Tools and the Development of Contemporary Society

From the first stone hammer to modern day technology, our ability to make and propensity to use tools influences our physical, mental, and social evolution. At every step we make choices—for better or worse—that determine who we are and the challenges we face.

Featured Books on Early Technology and the Way It Shaped Our World

The Axemaker’s Gift

Technology’s Capture and Control of Our Minds and Culture

James Burke and Robert Ornstein

Explore the double-edged history of human culture—how those with capacity for sequential analysis generated technologies to “cut and control” the world and shape their community.

The Axemaker’s Gift

Guns, Germs, and Steel

The Fates of Human Societies

Jared Diamond

Was the Eurasian culture able to use tools to conquer and dominate the world a result of innate differences in people—or was really due to different environmental conditions like geography and climate?

Guns, Germs, and Steel

1491

New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

Charles C. Mann

Contrary to popular myths, pre-Columbian Indians were landscaping, manipulating, and even genetically engineering their world in ways we are only beginning to understand.

1491

1493

Uncovering the New World Columbus Created

Charles C. Mann

How the post-Columbian network of ecological and economic exchange fostered the rise of Europe, devastated imperial China, convulsed Africa, and sowed the seeds of today’s fiercest political disputes.

1493

Against the Grain

A Deep History of the Earliest States

James C. Scott

When early humans lived in settled communities and devoted their time to growing grains and caring for animals, were they really better off?

Against the Grain book cover

Our Digital World

Viral Ideas

We are in the midst of the greatest revolution in communication technology since humanity spread across the globe, exceeding in scope and impact the printing press. A change of this magnitude to how we communicate with each other requires us to adapt both as individuals and as nations.

The Pandemic and Misinformation | Reality Distortion and Information Warfare | Origins of Fragmentation | The Science of Fake News


Taming the Web

Prior to the advent of algorithms, we explored the web like some new land. Now, in a very real way the web has begun to explore us.

The Evolution of Social Networking | What Is an Algorithm?


The Great Attention Heist

To give and receive attention is a fundamental human need and a cornerstone of human behavior. Increasingly, propagandists, media executives, and internet moguls are using new technology to turn our attention into a commodity for profit. What does this means for our humanity and our culture?


Social Networks and the Marketplace of Ideas

Social networks, the ones we have belonged to ever since we ventured out of the trees and onto the savannah, have always been our most important source of information. More than ever before, we need to understand the nature of such networks and the impact of digital technology, taking into account what we know about human perception and psychology. More than ever before, scientists and especially psychologists, have generated information that ensures we can do so.


Reclaiming the Public Square

Global communication now easily crosses borders and has surpassed the traditional mechanisms for maintaining the integrity of information and debate. Democracy and human rights depend on a healthy information ecosystem. Principles like transparency, accountability, and standards can foster trust that the information ecosystem is being governed in a way that is open and accountable to the citizens.


On Tyranny

Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century

Timothy Snyder

The wave of discontent and division currently washing over the Western world will lead to a loss of liberty unless it is checked. Our democratic heritage does not necessarily protect us from this threat. Democracies can fall, to be replaced by gulags and men with guns. The twenty lessons presented here can help us avoid these catastrophes.

On Tyranny book cover

The True Believer

Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements

Eric Hoffer

Today’s political movements such as “Stop the Steal,” Black Lives Matter, neo-Nazism, Occupy Wall Street, and contemporary white supremacy movements, all share something fundamental with historical mass movements such as Nazism, Communism, the French Revolution, the rise of Protestantism, and of the ancient Catholic Church. These contemporary and historical religious and political mass movements all spring from a single psychological cause: the need for the discontented to look outside the self for the cause of their frustration.

The True Believer book cover

Summary of Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow”

By Mark Looi (republished from marklooi.medium.com)

The author posits two different “systems” of thought which operate in our minds to help us navigate the various circumstances of our lives. System 1 is quick and effortless, but simple—and not necessarily accurate. Meanwhile System 2, while more suitable to complex decisions, is also much slower and more difficult. Both systems are necessary; but to use them optimally, we need to be aware of which one we’re using and whether it’s appropriate for the decision at hand. If we lack this awareness, we risk making cognitive errors and worse—we can become subject to easy manipulation.

Mr. Putin, Operative in the Kremlin

Fiona Hill and Clifford G. Gaddy

For those of us in the democratic West, the rise of authoritarianism in countries like the USA and Hungary has come as a nasty surprise, but this account of the career and rise of Vladimir Putin provides crucial insight and perspective—and a very contemporary example of the unfortunate mechanisms so well described in On Tyranny and The True Believer.

Travel the Journey

Estonia, The Digital Republic

Nathan Heller, New Yorker

A government effort to transform the country from a state into a digital society has made Estonian life more efficient. Through its government sponsored nation-wide digital network, citizens of Estonia can handle almost all aspects of their daily lives online and even extended the opportunity and benefits to residents of other countries. The project shows how a truly global, borderless society can function.


The Case Against Civilization: Did Our Hunter-Gatherer Ancestors Have It Better?

John Lanchester, New Yorker

We flatter ourselves, says Lanchester, by believing that the “dark age” existence of our hunter-gatherer progenitors was so grim and our modern, civilized one so great. Drawing on two recent works he suggests this may not be the case. Is there a lesson to be learned from the radical egalitarianism of their hunter-gatherer way of life?


Further Reading