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The 2021 Digital Tonto Reading List

2021 December 12
by Greg Satell

Many hoped that this year would be a return to normalcy and in some ways it has been. The trend toward popular authoritarianism seems to have ebbed and, for the most part, economies are back on track. People have largely returned to work and kids have mostly gone back to school. At least in the US, shops are open with decent foot traffic.

Still, what’s perhaps most striking is the challenges that remain. Covid deaths in 2021 outpaced 2020 and there’s always the possibility of more severe variants. Despite all the hype around technology, we remain in a productivity crisis. We continue to struggle to maintain competitive markets. The specter of climate change still haunts us.

I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that many of the books I read this year focus on those challenges. We are in the midst of a demographic handoff from the Boomers to the Millennials, who are much more focused on the long-term. So we should expect more seriousness in how we tackle problems. Genuine solutions, however, still elude us.

Book of the Year

Without a doubt, climate change is the greatest challenge we face. It is complex, long-term and pervasive, affecting everything from geopolitics to economics to what were once considered natural disasters. Over the next decades, we can expect sea levels to rise, extreme weather events to increase and regions of the planet to become uninhabitable.

To a large extent, commentary on the issue of climate comes in two flavors: shrill and dismissive. Many pundits insist that we face disaster if we don’t immediately make drastic changes to how we live. Others either claim that the problem doesn’t exist or that technology and market forces will magically take care of it.

That’s why Bill Gates’ book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster is so good and so important. He goes through each facet with a clear, pragmatic eye, spelling out both the challenges and opportunities. One surprising insight is that transportation and electricity generation only make up 40% of carbon emissions. So even if we all drove electric cars and put solar panels on our houses, there would still be a significant challenge.

The bottom line: Getting to net zero by 2050 will require us to invest and innovate. Viable solutions to significantly lowering carbon emissions in things like agriculture, construction and manufacturing do not exist yet. We need to find them.

Business, Management And Economics

Traditionally, the conventional wisdom has been that corporate interests and sustainability were necessarily in conflict. However, in Net Positive, Andrew Winston and former Unilever CEO Paul Polman explain why that’s not true. In fact, as Polman’s tenure at Unilever has shown, businesses can actually increase long-term profits by making the world a better place.

One of the most anticipated books of the year was Noise, by Daniel Kahneman, Cass Sunstein and Oliver Sibony. The authors, major scholars behind books like Thinking, Fast and Slow and Nudge, have spent years researching how the variance in data can be just as important as bias. This is one of those books that really changes how you look at things.

I finally got around to reading Adversaries into Allies, by Bob Burg, which explains how we can master human behavior and become more influential in our personal and professional lives. Bob has spent decades researching this stuff and is just a master of the subject. I also read Accenture CTO Paul Daugherty and James Wilson’s book, Human + Machine, which presents a practical view of how businesses need to adapt to AI. I’m looking forward to their new book, Radically Human, which comes out early next year.

Tim Wu’s The Curse of Bigness gives a great overview of how lax enforcement has led to weakened markets and undermined innovation. Senator Amy Klobuchar’s book, Antitrust, hits many of the same themes and suggests that we may see a shift in how we approach competitiveness and promote free markets.

Finally, I felt gratified to see many of the concepts of Cascades reinforced in Damon Centola’s new book, Change. However, since the network concepts in my book were largely adapted from work Duncan Watts published 20 years ago, I was somewhat disappointed to see that work go unreferenced.

Science, Technology And Innovation

I was really excited to read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jennifer Doudna, The Code Breaker. The book not only tells her story, but also gives a broad overview of the incredible developments in synthetic biology over the last decade or so. I would also recommend Doudna’s own memoir, A Crack in Creation.

In the The God Equation Michiu Kaku does his usual amazing job explaining complex physics in layman’s terms.  The Martians of Science by Istvan Hargittai tells the story of an incredible group of Hungarian physicists that helped America win the nuclear race. Having read Turing’s Cathedral, I was really looking forward to George Dyson’s new book, Analogia but, unfortunately, was disappointed.

One thing that has become obvious is what an enormous threat our lack of cybersecurity is. To understand the issue better I read The Perfect Weapon by David Sanger and Sandworm by Andy Greenberg. They are incredibly good and I would recommend everybody read both. However bad you think the threat of cyberwar is, the reality is probably worse.

History, Society and Politics

Heather McGee’s The Sum of Us was really eye opening in how it explained how much we all suffer from racism, made many lists for “Book of the Year” and was even long listed for a National Book Award. Just as good was Fareed Zakaria’s Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World, which brings the forces shaping events today into much sharper focus.

Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes give a riveting inside account of Joe Biden’s campaign in their book, Lucky, while Michael Lind gives a conservative perspective on the state of politics in The New Class War. He argues that the Democrats have made themselves vulnerable by abandoning non-college educated voters. We Are Bellingcat tells the story about how a loosely affiliated group of online sleuths became a force for good in the world.

Mark Galeotti is one of the sharpest and insightful observers of Russia today and his book, We Need to Talk About Putin is a must read for anyone interested in the subject. I also read his slightly newer book, A Short History of Russia, which does a masterful job of streamlining a long and often complex subject.

Finally, Pranksters vs. Autocrats by my friend Srdja Popović explains how you can use laughter and “dilemma actions” to bring about positive change in the world.


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 2021” next Sunday and then will take the rest of the year off. I’ll be back on Sunday, January 2nd with my future trend for 2022.

See you then…

– Greg


Image: Unsplash




3 Responses leave one →
  1. December 12, 2021

    I enjoy your annual reading list Greg. Thanks for continuing to publish it.

    This year I enjoyed reading some books on economics. I can recommend Stephanie Kelton’s The Deficit Myth (2020) – it is a must read I think – and Mariana
    Mariana Mazzucato’s Mission Economy, A Moonshot Guide to Changing Capitalism, which is more light weight, and covers much ground you’ll already know, but importantly connects the world of political economy with your interest in innovation and transformation.

  2. December 12, 2021

    Great recommendations! Thanks so much Greg.


  3. December 19, 2021

    Thanks for sharing your reading list. I also enjoyed Thinking Fast and slow and then read “No Rules Rules” by Reed Hastings and Erin Meyers about how Netflix tailors their team to need few guardrails. Erin’s book “The Culture Map” is also a must read for folks who engage across mulit-cultural teams.

    We also agree that Climate change is likely the most significant and important issue in the history of our planet and I would add John Doerr’s book “Speed & Scale” to the list as it represents a compilation of approaches that together can get us to net zero by following Andy Grove’s Metrics and KPI’s approach. My greatest concern about Climate Science reports such as the IPCC report, is that it is neccessarily ‘sandbagged’, meaning that risks are understated, as a result of requiring consensus amongst all participants. As a result, the true risks are muted and readers could believe they are headed to a flume-ride rather than into a sawmill.

    In addition to the above, misinformation has plagued discussions about climate science and health science as well, leading to huge tolls on our lives throughout the pandemic. Walter Quatrocci’s 2017 Scientific American article “Inside the Echo Chamber” describes how we curate our news via social media to the exclusion of facts that disagree with our world-views due to our ‘Confirmation-bias’ defense mechanisms.

    Finding ways to engage folks to nudge us toward climate-friendly solutions or toward better health outcomes without challenging our worldviews may be the first step toward real solutions on our road to recovery.

    Lastly, my favorites from the world of healthcare include Dr Eric Topal’s book Deep Medicine that outlines the current state of AI solutions in healthcare and Elizabeth Rosenthall’s book “An American Sickness” that documents the business-centric focus of our ‘broken’ healthcare system.

    Thanks for sharing your list and your insights this year and I look forward to more in 2022!


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