Technological progress is becoming so fast that we need scifi to understand the present. A prompt:
Our current economic system is already a superintelligent global AI. The utility function that it maximizes is shareholder value. The hardware it runs on is humans. This superintelligent global AI is a misaligned AI on which we cannot pull the plug. The not-yet-superintelligent tech-AI we have since 2023 will speed up the superintelligent global AI, very much as in the famous paperclip thought experiment.
I list some books that help me to understand these and related issues better. I’d be curious to know what you have on your list.
What can the collapse of former civilizations tell us about today? How fragile is our current economic system? How close are our societies (and the natural ecosystems in which they are embedded) to tipping points?
- Josiah Ober. The Rise and Rall of Classical Greece (2016). “Both greatness and fall had similar causes”. Do societies have to change direction to prevent the fall?
- Acemoglu and Robinson. Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty. 2013. Why are some nations richer than others? The book uses the distinction between inclusive and extractive political and economic institutions to take a fresh look at world history and study how nations take different turns at critical junctures.
- Bryan Ward-Perkins. The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization. (2006).
- Jared Diamond. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. (2005).
- Joseph A. Tainter. Collapse of Complex Societies (1988). Can the collapse of complex societies be explained by the principle of diminishing returns?
In the long run, how do we conceive of a flourishing humanity that lives in balance with the natural ecosystems on which our life depends?
- Jason Hickel. Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World (2021).
- Kate Raworth. Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist (2017). Is an economic system possible that respects planetary boundaries and provides for the basic needs of everybody?
- Jeremy Lent. The Patterning Instinct (2017). A cultural history from hunter-gatherers to modern times. Which cultural traits are at the root of our current problems and which would set up humanity for a flourishing future?
- Jaron Lanier. Who Owns the Future (2013). How do we have to change the algorithms governing the internet and other digital and social networks to distribute power and wealth in a way that works for the average citizen?
- Peter Zeihan. The End of the World Is Just the Beginning: Mapping the Collapse of Globalization. (2022). What do geography and demography tell us about how different countries will fare in a post-growth world?
- John Mearsheimer. The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities. (2018). Mearsheimer starts out with “There was so much optimism in the early 1990s about America’s role in the world. I wanted to figure out what went wrong.” He argues that the two strongest forces in geopolitics are nationalism and realism and that even well-intentioned liberalism does more harm than good in foreign politics. Reviews.
Are our societies able to take global warming seriously as long as corporate interests dominate politics? Is rising inequality an inevitable consequence of our current economic system? Are capitalism and democracy compatible in the long run?
- Rebecca Giblin and Cory Doctorow. Chokepoint Capitalism. 2022. Does copyright help content creators or publishing monopsonies/monopolies?. Audiobook on Libro.fm. The authors interviewed. Btw, if you watch videos with the Brave browser the adverts get cut out automatically.
- George Monbiot. Regenesis - Feeding the World without Devouring the Planet (2022). Can innovations such as precision fermentation lead to a sustainable agriculture feeding the world without plowing, pesticides and fertilizers?
- Kathryn Judge. Direct: The Rise of the Middleman Economy and the Power of Going to the Source (2022). Review.
- Eric Posner and Glen Weyl. Radical Markets: Uprooting Capitalism and Democracy for a Just Society (2018).
- Mariana Mazzucato. The Value of Everything: Makers and Takers in the Global Economy (2018). Which economic activities create value? How can we distinguish value creators from rent extractors?
- Jean Tirole. Economics for the common good. 2017.
- CORE - The Economy (2017). A mainstream economic textbook that does not hide the problems of our current economic system.
- Diane Coyle. GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History (2014).
- Thomas Piketty. Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2013). What can we learn from a detailed data-driven history of economic inequality? The Elephant Curve.
- Mariana Mazzucato. The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Myths in Risk and Innovation (2013). How much innovation is due to the state and how much due to the private sector?
- Amartya Sen. Inequality Reexamined. (1995)
Why did humans evolve to cooperate? Why did humans evolve the ability to reason? In which societies and institutional frameworks does cooperation flourish? How do culture and psychology and economics influence each other?
- Joseph Henrich. The WEIRDest People in the World (2020). How did human cognition and psychology co-evolve with culture? How is European civilisation peculiar? What role did the Church play in European cultural evolution?
- Bart Wilson. The Property Species: Mine, Yours, and the Human Mind. (2020) What is property? Do animals have property? How is the human notion of property different and how did it evolve? Under which conditions does property help to create order and prosperity?
- Michael Tomasello. Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny (2019). In what sense are the human faculties for cooperation unique among all animals? How does human and great ape cognition differ? The Cognition of Pointing.
- Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber: The Enigma of Reason (2019). As Kahneman and colleagues have shown, humans are not very good at reasoning. So what did reason evolve for?
- Richard Wrangham. The Goodness Paradox: The Strange Relationship Between Virtue and Violence in Human Evolution (2019).
- Ara Norenzayan. Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict. (2015).
- Kim Sterelny. The Evolved Apprentice (2012). Humans were genetically modern 200,000 years ago but culturally modern only 50,000 years ago. What happened in between? From an answer to this question emerges a sophisticated account of the mechanisms underlying human cooperation and the accumulation of cognitive capital.
- Jonathan Haidt. The Righteous Mind (2012).
Democracy, Oligarchy, Political Science
Why is democracy declining and authoritarianism on the rise? What conditions make democracy work? Can we employ modern technology to strengthen democracy?
- Balaji Srinavasan. The Network State. (2022).
- Donald Cohen. The Privatization of Everything: How the Plunder of Public Goods Transformed America and How We Can Fight Back (2021). How did the importance of public goods disappear from our view?
- Camila Vergara. Systemic Corruption: Constitutional Ideas for an Anti-Oligarchic Republic (2020). Is it possible to design an economic and political system that is stable against oligarchic takeover?
- Zachary Carter. The Price of Peace: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes (2020). Which economic system best supports democracy?
- Martin Gurri. The Revolt of The Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium (2014/2018). How will networks and hierarchies shape the struggle between authorities and the public?
- Rosa Brooks. How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon (2017). Why is the military the only trusted planned-economy big-government institution in the US?
- Jeffrey Winters. Oligarchy (2011). Are democracy and oligarchy incompatible? How do oligarchs maintain their power?
- Jürgen Habermas. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962). The Theory of Communicative Action (1981). What is the public sphere and what role does it play in making democracy work?
- John Maynard Keynes. The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919). It is common to point out parallels between today and the early 20th century. This is a good place to start digging deeper. NYT 2019.
In the wake of the murder of George Floyd there has been a fierce debate about systemic racism and how it manifests itself in the economy, in education, the military, police, etc. But what even is the system? In a first approximation, I would say the system is the law.
- Katharina Pistor. The Code of Capital (2019). Is there substance in the often repeated claim that the economy is rigged against ordinary people? How does the law favour some forms of capital over others? What is the role of the law in creating capital in the first place?
- Tom Bell. Your Next Government? From the Nation State to Stateless Nations. (2018).
- Tom Bell. Intellectual Privilege: Copyright, Common Law, and the Common Good. (2014).
- Michelle Alexander. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. (2010).
- Lawrence Lessig. Code and other laws of cyberspace (1999). A history of the early internet focussing on the relationship between law and code. There is an updated version from 2006.
The Alignment Problem (Technology/Society/Ethics)
How does technology drive societal change? How can we align technology (and the economy) to human values?
- Anna Lembke. Dopamine Nation. (2021). How much of our economy is based on addiction?
- Brian Christian. The Alignment Problem: Machine Learning and Human Values. (2020). A history and almost-textbook of machine learning with an emphasis on how to align machine learning with human values. Author’s summary of the book. Is there something to learn about how to align with human values the economy and finance (both increasingly driven by algorithms and AI)?
- Shoshana Zuboff: The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (2019). Will the information age empower people and democratize knowledge or lead to corporate control of the human’s experience? Who owns the means of behavioural modification?
- Virginia Eubanks. Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor. (2018) The book that convinced me that universal basic income is the only way forward. What happens when you are targeted by algorithmic decision-making tools? How widespread is the use of digital decision making for surveillance and oppression? How can we build technology that can build technology that supports justice? Interview with the author.
Philosophy and Ethics
The paradox of market economies (epitomized by the slogan “Greed is Good”) is that markets work best if they serve intrinsic values. But what are intrinsic values and how can we agree on them? Even seemingly technical questions (how to account for externalities, which economic activities to include in the GDP, etc) ultimately are ethical questions. There is a widespread feeling that utilitarian ethics is not sufficient, but what are the alternatives?
- Benjamin Lipscomb. The Women Are Up to Something: How Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley, and Iris Murdoch Revolutionized Ethics. (2021).
- Michael Sandel. What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets (2012). Do markets distribute scarce resources efficiently only if inequality is limited? Are there values that get corrupted when they are marketized? (What happens to our public town square if likes on Twitter are traded, if the amplification algorithm maximizes advertising revenue, if “grassroot” movements are paid by special interests?)
- Alasdair MacIntyre. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theology. (1980).
- Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. (322 BC). Could Aristotle’s account of virtue (every virtue balances two vices) be an alternative to the dualism that underpins much of our current world view?
History studies how societies change, a topic that was never more important than today.
- Economic history of the United States.
- David Gelles. The Man Who Broke Capitalism. How Jack Welch Gutted the Heartland and Crushed the Soul of Corporate America—and How to Undo His Legacy (2022). How was Milton Friedman’s shareholder-value economics put into practice?
- Binyamin Appelbaum. The Economists’ Hour: False Prophets, Free Markets, and the Fracture of Society (2019). A history of the growing influence of economists on politics and the new ideas they brought in: low inflation is more important than low unemployment, tax cuts always grow the economy, free markets and deregulation solve all problems, etc.
- Nicholas Lemann. Transaction Man: The Rise of the Deal and the Decline of the American Dream(2019). A history of the rise of corporate power in American politics.
- William Dalrymple. The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire (2019). An early chapter in the history of multinational corporations, colonialism and the stock exchange. Was the EIC an aberration or a blueprint? How do corporate and government power feed each other? (Btw, the American Revolution was in part a revolution against the East India Company.)
- Levitsky and Ziblatt. How Democracies Die. 2018. On which social norms does the survival of democracies depend? Did the norms that sustained US democracy rest on racial exclusion?
- Keri Leigh Merritt. Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South (2017). How did race and class intersect in American politics of the civil war period?
- Wael Ghonim. Revolution 2.0: The Power of the People Is Greater Than the People in Power: A Memoir (2012). Which role did technology play in the Arab Spring?
- David Graeber. Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011). What is money?
- Hitler’s rise to power
- James Pool. Who Financed Hitler: The Secret Funding of Hitler’s Rise to Power (1997). What role did German oligarchs play in the rise of Hitler?
- Stefan Zweig. Die Welt von Gestern: Erinnerungen eines Europäers. (1942). Memoirs of a European who grew up in the optimism of the late 19th century and witnessed civilization collapse in two world wars.
- Sebastian Haffner. Geschichte eines Deutschen (1939/2000). Autobiography taking place in 1933.
- Lion Feuchtwanger. Die Geschwister Oppermann. 1934. Novel tracing the events of 1932/33. There is a new English translation.
- Will and Ariel Durant. The Story of Civilization (1935–1975). A monumental cultural history from antiquity to modernity.
(on my reading list (next summer))
- Douglass Rushkoff. Survival of the Richest. (2022) Preview. Have our leaders already accepted that our current economic system will render our world unliveable? Have they given up on technology benefitting human society? Will they be able to solve the insulation equation: earning enough money to insulate themselves from the reality they were creating by earning this money? Or is the best way to prepare for the “Event” to take the very same measures as trying to prevent it?
- Alessio Terzi. Growth for Good. (2022) Interview. An argument in favour of green growth.
- Schmelzer, Vetter, and Vansintjan: The Future is Degrowth. (2022) Review
- Jared Diamond: Upheaval: How Nations Cope with Crisis and Change. (2019)
- Timothée Parrique. The political economy of degrowth (2019).
- Ingrid Robeyns. Wellbeing, Freedom and Social Justice - The Capability Approach Re-Examined. 2017
- Noah Feldman. The Three Lives of James Madison: Genius, Partisan, President. 2017.
- Avner Offer, Gabriel Söderberg: The Nobel Factor: The Prize in Economics, Social Democracy, and the Market Turn. (2016) What does economics know and how does it know it? Where does its authority come from and how far is it justified? How good a warrant did economics provide for the ‘market turn’? And is it an improvement on what went on before?
- David Teegarden. Death to Tyrants! Ancient Greek Democracy and the Struggle against Tyranny (2013). A comprehensive study of ancient Greek tyrant-killing legislation. What is the nature of an anti-democratic threat? How would various provisions of the laws help pro-democrats counter those threats? And did the laws work?
- Martha Nussbaum. Creating Capabilities. (2011).
- Mary Midgley. Myths We Live By (2003).
- Bernard Williams. Truth and Truthfulness: An Essay in Genealogy. (2002).
- Irene van Staveren. The Values of Economics - An Aristotelian Perspective. (2001).
- Herman Daly. Beyond Growth: the economics of sustainable development. 1996. “[…] the natural world - an ecosystem which is finite, non-growing, and materially closed. The demands of [our] activities on the containing ecosystem for generation of raw material inputs and absorption of waste outputs must, I will argue, be kept at ecologically sustainable levels”
- Elinor Ostrom. Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. 1990.
- Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen. The Entropy Law and the Economic Process (1971).