Ten essential books on technology

A round-up of the ten must-read titles

On Architecture
Vitruvius (Dover Press)
What have the Romans ever done for us? Well, as was pointed out in The Life of Brian, there’s irrigation, roads, central heating and countless other technological advances. From astronomy to siege machinery, it’s all covered in Vitruvius’s Roman treatise.

Alan Turing: the Enigma
Andrew Hodges (Vintage)
After cracking the German Enigma code during the Second World War, Turing went on to become the founder of modern computer science. Hodges’s biography is the definitive account of a fascinating figure, from early triumphs to his untimely death.

Medieval Technology and Social Change
Lynn Townsend White (Oxford University Press)

The invention of the stirrup, according to this remarkable book, triggered the onset of European feudalism. Revolutionising combat on horseback, this seemingly innocuous innovation created a class system led by landowning knights.

Science and Civilisation in China
Joseph Needham (Cambridge University Press)

The Chinese made a phenomenal number of technological discoveries, from gunpowder to the magnetic compass. So, why did the great scientific and industrial revolutions occur in Europe and not in China? Needham set out to answer this question in the 1950s, but what started as a one-volume work evolved into a monumental series that remains incomplete to this day.

The Gutenberg Galaxy
Herbert Marshall McLuhan (University of Toronto Press)

Coining the expression “global village”, McLuhan charts the proliferation of mass communication following the advent of the printing press (which, as Needham might have reminded us, was invented in China). The village may sound quite cosy, but McLuhan warns against “a phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal drums, total interdependence and superimposed coexistence”.

The Question Concerning Technology
Martin Heidegger (HarperPerennial)

Drawing a comparison between windmills and hydroelectric plants, Heidegger characterises modern technology as working against nature, rather than with it. But the real danger, he argues, is in accepting any form of technology as a neutral phenomenon.

The Making of the Atomic Bomb
Richard Rhodes (Simon & Schuster)

Starting with the discovery of nuclear fission, this 900-page tome charts the history of the bomb through to the levelling of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The archetypal example of a technology the world would be much better off without.

Amusing Ourselves to Death
Neil Postman (Methuen)

George Orwell’s 1984 portrays a captive society, starved of information and controlled by pain. Brave New World, though similarly dystopian, envisages a trivial society, stupefied by irrelevance and mindless pleasure. Postman sees the interminable rise of show business and television culture as evidence that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.

Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet
Sherry Turkle (Simon & Schuster)

Written just as the internet began to take shape, Turkle’s study examines online interactions in virtual environments. With the rise of social networking sites, her vision of multiple and decentred web identities still rings true.

The Wealth of Networks
Yochai Benkler (Yale University Press)

It’s easy to sniff at Wikipedia’s unreliability, or to disparage the chaotic blogosphere, but, for Benkler, networked “peer production” offers a positive future in the form of a free information marketplace. As last month’s Pirate Bay court case has illustrated, however, not everyone is ready to accept that vision.

This article first appeared in the 04 May 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Flu: Everything you need to know