What I’ve been reading in 2021

16.45, Friday 31 Dec 2021

Sup y’all. Some books I read this year.

Computing history: I flicked through a bunch of re-reads and picked up a few that were new to me.

The Soul of a New Machine (1981) tells the story of the development of a single minicomputer, and the era means it seems irrelevantly archaic and simultaneously like seeing the modern world under a microscope, the fine detail of both the technology and the kind of people who work with it, traced out like trails in a particle collider.

I wrote about it in March: Revolutions and NAND gates, eight cents, wholesale.

Tools for Thought (1985) is another dive back, most interestingly (to me) to the big thinkers - Doug Engelbart, Alan Kay, Brenda Laurel, Ted Nelson - and their perspective on what computing is for. I think in the 1980s you can say that the frontier had been opened, but software hadn’t yet eaten any of the world, and so the perspectives of these individuals are unblinkered and all the more valuable for that.

The idea that it’s possible to decompose “thinking” to fundamental units that can be enhanced by computing, such that it’s possible to create a “tool for thought” (Rheingold’s term) or a “fantasy amplifier” (Kay)… well, we’re missing that vision today imo.

Howard Rheingold has shared the full text to Tools for Thought on his site.

Rise of the Machines is a history of cybernetics and that undersells it. I’ve read a lot about cybernetics and its role as a cross-discipline language to cross-pollinate ideas and invent new ones. But this account is special for two reasons:

  • Thomas Rid is intensely realist. Norbert Weiner isn’t the hero, the Macy conferences aren’t central. Cybernetics itself is treated with scepticism, and individuals who talk (like Weiner) are on the sidelines compared to implementations and solutions.
  • This drums home how much the history of technology in the 20th century in the west is a military history. Yes, we kinda acknowledge that military research funded development of ideas in feedback systems, and computers etc, but I’ve never read the story in as much detail. Or the role of the US air force in developing 3D virtual reality. Or (in a chapter of original research) how seriously cyberwar was being taken in the early 1990s.

Computing history seems to be told in one of two ways: either a history of ideas, “great men” typically. Or a sequence of landmark inventions: the transistor, the PC, etc – enabling technologies but independent of the people.

But Rise of the Machines is neither of these, and is as close to a material culture approach as I’ve seen. It’s a history of built technology in use and how people respond and then what else they build. Excellent and full of great nuggets.

Two books about jobs.

Inspired is a field manual for the product role (at many levels): where it fits in organisations, what it has to achieve, and how to do it. “Product” itself is a fascinating development, a new role borne of startup culture, non-existent when I started in the industry. And I’m into it: synthesis, scouting, and sequencing.

Where the product role coalesced, the design role diversified – the designer’s approach and skills found a home in strategy, research, product, marketing, invention, and more and at all levels. It’s hard to directly measure the impact of design but you couldn’t do without it. Org Design for Design Orgs is about how to build and manage the design function.

Both excellent books. I recommend pairing them.

One Million A.D. is an anthology of sci-fi novellas based in the far, far future. Tangent magazine delivers a run-down of the stories.

All cracking fun, but pick up this collection for the Greg Egan bit: a story of two lovers who have enjoyed 10,000 years of marriage and have gone through every worthwhile experience. They are now ready to let themselves die…

Egan has the story on his website to read for free here: Riding the Crocodile.


2021 has flown by and honestly my attention is shot.

Aside from the above and a bunch of comfort re-reads, I’ve struggled finish even books that are gripping me.

Four notables from the uncompleted stack:

  • The History of Magic: From Alchemy to Witchcraft, from the Ice Age to the Present [Bookshop.org], Chris Gosden. With the premise of a “triple helix” of equals - science, religion, magic - this is a methodical history of magic in cultures worldwide over the last 10,000 years.
  • Art in Revolution: Soviet Art and Design since 1917, Hayward Gallery London, exhibition catalogue (1971); here’s the show on Google Arts & Culture. An attempt to describe and show Soviet constructivism as an art movement, political philosophy, and (total) social approach, while being uncritical of communism.
  • The Lore of the Land: A guide to England’s legends from Spring-Heeled Jack to the Witches of Warboys [Amazon], Westwood & Simpson. I wrote about this in July: England is dense with ancient folktales.
  • Everything I Know About Life I Learned From PowerPoint [author site], Russell Davies. It’s a guide to presenting, it’s a history, it’s a life philosophy. I haven’t finished yet but it’s brilliant, and also a gorgeously designed object. Get the print edition.

What I liked about my reading this year is that none of the books really offered up a conclusion, or made a single argument. Just: well-researched (and often exhaustive) descriptions of systems, stories, occurrences, history. In quantity, enlightening.

Happy new year.

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