I’ve always been fascinated by consumer technology, which is why I write about it. New innovations appear constantly. Some of them have promise. Others don’t. And the ideas that have the most weight in popular culture aren’t always the ones that eventually win.
You can learn a lot about consumer technology and its effect on society by reading blogs, but online sources have a tendency to follow the latest fad instead of providing exhaustive research of a topic. The classic non-fiction technology book still has significant value. Here are five that you absolutely need to read.
Generation Xbox by Jamie Russell
The most recently released book on this list, Generation Xbox focuses less on console hardware than the title suggests. It’s really a book about how the relationship between the video game industry and Hollywood has evolved over the years. It includes tidbits about the doomed Halo movies and the creation of the Mario Bros. flick that any game fan or movie buff will love to read.
That’s not the only reason why I recommend this book, however. By focusing on the love-hate relationship between gaming and Hollywood, author Jamie Russell is able to tell a story about gaming’s rise (and occasional fall) from the limelight of popular culture. The way these two powerful media industries interact says a lot about the strengths and weaknesses of each.
The Master Switch by Tim Wu
If you actively look for books about technology and communication, you must have already heard of this book, if not read The Master Switch. Although only a few years old it has already established itself as one of the more important books written about the history of the communications industry in America.
Much of the book’s focus is on the juggernaut that was AT&T. There’s a lot of useful history packed in this tome, but the books goes a step further by taking the lessons of history and applying them to the Internet age. Wu is not certain that the Internet is naturally a tool for freedom of speech and makes some great predictions about how it might change if certain interests (primarily corporations) become too powerful.
The Race For A New Game Machine by David Shippy And Mickie Phipps
This book is a bit of an odd-ball on this list because it is, by far, the least well written. Its authors are David Shippy, who was in charge of designing the Cell processor for Sony, and Mickie Phipps, a co-worker also high on the project’s totem pole. The book’s tone comes off as self-congratulatory as a result.
Still, this is an important story and these are the only people who bothered to tell it. The Cell processor was an amazing engineering achievement and theoretically gave Sony an edge, yet it was also responsible for many of the PlayStation 3’s flaws. You’ll probably have a new respect for Microsoft’s ability to execute broad-stroke business strategies after you finish this book – and less respect for Sony’s scatter-shot approach to engineering new products.
This book is also important because consoles are important. They are transforming from game machines to media centers the whole family can enjoy and will only become more popular over the next decade. This is no accident, and if you’d like to learn more about why Microsoft decided to get into this business I suggest you read Opening The Xbox by Dean Takahashi as a follow-up.
Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
How could I write a list of non-fiction books for geeks without including Steve Jobs? This incredibly well timed biography is an insightful (and at 656 pages, rather long) retrospective on the life of the person who was known as one of the smartest and most ruthless leaders in the industry at the time he stepped down from his position as CEO of Apple.
Apple wasn’t his only gig, however, which is what makes this book a must-read. Jobs was also instrumental in making Pixar the company we know today, and was involved in several other projects, such as the NeXT Computer. Jobs’ successes and failures in technology are informative, but it is the story of his life and the excellent writing of Walter Isaacson that will keep you reading until the book’s final page.
You Are Not A Gadget by Jaron Lanier
You Are Not A Gadget is not an easy book to consume. Jaron Lanier’s philosophical arguments and dense prose can be hard to take in at first, particularly for anyone who’s used to the quick-and-easy style of online blogs. I suggest that you keep your nose in the page. This book is the best critical examination of the Internet and online culture that you’ll ever read.
Mr. Lanier believes the Internet hasn’t lived up to its potential. He argues that freedom of information hasn’t hurt companies as much as it has hurt the artists and journalists who create new content. He also accuses “Web 2.0” of being anti-intellectual. Wikipedia can be a wonderful resource, for example, but he also points out that the predominance of a few websites (such as Wikipedia) makes the web much less diverse than many believe it to be.
This is really just the tip of the iceberg. There’s a lot packed in this short book and there’s even a few chapters devoted to finding solutions to the criticisms the author brings up.
These books are some of the best that you can possibly read if you’re interested in learning more about consumer technology. Many of them focus on specific topics or angles, but it’s easy to see how the lessons found inside them apply to other areas of interest to geeks.
What do you think? Have you read a non-fiction technology book that you think should be geek canon? Let us know in the comments.