I have compiled a list of the top 15 books I have read over the past year – a mixture of new and old, some very contemporary and some from decades past. For each book, I have included a brief description, some of the key ideas, and a quote that encapsulates one of the main arguments.
All the books are highly relevant to where we are today and where we are heading in the future. If you're viewing this post in a browser, you will also be able to see the cover of each book and a brief preview, courtesy of Amazon (As an affiliate, I benefit from any purchases made through my website).
Below is Part 2 of the list. I published Part 1 earlier this month. Part 3 will come out next week. I would love to hear your thoughts if you've read any of these.
The Work of the Future by Autor, Mindell, and Reynolds
The Work of the Future is about the changing nature of work in the 21st century. It examines the impact of automation, artificial intelligence, and other technological advances on the labor market and how these changes will affect how people work and the skills they need to succeed. The authors also explore the implications of these changes for public policy, economic development, and social equity. This book is primarily notable for how conventional it is. It does not provide any original analysis of surprising ideas; it does provide an excellent analysis of the most pertinent theories and data points that labor economists have gathered and come up with until 2021 or so. As such, the book provides a good foundation and reference for anyone who wants to speculate and come up with their own analysis about what happens next.
What I found most striking about the book is what it does not include: Any meaningful analysis or consideration of the impact of remote work. Like most classical economic work, the book focuses on "automation" as the single and almost only technological factor worth considering. This seems like a massive blindspot for a book written during/post-Covid and aims and titled "Work of the Future." Still, as mentioned above, I found the book valuable mainly as a summary of the past rather than a guide for the future.
Some ideas that stood out:
- There is no "compelling historical or contemporary evidence" that suggests technological advances are "driving us towards a jobless future."
- It often takes decades from the birth of an invention until it significantly impacts employment. Hence, the "most profound labor market effects of new technology" that the authors found (recently) are not due to AI or robotics but due to the diffusion of much older inventions such as the internet, mobile phones, and cloud computing.
- In most industrialized countries, most adults can "escape poverty by working in paid employment." This seems obvious to us. However, from a historical perspective, "this state of affairs is exceptional and should not be taken for granted." Throughout history, being employed was not enough to keep many or most people out of poverty.
- Technology eliminates old but also creates completely new ones: "More than 60% of the jobs done in 2018 had not been 'invented' in 1940." Of course, economists typically ignore what happens in between, including social upheaval, world wars, and whole segments of the population who shift from one class to another.
- Income inequality is projected to increase over the next decade: "In pre-pandemic forecasts, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that the US will add approximately six million jobs in net between 2019 and 2029. Of those six million, 4.8 million are projected to emerge in just thirty occupations. Two-thirds of those jobs are projected to occur in occupations that pay below the median wage." Meaning — the median job will pay relatively less in 10 years, meaning fewer people will earn more, and most people will earn less.
- Despite the importance of lifelong learning, "only about half of US workers receive some kind of training from their employers in a given year."
A quote from the book:
New technologies themselves are often astounding, but it can take decades from the birth of an invention to its commercialization, assimilation into business processes, standardization, widespread adoption, and broader impacts on the workforce. This evolutionary pace of change opens up opportunities to craft policies, develop skills, and foment investments to shape the trajectory of change to create broader social and economic benefits.
The Meme Machine by Susan Blackmore
The Meme Machine by Susan Blackmore explores how ideas, behaviors, or styles spread from person to person within a culture. Blackmore argues that memes are responsible for much of the progress of human civilization. She examines the evolutionary implications of memes, and how they can be used to explain the development of language, religion, and other aspects of culture. She also discusses the impact of the meme machine on our society and how memes can be used to manipulate and control people.
The word "meme" is used frequently these days, but it is still worth defining. A meme is an idea that gets passed through imitation — through someone repeating it, sharing media that mentions it, or behaving in a way that communicates it to others (who can then copy it and pass it along). The term originated in Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene as a sort of cultural parallel of physical geners. More on that below.
Some ideas that stood out:
- Any process that involves imperfect replication and limited survival inevitably becomes an evolutionary process. This applies to genes but also memes: Ideas can replicate quite easily when people hear them and repeat them or imitate them. They replicate imperfectly because people often edit or change (or misquote) things they've heard. And there is a limit on the number of copies that survive and continue to spread because some versions get forgotten, reach the wrong person, or are not potent enough.
To understand how this works in practice, consider the phrase "Meat is Murder." When you hear it, you remember it and will likely repeat it. Some people might remember and repeat it as "meat is like murder," "It's bad to eat meat," or "killing animals is like killing people." Some of these variants will also get repeated, but some will not — because they are harder to remember or don't sound cool enough to repeat. Also, one of these variants might reach someone who happens to have a lot of friends, who can then repeat it in front of a massive group of people and help boost that variant over others.
Over time, one winning variant will become more popular than others. That winner will be determined based on its potency and some luck. The idea that "Meat is murder" probably started as a more cumbersome phrase but gradually evolved to the memorable and pithy version we're all familiar with.
- The only "potency" that matters for a meme is its ability to spread. It doesn't have to be accurate or funny or anything in particular. If it is good at spreading, it is potent.
- Memes are selfish in the same sense that genes are selfish. They want to replicate. They don't care about the effect on their carriers. Blackwell quotes the philosopher Daniel Dennett: "The first rule of memes, as it is for genes, is that replication is not necessarily for the good of anything; replicators flourish that are good at … replicating!"
- Dennet described evolution as an "algorithm," a mechanism that processes a massive number of possibilities and spits out optimized variants. Evolution is "a scheme for creating Design out of Chaos without the aid of Mind." When he wrote this in the 1990s, "algorithms" were mostly linear mechanisms that processed information based on simple rules (if-this-then-that). These days, more of our algorithms follow an evolutionary logic: They don't know what they're looking for or what they're trying to design; they bounce massive amounts of imperfect replicas through some filter and output whatever comes out.
- Humans are uniquely good at imitating each other. Most animals can't imitate each other, and even those who can are pretty limited in the type of behaviors they pick up.
- Memes can evolve together with other memes for mutual benefit. Blackwell calls such groups "memeplexes" (following Dawkins's earlier definition of "coadapted meme complexes"). For example, someone who believes that "Elvis is alive" is more likely to believe "the moon landing was fake" — hence, these two memes/ideas benefit from one another. The presence of the first meme in a person's mind makes it more likely that the person will accept, remember, and repeat the second meme. Memeplexes can be damaging: for example, the idea that "the 9/11 terrorists were Muslim" makes it easier for people to believe and spread the idea that Muslims committed other crimes, even when there is no evidence. But again, we are reminded that the purpose of memes is to spread, regardless of whether they are true. As Blackwell points out, "the essence of any memeplex is that the memes inside it can replicate better as part of the group than they can on their own." I have written about some of the practical implications of this idea in Abrogation Theory and The Military-Industrial Memeplex.
- The process of "memetic selection" leads to the evolution of increasingly potent memes that spread and ultimately cause other, less-potent ideas to become extinct. These ideas can be silly or frivolous, but they can also be meaningful — like the idea of farming. As Blackwell points out, once an idea begins to spread, it can alter the lives of billions of people. For example, "once [the notion of] farming arrives, no one has the luxury of saying 'I want to keep the old way of life.'"
- The internet accelerates the process of memetic selection and makes it possible for ideas to evolve and spread with unprecedented speed. The result is growing social and economic volatility.
A quote from the book:
Memes are replicators and tend to increase in number whenever they have the chance. So the meme’s eye view is the view that looks at the world in terms of opportunities for replication – what will help a meme to make more copies of itself and what will prevent it?
How Music Got Free by Stephen Witt
How Music Got Free tells the story of the rise of digital piracy and its impact on the music industry. It tells the story of hackers, thieves, and scientists who built the foundations of digital music, enabling the rise of Napster and, later, iTunes. The book describes how the technology and music industries contended with innovations and the deliberations behind critical decisions that shaped the media world and the early web. The story is told through the personal journeys of three key characters — MP3 inventor Karlheinz Brandenburg, music executive Doug Morris, and CD smuggler Dell Glover. The book gets into the guts of how music is made, from identifying the next hit to recording and encoding the sound to the factory floors and cables that deliver the sound to consumers. It also looks at the role of regulation and industrial policy in promoting and hindering innovation and protecting and harming the local industry.
Some ideas that stood out:
- The MP3 revolution was much more centralized than most people know. It is often seen as a "peer-to-peer" effort, where millions of people uploaded and shared music files. In reality, "the vast majority of pirated mp3s came from just a few organized releasing groups". Within these groups, a couple of individuals were responsible for stealing and uploading most of the songs.
- The MP3 standard was so bad it was proclaimed "dead" at an industry conference in 1995. Four years later, it became the most popular music format and forever changed the media and tech industry. At its peak, "mp3" became the internet's most popular search word, surpassing even "sex."
- In 2003, Steve Jobs wanted to buy Universal Music Group, the world's largest record company. Jobs wanted to own the rights to the music he sold on iTunes, and he wanted to "own" Doug Morris, who was considered the best music talent spotter at the time.
- Doug Morris used a TikTok-like "algorithm" to determine which songs would become hits. He had a network of order-takers in many small towns and markets. When a song was becoming popular in record stores in one market, Morris would immediately "boost" that song with a national distribution and promotion campaign. Morris assumed that "there was actually no such thing as a regional hit." If something is popular in a small group of people, it is likely to become popular with a much larger group. These days, the same principle guides the algorithms of all social media — whatever's popular among a small group is shown to larger and larger groups.
- Nonetheless, even Morris struggled to identify winners; the best he could hope for was to fail a little less than his competitors. Even when he succeeded, winners didn't last long: "The number of orange juice cartons you sold one year was an excellent guide to the number you were going to sell the next. The number of Limp Bizkit albums was not. Every year, Morris had to reinvent his entire product line from scratch. Mostly, that meant failing. The typical CD had a shorter shelf life than yogurt, and every year Morris ordered millions of them dumped into landfills."
- The above is the reason why old songs are so valuable. Their performance was much more predictable: "the number of Led Zeppelin albums sold each year actually was a pretty good indicator of the number that would be sold in the next." This principle helps explain why we're currently bombarded with so many sequels, prequels, spin-offs, and remakes: their production involves less uncertainty and higher potential returns.
- Before Steve Jobs decided to sell individual songs rather than whole albums, the music industry shifted from album-oriented to single-oriented productions. A significant catalyst of this trend was the debut of MTV in 1981 — a TV channel that played individual songs on repeat and drove demand for such songs rather than whole albums.
- Piracy did not start with computers and the internet. Creative industries have been plagued by piracy since the invention of print or earlier. And the term "pirate" has been used to describe copyright infringement for more than 300 years.
- The 1990s "culture wars" made it difficult for the music industry to get the government to act against music and film piracy. Record executives fought with Education Secretary Bill Bennett and Second Lady Tipper Gore about their right to release violent and misogynistic rap music. The recording industry won that fight. But when it needed the government's help, it had few friends left on Capitol Hill.
- Interestingly, the book and game publishing industries were also at odds with politicians regarding violent and "filthy" content. But those industries had some redeeming features: "The publishing industry churned out at least as much filth each year as the musicians did—but they also offered big book advances to retiring politicians. The software manufacturers had enjoyed the benefits of numerous Department of Justice antipiracy campaigns—but many of them secretly collaborated with the NSA. The music industry stood alone in its defiant refusal to cooperate, and now it found itself abandoned by the state."
A quote from the book:
"Despite forty years in the music business, [Morris] still never knew for certain which of his acts would succeed, and the Hollywood dictum that 'Nobody knows anything' held equally true for every other type of show business."
This was Part 2 of my book recommendations for 2023. Part 1 is available here. I will send out part 3 next week. Thank you again for being a subscriber.