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The 2017 Digital Tonto Reading List

2017 December 17
by Greg Satell

When Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1440, it proved to be a landmark event in human history. No longer would people be confined to their immediate context, but could travel in their minds to share the experiences and expertise of people of virtually any time and place.

Today, with modern transportation and communications technology, we’re no longer as tied to a particular place as we once were, but it’s still easy to get trapped in our own context. Books, more than anything else, provide a window out. They allow us to travel in our minds and gain insights beyond our own experiences.

As in past years, I am providing a reading list of books that allowed me to gain many of the insights I’ve used in articles here at Digital Tonto. So If you saw an idea you found interesting on the site over the past year, chances are you can learn a whole lot more about it in the books below.  Links are provided that will allow you to purchase them from Amazon.  Enjoy!

Book(s) of the Year

Every year, I choose one or two books that had the most impact on my thinking and, with all the turmoil of the past year, Blueprint for Revolution by Srdja Popović definitely fits that bill.

In 1998 Popović cofounded a group of student activists in Serbia that set out to bring down Slobodan Milošević’s brutal regime. Two years later, the Belgrade strongman was out, but their movement, called Otpor! (Resist! In Serbian) lived on. They created the Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS) to train activists in other countries, such as Georgia, Ukraine and Egypt.

In Blueprint for Revolution, he explains how he did it. It’s a lively read, chronicling his experiences in many countries around the world with wit, insight and humor. Perhaps most importantly, Popović offers time and battle tested principles for making change happen that can be applied in just about any context, from the streets to the boardroom.

Of course, the book that affected me the most personally was my own, Mapping Innovation, which was selected as one of the best business books of 2017 by 800-CEO-READ. If you enjoy this blog, you’ll love this book!

Business, Management And Economics

Management in any sphere is ultimately about performance and probably the world’s greatest expert on that subject is Anders Ericsson, from whose Malcolm Gladwell came up with his “10,000 hour” rule. While that rule doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, Ericsson’s research certainly does and his book Peak is tremendously readable and highly informative. It’s a must read.

If you want to gain insights about management, it’s often best to go straight to the source and read a CEO memoir. Shoe Dog, by Phil Knight, which chronicles the amazing story of how he built Nike, is one of the best. I also read Satya Nadella’s Hit Refresh. It’s a great insider account of where Microsoft has been and where it’s going.

Chris Fussell’s One Mission is a great sequel to his boss Stanley McChrystal’s previous book, Team of Teams, which he co-authored. Chris told me that they intend to make it a trilogy, with McChrystal planning to come out with a third book to complete the series, which is something to look forward to. A related book is The Chessboard and the Web by Anne-Marie Slaughter that explains the network dynamics behind good management.

The Network Imperative by Barry Libert,‎ Megan Beck and Jerry Wind explains the dynamics behind successful platform businesses. I’m somewhat skeptical of all the hype surrounding platforms, but it’s still an important aspect of business today.

Finally, MIT professor David Robertson gives a practical account of how companies can transform incremental innovations into disruptive businesses in The Power of Little Ideas.

Science, Technology And Innovation

As technology creates ever greater possibilities and takes a larger and larger part of our lives, we need to always be cognizant of its downsides and dangers. In that vein, Cathy O’Neil raises important issues in Weapons of Math Destruction. It’s one of those books I think everyone should read.

In a similar vein, complexity theorist Sam Arbesman’s book, Overcomplicated explains how we need to deal with technologies that have become so complex that no one understands them anymore. As always, he’s incredibly engaging, smart and penetrating.

There are some technology commentators are consistently able to come up with valuable insights year after year and several published books in 2017. Machine, Platform, Crowd by Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson and The Inevitable by Kevin Kelly definitely fall into that category as does, from a more historical point of view, Steven Johnson’s Wonderland and Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy by Tim Harford.

The Master Algorithm by Pedro Domingos is just about the best book on artificial intelligence that I’ve ever read and I recommend that you do too. AnnaLee Saxenian‘s Regional Advantage, about the rise of Silicon Valley and the relative decline of the technology corridor outside Boston, is a book I’d always wanted to read and finally got around to this year. I wasn’t disappointed!

The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee explains the history and current state of the art of genetics.  A Most Elegant Equation by David Stipp gives a highly entertaining account about Euler’s famous formula and The Quantum Labyrinth by Paul Halpern chronicles the productive scientific partnership between Richard Feynman and John Wheeler.

When I asked Fred Brooks, who managed the legendary IBM System 360 project, about what it was like to design a new computer from scratch, he suggested I read The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder. I did and enjoyed it thoroughly.

One of the most powerful essays I’ve ever read is Abraham Flexner’s The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge. This year, The Institute for Advanced Study came out with a new edition with an additional essay by its current Director, Robbert Dijkgraaf. Both are short, powerful and something I think everyone who is interested in science or technology should read.

History, Society and Politics

Janesville, by Amy Goldstein, was one of the most talked about books of 2017 and it’s every bit as good as everyone says it is. If you haven’t picked it up, you should. I also read Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson. I didn’t enjoy it as much as his other books, but then again art history really isn’t my thing.

If you like Srdja’s book about revolutions, you might also want to check out A Force More Powerful by Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall, which is a classic in the field. The autobiographies of Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela also give historical, but more personal perspectives.

For a lighter read, check out Small Acts of Resistance by Steve Crawshaw and John Jackson. It gives short, lively accounts of tactics that movements have used to overcome great odds. Twitter and Tear Gas by Zeynep Tufekci explains the effect that modern technology has had on how movements wage non-violent resistance, often through her own, first-person experiences.


So that’s my list for this year. If you have any suggestions, feel free to let me know in the comments section.

I will publish my “Top Posts of 2017” on Wednesday and then will take the rest of the year off. I’ll be back on Sunday, January 7th with my future trend for 2017.

See you then…

– Greg

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