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⚡ Our Best Non-Tech Recs
Ten books and films that help you understand tech via the systems around it
At Reboot, we aim to put technology in the context of the institutions and ideologies it shapes and is shaped by. We don’t believe we can analyze tech in a vacuum — you need literacy in ecology, sociology, biology, and myriad other disciplines in order to understand the major tech debates of our time.
It can sometimes feel constraining to feature only books and essays that are explicitly about tech, so I asked the Reboot community to share the non-tech media artifacts that had the greatest influence on their thinking.
Here are ten of those recommendations:
🎞 our best non-tech recs
(1) “Sick Woman Theory” by Johanna Hedva
Recommended by Shira Abramovich, a software engineer at Monthly
“Sick Woman Theory” by Johanna Hedva came to me at a time when I was emerging from a long period of temporary disability – a concussion, a type of injury which precludes computation and screen use. The preceding year, which I had spent mostly in dark rooms, had been the year the Cambridge Analytica scandal had come to light. I had found myself wondering what to do with multiple things that seemed too big to handle – the first, my injury and its duration, and the second, the political world of technology which at the time I was unable to access.
“Sick Woman Theory” is an essay about those enormities. Hedva asks: “How do you throw a brick through the window of a bank if you can’t get out of bed?” Her answer, through Sick Woman Theory, is that “Most modes of political protest are internalized, lived, embodied, suffering, and no doubt invisible.”
I’m long past my period of disability, but this essay continues to remind me to pay attention to these forms of protest and existence and care, especially in the bright and loud and fast-paced worlds that technology often inhabits.
(2) The Gundam franchise and Patlabor 2: The Movie
Recommended by Maximillian Obiasolu, a master’s student in Electrical & Computer Engineering at Carnegie Mellon
The Gundam franchise, and specifically watching Mobile Suit Gundam 00 in 2010, is what made me aware of tech as a vehicle for geopolitical influence, (vigilante) justice, as well as tech's role in climate change and mitigation.
Also, Patlabor 2: The Movie. Despite being about the domestic and international sentiments regarding post-occupied Japan, I always come back to this intro clip for its insane depiction of modern HCI (especially for a movie from the early 90s).
TL;DR, I watched too much media as a kid.
(3) The Right To Sex by Amia Srinivasan
Recommended by Deblina Mukherjee, an incoming data scientist at Facebook
Amia Srinivasan's The Right to Sex just came out, and it made me think a lot about the relationship between the personal and political (which is relevant to sex, which is relevant to the internet, which is relevant to technology, at least in my worm brain). There's an optimism in the book too, an optimism around articulating the unsaid, the formerly unsayable.
(4) Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud
Recommended by Nancy Zuo, an undergrad in Information Systems at Carnegie Mellon
One of my favorite accessible design books is Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud. It’s about how comic books are designed and how different frames and boxes shape the pace or feel of a comic book. The book is written as a comic book as well, so it’s super fun to read, and the illustrations are super effective in conveying the ideas by showing over telling.
So many of the ideas presented in Understanding Comics mirror considerations for designing digital interfaces — such as how to pace content with visuals, or how we convey feeling through shapes and form. Additionally, good design or storytelling is often made invisible by blending into the experience: a comic strip that depicts a scene well doesn't make you stop at the frame, just like how good UX often goes unnoticed.
(5) First Reformed dir. by Paul Schrader
Recommended by Jake Gaughan, an undergrad in Computer Science at Middlebury
First Reformed is a film ultimately about humanity, technology, and modernity’s negative impact on Nature and how to reconcile it. Looking forward, it certainly evokes a hesitation or consideration of tech’s cost and what things are worth it when the downside is so horrific.
(6) Emergent Strategy by Adrienne Maree Brown
Recommended by Theresa Gao, a movement tech specialist at the Chinese Progressive Association
My friend Riley gave me their copy of Emergent Strategy, which definitely has made me think about how we are so interconnected to each other, and how communities are sustained by interdependence — even though we are socialized towards independence under capitalism. It also talks about how change happens at a very small scale, which reminds me of Reboot.
A good quote:
I look at the anatomy of trees as one of nature's examples of successful organizing... Our power is in our ability to be both be fiercely centered and grounded but also infinitely reaching towards our unique sources of energy, light, and growth.
(7) On Trails by Robert Moor
Recommended by Jad Esber, a research affiliate at the Berkman Klein Center
On Trails: An Exploration by Robert Moor is a beautiful book. I've always been fascinated by the metaphor of "trails" and questions around how we each pick and traverse our own trails — whether that's digital trails as we browse the web or the trails we navigate through life.
(8) All These Sons dir. by Josh Altman and Bing Liu
Recommended by Shohini Gupta, a build associate at 8VC
My recommendation is to watch All These Sons, a documentary by Josh Altman and Bing Liu about two community groups in Chicago which focus on working directly with young Black men who are victims or at-risk of becoming part of the system of gun violence.
What was striking to me was the lack of scale — these community groups, and their success, are entirely dependent on one-on-one relationships to instill the belief in these young men that they're capable of more. This is not a scalable solution, and not meant to be so — in the end, addressing the root causes of gun violence is something that has to be addressed at a policy level, and they don't deny it. But I was really touched by the effort required to do real work — and not just talk about impact while making money and showing derived metrics of fake impact.
(9) Democracy, tyranny, and nature
Recommended by Chris Painter, a fellow at the DoD Joint Artificial Intelligence Center
Watching nature documentaries, specifically Our Planet and Night on Earth, has in recent years provided a compass for what “inherent beauty” looks like, if such a thing exists. As a technologist, I’m building towards worlds whose decentralization, scale, and diversity fill me with a sense of possibility. In many ways, I believe this aesthetic vision is an attempt to recover and amplify the beauty that the natural world already has. Reminding myself of the depth of what nature has already built always inspires me to continue pushing to make the human world beautiful too.
Separately, “Democracies end when they are too democratic” was a landmark for my understanding of how systems that represent a community’s deliberative political will can capture their desires better than direct democratic control, which can sometimes be impulsive. Technology is often a flattening force in political structures, especially in the case of social media, and this piece felt like an important warning about the political implications of too much flattening. I find that it challenges me to build technology that not only satisfies individuals’ moment-to-moment needs, but also helps them channel and pursue their long-term needs and goals.
(10) The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs — and some other urbanism texts
Recommended by me, Jasmine!
There are so many parallels between designing a city and designing an internet platform. Both contexts bring idealistic social theory with the need to build and experiment in the real world — thinking through questions like when to use incentives to moderate behavior and when to use rules, how to create both shared public spaces and community enclaves, and how to balance top-down structure with bottom-up feedback.
As hype about the metaverse and web3 platforms catalyze a wave of interest in community governance, I think there’s a ton to learn by revisiting key texts in urban studies like The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Palaces for the People, The New Geography of Jobs, and Bowling Alone.
I want to hear your non-tech recs too! Comment below or hit reply :)
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