Our Own Devices by Edward Tenner (Alfred A. Knopf, 2003)
In this unique book, Tenner discusses the history of “body technologies” – bottle-feeding, shoes, chairs, keyboards, eyeglasses, and helmets. All of these relatively low-tech devices, which we all take for granted, in some way supplement our bodies. Tenner asserts that the use of these devices can change us both culturally and physically, which hearkens back to the theme of his previous book, “Why Things Bite Back.” Although limited to specific examples, this book is about the design of everyday objects and how we interact with them. The choices that designers make are only part of the picture; economics, culture and user experience also play an important part in deciding if a technology succeeds.
The Transition Handbook by Rob Hopkins (Chelsea Green, 2008)
This is the book that launched the Transition Town movement, a grassroots environmental initiative to deal with peak oil and climate change. The argument is that now that oil has “peaked” (is only available in ever-decreasing quantities), people need to transition to lifestyles that are much less oil dependent. The fact that burning of fossil fuels such as oil contributes to climate change gives even more impetus to the movement. The solution, as envisioned by Hopkins, is to live locally – grow food locally, produce energy locally, work locally, and so on. Thus each Transition initiative is based in a community, the first one being Rob Hopkins’ hometown of Totnes, England. As an English environmentalist and specialist in locally sourced building materials, Hopkins has a more hands-on approach than the American academics who typically write environmental books. This is a handbook for people who want to start their own local transition initiatives, so it includes activities and ideas for motivating new groups, as well as examples of how the existing transition groups got started.
You are not a gadget: a manifesto by Jaron Lanier (Vintage Books, 2011)
This extended essay on the philosophy of computer science is a manifesto in favor of the value of individual humans. Probably everyone who reads this book will agree with some of what he says, and disagree with a lot more (but it will be different parts for each one of us). Lanier has the perspective of a successful computer scientist and entrepreneur, but a less successful musician; both of those facts inform his views of computers and their place in the world. It means that he is in favor of musicians being paid for their work when it is accessed online, and not overly concerned about big companies overcharging for access to content. He does not buy into “crowdsourcing” as a process for creating content, because it devalues the individual. Lanier gives us plenty of startling ideas to think about, such as why many Silicon Valley folks effectively see computers as their deity.
To Forgive Design by Henry Petroski (Belknap Harvard, 2012)
In this sequel to “To Engineer is Human,” civil engineering professor and popular writer Henry Petroski explores the human reasons for engineering failures. As he did in many of his previous books, Petroski focuses on what we can learn from catastrophes (bridge collapses, space shuttle explosions, etc) to avoid them in the future. But in this book, it’s not just about design and construction issues, although he does discuss metal fatigue at length. He couragously tackles construction shortcuts and corruption, management incompetence and hubris, and ethical issues of all kinds. There is an interesting detour highlighting the Canadian practice of the Iron Ring ritual for newly graduated engineers, and how this may make them more aware of ethical issues. Petroski discusses the importance of being aware of the history of your field as well as keeping up with the latest research (both can be accomplished with a literature search at the library!) which are practices noticeably lacking in a typical civil engineering office. Petroski even asks if the trend toward putting engineering books and journals online could reduce awareness of past failures, due to the lack of physical proximity of old and new materials on a topic.
2312: a novel by Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit Books, 2012)
As you might guess from the title, this science fiction novel takes place 300 years in the future. I had trouble adjusting to so many new ideas at once; it might have worked better filled out into several novels. It takes a while to discern the meanings of words Robinson makes up to describe future technologies, but eventually it becomes clear that humans have not only terraformed Mercury, Mars, Venus and Titan to make them quasi-habitable, but also made human environments out of thousands of hollowed-out asteroids. In this world of the future, quantum computing is an everyday thing, and the coastlines of the continents have long since been inundated due to climate change. Yet the big problems are in a sense still the same – political stalemates, computers becoming ever more powerful, and the challenges of restoring ecosystems and their flora and fauna. I still like the Forty Signs of Rain trilogy the best of Robinson’s work, but if you like science fiction you will enjoy this novel.