September 25, 2017

9 Books To Boost Your Understanding of Technology & Systems

We’re hearing of Mark Zuckerberg’s possible interest in running for president. We refer to Elon by his first name. Bill Gates is the richest man in the world. And every college kid dreams of becoming a tech billionaire. There’s a certain ‘hollywoodization’ of entrepreneurship.

It’s also much easier to start a business. Throw up a website using one of the many templates out there, host it on Amazon Web Services or GoDaddy, find a pain you think exists and go about trying to solve it. In some cases, folk even try to raise money before the idea is fully fleshed out. It feels that easy. What this has led to is a false narrative about the required level of understanding of what you need to build a business.

It’s the easiest time in the world to start a business but it’s also never been harder to build one.

I hear this gap in foundational understanding of business and technology in the many conversations I have with founders. While I recommend that doing the work of starting a business and screwing it up is the best way to learn, I also share the story of ‘the Elephant and the blind men

a group of blind men all touch an elephant to learn what it is like. Each one touches a different part and consequently think it is something other than an elephant.

and share the lesson that one cannot tell the whole from the parts; because you think you see a small part of a problem in an industry does not mean you understand how to solve the problem. Most entrepreneurs jump into solving a problem without actually understanding the whole picture or the ‘why’ of the problem.

To help these founders along, I recommend some books that provide a systems understanding of technology. Here are nine books that’ll ramp you up quickly so that, when you do step out there to start your business, you understand the trends you’re riding, what part of the economic cycle you’re in and what foundational systems/models you’re going up against.

  1. What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly. A good friend and fellow utility tech enthusiast friend (Eugene Granovsky) clued me into this book. Kevin Kelly would be considered the opposite of Neil Postman (below), as he is one of the foremost proponents of the value we can gain from the technological changes that are inevitable in our lives. He shares more of these expectations he has of the technological systems changes around us in his newest book ‘The Inevitables.’ We’re already seeing the HOLOS = Tech/The Machine + 7 Billion Souls, a force he expounds upon, at play around us.
  2. Thinking In Systems: A Primer by Donella Meadow. The story of the elephant and the blind me above is also included in this, a personal favorite, book in explaining the need to understand systems as a whole. A holistic understanding of systems and the models that operate within these systems at all times is necessary before any disruption can happen. As I like to say, and unfortunately I cannot remember where or from whom I first heard this quote ‘to disrupt a thing, you have to truly understand it.’
  3. The Second Machine Age by Erik Brynjolfsson, Andrew McAfee: The current backlash against Artificial Intelligence and Robots, etc. is nothing new. This book focuses on the impact of exponential and combinatorial technological change on human work. Read this as much for the message (we need to proactively do something to push back the worsening conditions of income disparity brought on by technology) as for the study of the systems that are impacted by game-changing technological advances like AI and Machine Learning.
  4. The Master Switch by Tim Wu: I’m a big Tim Wu fan. In this book, he discusses the impact of technology (and the information flow that our technology makes possible) on the TV, movie and internet industries. The book is as much a journey through the life of these industries as the cycles that technology goes through as they become ubiquitous; all useful technology is innovative until it becomes commonplace. Pair the book with his new one ‘The Attention Merchants’ to learn more about how we got to this point in the life of the internet.
  5. Future Shock by Alvin Toffler: I am currently rereading this book and amongst the many quotes that one can pull from this prescient book, one that speaks to the now of communication technology is ‘…but in almost every other communications medium we can trace a decreasing reliance on mass audiences. Everywhere the ‘market segmentation, process is at work.’ Another one that is closely related to the premise of The Second Machine Age (above) in the age of AI is ‘there are discoverable limits to the amount of change that the human can absorb, and that by endlessly accelerating change without first determining these limits, we may submit masses of (hu)mans to demands they simply cannot tolerate’. While some of his contexts might be outdated, the book was written in 1970, the overarching musings (the accelerating pace of change and information overload) still hold true today. Probably more so.
  6. Technopoly by Neil Postman: The copy of this book I read is my wife’s copy from her undergraduate degree days. Apparently, in her major at Stanford, she had to read this and share her views on the perspectives provided by Neil Postman in this book that is very relevant to the current landscape of technology. It’s the most marked book I’ve ever read (she’s studios like that) but that element of it, someone else’s notes, makes it a fantastic read of a great book that focuses on the inequalities that technology brings to society.
  7. The Life of Pi by Yann Martel: This might seem like an odd one to include on here until you read why. I was having a conversation with Jeremy Adelman about this blog post and… you know what, I’ll let him explain more eloquently than I could why this book helps you understand technology (hint: because it helps us understand our biases and we all know our biases seep into the products we build); “few books force you to confront who you are and your perception of situations and trends. We all have filters and lenses through which we perceive the world and our interpretation of our present and future are wholly through these lenses. This is a critical realization if you want to look at technology trends and build a product that is both on trend and lasting in its ability to solve human pains. Life Of Pi indeed makes us think about these lenses and biases.

Which books would you add to the list?

Seyi Fabode

Strategy @AshaLabs, Writer @HarperJacobs. Check out my book "40 Semi-Obvious Startup Lessons".

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