The UK version of GQ Magazine asked me to nominate a book that didn't get its due when it was published, for whatever reason. I chose Out of Control, by Kevin Kelly, which deeply influenced The Long Tail and is, I think, among the most important books of its decade. Here's what I wrote:
Why are the three most powerful forces in our world---evolution, democracy and capitalism--so controversial? Hundreds (in the case of democracy, thousands) of years after they were first understood, we still can't quite believe these three phenomena work. Socialist Europe resists capitalism, the religious right in America questions evolution and the Middle East makes a mockery of democracy. When you think about it, it's easy to understand why: all three are radically counterintuitive. "One person, one vote?" What if they vote wrong?
But that's the problem--we're thinking about it. Our brains aren't wired to understand the wisdom of the crowd. Evolution, democracy and capitalism don't work at the anecdotal level of personal experience, the level at which our story-driven synapses are built to engage. Instead, they're statistical, operating in the realm of collective probability. They're not right--they're "righter". They're not predictable and controllable--they're inherently out of control. That's scary and unsettling, but also hugely important to understand in a world of increasing complexity and diminishing institutional power (mainstream media: meet blogs; military: meet insurgency).
Fortunately, there's a book that makes sense of all of this. Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems and the Economic World by Kevin Kelly was first published in 1994, well before its time, but it's one of those rare books that sells better each year it gets older. That's because Kelly recognized that the messy markets of natural selection, enlightened self-interest and invisible hands all anticipated the Internet and the delights of watching peer-to-peer cacophony create the greatest oracle the world has ever seen. Some of the examples may be a bit dated a dozen years later, but the message has only become more true: "There is no central keeper of knowledge in a network, only curators of particular views," he writes. The emergent mob wisdom of the blogosphere and Wikipedia were unimaginable then, but somehow Kelly imagined them all the same. This may be the smartest book of the past decade.
(Disclosure: Kelly is a co-founder of Wired and a friend. But I was blown away by this book long before I met him or took my current job. Indeed, I took it in part because of this book.)