Porchlight Editorial and Creative Director, Dylan Schleicher, takes us inside the best Big Ideas & New Perspectives books published in 2019.
This is the first year I’ve been in charge of curating the books in the Big Ideas and New Perspectives category—an arena of ideas I’ve always viewed with a futurist tint, as looking for what’s on the horizon. What I found in my reading was that the most powerful ideas were those that focused on the systemic challenges we face today, and addressed the unchallenged assumptions, economic models, and power structures we’ve inherited from the past.
The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power by Shoshana Zuboff, PublicAffairs
It would be impossible to overstate the importance of Shoshana Zuboff’s work. It is already being cited in some of the other best books of the year (Rana Foroohar’s Don’t Be Evil, for instance), providing a language and framework to view and talk about what is becoming the dominant business model and overriding logic driving capitalism today. Or, perhaps I should say, what has become the logic overriding capitalism today, as surveillance capitalism is best seen as a break from the previous tenets of the capitalist worldview—rather than requiring freedom to operate in a world of imperfect information, “demanding both unimpeded freedom and total knowledge.”
The modern day robber barons at the head of Big Tech have ambitions that have become larger, yet more intimate, than freely participating in and shaping free markets; their aim is to shape the very behavior of free people. They aren’t just demanding market freedom for themselves, they are demanding the subjugation of everyone else—breaking the reciprocity of benefits that our capitalist system has always relied upon, the social contract that allowed companies to operate and make a profit because they provided a social profit to society, and struck a balance between labor and capital. It also breaks with the fundamental tenets of democracy, dependent as it is on free peoples and self-government, and their participation in inclusive economic institutions and the political economy that governs our public life. Rather than freeing information, it has commandeered, privatized, and profited off our personal information. Rather than democratizing knowledge, it has corrupted it, allowing fraudulent operations to advertise directly to consumers and disinformation to spread easily into our national debate.
Drawing on the work of the best economists, social scientists, and journalists of the day as well as the likes of Thomas Paine, Hannah Arendt, and W.H. Auden, Zuboff blends social science and theory, qualitative research and philosophy, reportage, history, literature, and personal essay to produce a most compelling argument, some of the best writing of the year, and a call to action for collective effort against the encroaching tyranny of surveillance capitalism.
Barrio America: How Latino Immigrants Saved the American City by A. K. Sandoval-Strausz, Basic Books
It doesn’t seem right to put Barrio America in the Big Ideas and New Perspectives category, not because it doesn’t fit, but because the idea that immigrants have been such a positive force in the development of our country should not be at all controversial, novel, or new. The perspective A.K. Sandoval-Strausz offers is not only historically accurate, but refreshingly straightforward in tackling the development, decline, and rebirth of American cities. Writing of American urban decline and how it was viewed as a racial narrative:
All these difficulties were interpreted through a racial lens, first and foremost by white people. They devised a racial narrative of neighborhood decline, portraying “white flight” as a reasonable response to the prospect of having black neighbors. They repeated the old racial myth about that black people were just “lazy” or “shiftless,” while ignoring virtually universal job discrimination and the ongoing departure of employment opportunities from cities.
The story of urban renewal has often been written as one of white collar and “creative class” workers returning to the city. Sandoval-Strausz reclaims and rewrites that history by telling the stories of the nation’s barrios and the immigrants who repopulated cities and revitalized their local economies in the intervening years:
It shows how a group of people who earned modest incomes and were socially marginalized, politically demonized, and sometimes undocumented managed to redeem so much of metropolitan America.
It is a pattern that is now playing out in the rest of America, where immigrants are now repopulating and revitalizing the economies of rural areas that are now themselves in decline—even as politicians perpetuating the politics of grievance in an era of unequal economic gains insist we need to build a wall to keep them out.
How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi, One World
Unfortunately, the racial narrative and racist history that Sandoval-Strausz describes is not itself history. It not only goes unchallenged in our political debate, it seeps into the consciousness of us as individuals until we accept that narrative as fact. As Ibram Kendi writes in How to Be an Antiracist:
Racist ideas have defined our society since its beginning and can feel so natural and obvious as to be banal, but antiracist ideas remain difficult to comprehend, in part because they go against the flow of the country’s history.
Kendi tells the history of racist ideas and ideology not as one based on the ignorance and hate of average people, but as a history of colonialist powers perpetuating their self-interest and defending their racist slave trading policies by inventing race, and a false racial narrative and hierarchy around it, that is relatively new to the world. It has always fundamentally been about power, and it has been insidious. But it is bad policy, not bad people, that perpetuate institutional racism. And blending his own battle with cancer into the book, he believes that, since racism as we know it is a relatively new phenomenon—not even six hundred years old—we still have the chance to catch it early and eradicate it if we focus on instituting antiracist ideas and policies. In doing so, he not only raises awareness, but gives us the tools to create a more historically, socially, and scientifically accurate conversation around race that has the chance to shift our policy debate away from the cancer cells of racism in our society that continue to divide and multiply, and toward creating a more equitable economy and just society.
A Human Algorithm: How Artificial Intelligence Is Redefining Who We Are by Flynn Coleman, Counterpoint Press
Flynn Coleman’s book, A Human Algorithm, contains an explanation and examination of machine learning, deep learning, reinforcement learning, natural language processing, and all else in our quest for AI, but it is more about the search for what it means to be human, and what intelligence is. If we are attempting to model artificial intelligence on human intelligence, we have to grapple with the fact that we’re modeling it on something we don’t fully understand.
Throughout, she asks the reader to consider what they think, what their definition of intelligence is, how they see the world. That is especially important to bring to the fore, and into the discussion, because the group of individuals working within the field today are predominantly white males from two elite universities, working for a handful of tech giants who are building the technology on a proprietary model.
If the homogeneity in the field of AI development continues, we risk infusing and programming a predictable set of prejudices into our intelligent digital dopplegangers.
If we don’t believe that can happen, or that the results can’t be all that bad, look at one of the most idealistic developments in social engineering in human history, American democracy. Founded upon the idea that we’re all created equal, our country’s wealthy, white male founders still excluded women and non-property owners from the franchise to vote and denied most black people their very freedom. The number of enslaved human beings reached four million before liberation. It was a system built on an economic imperative that devalued human life and freedom, specifically black bodies, families, and lives. While we’ve made some progress, that economic imperative hasn’t changed all that much, and we live in a system that still puts economic growth and profits over the health of the planet we rely on for our very existence. Which brings us to our final book.
The Making of a Democratic Economy: Building Prosperity For the Many, Not Just the Few by Marjorie Kelly & Ted Howard, Berrett-Koehler Publishers
Marjorie Kelly and Ted Howard quote Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac to suggest the kind of mindset shift we need to make: “We abuse the land because we view it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” We're not exactly moving in the right direction. The Wisconsin sand that Leopold named his almanac after (even though there is no actual Sand County here in Wisconsin), highly sought after for use in fracking, is now being dug up, shipped all across the country, and buried underground in order to violently extract fossil fuel deposits in shale rock. It's emblematic of the larger economy:
Our economy is not only failing the vast majority of people, it is literally destroying our planet. It’s consuming natural resources at more than one-and-a-half times the Earth’s ability to regenerate them. Soil depletion has ravaged one-third of all arable land. Nearly two-thirds of all vertebrates have disappeared from the Earth since 1970, part of a sixth mass extinction that is terrifyingly underway. We are razing the only home our civilization has, yet we remain caught inside a system designed to perpetuate that razing, in order to feed wealth to an elite.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The vast majority of human beings on this planet—and the planet itself—would be better off if it were not this way. The biggest change needed to make it happen, as systems theorist Donella Meadows wrote, is “a new way of seeing.” The great achievement of the book is that Kelly and Howard offer such a new paradigm, which they describe succinctly near the end of the book:
A different paradigm doesn't start with capital as the center of the universe. It starts from the point of view of life. And reality looks something like this: there’s only one system, the earth, which is precious beyond measure. The economy and everything in it are subsets of this one system.
The economic tools needed to build a more democratic economy are readily available and already in wide use. There are examples out there and in the book—some centuries old, some introduced in recent decades—that we can borrow from and build on in our own enterprises.
The only thing we need is the imagination, or perhaps moral clarity, to recognize that we don’t have to run our businesses for the benefit of elite, absentee shareholders—that such a system, rather than causing wealth to trickle down, as Marjorie Kelly and Ted Howard explain, “extracts wealth up from communities and sets it spinning in the ethereal realm of speculative trading.” The “new” economy of Big Tech extracts even more—our attention and data, perhaps our very humanity—just to keep that top spinning. The history of institutional racial bias in American politics, and the system of shareholder capitalism dominating our recent economic history, is in danger of being embedded into the advanced technologies and artificial intelligence we are building, developments on on par with nuclear weapons and climate change in their ability to shape (and potentially destroy) our future.
This year’s best books in the Big Ideas and New Perspectives category may not constitute easy reading, but they are well written and argued, and are worth all the attention and debate we can muster.