I spent January in the cold winter of Tallinn and Berlin, which provided the ideal environment to cozy up with my Kindle and catch up on some reading. Here are five good books I read this month:
1. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle. Filled with examples of how robotics and social networks are (already) making us unhappier, Alone Together points at the pains that will spread across humanity if we see more technology as a constant positive. I’m placing Turkle up there with Jaron Lanier in the pantheon of technologists that can understand the perspective of techno-idealists like Ray Kurzweil and Martine Rothblatt, and still remain pessimistic about technology creeping into certain parts of life and work. Turkle, like Lanier, warns us: let’s not lower our standards of what humanity is and does so we can trick ourselves into believing that technology is smarter or more competent than it actually is.
“The idea of an attentive machine provides the fantasy that we may escape from each other. When we say we look forward to computer judges, counselors, teachers, and pastors, we comment on our disappointments with people who have not cared or who have treated us with bias or even abuse. These disappointments begin to make a machine’s performance of caring seem like caring enough. We are willing to put aside a program’s lack of understanding and, indeed, to work to make it seem to understand more than it does—all to create the fantasy that there is an alternative to people.”
2. Digital Gold: The Untold Story of Bitcoin by Nathaniel Popper. I’ve had dozens of people try to get me excited about Bitcoin, and fail. Enter Popper. Captivating story about the beginning, turbulent rise, and uncertain future of cryptocurrencies and the blockchain technology. This story has everything: a mysterious beginning, illegal substances, murder, and even the key role of my beloved Argentina in the expansion of Bitcoin. A good example that great journalism still is possible, and still matters for spreading important ideas.
“When people entrust money to financial institutions, they generally don’t have the expertise or time to make sure the institution is doing its job. In most cases, it is much more efficient for people to band together and pool resources to ensure that their banks and exchanges are on the straight and narrow. […] Many libertarians and anarchists argued that the good in humans, or in the market, could do the job of regulators, ensuring that bad companies did not survive. But the Bitcoin experience suggested that the penalties meted out by the market are often imposed only after the bad deeds were done and do not serve as a deterrent. When it came down to it, in each case of big theft, Bitcoin users eventually went to government authorities to seek redress—the same authorities that Bitcoin had been designed, at least partly, to obviate.“
3. The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts. I had heard a lot about Watts from my Eastern philosophy loving friends (many from California, where Watts lived most of his life). This was a great introduction to his ideas, and it served as an ever-needed reminder of that abstract but popular key to happiness: be present. While very philosophical, still very enjoyable, which is not always easy to do.
“How long have the planets been circling the sun? Are they getting anywhere, and do they go faster and faster in order to arrive? How often has the spring returned to the earth? Does it come faster and fancier every year, to be sure to be better than last spring, and to hurry on its way to the spring that shall out-spring all springs? The meaning and purpose of dancing is the dance. Like music, also, it is fulfilled in each moment of its course. You do not play a sonata in order to reach the final chord, and if the meanings of things were simply in ends, composers would write nothing but finales.“
4. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt. A must read for anyone trying to understand the current geopolitical trends. How did Trump win? Why are nationalism and the extreme right growing in Europe? Why do we fail to see those that have different political opinions as anything but dumb or selfish? Haidt has very compelling answers to all these questions, answers that he hopes will get the reader to pause and reflect before judging political supporters or religions he or she doesn’t believe in. Through his “elephant rider” metaphor and his six foundations of morality, Haidt gives us tools to influence those who think differently in both a civil and effective way.
“Morality binds and blinds. This is not just something that happens to people on the other side. We all get sucked into tribal moral communities. We circle around sacred values and then share post hoc arguments about why we are so right and they are so wrong. We think the other side is blind to truth, reason, science, and common sense, but in fact everyone goes blind when talking about their sacred objects. If you want to understand another group, follow the sacredness.“
5. A Week at the Airport: A Heathrow Diary by Alain de Botton. Anyone that knows me, knows of my love for Alain de Botton’s writing. And just like when we make an effort to satisfy our significant other, it was my love for this author that got me to finally read A Week at the Airport, the last book I had still to read from all his work. Written in a matter of weeks while de Botton lived at Heathrow’s airport (sponsored by Heathrow Airport Holdings Ltd.), this one just falls short of what the author usually delivers. Alain still manages to get his elegant prose across, but the book feels a little short and a little forced. If you travel a lot and/or if you’re a ADB fan, then check it out. Otherwise, there’s nothing wrong with choosing other works of his instead…
“Considered collectively, as a cohesive industry, civil aviation had never in its history shown a profit. Just as significantly, neither had book publishing. In this sense, then, the CEO and I, despite our apparent differences, were in much the same sort of business, each one needing to justify itself in the eyes of humanity not so much by its bottom line as by its ability to stir the soul. It seemed as unfair to evaluate an airline according to its profit-and-loss statement as to judge a poet by her royalty statements. The stock market could never put an accurate price on the thousands of moments of beauty and interest that occurred around the world every day under an airline’s banner: it could not describe the sight of Nova Scotia from the air, it had no room in its optics for the camaraderie enjoyed by employees in the Hong Kong ticket office, it had no means of quantifying the adrenalin-thrill of take-off.”