A Grist Bibliomography

Here's my version of a special treat for you Grist readers who clicked on the link to come over here: an annotated bibliography of my favorite computer books. Some of these books are for people who want to learn more about technology and others are for computer people looking for a broader perspective, but all of them are good reads.

The best book I know of on the computer industry remains Tracy Kidder's Soul of a New Machine. It's over 20 years old, but it remains one of the most understanding and sympathetic accounts of the kind of in which computers are produced. More recently, Fred Moody's I Sing the Body Electronic is a sharp and perceptive take on the sometimes chaotic development process at Microsoft.

Silicon Valley is a scary place, with some very scary attitudes. Michael Lewis's The New New Thing veers off on tangents at times, but it's a very understanding take on the crazed economy of wealth-worship in the Valley and its sometimes tenuous connection to the "underlying" technology and businesses. Paulina Borsook's Cyberselfish is more a opinionated (although her excellent writing makes the vitriol go down pretty easily) on the scarily libertarian culture of the Valley. She got a fair number of negative reviews, mostly of the form "This book is soooo 1995," but sadly, little has changed since then. Reading these two books makes it impossible for one to take seriously either the tech titans of the Valley or their critics.

As for why people go into computers in the first place, David Bennahum's memoir Extra Life and Douglas Coupland's novel microserfs both do an excellent job of capturing the sense many programmers feel that computing can be a human activity, full of joy, wonder, and connection to other human beings. Bennahum gets right the human drama of discovering computers; Coupland gets the human comedy right.

If you want to know about privacy (or the lack thereof) in the Internet age, check out Simson Garfinkel's Database Nation. If you want to know about security (or the lack thereof), look at Bruce Schneier's Secrets and Lies. Both of them know what they're talking about, and the picture they paint isn't pretty. Go lobby your elected representatives for EU-style databasing-disclosure laws now, and while you're at it, ask them to fix the commercial code so that software vendors can't disclaim liability quite so easily as they do now.

Last, and greatest, is Lawrence Lessig's Code, on the legal and social issues involved in regulating cyberspace. Lessig makes a very strong case for his claim that "code is law" -- that the design decisions made when programming computer systems wind up having the effect of laws that regulate the kinds of interactions people can have when using those systems. It's a completely obvious point, but it's amazing how many people don't get it (read the book, and you won't be one of those people). If we want the Internet of the future to have certain features, we need to make sure those features are designed into it from the start. Privacy, property rights, freedom of speech -- we're going to need to work to protect all these things, and the time to start is now.