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Summer Reading List: Books That Explain The Future

2014 May 25
by Greg Satell

It was such a long, cold winter that it sometimes seemed as if we would be perpetually buried under a mountain of snow.  As soon as we’d shovelled ourselves out, we’d get hit with another avalanche of it.

Yet somehow, we made it through and summer is finally here.  We can put away our shovels and salt, hit the beach and pick up a beer and a book.  That’s a trade I’ll take any day!

But clearly, that’s not the only thing that’s changing.  From technology to education, business and world affairs, things are moving so fast that it’s hard to keep up with it all, much less make sense of where things are going.  So this year, I’m focusing my summer list on books that explain the future.  As always, you can click on the links to pick one up.

The Second Machine Age by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee

We used to think of automation as something that only affected manual labor.  Sure, we’ve had robots in factories for decades, but the workers they replaced could be retrained to do higher value tasks and in the end, everyone was better off.

Yet today, as machines become intelligent, they are starting to do the work of highly trained professionals lawyers, doctors and marketers.  No one is safe anymore and we need to fundamentally rethink how we work, manage and compete.

This is probably the best guide you can find to how technology is shaping business.  In many ways, it’s an expanded version of Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s earlier effort, Race Against the Machine, which was originally published as an e-book.  Yet the added depth makes this book more than worth the effort, even if you read the first one.


The End of Power by Moisés Naím

Leaders aren’t what they used to be.  Lately, those who walk the corridors of power seem a mere shadow of what they used to be.  CEO tenure has been falling for years, political parties are being held at bay by insurgents within their own ranks and even third world strongmen are overthrown by social media fueled uprisings.

Naim believes these trends are linked.  “Power,” he says, “is becoming easier to get but harder to use or keep” and he’s one who should know.  A former senior official in Venezuela as well as at the World Bank and the former Editor of the journal Foreign Policy, he is one of the savviest observers of global trends around.

This is a book everyone should read.


The End of Competitive Advantage by Rita Gunther McGrath

What Naim does for politics, McGrath, a Professor at Columbia Business School, does for business.  Her basic premise is that we should no longer seek to attain sustainable competitive advantage, but rather transient advantage.  She recommends that we emphasize learning over planning and change rather than stability.

In many ways, this book is a useful business companion to Naim’s The End of Power. McGrath’s insights about what it takes to succeed in an increasingly turbulent business environment are not only valuable and insightful, but a veritable survival guide to a more disruptive age.


The Smartest Kids in the World by Amanda Ripley

You can’t really think about the future without taking education into account and this book by long time journalist Amanda Ripley offers an incredibly astute analysis of global best practices.

The book follows three American exchange students as they go through a school year in Poland, Finland and South Korea—all of which are top performers in the international PISA tests that evaluates educational systems worldwide.  The book manages to be incredibly informative and a great read at the same time.  A rare feat!


The Singularity Is Near and How to Create a Mind by Ray Kurzweil

The Singularity Is Near is one of those books that everyone with a serious interest in technology should read at some point.  Its in-depth discussions about the convergence of genetics, nanotechnology and robotics are worthwhile even if you don’t buy Kurzweil’s argument about exponential technological advancement.

However, I think that his more recent effort, How To Create A Mind, is the better book. More focused and readable, it gives a comprehensive—but still comprehendible—explanation of how we are creating machines that learn and has some great insights on what we can expect in the future.


Physics of the Impossible and Physics of the Future by Michio Kaku

Dr. Kaku, a world class scientist in his own right, rose to fame by publishing surprisingly readable books about theoretical physics such as Parallel Worlds, Hyperspace and Einstein’s Cosmos, but lately he’s been writing about the possibilities of the future.

In Physics of the Impossible, he takes a serious look at science fiction and explains which of our most famous fantasies we can expect to become realities.  Physics of the the Future, offers an in-depth examination of what the world’s greatest scientists and engineers are working on now.  Both are a lot of fun and incredibly informative.

Dr. Kaku’s latest book, The Future of the Mind, is also good, but if you haven’t read the first two, I’d start with one of them.


The Creative Destruction of Medicine by Eric Topol

With the launch of Obamacare, the business of medicine has dominated much of the political discussion over the past few years.  Now that debate is (mostly) settled, the future of healthcare will be determined by technological innovation rather than bureaucrats and political operatives.

As the former Head of Cardiology at The Cleveland Clinic and now a Director of the The Scripps Research Institute, Dr. Topol has been on the forefront of medical innovation for a generation.  This book is one of the most informed accounts you can get on where medicine is heading.


The Half-life of Facts by Samuel Arbesman

We tend to think of facts being set in stone, but the truth is that they change all the time. Many things that used to be treated as scientific truths, such as the earth being the center for the universe or that smoking is good for you, seem ridiculous today.

Arbesman is a mathematician by training and argues that facts decay at a predictable, measurable rate, much like radioactive isotopes do.  Further, he points out that by understanding this process of decay, we can prepare much more intelligently for the road ahead.  This book is fascinating on a number of fronts.


Big Data by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Ken Cukier

Big data is one of those things that moved from abstraction to buzzword so fast it’s hard to separate the hype from the substance.  It’s sometimes said that big data is like teenage sex, everybody talks about it, but nobody seems to really know how to do it.

This book is impressive in its rigor and also refreshing in its direct, relatively jargon-free exposition.  If you want to understand what the hubbub is all about, you can consider it a dependable guide to the new science of data.


Abundance by Peter Diamandis

A lot of people talk about the future, but Peter Diamandis is someone who makes it happen. As Chairman and CEO of the X Prize Foundation and and Co-Founder of Singularity University (along with Ray Kurzweil), he is at the forefront of innovation across a number of fields.

We’re used to hearing about scarcity and dystopian visions of future famine, war and poverty.  Yet Diamandis shows how technological advances—from vertical farming to backyard nukes to labs on a chip—have the potential to create abundant food, energy and healthcare.  Somehow, he manages to be optimistic without being a pollyanna.


The New Digital Age by Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen

We tend to look at technology in a vacuum, without considering how it affects—and is affected by—the outside world.  Yet that’s a very limited view.  In fact, technology and culture co-evolve, each having a profound effect on the other.

In this expansive book, Schmidt, the Chairman of Google and Cohen, the Director of Google Ideas and a former State Department official, take on how technology affects security, diplomacy and business.  It’s a real eye opener that takes on issues that most people don’t even know exist.

So that’s my reading list for this summer.  I hope you found something you like.  As always, if you have any suggestions about great books I overlooked, please let me know in the comments section below.

– Greg

6 Responses leave one →
  1. May 26, 2014

    I’ve read Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, David & Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell, Free by Chris Andersen, Logic of Life by Tim Harford, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big by Scott Adams. So pick any if they interest you.

    From your list, I’d add Big Data to my pile and I have ‘Think like A Freak’, ‘Lean In’ and a biography on Norman Rockwell awaiting my attention.

  2. May 26, 2014

    All good choices. Thanks.

    – Greg

  3. Ramon permalink
    May 26, 2014

    Thank you, Greg!

  4. May 29, 2014

    Going into a used book store is like making time stop. I love the smell, the way the light is always full of dust motes, and the muffled sound from all those buffering pages. And the excitement of holding a really old book, knowing that others have turned the same pages, by candlelight or firelight or incandescent light…sipped their tea or wine, left a splotch or two, smeared a corner with lipstick from a licked finger…met the same characters, and then passed the adventure on to the next explorer. I appreciate e readers, but the experience is just not the same.

  5. June 13, 2014

    I am always on the look out for some books to read. The New Digital Age looks like one I want to put on my list. I am curious how technology effects our life and the book may present a good view on that issue.

  6. June 13, 2014

    It’s a great book! I hope you enjoy it.

    – Greg

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