2018: Books of the Year

Happy New Year, friends! It’s time for my annual list of Books of the Year. I didn’t meet my book goal this year: I was on track for most of the year, but I got totally absorbed in the Hour of Code this year which took me a bit off track. On the upside, we shipped Dance Party, my favorite Hour of Code tutorial yet. My usual disclaimer applies: I’m not claiming they’re the best books I read this year (whatever that means), but they are the books that changed my thinking, stuck with me long after the final page, and that I would wholeheartedly recommend to others. As usual, they’re presented alphabetically by author.

Future Ethics, by Cennydd Bowles

The ethics of technology is an area of personal and professional interest for me, and with all the recent developments in privacy (and anti-privacy) and algorithmic inequity, it’s an area of increasing public interest as well. Often, writing on the ethics of technology can be either too philosophical to be useful, or too specific to have general applicability. Bowles’s book strikes the balance well, while leaning more toward applicability than philosophy.

Bowles summarizes many existing ethical frameworks and tools and relates them to current topics of debate. This book highlights a number of ethical tools that can be applied to different scenarios. There are many examples, but two that were new to me were Jerome Glenn’s futures wheel, and Nynke Tromp’s four quadrants of persuasion.

Bowles also introduced me to the idea of “mutually destructive” metrics, described as: “We can also select ‘mutually destructive targets,’ metrics chosen in pairs so that one will suffer if we simply game the other.” This is one of those brilliant ideas that sounds obvious in retrospect, but that I had never seen elucidated so clearly. At Code.org, equity and children’s well-being is at the heart of our mission, so we are always trying to understand the impact on those things when designing or piloting new features. For example, when we were piloting a new congratulations UX aimed at increasing engagement, our “success” metrics were overall retention and solve rates on our puzzles, but we also monitored for disproportionate impact on female students, who are underrepresented in the field. We’ve typically tried to account for this on an ad hoc basis, but the idea of pairing metrics instead of ad hoc juggling of concerns could be an extremely useful exercise – not only for the practical measurement of impact but also for building organizational muscle around considering unintended consequences. This book provides many nuggets like this one.

It’s easy to fall into a cycle of hopelessness when confronting the ethical challenges technology creates or embodies, but Bowles manages to avoid the pit of despair by focusing on the things we can do as creators and consumers of technology. Back in 2016, I recommended Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction. While I think Bowles’s book may have less general appeal than O’Neil’s (Future Ethics is heavily geared toward practitioners), I think they both belong on an Ethics and Technology reading list.

Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America’s First Bohemians, by Justin Martin

This book is a vivid portrait of a ragtag crowd of poets, actors, and other artists who gathered in a dimly lit vaulted room beneath Broadway sipping lager, trading witticisms, and (often frustratedly) looking to shape their own destinies through self-expression. The saloon was Pfaff’s, and one of these bohemians was, of course, the Good Gray Poet himself: Walt Whitman. The book follows the lives and adventures of many of those bohemians who frequented Pfaff’s, making it a deeply engaging and engrossing read. I felt as if I had spent many a smoky night in Pfaff’s myself.

All of this is multiplied by my own context as a reader. This book was a gift from a dear friend of mine–one with whom I have recounted embellished tales, traded witticisms, and recited the words of I Sing the Body Electric. I saw myself in the peaks and valleys of Pfaff’s (in particular, Pfaffian Thomas Aldrich’s words rang true for moments of my life: “We were all very merry at Pfaff’s…Did you think…that my heart, as I passed the Rhine wine to the boys, was as black as the midnight and bitter as gall?”)

While reading this, I reflected on my own personal Pfaff’s, and on my own personal Pfaffians. Reminiscing from the peaks to the valleys and back up again, I couldn’t help but think of Whitman’s words in The Sleepers (which my friend inscribed inside the cover): “Onward we move, a gay gang of blackguards! with mirth-shouting music and wild-flapping pennants of joy!

So You Want to Talk About Race, by Ijeoma Oluo

This book is eminently readable, while simultaneously hard to read. I read this book twice: once quickly (I couldn’t put it down) and then again immediately afterward, more closely. It’s easy to read in that Oluo’s storytelling and style is fluid and engaging. It’s hard to read in that, if you’re white and you read it earnestly, you will feel discomfort. (No matter how “woke” you think you are.) I don’t usually make pronouncements like this because they’re so subjective, but in my opinion it’s a nearly perfect book.

Oluo’s writing is concise: she manages to convey so much with so few words. The book runs less than 250 pages (with large print) but carries the weight of a book three times as long. She moves through topics ranging from what racism is (emphasizing the importance of power structures and systemic racism, not just the overtly racist acts of individuals), intersectionality, police brutality, the school to prison pipeline, cultural appropriation, and more. She weaves together personal stories and statistics with ease.

One of the things I most appreciated about this book was that she provides thoughtful questions for reflection in just about every chapter. If you engage with these questions earnestly, you can learn a lot about yourself, your biases, and what you can do to be a better ally. I imagine that this must have been incredibly challenging to write, and for this reason I think this book is a real gift. In chapter three, she provides a set of tips for having a conversation about race, and one of them has been stuck in my mind ever since: “Ask yourself: am I trying to be right, or am I trying to do better?” It’s not the most important or hardest-hitting passage in the book, but it really captures a core theme.

I enthusiastically recommend this book to everyone, especially if you benefit from an enormous amount of privilege (like I do).

What books stuck out for you this year? Any recommendations for my reading list next year?

If you’re interested in any of the other books I read this year, you can check out my Goodreads profile.

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