible to pin down, and which separates us from all "lower" animals as well as artificial intelligences. Graziano presents a simple theory which removes nearly all of the mystery from consciousness, and it fits extremely well with scientific evidence from a wide range of experiments, from social science to brain scans. Someone (I forget who--perhaps Google's Sundar Pichai?) said, "If a collection of artificial intelligence models does everything you want, then you won't care if it's truly intelligent or not." That's analagous to Graziano's theory. I'm sure that many readers will see his theory as an existential threat to our human specialness, our human apartness, but like other mechanistic theories --evolution, operant conditioning, cognitive science, and so on--it fits the data better than the centuries of fluff that precede it. Well worth reading.
Governing the commons by Elinor Ostrom.
Garett Hardin popularized the idea of the "tragedy of the commons": any resource that is communally owned will be destroyed quickly unless the government intervenes and regulates it. Ostrom won the Nobel prize in economics for exposing that as a false dichotomy. She studied a number of cases in which local governing bodies had managed common resources such as water, fisheries, and forests successfully and stably over hundreds of years, and her work revealed what they had in common. She warned against top-down control by a single institution and against one-size-fits-all theories. Ostrom's Rule is a tongue-in-cheek rebuttal to ivory-tower policy-makers who are blinded by their pet theories: "A resource arrangement that works in practice can work in theory." Her book is academic but not too long, and her ideas are very important for future governance of common resources.
The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis.
Lewis describes the incredible ineptitude with which the Trump administration took over the reins of power from the Obama administration, but this is not a partisan attack, it is a very well-explained narrative about what government does and why it matters to everyone. Lewis is one of America's finest writers of long-form journalism, and this book is full of interesting interviews with unheralded heroes. Short and sweet.
The submerged state by Suzanne Mettler.
This is essentially a one-issue book, but it's an important one: much of the key government legislation that forms the social safety net for Americans is buried in obscure programs and legislation, and the very obscurity of those programs means that there is no public support for them. College students, for example, have the impression that their aid comes from banks, and most don't realize that no loan officer in his or her right mind would lend so much money to a penniless teenager; rather, the banks lend to students because the government underwrites the bank's costs and absorbs the risk of lending. Ironically, the supporters of the welfare state include many Republicans who know how unpopular it would be to undo the subsidies, but the obscurity allows them to get away with bashing the programs in public, while quietly supporting the legislation that sustains them. The book is academic but well-written and short.
The Black Swan and Antifragile by Naseem Nicholas Taleb.
Taleb was a successful stock trader/advisor who anticipated the 2009 stock market crash. He relishes the role of the irritating gadfly. His writing style wobbles between careful, well-justified explanations of complex topics, and storytelling, exaggeration, self-aggrandizement, and sentimentality. Despite the inconsistency, I find him on the whole entirely enjoyable. His central point is important: that the statistical models usually used to predict disaster are inappropriate because they underestimate how connected the world is, and therefore, "very unlikely" negative events (black swans) are much more dangerous than they appear. He talks a lot about fat-tailed distributions, which leave more room for unlikely events, but his main advice is simple: put 80% of your assets into the safest thing you can find, and put the remaining 20% into the riskiest thing you can find; with the twist that the risky investment should have an "asymmetrical risk profile;" i.e., you should be able to win hugely but not to lose hugely. He applies this strategy in many ways: for example, he recommends going to parties because you can meet someone who will change your life, and you don't have much to lose.
Taleb's concept of "anti-fragility" is also worth mulling over: we ought to recognize the difference between fragile institutions that are harmed by disturbance ("a house of cards") and anti-fragile institutions that can survive or profit from disturbance, and we ought to design important systems for antifragility. One of his main points is that we can't change our exposure to extreme events, so we ought to design critical life-support systems (broadly speaking) so that an extreme event won't cause too much damage. This approach tends to favor smaller, simpler, more distributed designs.
Furthermore, he writes, "After the occurrence of an event, we need to switch the blame from the inability to see an event coming (say a tsunami, an Arabo-Semitic spring or similar riots, an earthquake, a war, or a financial crisis) to the failure to understand (anti)fragility, namely, 'Why did we build something so fragile to these events?' Not seeing a tsunami or an economic event coming is excusable; building something fragile to them is not."
That has a lot of resonance right now, when the media is focusing on what a bad person Trump is. The media should be asking whether the office of the presidency has too much power; whether any president should be allowed to easily reverse decisions that were negotiated by hundreds of members of Congress; whether we want a society where the president and members of his administration can claim immunity from prosecution and enrich themselves personally from their offices; whether agency heads should be allowed to tear their own agencies to pieces without consequence to themselves. Trump's presidency was not predicted, but it has drawn attention to the structural fragility of government to resist people like him. As Taleb says, it would be unacceptable for us to fail to build an anti-fragile structure, now that we know the problem exists.
The All-New Don't Think of an Elephant by George Lakoff.
About 25 years ago, Lakoff wondered what conservative issues had to do with each other. Why are conservative stances on abortion seemingly linked to their attitudes about taxation, tort reform, gun control, or the environment, he wondered. And why on earth do liberals hold the opposite positions? What is the invisible packaging that holds these disparate issues together? His surprising answer is that we hold different models of the family, which we use as a metaphorical framework for everything from governance to foreign policy. Lakoff is a linguist, and he explains how the metaphorical framing that underpins political discourse determine who wins and who loses. He urges liberals to understand how framing works; as he puts it, "Re-framing is social change." It is probably the most interesting book I have ever read about politics, and given his skill as a communicator, it is a shame that this second edition was so poorly named ("The all-new..."), because it contains much valuable and interesting new content that was not present in the first edition.
Citizenville by Gavin Newsome.
Newsome is currently the governor of California, but he wrote this book after being mayor of San Francisco, where he was a passionate advocate for modernizing government: making data and legislation totally transparent and accessible to the public; using digital tools to bring stodgy government services into the modern age; using technology to "disintermediate" the work of government, by which he means to get rid of middlmen and democratize the process, using competitions and other mechanisms to take advantage of the energy and creativity of citizens. He is an intelligent commentator on government and his impatience is refreshing: his basic message is "We know how to do this. Let's do it!"
Innovative State by Aneesh Chopra.
Chopra was America's first Chief Technology Officer under president Obama, and was at the center of an effort to use tech to improve government. The book is slightly longer and less well-edited than Newsome's book, but contains many similar examples. It is inspiring, and I look forward to people like him picking up where they left off once the Trump administration has ended its reign of destruction.
How to have an impossible conversation: a very practical guide by Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay. This is about how to talk to people you completely disagree with, which is relevant these days. It is very good, although the lessons it teaches are difficult to practice.