Some inspiration for 2019

As the old year draws to a close, the holiday season offers a much-needed break from everyday busy-ness to rest, to reflect, to put recent events into longer-term perspective. It’s the time for racking and stacking and sorting the ideas that have accumulated, and to think ahead. To give my fuzzy observations an initial structure for some systematic follow-up, I’ve composed a preliminary reading list for the new year: Fifteen titles under five broad headings, mostly fairly recent publications, but some only announced for 2019. For each, I’ll offer my initial thoughts on what I hope to find in that particular book and how that relates to one of the many facets of innovation.

Creative Thinking

Innovation is a creative endeavour, growing from the nucleus of a novel thought. The origins of these new ideas are the topic of cognitive psychologist Gary Klein in Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights (304 pages, published in 2015). Complementing that introspective approach, science author Steven Johnson offers a broader look at the conditions, circumstances, and environments that foster innovative activities in Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation (340 pages, 2010). A third, yet wider view could come from media theorist Douglas Rushkoff. In Team Human (256 pages, announced for January 2019), he’s addressing the strengths of human-to-human cooperation to advocate a more conscious engagement with technologies such as social media – a perfect bridge to the next subject: the interaction between humans and modern technology.

Humans and algorithms

Innovation gives birth to new technologies, which then evolve further as more and more applications are implemented. Over time, societies and technologies adapt to each other. Information technology is no exception from that rule. Artificial Intelligence and the algorithms employed to derive insights from vast amounts of user data have fundamental impact on human interaction. In Hello World: How to be Human in the Age of the Machine (256 pages, 2018), mathematician Hannah Fry lifts the lid on the algorithms surrounding us in our daily lives. Computer security expert Bruce Schneier takes a deep dive into the myriad of established data collection methods and their implications in Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World (400 pages, 2015). For a broader discussion of the effects of digital technologies on human society, McSweeney’s Issue 54 offers a collection of over 30 essays and interviews on The End of Trust (300 pages, 2018).

New views on economics

Innovation brings progress and prosperity, for many right-away, and for all in the long run. Still, the distribution of risks and rewards over time and space remains a topic of intense debate. Beyond the age-old policy quest for the appropriate redistribution of wealth, economists are developing more differentiated views on who gets what when why. Shoshana Zuboff targets the detrimental impact of digital technologies on citizens and consumers in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (704 pages, announced for January 2019). Mariana Mazzucato analyses the historic evolution of the concept of value and highlights the underestimated contributions of the public sector as early investor in The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy (384 pages, 2018). And William H. Janeway reviews the particular roles of private and public actors in Doing Capitalism in the Innovation Economy: Reconfiguring the Three-Player Game between Markets, Speculators and the State (458 pages, 2nd edition, 2018).

Some fundamental science

Innovation takes advantage of scientific advances, as we employ our fundamental understanding of the world to shape our future. Computer scientist Judea Pearl investigates the essence of causal reasoning in The Book of Why: The New Science of Cause and Effect (432 pages, 2018). His work does not only gather news insights in the foundations of human thought, but will, probably more importantly, pave new ways for developing more powerful Artificial Intelligence. Biologist Stuart Kauffman explores the the principles of self-organisation and the origin of order in A World Beyond Physics: The Emergence and Evolution of Life (160 pages, announced for May 2019). Building on numerous earlier publications, his observations will deepen our understanding of complex adaptive systems such as societies, economies, and the technosphere. In Conjuring the Universe: The Origins of the Laws of Nature (205 pages, 2018), chemist Peter Atkins undertakes a fascinating journey to the source of those laws and constants we use to describe nature.

Society’s emerging fabric

Innovation shapes our societies in sometimes more, sometimes less subtle ways. In The End of Ownership: Personal Property in the Digital Economy (264 pages, 2016), lawyers Aaron Perzanowski and Jason Schultz discuss the far-reaching legal implications of digital technologies like downloading or streaming. Futurist Max Borders suggest in The Social Singularity: How decentralization will allow us to transcend politics, create global prosperity, and avoid the robot apocalypse (208 pages, 2018) that digital technologies will enable decentralised political and economic systems that could overturn the traditional centralised systems of power. Finally, clinical psychologist Sherry Turkle argues in Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in the Digital Age (448 pages, 2016) for the benefits of unmediated human communication and talking face-to-face, in favour of less digital technology intruding in our social interactions.

Of course, such lists are notoriously incomplete. But they are a good start. I’ll try to read as many of these books as time allows, and report on my findings throughout 2019.

Have a peaceful holiday season and an inspired new year.

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