Last week, we brought you six of the best tech books of 2017, which you promptly purchased in bulk as last-minute holiday gifts for your loved ones. No? Well, here’s another chance. We’re back this week with five more recommendations to close out the year. This week’s books take a turn for the historical: Leslie Berlin and Noam Cohen offer complementary histories of Silicon Valley and the key personalities that define it today, while Brian Dear takes a deep dive into PLATO, a prescient 1960s-era computer network that enjoyed a brief heyday on college campuses before fading into obscurity.
It’s not all about the past. Rachel Botsman looks at how modern technology is rapidly reworking centuries-old networks of trust, and Jean Twenge highlights several surprising trends defining the lives of today’s adolescents.
In case you missed it, be sure to check out our first six recommendations, which include a look at the darker side of the Instagram influencer economy and a portrait of a WWII-era woman codebreaker who, until now, has gone largely uncredited for her groundbreaking work. Happy reading!
— Miranda Katz
The Friendly Orange Glow: The Untold Story of the PLATO System and the Dawn of Cyberculture By Brian Dear
Social networks, news on your screen, multiplayer online games, porn, hacking: Virtually all of the stuff that makes up today’s internet could be found 40 years ago on a once-groundbreaking, now-mostly-forgotten computer network called PLATO. Conceived in the 1960s at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as a form of computer-assisted education, PLATO flourished on many campuses in the 1970s: It gave the first generation of teen geeks a free-play zone in which they could send messages, play pranks on one another, and dream of new frontiers for human-computer interaction.
READ AN EXCERPT FROM THE FRIENDLY ORANGE GLOW
BRIAN DEAR When Spock Met PLATO
You’ve probably never heard of PLATO. Its technology was advanced—plasma graphics and touch-screens, in the 1960s!—but it depended on mainframe computer systems that would soon be outmoded, and the personal computer revolution turned it into a backwater, cut off from the digital mainstream. Author Brian Dear is determined to remedy PLATO’s obscurity, and his groundbreaking, exhaustive history, The Friendly Orange Glow, is a lovingly detailed biography of both the system and the subculture that it fostered. Dear’s book will let PLATO take its rightful place among digital-history milestones such as Douglas Engelbart’s “Mother of all Demos,” Xerox PARC’s graphical innovations, and the WELL’s pioneering online community.
Dear argues that one reason PLATO failed to propagate its innovations into the computing mainstream was that it was born in the American heartland, rather than on either of the trendy coasts. There’s something to that. It also didn’t help that the applications that blew PLATO users’ minds had little to do with the educational agenda of its funders. Still, though PLATO got fatally marginalized by failing to adapt to the rise of the PC in the 1980s, the system fired the imaginations of the people who would go on to shape our computing world—including software wizard Ray Ozzie, who modeled Lotus Notes on PLATO’s messaging system, and novelist Richard Powers, who credits his tech-themed tales to his early PLATO experiences. — Scott Rosenberg
iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood—and What That Means for the Rest of Us By Jean M. Twenge, PhD
It’s a tired cliche that each generation looks at the next with a mixture of bewilderment and disgust. But after reading iGen, Jean Twenge’s exploration of Generation Z (the next group to come of age after my cohort, the Millennials) I’m genuinely perplexed. What is going on with kids today?
“iGen” is Twenge’s shrewd nickname for this first fully wired generation. Born in 1995 and later, iGen’s childhood and adolescence have been permeated by technology. Smartphones are a ubiquitous presence; for them there is no time before the internet. Twenge combines national demographic data with scattered interviews to find commonalities across race and socioeconomic lines.
READ AN EXCERPT FROM IGEN
JEAN M. TWENGE Why Teens Aren’t Partying Anymore
Reader, these core qualities are shocking. Each generation is supposed to grow up faster than the last, but iGen bucks this trend. Today’s teens are less likely to date, to drive, to drink alcohol, and to be sexually active than teens from earlier generations. There’s also this horrifying fact: They don’t really fight with their parents. What teenagers are these? What is going on? Twenge points to smartphones. “The devices they hold in their hand have both extended their childhoods and isolated them from true human contact,” she writes. According to Twenge, this delayed maturity makes them ill-equipped to enter adulthood.
Yet it makes sense that they’re putting off entering the precarious economic reality they’ve witnessed from their phones. “I’ve realized this: iGen’ers are scared, maybe even terrified,” Twenge writes. Their hyperconnectivity has instilled good qualities: They’re hard-working and realistic about the future; they’re the most tolerant generation in history. Rather than judge their Instagramming and avocado toast (ahem), it’s up to us to help them navigate their difficult futures. If we approach them with understanding, Twenge argues, the kids will be alright. — Alexis Sobel Fitts
The Know-It-Alls: The Rise of Silicon Valley as a Political Powerhouse and Social Wrecking Ball By Noam Cohen
The tech industry’s leadership has a well-documented love for intellectual puzzles, IQ tests, and quantitative reasoning. In The Know-It-Alls, former New York Times columnist Noam Cohen identifies this trait as both a connecting thread and an Achilles heel for the titans of Silicon Valley. On the one hand, he writes, their belief in a benign fusion of hacker sensibilities and entrepreneurial business unlocked wealth and power and built a massive new economy. On the other, their idolization of reason over emotion and individualism over the collective good has left them with dangerous blind spots in applying their knowledge on a wider social and political stage. And we’re just beginning to reckon with their cost.
READ AN EXCERPT FROM THE KNOW-IT-ALLS
NOAM COHEN The Libertarian Logic of Peter Thiel
This is an important argument, though Cohen only partially nails it. He focuses on a line of intellectual descent that starts with a pair of Stanford icons—artificial intelligence pioneer John McCarthy and business-boosting provost Frederick Terman—and ends with Peter Thiel and Mark Zuckerberg, touching along the way on Bill Gates, Marc Andreessen, Larry Page, and Sergey Brin. The Know-It-Alls is spotty in many places; its account of the corruption of the internet’s early ideals is incomplete; and it sometimes loses the line of its argument in biographical detail. Still, it’s a valuable addition to the growing body of literature that’s trying to explain how a culture of under-socialized wunderkind CEOs drove tech’s future into a ditch. — Scott Rosenberg
Troublemakers: How a Generation of Silicon Valley Upstarts Invented the Future By Leslie Berlin
How did Silicon Valley become the world’s most bountiful producer of cutting-edge tech and the riches that spring from it? Leslie Berlin delightfully answers the question by producing a web of intertwined profiles of seven people who played key but relatively unsung roles in the region’s rise during the late 1970s through the 1980s. That’s the period that saw the personal computer revolution, the foundations of the internet, the institutionalization of venture capital, the creation and monetization of biotech, and—this is a surprise—the opening of opportunities to women like engineer and ASK founder Sandra Kurtzig, who was the first woman to take a Silicon Valley company public. (Only in the latter area has the Valley gone backwards.)
READ AN EXCERPT FROM TROUBLE- MAKERS
LESLIE BERLIN The 1970s Conference That Predicted the Future of Work
Stanford historian Berlin writes with a novelist’s flair and an Austen-esque sense of social conventions. And by focusing on relatively unfamiliar characters—Apple’s first chairman Mike Markkula instead of Steve Jobs; Atari’s chief engineer Al Alcorn instead of dippy visionary Nolan Bushnell—she’s able to produce a compelling geographical Bildungsroman that sheds light on why the Valley today operates as it does. Think of it as the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of the tech revolution. — Steven Levy
Who Can You Trust? How Technology Brought Us Together—and Why It Could Drive Us Apart By Rachel Botsman
The great promise of the internet is that it would bring us together, but as 2017 draws to a close, there’s evidence everywhere that it may be doing the opposite. Rachel Botsman believes this is a trust problem. Trust, which Botsman defines as a confident relationship with the unknown, is the currency that allows us to live among each other—conduct business; raise children; shore up our democracy. For centuries, we’ve depended on institutions like churches, governments, and the New York Times to confer that trust. Now, we’re rapidly losing faith in our institutions. How, then, can we figure out who is trustworthy?
READ AN EXCERPT FROM WHO CAN YOU TRUST?
RACHEL BOTSMAN How the Blockchain is Redefining Trust
With precision and measured optimism, Botsman makes a case for the rise of a new distributed approach to trust, powered by the digital age. She traces this new approach through the rise of enterprises such as Reddit and Kickstarter, as well as a host of technologies, including bots and the blockchain. Botsman is pragmatic in her assertion that we can choose to build mechanisms for trust into the future. “Distributed trust in itself can’t knock down the rise of extremist populist movements, dangerous policies introduced by radical political leaders or a divisive resurgence of nationalism,” she writes. “But, driven democratically and rationally, and shaped and reshaped by people’s needs and innate preferences about how they want to do things, it can provide a path forward for businesses, governments, media and other key institutions.” In a moment of great fear around instability, Botsman offers a techno-friendly vision for the opposite. — Jessi Hempel