The technology canon

My first real boss, Erling Iversen, used to say that there were two kinds of IT people: Those who had read Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach and those who hadn’t gotten around to it yet. In his opinion, what you got out of that book said much about how you thought about technology. Which leads me to wonder – do we have a canon of technology writing?

A canon is a list of books that you have to read to consider yourself knowledgeable – or, rather, educated in the classical sense – within a field. Creating lists is always controversial, and canons are more controversial than anything (witness all the discussions when Harold Bloom wrote The Western Canon.

The list I would like to create, though, is rather specialized: It consists of the books any technology thinker should read. I am not sure what I mean by that, aside from wanting to put together a list of books I like and that have influenced me, but hopefully the criteria becomes clearer as the list grows. One criterion is that the book must have stood the test of time, to be relevant even though the technology has changed (and, consequently, a book that I will occasionally re-read). A second (or perhaps it is the same criterion) is that its lessons apply outside the technology it discusses, whihc is another way to say that it will be readable by non-technologists.

Here is a brief start, just off the top of my head:

  • Gödel, Escher, Bach: An eternal golden braid by Douglas Hofstadter
  • Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig
  • How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand
  • A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander
  • Turing’s Man: Western Culture in the Computer Age by J. D. Bolter
  • The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder
  • The Mythical Man-month by Frederic Brooks
  • Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
  • The Control Revolution by James Beniger
  • Mastering the Dynamics of Innovation by James Utterback
  • The Innovator’s Solution by Clayton M. Christensen
  • Consciousness Explained by Daniel C. Dennett
  • The Wealth of Networks by Yochai Benkler
  • The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World by Lawrence Lessig

…and probably others (a whole lot of Internet-oriented stuff missing here), but I am beginning to stray. Anyway, ideas for books that every technology thinker should have read.


5 thoughts on “The technology canon

  1. Vaughan Merlyn

    I like this idea – I’ve picked it up on IT Organization Circa 2017.
    My “top of head” additions:
    At Home in the Universe by Stuart Kauffman
    Enterprise Architecture as Strategy by Jeanne W. Ross, Peter Weill and David C. Robertson
    Structure In Fives: Designing Effective Organizations by Henry Mintzberg

  2. RSannes

    Good idea, Espen, I guess I just have to start reading……
    Two of my personal favourites that aren’t on your list. The first have stood the test of time, the other is too new.
    Shaping the future by Peter G.W. Keen
    Don’t make me think! by Steve Krug

  3. i1277

    Interesting list (including too many books I’m ashamed to admit that I ehm… haven’t gotten round to yet). As for the suggestions in the comments, I’d swap Don’t Make Me Think for Donald Norman´s The Design of Everyday Things. Yes, Steve Krug´s book is an essential read for every interface designer, and it does bring some new ideas to the table, but at its core, it´s a modern and more domain-specific reinterpretation of the ideas in Norman´s classic.
    Also, I´d swap Everything is Miscellaneous with Small Pieces Loosely Joined (also by David Weinberger). Both offer profound insights, but the latter is more central to understanding the web, and even though I tend to agree with most of what he says in Everything is Miscellaneous, I can see why some critics think that he takes some short cuts in evaluating thousands of years of thinking about categorisation.

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