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The 2012 Digital Tonto Reading List

2012 December 23
by Greg Satell

Jorge Luis Borges once wrote, “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”  Blissfully devoid of management fads, new age theories and other guru talk, 2012 was that kind of year:  Great books and powerful ideas.

When Daniel Kahneman, Ray Kurzweil and Benoit Mandelbrot (from the grave no less!), plus others too numerous to note here, all publish in the same year, we have a lot be thankful for.

As in past years, I am providing a reading list of books I enjoyed and used in posts, so If you saw an idea you found interesting in Digital Tonto 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 of The Year

I’m starting a new feature this year by highlighting the most valuable work published over the previous 12 months.  My criteria is this:  If I could recommend just one book, what would it be?  This year, without question, that book is Race Against the Machine by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAffee.  The book stands out for several reasons.

Firstly, it is simply the best summary of how technology is affecting business and the economy yet.  Second, it was Brynjolfson who first coined the term productivity paradox, so that he is now writing about the inherent challenges of technology driven productivity that is notable in itself.  Finally, it is a mere 76 pages, easily read in an afternoon.

John Hagel has written a good review of the book, where he criticizes the authors for not supplying specific enough recommendations.  I think that’s a bit harsh, since the purpose of the book was clearly to “inject technology into the discussion.”  Nevertheless, I wholeheartedly agree with John’s conclusions and have voiced similar ones here and here.

The upshot is that, if anything, the authors underplay the potential for disruption as machines take over what we have come to consider human tasks.  As I explained in a previous post, computers have entered the creative domain and are advancing at a dizzying pace.  We’re going to have to learn how to make peace with our machines.

Now on to the list…

Business and Management

The best business book of the year was Good Strategy Bad Strategy by Richard Rumelt, which is both hard hitting and academically sound.  Saul Kaplan’s The Business Model Innovation Factory was great too.  It offers just the kind of experimental approach that is central to solving the types of problems described in the “book of the year” section above.

I also read Practically Radical by Bill Taylor, which offers compelling narratives of companies that succeed in innovative ways and Rebounders, Rick Newman’s inspiring survey of people who have learned to turn failure into success.  Stanford professor’s Jeffrey’s Pfeffer’s compilation of his Businessweek columns, What Were They Thinking? is also worth a look.

On the marketing end of things, Mindshare CEO Antony Young gives a nice guide to effective communications planning in Brand Media Strategy, while AKQA’s Ajaz Ahmed and Nike’s Stefan Olander give us a “fly in the room” view into how top marketers see the world of digital innovation in Velocity.  I also tracked back and read Buyology and was glad that I did.

Finally, while it is my firm belief that Nassim Taleb is a pompous ass, I did read his new book, Antifragile, and found it worthwhile, as I did his earlier ones, The Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness.  So I’m not recommending it purely out of spite.

Economics and Society

Nobel prizewinner Daniel Kahneman has become a living legend for his pioneering work in behavioral economics, so his eminently readable and fabulously interesting Thinking, Fast and Slow was an absolute delight and inspired more than a few of my posts this year. By any standard, it’s a must read.

If you’re interested at all in the healthcare debate, T.R. Reid’s of The Washington Post offers a great guide in The Healing of America.  It reads almost as a travelogue as he goes around the world getting his bum shoulder checked out and researching the health systems of various countries.  Michael Grunwald’s The New New Deal delivers a comprehensive analysis of the triumphs and failures of the Obama stimulus program.

At the intersection of technology, economics and society you can’t do worse than Chris Anderson’s Makers, Steven Johnson’s Future Perfect and Abundance, by Peter Diamandis, the founder of the X Prize foundation.

To round up this section, Harvard politcal philosopher Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy is a great follow up to his outstanding earlier effort, Justice.

Math and Science

Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise was one of the most highly anticipated books of the year and did an admirable job of living up to the hype, while those who want a more in depth discussion of Bayesian techniques can check out The Theory That Would Not Die, by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne.

If you’re interested in math, but not really a “math person,” Steven Strogatz’s The Joy of x is for you.  It provides such a down to earth, entertaining guide through the subject, that it makes you wonder what your schoolteacher was going on about for all those years. You might also enjoy, William Poundstone’s Fortune’s Formulaan engaging account about the intersection of finance and information theory.

I haven’t actually gotten the chance to read Benoit Mandelbrot’s memoir, The Fractalist, but I consider him one of the great minds of the last century, so I’m going to go out on a limb and recommend it anyway.

Technology and Innovation

Forbes’ Parmy Olson, does some great investigative reporting into the murky world of international computer hacking in her book, We Are Anonymous, which inspired me to read Ghost in the Wires, the memoir of super hacker Kevin Mitnick.

If you’d like to explore computing on a more granular level, but don’t want to have to suffer through a technical guide, both Christopher Steiner’s Automate This and John MacCormick’s Nine Algorithms That Changed the Future offer insightful guides that are easily accessible to laymen.

For a more historical view, George Dyson’s Turing’s Cathedral plods on a bit, but is well worth it as is Andrew Hodges celebrated biography of Alan Turing, who would have turned 100 this past year.  Also, John Gertner’s history of Bell Labs, The Idea Factory
is truly informative and T.R. Reid’s The Chip , while a bit out of date, is still highly relevant, insightful and a pleasure to read.

Finally, anybody who’s interested in technology should take the time to read Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity Is Near, but his new book, How to Create a Mind is even better and much more manageable.

So that’s my reading list for 2012.  As always, I’m looking forward to your recommendations in the comments below.

– Greg

2 Responses leave one →
  1. December 23, 2012

    Greg – some great recos here and several I too found particularly great. I adore “Good strategy Bad Strategy” and it is fast becoming the most well-thumbed addition to my collection. “Brandwashed” and “Alone Together” are two I particularly enjoyed and the latter does a great job of talking about the intersection of technology & the humanities. Personally found “Velocity” a little ho-hum though, in fairness, the speed of change in the digital marketing arena makes writing any novel particularly difficult – its just too long from inception to print and so much can happen.

    Lastly, thank you for your continued passion and wonderful writing in 2012. I look forward to more debate & discussion in 2013.

    Best wishes to you & yours for a restful holiday period.

  2. December 23, 2012

    Great suggestions! Thanks Hilton. I wish you a great New Year as well.

    – Greg

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