The best science and tech books of 2020

MCD / WIRED

It’s been a year for glumly refreshing live blogs and breaking news websites. But we have managed to get some reading done too. Here, our writers and editors have picked out our favourite books released in 2020 across the broad range of areas that WIRED covers.
Uncanny Valley, by Anna Wiener
In this memoir, New Yorker tech correspondent Anna Wiener recounts her experiences as a millennial diving into San Francisco’s tech startup scene. Disillusioned with her job in publishing, Wiener moves from New York to Silicon Valley, with its promises of building a better future for all – and a more exciting present for those in its club. The book follows her experiences working for multiple startups, with skewering descriptions of a sector that, while ahead technologically, seems in other ways to be wildly out of touch. Covering issues such as sexism, surveillance and San Francisco’s homeless crisis, it reveals a world that hides a pit of moral quandaries beneath its shiny facade. Victoria Turk

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How To Make the World Add Up, by Tim Harford
The Covid-19 pandemic may have made armchair epidemiologists of us all, but it has also underscored how important statistics are in our everyday lives; what numbers can tell us about how the world is changing, and what happens when we don’t have access to the data we need. Financial Times journalist and host of the BBC’s More or Less Tim Harford explains how to decipher the numbers that surround and befuddle us by applying ten simple rules. Rather than simply rebuffing statistical trickery, Harford’s book implores us to look past the bluster – and our own biases – to really figure out what data can tell us, and where the limits of its usefulness might be. This is required reading before hitting send on any tweet mentioning R numbers or false positives. Matt Reynolds
The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win, by Maria Konnikova
Maria Konnikova pressed pause on her work as a journalist for The New Yorker and The New York Times and gave herself a year to make it as a poker pro. Armed with the mentorship of American poker champion Erik Seidel and a cast of other professionals, Konnikova set her sights on the biggest stage the game has to offer: the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. The Biggest Bluff is a poker book that’s not really about poker. It’s about getting to grips with uncertainty and learning to take control of your own decision-making processes in order to handle the game of life with a little more confidence. MR
The Lonely Century, by Noreena Hertz
In this timely book, economist Hertz explores the loneliness epidemic that was sweeping the world even before the coronavirus took hold. She looks at the ways tech that’s meant to bring us together is driving us apart, the impact isolation is having on our health, and the bizarre ‘loneliness economy’ that’s springing up to fulfil the needs of people desperate for human contact, from lifelike sex dolls to a service offering cuddles for cash. The book is a fascinating look at a key societal question: in an age where technology means we’re more connected than ever, why do we feel so alone? Amit Katwala
Reed Hastings: Building Netflix, by Matt Burgess
Netflix may dominate our television consumption today, but its future was never certain: the ubiquitous online video giant could have never survived the rise of streaming. This story takes us back to its more humble beginnings, when Netflix decided to take on bricks and mortar video rental king Blockbuster in the 90s, with an ambitious mail rental video service. In a tale with more twists and turns than a bowl of spaghetti, WIRED’s very own Matt Burgess dissects the life and choices of famously elusive Netflix founder Reed Hastings, the man behind the successful media empire. Natasha Bernal

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Sway: Unravelling Unconscious Bias, by Pragya Agarwal
‘Unconscious bias’ has become a buzzword in the modern office, but what does it actually mean? How does it work, what are the effects, and can we do anything about it? Behavioural scientist Pragya Agarwal digs into the research, taking us through the many ways bias can manifest, from stereotyped assumptions to confirmation bias and status quo bias, and how these can all result in prejudice and inequality. She highlights in particular the intersectional nature of our biases, and how this can compound privilege or disadvantage for different groups. There are no easy solutions on offer here, but Agarwal urges that only when we become more attuned to our own unconscious biases can we begin to make conscious changes to our behaviour. VT
What Tech Calls Thinking, by Adrian Daub
Where do concepts like “disruption” “content” and “dropping out” come from? And beyond the unthinking way they are thrown around in Silicon Valley, what do they really mean? Daub tries to historically anchor the most common concepts used in Silicon Valley in their philosophical origins. A professor of comparative literature and German studies at Stanford, Daub is an elegant and clear writer, good at breaking down the jargon of the philosophers he says have so profoundly influenced the industry WIRED covers. Will Bedingfield
The Precipice, by Toby Ord
Were it not for SARS-CoV-2, The Precipice would likely have remained a book read only by the far-sighted futurists, the rationalists, and the transhumanists (plus, I’d wager, blogger and former government aide Dominic Cummings). But as things turned out, this clinical, no-holds-barred dissection of existential risks – i.e. all the ways humankind could perish or self-destruct – has acquired an urgent and vaguely prophetic character. Ord, a philosopher at Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute, lists all risks, assesses their likelihood and potential to kill us all off, and suggests strategies to mitigate each of them. Asteroids, nukes, and climate change all get honourable mentions. So do pandemics, even if Ord is mostly worried about artificially engineered ones. The big bugaboo, however, is unaligned artificial intelligence – machines or algorithms that go rogue, or simply embrace an idea of the good that does not entail our survival. In a year in which our everyday lives were upended by the unexpected (or rather the expected yet neglected), The Precipice is a good way to put everything in perspective: much worse things could easily happen – and they likely will. Gian Volpicelli
Banking On It: How I Disrupted an Industry, by Anne Boden
At last, one of the greatest secrets of the London fintech scene is out. The reason behind the major fallout between the founders of Starling Bank and Monzo, two of the UK’s major neobanks, has for years been the cause of much speculation. In her bombshell book, Starling Bank founder Anne Boden breaks ranks to rip into her major rival and former partner Tom Blomfield, with a portrait of biblical-level betrayal, break-ins and sabotage. Though it packs in loads of drama, Boden also exposes exactly what it’s like to be an older, female entrepreneur in an industry where the odds were stacked against her — and how she succeeded. NB

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This Is Not Normal, by William Davies
This essay collection is an excellent window into the four years running up to the pandemic. Britain, Davies says, is suffering from “the abandoning of liberal economic rationality, the declining authority of empirical facts, the mainstreaming of nationalism, the hatred of ‘liberal elites’, the effects of big data and real-time media on our politics, the new mould of celebrity leaders, the crisis of democratic representation.” It’s a depressing state of affairs that Davies documents smartly. Pick up his magnum opus Nervous States at the same time. WB
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