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  • Writer's pictureRyan Panzer

Leadership in a Tech-Shaped Culture: Three Book Recommendations to Ignite Your Year

Sam Bankman-Fried doesn't read.

Before his fraud trial, Bankman-Fried suggested that anyone who has written a book has "expletive upped," suggesting that they should have instead written a blog post. Perhaps the recently convicted king of crypto will change his mind on literacy as he awaits a maximum sentence of 110 years. And while the literary world enjoys a schadenfreude moment, it's worrisome that his sentiments are becoming increasingly widespread.

Americans are reading 20% fewer books than they read in the 1990s. They are also spending less time reading for pleasure. The average American reads just 16 minutes per day. By contrast, the average teen now spends 4.8 hours per day on social media, mostly on YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram. If Donald Trump captures the presidency this November, the country will be led by a non-reader who can't be troubled to read daily intelligence briefings, let alone books.

The decline of pleasure reading in our tech-shaped culture is a complex trend exacerbated by the explosion of algorithmic digital content, the constant acceleration of technology, and the proliferation of click-bait summaries in the news media. Too many of us lack the time, patience, and focus to read long-form writing.

Still, I was raised in an elementary school that taught that "readers are leaders" (or maybe it was the other way around). I developed a love of reading because I sensed how it contributed to an ongoing process of reflection and formation - and also because I earned a PizzaHut Personal Pan Pizza for each book report I completed. So with the conviction that focused, intentional reading advances the development of leadership skills, here are three book recommendations for harried, overworked, worried leaders who are navigating this tech-shaped culture.

Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology by Neil Postman

Neil Postman is best known for his 1985 work Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. While his 1985 book remains as relevant as ever, it analysis primarily focuses on the influence of entertainment.

"Technopoly" emerged eight years later, when Postman could see the emergence of electronic communication and personal computing. Postman argues that mankind has changed from a society that uses technology, to a society that is shaped by technology. For Postman, the invention of a hammer means that there is no such thing as "man with hammer." There is only "hammer man" - whose views of education, politics, and art are inextricably filtered through the unremovable lens of new technologies.

Technopoly is written with greater urgency and moral clarity than its predecessor. It is an essential read in a year where AI will continue its rapid advance, and where short form digital media will continue to redefine communication.

For the leader in a tech-shaped culture, Technopoly poses an urgent question: how might I protect communities and institutions from mindlessly succumbing to the worst impulses of this technological moment? Postman also challenges us to recognize that the answer to this question is far more complicated than simply deactivating one's Twitter profile.

Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes Religion in Silicon Valley by Carolyn Chen

Technology is not the only juggernaut affecting meaning-making. While Postman writes about the influence of technology, sociologist Carolyn Chen writes about the pervasive influence of the workplace on knowledge, belief, and meaning. While the case studies reflect on religion and spirituality, the book revolves around the core question of how we derive meaning in a growth-obsessed culture.

By tracing the stories of once-religious tech workers who relocated to Silicon Valley, Chen demonstrates the encroachment of the workplace into spheres once occupied by tradition. The mechanisms of this encroachment are often described by Silicon Valley corporations as amenities, or enhancements to workplace culture. From meditation programs that teach "scientific Buddhism" to coaching offerings that promise "inner transformation," the tech industry has used these cultural offerings to displace the role once held by pastors, rabbis, and spiritual directors. Not every workplace has such amenities. But our work is increasingly becoming a personal quest for meaning and purpose.

When work becomes a spiritual journey, it comes to define our sense of purpose. We work harder, we produce more deliverables, we work longer hours. One wonders, while reading Chen's work, what will happen to the Google engineer or the Facebook account manager upon the next round of layoffs.

Chen beckons today's leader to consider how the drive to innovate replaces deeply held values and identities with the demands of late capitalism. It reminds today's leader that if we fail to define values and vision for our organizations, the marketplace will step in to do so on our behalf.

Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doer

Our final recommendation is the fantastical story of how one particular narrative survived centuries of acceleration to sustain and inspire across the ages. In a world that is turning its back on literacy, Cloud Cuckoo Land mounts a vigorous defense of the long-form narrative.

Set in three different timelines (the Siege of Constantinople, a modern day library, and a futuristic space ship), Doer traces how an obscure Greek drama provides coherence and inspiration on a timeless scale.

Anthony Doer reminds us of the enduring connection between meaning making and stories. Though it is a long book, Cloud Cuckoo Land cautions us about a world in which there are no more stories - only fragments.

For the leader in a tech-shaped culture, Cloud Cuckoo Land invites us to reflect upon and to share the stories that are most significant in our own formation. For even when our work has been lost to the eons, our stories will remain.


@ryanpanzer is moving his social media activity from Twitter to GoodReads.


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