A while ago US News asked me for the five business books that had the greatest impact on me. Now they've published my list, along with the lists of other executives and notables. I really enjoyed the interview with the smart reporter, and I think he got the essence of my remarks. I would have just ordered them differently, so I'll do that here:
1) Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems and the Economic World by Kevin Kelly (1995)
Kelly, a founding editor of Wired, argues that self-sustaining, biological systems are the future, for tropical wetlands or computer networks. "Organic life," he writes, "is the ultimate technology."
Why it's a must-read: "The biggest, most important ideas of our time remain controversial hundreds of years after their creation. We're still debating Darwin and Adam Smith today, and Kevin's idea is one of those. His recognition that we're entering an age where command-and-control systems just don't scale anymore was shocking when it came out, it seemed a little loopy at the time, and now describes the Web as we know it today. It stands as the best of its breed."
2) Microcosm: The Quantum Revolution In Economics And Technology by George Gilder (1989)
Before founding the Discovery Institute, the leading think tank of intelligent design, Gilder tackled the ideas of the eminent computer scientist Carver Mead and the evolution of the microchip.
Why it's a must-read: "Gilder brings an economist's breadth of perspective to an engineer's understanding of the underlying mechanics of semiconductors and was able to really describe the importance and implications of Moore's Law [which predicts that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit will double every 18 months]. He's a very controversial character in many aspects of his life. I don't share many of his views. But when it comes to the power of technology as it becomes abundant, I don't think anyone's phrased it as well as he did."
3) The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Differenceby Malcolm Gladwell (2000)
Gladwell examines how ideas spread, from teenage smoking to crime to tennis-shoe fads.
Why it's a must-read: "The best books on the economics of popular culture–the world we actually live in–are written not by economists but by writers like Gladwell. I suspect academia punishes economists who dabble in things like shoes and jeans and drug dealers–that's probably no way to get tenure. But it's superimportant, and it's a great tool kit to understand the world."
4) Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2001)
Taleb, a math professor and onetime manager of a hedge fund, argues that the world is far more random than we think.
Why it's a must-read: "The book says that you can't predict anything—that when things happen, you try to construct a narrative around what happened, and that narrative is almost always wrong. Why is the market up today? Because home sales did such and such. It's almost never why, but we need to have an explanation. If managers can check themselves from making those all-too-tempting efforts to construct narratives, fundamentally they will have an advantage over the rest of us."
5) The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual by Christopher Locke, Rick Levine, Doc Searls, and David Weinberger (2000)
[Me: This is sort of a Hall of Fame selection. The book's details don't really hold up anymore, but it was directionally so right that I wanted to credit it. I'm not recommending that you buy it now, seven years after its publication, because so much of what it prescribed--which was radical then--is now conventional wisdom. But I did want to acknowledge what a triumph it was at the time.]
What started as a website in 1999 (www.cluetrain.com) became a book by a group of tech veterans, who were among the first to describe how the Internet would change everything—from how businesses advertise to how consumers consume.
Why it's a must-read: "When they wrote this, it was still way too early. This was before blogging, before MySpace. People said, 'Who are these guys, ex-hippies and free spirits talking about economics and marketing and brands?' They talked about consumer empowerment, the inversion of power, that you don't control your brand–you share control of your band with your users. It sounded like a pipe dream, like useless utopian wishful thinking. And it's just remarkable to see how the world has basically evolved to demonstrate exactly everything they said."