It was the tech industry’s ugliest year yet. Facebook was forced to reckon with its role in the 2016 election and general mass manipulation, while the American public is taking a break. Lawyers for Google, Facebook, and Twitter sat mouth agape in front of Congress trying to answer fairly basic questions about their social platforms. Uber and Google settled a big dispute over intellectual property that may or may not have been based on legitimate patent claims. Trump tweeted about his big powerful button which he threatened to use to nuke North Korea. Towheaded vlogger Logan Paul pushed the bounds of online content–and what the viewing public is willing to endorse–when he live-streamed footage of he and his cronies skulking through Japan’s “Suicide forrest” where they, yes, filmed a dead body dangling from one of the trees. Rumor campaigns on WhatsApp were blamed in bouts of deadly violence. We ate pods of Tide. A random–and quite expert–cave diver showed Elon Musk that in fact he does not possess the solution to all problems.
Fortunately, there were also big books that schooled us on where we stand in the context of a larger era. They covered everything from the patriarchal foundations of the tech industry to clipped-winged unicorns and the next space race. Here are a handful of our favorite tech books of the year:
Brotopia by Emily Chang
The story opens on a simple invention that marked the first slamming door that locked women out of Silicon Valley computer labs: image transfer. Scientists at the University of Southern California had gotten a grant to work on creating a compression algorithm that would allow people to send large images between devices. The project required photos heavy on detail, texture, and color. One graduate student had brought in a copy of Playboy and his classmates all agreed that the centerfold photo of model Lena Soderberg would make a great test subject. The photo made it into a dataset that has been shared widely among other imaging researchers and has become one of the most used–appearing in all kinds of precedent-setting papers and presentations.
It’s a simple anecdote that sets the stage for a book that details the slow accumulating micro-aggressions that have walled women out of a very lucrative field. Don’t worry: there’s plenty of overt sexism in this book as well (women serve as sushi platters in one particularly lascivious scene). Chang’s is a fascinating historical account of the patriarchy at work in one of the world’s most lucrative sectors.
We Are The Nerds by Christine Lagorio
If the internet is the Wild West of social engagement, Reddit is Deadwood. Up until the last couple of years, it was known as a place where a person, armed with a pseudonym, could say anything. The grossest hate speech imaginable proliferated, unsanctioned nudes were published and traded, and conspiracy theories flourished.
And then, during the 2016 election, a reckoning came for the platform. Christine Lagorio, a reporter at our sister publication Inc., has been tracking Reddit since its earliest days. Her book details the travails of three fumbling young entrepreneurs as their big idea for a social network turns into a monster. The story is classic Silicon Valley and a cautionary tale for future entrepreneurs. (Read an excerpt here.)
Gigged: The End of the Job and the Future of Work by Sarah Kessler
When people think of the “gig economy,” a phrase that is quickly becoming outdated, they often think of drivers on apps like Uber and Lyft or grocery delivery on Postmates, Instacart, or DoorDash. We often forget that gigging, irregular short-term work, also pertains to Amazon Mechanical Turk or creative freelance and even blue collar work like construction. The kinds of jobs that can be turned into gigs is expanding as more companies find ways to turn jobs into tasks that can be farmed out to a rotating workforce.
In Gigged, Kessler, a former Fast Company reporter, looks at the potential of the gig economy and ultimately the problems it bears. The most instructive portion of the book is a section in which she writes about a man in Arkansas who teaches a group of adults with no college education the skills necessary for earning money on gig platforms. His goal is to connect low income workers with more lucrative web-based work. What happens next is a lesson in Silicon Valley’s big, difficult promises.
Unscaled by Hement Taneja
This unlikely book is by a venture capitalist who is rethinking the virtues of large-scale global companies. Hemant Taneja is a partner at General Catalyst, where he’s invested in companies including Stripe and Snap. In his book, he mulls over the idea that scale hasn’t served America well. “Healthcare is failing, banks have failed, and education is not preparing us for the 21st century,” he told me in April.
The book delves into the ways in which scrappy startups that grow just big enough are the saviors of our modern economy. It is a self-serving premise. Taneja would probably like it if the competition from big tech companies and legacy titans were a little less fierce for the companies he’s investing in. But the book also points to the problem of a tech ecosystem that is speeding faster than the government can lay down highway.
The Space Barons by Christian Davenport
Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are–for better or worse–two of the most noteworthy businessmen of our time. In The Space Barons they are their most ambitious, literally shooting for the moon. Davenport uses them to illustrate the demise of the public space program in the U.S. and the rise of private space innovation and business. Both characters have made major news off their launches and landings, but what is to come is much bigger. Davenport’s book is a great preface to the coming space era.
Bad Blood by John Carreyrou
Of all the Silicon Valley founders, it is hardest not to be most spellbound by Elizabeth Holmes, with her long blond hair, her Steve Jobs turtlenecks, that distinctly deep voice. Holmes was supposed to save the world. Her blood tests, tinier, faster, cheaper, and more revealing, would challenge Quest Diagnostics and Laboratory Corporation of America. The pitch was too good to be true–the company was finally shuttered in September–but the tale of how one woman fooled Silicon Valley out of a billion dollars is one you shouldn’t pass up.
Small Fry by Lisa Brennan Jobs
I left the best for last. Lisa Brennan Jobs is a writer’s writer and in Small Fry she tells an incisive story that is dreamy in the way that it can feel unreal, about a beloved icon who just happens to be her father. In it, Brennan Jobs recounts her own struggles–both through rejection and yearning–with a father who can’t commit. It is hard to get to the emotional pith of Silicon Valley’s most beloved characters, and for that this book is a gift. It is a portrait of Steve Jobs that no biographer could ever or will ever be able to capture.