10 best non-fiction books on technology, design, and the future

Arrival (2016)
Arrival (2016) (Image credit: Amazon)

Want to improve your understanding of technology? Think it’s time to put your fears of a robot revolution to rest? Need to learn how social media is pulling your attention away from physical reality? We have the non-fiction books for you, to help you take the red pill and finally see how today’s technological advances are impacting the way you live.

Technology can be a daunting topic for many. It’s easy to feel like you’re simply out of the loop, or that the technology you’re familiar with – social media, smartphones, smart speakers, and the like – has little to do with the big questions over technological progress in human society.

These days, though, technology is infused into everything, from your kitchen kettle to the spaceships headed to Mars, and it’s very worthwhile taking the time to see how it all connects together.

This list will run you through ten of the best non-fiction books available today, covering how advancement in the realms of AI, Big Data, cybernetics and other heady topics are changing the way we live – and how they might continue to do so in the future.

Combining incisive analysis of software design, digital behavior, and the goals driving today’s tech-based economy, these are books that will enrich your understanding of the world around you – even if it includes means understanding some things that are hard to swallow.

Some of these books are more speculative, dealing with the concept of cyborgs or futuristic technologies that probably shouldn’t be developed. Others are more about the rise of today’s biggest tech companies, the design of the humble consumer gadgets in your home, or how video games – what one technologist memorably calls “a collision of art and science” – actually get made.

There’s also one book penned by one of our own editors – but every book here will be worthy of some attention. If you’re used to doing your learning offscreen, or are interested in doing so, these are the ten non-fiction books to check out.

1. Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence

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(Image credit: Amazon)

Max Tegmark’s landmark book, Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, explores the methodology behind today’s AI systems, and the impact that artificial intelligence could have on humanity in the long run.

While Alexa is a long way from taking over the world, we’re already starting to rely on AI systems to sift through job applications, interpret large quantities of data, drive our cars, and decide what news we do and don’t hear every day – and this is just the start. Tegmark offers a mix of possible outcomes, both good and bad, for our development of AI, and gives a stark warning to those thinking there’s no work to be done in terms of safeguarding our future against the latter.

2. How To Do Nothing: Resisting The Attention Economy

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Jenny Odell’s book is not about relaxation or mindfulness, so much as the necessity of disengaging from the distracting world of endless news feeds and scrolling social media in order to re-engage more consciously with the world around you. 

How To Do Nothing reads as much as a guide to naturalism as it does activism, moving seamlessly from the grand aims of tech libertarianism (with a nod to Google founder Peter Thiel) to the humble refusals of hermits and naturalists, and even performance artists questioning the appearance of business we so often find ourselves investing in. The total is a complex picture of how our political, technological and environmental landscapes combine – making this one book you shouldn’t scroll past.

3. Get Technology

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Get Technology is your entry point to the biggest tech questions you might have. Penned by our own executive editor, Gerald Lynch, Get Technology offers 20 “dip-in lessons” to the likes of self-driving cars, nanobots, AI, and more, ensuring you’re not left slack-jawed when your tech worker and engineer friends start talking about the most important trends in tech today.

4. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow

(Image credit: Amazon)

If you have an ear to the ground for bestselling books on technology, you’ll likely have heard of Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. Acting as a sequel or sibling to Sapiens – a chronicle of human civilization up to present day – Homo Deus charts human evolution to try to paint a likely picture of the future, and is well worth a look for any budding futurists.

5. The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google

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This New York Times bestseller charts the fortunes of the biggest names in tech today. It looks at how Google’s search engine product became a launchpad for a massive tech conglomerate, how Facebook dominated social media and grew to acquire huge swathes of the competition, and why the likes of Amazon continue to hold such a strong hold over online retail.

Scott Galloway asks the tough questions about these powerful companies – ever present in the devices, phones, services, and search engines we use on a day-to-day basis – questioning how they got to where they are, and whether they should stay there.

6. Soonish: Ten Emerging Technologies That’ll Improve and/or Ruin Everything

(Image credit: Amazon)

If all this sounds a bit serious, you might want to take a flick through Soonish. Coming from the joint efforts of American scientist Kelly Weinersmith and her husband cartoonist, Zach Weinersmith – the latter being the creator of the excellent science-based comic strip SMBC (Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal).

As the tongue-in-cheek title suggests, this is a wry look at new and developing technologies, from the absurd and unlikely to the downright terrifying – all in SMBC’s trademark comic panel style. Who said academic books couldn’t have nice pictures?

7. The Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future

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Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future is a heady title, and for good reason. American futurist Mark Ford’s book delves into the impact of technological advancement on the workforce, where job losses will likely land as AI and more advanced production methods accelerate, and how the next wave of economic disruption will be unlike any before it.

8. Blood, Sweat, and Pixels: The Triumphant, Turbulent Stories Behind How Video Games Are Made

(Image credit: Kotaku)

Former Kotaku reporter Jason Schreier is well-known for breaking insider stories in the world of video games, including drawing back the curtain on oppressive work practices and months of long hours – known as ‘crunch’ – at the biggest developers on both sides of the Atlantic.

Blood, Sweat, and Pixels is an in-depth look at some of the biggest games of the past few decades, from The Witcher III and Destiny to Stardew Valley and Shovel Knight. With a broad range of interviews from the devs involved in bringing these games to life – often in the face of tight time pressures, money problems, employee mismanagement, and more hellish tales – Schreier shows us how wondrous it is that our favorite games even make it to retail at all.

9. A Cyborg Manifesto

Robot hand

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Donna J Haraway’s 1985 posthumanist essay may be long in the tooth these days, but its case for an understanding of human identity beyond traditional boundaries is still incredibly powerful today.

Haraway argues against simple dualisms of natural vs artificial, or even the idea that anything can be categorized in such easy separations – with an incisive dismissal of essentialist views of gender, politics, or society in general. A hugely influential text whose legacy is still being felt today.

10. Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life

(Image credit: Shutterstock / ImYanis)

A suitable book for any avid TechRadar reader, Radical Technologies explores the technologies of the here-and-now, and what the latest smartphones and software innovations mean for both you and society as a whole. Expect a thorough examination of the development of AR, the draw of ever-improving devices, and how it could impact human behavior in the years to come.

Henry St Leger

Henry is a freelance technology journalist, and former News & Features Editor for TechRadar, where he specialized in home entertainment gadgets such as TVs, projectors, soundbars, and smart speakers. Other bylines include Edge, T3, iMore, GamesRadar, NBC News, Healthline, and The Times.