The 2023 Porchlight Business Book Awards | Current Events & Public Affairs
January 11, 2024
Looking for the year's best Current Events & Public Affairs books? Porchlight's Marketing & Editorial Director Dylan Schleicher has you, and those books, covered.
It is both unfortunate, and perhaps unavoidable in a year like 2023, that the Current Events & Public Affairs category is the one that contains the most cause for despair. But I would encourage readers to not submit to the doom and gloom, because the reason books like these are written is not to burden us with the knowledge of how the world is ending, but to see with clear eyes the ways in which elements of our economic system—the way it bestows benefits on bad actors willing to manipulate the rules and bend them to their favor for ever greater profit—are undermining our collective wellbeing, to confront those forces and build something better.
We have covered books and written at length since the pandemic hit in 2020 about the need to address the systems that are failing us. And there were numerous books in 2023—Invisible Trillions and The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism to name just two—that widened the lens out far enough to take as broad a look as possible at the relationship between democracy and capitalism, how and why they have historically been linked and balanced, and the ways in which that link is being broken, the balance undone. Those books are extremely important, focusing on what we need to do to bring some semblance of balance back to the relationship. They serve as a reminder that, as imperfect as it has been, the fusion of these two systems has expanded freedom and given us—as self-governing citizens—the opportunity to improve upon the work of those who came before us. It is a reminder that nothing is static, that we each have agency and a role to play.
And yet, in the end, as much as I gravitated toward those books this year, I was ultimately drawn back to three journalists who produced books in the muckraking tradition, exposing companies—or entire industries—that are undermining that balance the bigger picture books discuss, and two other authors who work in or adjacent to Big Tech and are in a great position to educate the broader public about the potential (both good and bad) of their industry.
Those five books we chose in the Current Events & Public Affairs category are …
Broken Code: Inside Facebook and the Fight to Expose Its Harmful Secrets by Jeff Horwitz, Doubleday Books
It has been a long time since most us believed in large social media companies’ techno-utopian vision of connecting people and democratizing the world, or that such a mission is what really guided these companies' decisions. By the time Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen appeared on 60 Minutes and in front of congress to detail the ways Facebook has put profits over people, very few of us were surprised by the revelations. It was, of course, still crucial to get that story and the facts officially on the record, to document the ways in which the platform and done us real harm. And no one did more to build that case and report that story than Jeff Horwitz of The Wall Street Journal. Indeed, before she went public, Haugen was a source for Horwitz’s reporting. After talking with her and others like her in his initial reporting, Horwitz found “it was getting harder to assume good intent” in the decision Facebook’s leaders were making:
The former employees who agreed to speak to me said troubling things from the get-go. Facebook’s automated enforcement systems were flatly incapable of performing as billed. Efforts to engineer growth had inadvertently rewarded political zealotry. And the company knew far more about the negative effects of social media usage than it let on.
When discussing this book with others, the primary reaction I received was surprise—not at the harm Facebook had caused, but that Facebook was at all relevant anymore. Few people I know pay much attention to Facebook, but most still pay a lot of attention to Instagram which, being owned by Meta, is a part of the story.
Broken Code begins with the story of Arturo Bejar, an early Facebook employee who set up many of the platform’s early safeguards who left the company to spend more time with his kids, which is how he found out his daughter was being routinely harassed on Instagram—to the point that she didn’t even bother reporting it anymore because nothing ever happened when she did. Talking to his daughter’s friends, he found they all had similar experiences. Compelled to return to Facebook as a consultant to see what was going on, he found many of the systems he had put in place dismantled, often deliberately weakened to drive down the number of reports of abuse rather than attempting to address the abuse itself. As the book takes you deep inside the company’s decision-making process and its real-world effects, Horwitz also provides an inside view of how he and others at The Wall Street Journal made their decisions, how they researched and rolled out over the story, which reminds us how important the press and Investigative journalism are in our world.
The Coming Wave: Technology, Power, and the Twenty-First Century's Greatest Dilemma by Mustafa Suleyman with Michael Bhaskar, Crown
2023 was the year when the questions we asked about AI went from the theoretical to the practical, when we started being able to parse its potential (and in some people’s view potentially apocalyptic) ramifications on our everyday lives. It was the year most of interacted with AI in a meaningful way for the first time. From the time ChatGPT was launched in November of 2022 to the time Sam Altman was ousted and then quickly restored to the helm of OpenAI in November if 2023, AI was constantly in the news. And whenever developments move this fast, it is important to slow down and go deeper. Luckly, Mustafa Suleyman—co-founder of Inflection AI and DeepMind—wrote a book with Michael Bhaskar this year to help us out. They remind us that technologies can fail in two separate ways, and that we can contain technology’s potential without containing its potential, that the only way to truly release its potential is to contain its failures:
This is a book about confronting failure. Technologies can fail in the mundane sense of not working: the engine doesn’t start; the bridge falls down. But they can also fail in a wider sense. If technology damages human lives, or produces societies filled with harm, or renders them ungovernable because we empower a chaotic long tail of bad (or unintentionally dangerous) actors—if, in the aggregate, technology is damaging—then it can be said to have failed in another, deeper sense, failing to live up to its promise. Failure in this sense isn’t intrinsic to technology: it is about the context within which it operates, the governance structures it is subject to, the networks of power and uses to which it is put.
I’ve come to think about AI in the way sportscasters once talked about Michael Jordan: We can’t hope to stop it, we can only hope to contain it. The Coming Wave offers of vision of how to do that without limiting its AI’s enormous potential, reminding us that the best way to realize that potential is figuring out the proper parameters to put around it to ensure it benefits humanity.
Containing Big Tech: How to Protect Our Civil Rights, Economy, and Democracy by Tom Kemp, Fast Company Press
The other insider arguing for containment is Tom Kemp. He not only argues for it, but has been the arena of public policy crafting legislation to reign in Big Tech. Or, if viewed in a different way, he is on the front lines of coming up with, borrowing from the words of The Coming Wave, “the context within which it operates, the governance structures it is subject to, the networks of power and uses to which it is put.” Or, in Kemp’s words:
When it comes to Big Tech, we often focus on their products, brands, go-to-market, and founder stories when we consider how they became the internet giants they are now. But we must recognize that Big Tech’s anticompetitive practices have also significantly contributed to them becoming these giants who act as gatekeepers to our digital economy. As much as we may like their brands or fondly recall how they started as scrappy start-ups and the darlings of Silicon Valley, having such high degrees of concentration is not healthy for our economy or democracy.
We are long past the days of hoping that Big Tech will democratize the world and well into the era where we need to figure out how to democratize Big Tech—or at least to ensure it doesn’t undermine our democracy. The system of mass surveillance capitalism that exists today would make the communist Stasi secret police jealous. The companies that digitally surveil us analyze our behavior are increasingly able to control our behavior, monopolizing not only our economy but our time, data, and the intimate details of our lives. In the process, we have become hyperpolarized, suspicious of others’ intentions, and lost our faith in institutions. But rather than giving up hope, we must realize that “we the people” are both the foundation of the internet (and of AI) and of our ongoing experiment in self-governance—and that the two things are likely to now be forever intertwined. We need to envision new ways and write new legislation to ensure that big companies and new technologies of any kind “strengthen our society, economy, and democracy” rather than undermining each. Tom Kemp is actively doing that and has written a book to help guide the way.
Number Go Up: Inside Crypto's Wild Rise and Staggering Fall by Zeke Faux, Crown Currency
Zeke Faux’s book was the one that I had the hardest time putting down this year. It is perhaps because I’ve maintained a deliberate ignorance to what is happening in crypto currency, so it was like entering an alternate reality, but it could also be because, even after reading this and two other books about crypto this awards season, I feel almost as ignorant now as I did at the beginning. Because it just doesn’t seem to make any damned sense.
Faux started his investigation of crypto by trying to figure out where the $55 billion invested in Tether—a so-called “stablecoin” that with a fixed value at one dollar each—was actually located. Tether is, like most cryptocurrency companies, an unregulated offshore company. In a year that has seen cryptos two richest men and largest boosters—Sam Bankman Fried of FTX and Changpeng Zhou of Binance—wound up with prison sentences, Tether and its shadowy CEO have somehow escaped unscathed. Unless you read Faux’s book, which is scathing in its assessment and indictment of the entire industry. He admits he started off skeptical, but his journey following the story around the world didn’t improve his view of things:
From the beginning, I thought that crypto was pretty dumb. And it turned out to be even dumber than I imagined. Never before has so much wealth been generated with such flimsy schemes. But what shocked me was not the vapidity of the crypto bros. It was how their heedlessness had devestating consequences for people across the world. By the end, I’d find myself in Cambodia, investigating how crytpo fueled a vast human-trafficking scheme rrun by Chinese gangsters.
The cast of crypto characters is eccentric, the sums of money exorbitant, and where it is all going seemingly inscrutable but increasingly scary. Faux gets as close and personal to the story and people behind crypto as possible, without ever being taken in by them or the hype. He has also somehow managed to make it one of the most entertaining books I have read all year.
These Are the Plunderers: How Private Equity Runs—And Wrecks—America by Gretchen Morgenson & Joshua Rosner, Simon & Schuster
The thing that ties Gretchen Morgensen and Joshua Rosner’s book to the others, which focus on tech companies, is that—like those companies—private equity has largely escaped the regulatory purview and oversight of agencies that oversee large, publicly traded companies. Mustafa Suleyman’s description of system and governance failure also applies here. There is nothing wrong with private equity per se, but used in pursuit of profits over people as it mostly has been, even in areas vital to human wellbeing such as healthcare and housing, then the damage inflicted is real and long lasting.
In fact, during the pandemic, when keeping people in their homes and nurses on the jobs was of vital importance, private equity was putting people out of their homes and nurses out of work in pursuit of even greater profits—which they made while raking in pandemic relief money. The lack of PPE equipment may even be traced back to profit maximization efforts private equity owned hospitals had undertaken before the pandemic hit. Researching LifePoint Health, a chain owned by Apollo Global Management with “eighty-four mostly rural hospitals” in its portfolio, the authors found that:
LifePoint may have failed their workers and patients in 2020, but the hospital system was still able to tap taxpayers for massive amounts of pandemic relief money. The company got $1.4 billion from the government, much of it in the form of loans it would never have to repay. Even as it received this funding, Lifepoint slashed the amount it paid staff in salary and benefits by $166 million and reduce the charity care it provided, such as free treatments for the indigent, by 21 percent.
Morgensen and Rosner provide a deep background and history of private equity, update us on it current incarnation and abuses, and highlight people and institutions pushing back on it. Like all the other books in this category, its focus isn’t as broad as some of the other books penned in 2023, but it helps us understand in great detail how one industry influences the link between and balance of capitalism and democracy—whether it is currently expanding wellbeing and prosperity or concentrating it, and what to do with that knowledge.