Book Bits: 2 March 2024

Burn Book: A Tech Love Story
Kara Swisher
Review via AP
Technology is so pervasive and invasive that it’s polarizing people, producing feelings of love and loathing for its devices, online services and the would-be visionaries behind them, according to a longtime Silicon Valley reporter.
Kara Swisher unwraps how we got to this point in her incendiary memoir… Swisher skewers many of the once-idealistic tech moguls who, when she met them as entrepreneurs decades ago, promised to change the world for the better but often chose a path of destructive disruption instead. And along the way, they amassed staggering fortunes that have disconnected them from reality.

Pax Economica: Left-Wing Visions of a Free Trade World
Marc-William Palen
Review via Big Think
Today, tariffs and other forms of economic protectionism are commonly associated with socialism and authoritarianism, while open, unregulated markets are seen as agents of capitalism and democracy. In the not-so-distant past, things were a little different. As historian Marc-William Palen shows in his latest book, Pax Economica: Left-Wing Visions of a Free-Trade World, protectionism was a weapon that Western countries used to control and exploit their colonies. In this age of empire, left-wing political groups saw free trade not as a threat, but as a means to create a different, more egalitarian world order.

The Great Wave: The Era of Radical Disruption and the Rise of the Outsider
Michiko Kakutani
Summary via publisher (Penguin Random House)
An urgent examination of how disruptive politics, technology, and art are capsizing old assumptions in a great wave of change breaking over today’s world, creating both opportunity and peril. The twenty-first century is experiencing a watershed moment defined by chaos and uncertainty, as one emergency cascades into another, underscoring the larger dynamics of change that are fueling instability across the world. Since the global financial crisis of 2008, people have increasingly lost trust in institutions and elites, while seizing upon new digital tools to sidestep traditional gatekeepers. As a result, powerful new voices—once regarded as radical, unorthodox, or marginal—are disrupting the status quo in politics, business, and culture. Meanwhile, social and economic inequalities are stoking populist rage across the world, toxic partisanship is undermining democratic ideals, and the internet and AI have become high-speed vectors for the spread of misinformation.

Investing in U.S. Financial History: Understanding the Past to Forecast the Future
Mark J. Higgins
Review via Publishers Weekly
“Financial events that seem unprecedented on the surface are, in fact, driven by the same underlying economic currents and human behaviors,” according to this ambitious debut chronicle. Investment consultant Higgins offers a sweeping overview of the American economy from the Founding Era through the present. Beginning with Alexander Hamilton’s establishment of the First Bank of the U.S. to steady a tumultuous economy wracked by Revolutionary War debt, Higgins discusses such developments as the nationalization of state-chartered banks after the Civil War, the buildup of industrial manufacturing capabilities toward the end of the 19th century, the contribution of credit-based stocks to the Great Depression, the popularity of mutual funds after WWII, and the late-20th-century rise of Silicon Valley. He draws illuminating parallels between eras, as when he contends that bullish economists who believed that real estate prices wouldn’t fall nationally in the early aughts because they’d never fallen before would have known better had they studied crashes in the 1820s and 1840s driven by weak crop yields and “the collapse of cotton prices,” respectively.

Slow Productivity: The Lost Art of Accomplishment Without Burnout
Cal Newport
Review via The Wall Street Journal
“I want to rescue knowledge work,” writes Cal Newport, “and rebuild it into something more sustainable and humane.” In “Slow Productivity,” Mr. Newport observes that office workers lack a clear standard for being productive; performative busyness has now become a proxy for good performance. Given the autonomy to manage their own workloads, knowledge workers often fill their days with the lowest-hanging fruit. It’s easier “to chime in on email threads,” the author notes, “than to put your head down and create a bold new strategy.”
He proposes that only a new mindset can counter the “dehumanizing grip of pseudo-productivity.”

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