Prospect’s books of the year 2023: Ideas

From the rise of AI and hacking to climate change
December 6, 2023

Some of today’s brainiest ideas are actually to do with the brain. In The Experience Machine, Andy Clark, a professor of cognitive philosophy, explains the latest thinking—some of it his—on how our minds work. Turns out, there’s a growing body of evidence that suggests we don’t receive information from the outside world passively. Instead, our minds act as predictive engines, anticipating what we’ll encounter next, filling in blanks and bridling at the unexpected.

What difference does that make, though? Lots. To take just one of Clark’s examples: prediction errors and how we respond to them could lie behind various mental conditions, from depression to autism spectrum disorders. It might even be possible to improve our minds’ predictive capacity by immersing ourselves in virtual worlds. This mind-bending stuff is at the forefront of science, technology, philosophy and much else. Clark makes it thrillingly understandable.

Similar could be said of Camilla Nord’s The Balanced Brain. Nord runs the Mental Health Neuroscience Lab at the University of Cambridge, and much of her research is in the same areas as Clark’s. This brilliant first book goes into greater detail on the mental health implications of the predictive mind, as well as on the often surprising connections between the corporeal and the emotional. You’ll never look at yourself the same way again.

And you might not look at humankind the same way again after reading Eve by Cat Bohannon. The title is a nod to  the biblical first woman, but it’s what followed her that motivates Bohannon’s work—the entire span of human evolution and how it has led to women being very different, and in many underappreciated ways, from men. This is both a powerful recasting of thousands of years of history and a powerful argument: why, still, do societies regard men as the final word in evolution? 

But enough about people— here come the machines. The rise of AI has led to a rise in books about AI, among the most insightful of which is The Coming Wave by Mustafa Suleyman (one of the founders of DeepMind) and Michael Bhaskar. Suleyman’s message is that this world-altering tech really is, as the title suggests, coming fast—and we might not be able to contain its more terrible implications.  For a broader and slightly more hopeful prognosis, Daron Acemoglu and Simon Johnson’s Power and Progress argues that humankind has thrived whenever it has brought technology under widespread control—and that we can do so again.

Meanwhile, David Runciman’s The Handover contemplates (among many other things) what AI could mean for us as democratic citizens. And Meredith Broussard’s More Than a Glitch exposes the awful biases that are currently encoded within this future.

If you prefer your tech books to be more backwards-looking, then Scott Shapiro’s Fancy Bear Goes Phishing is a work of history about five hacks—including the Russian hack of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign—that have shaped the modern age. But it has an ever-relevant idea at its heart: that the biggest flaw in the system might be us.

Outside of technology, although not totally outside, is Yascha Mounk’s The Identity Trap. Mounk was already one of the great commentators on the rise of dangerous populism; now, with this book, he becomes a great commentator on the rise of what he calls “the identity synthesis”, though others may know it as “identity politics” or “woke tosh”, according to their preconceptions. Where did it come from? Where is it going? And is it a good or bad thing? Mounk addresses these questions calmly and intelligently, which is more than most have achieved.

Which leaves Claire Dederer’s Monsters and Siddarth Shrikanth’s The Case for Nature. The first is a perceptive exploration of whether we can separate the artist—the egoist, the misogynist, the rapist—from their art. The second is an argument for why and how companies should care for the natural world, not just the climate. Like all the best books, both overspill with ideas.

Read more

Books of the year 2023: Politics & Reportage
Books of the year 2023: Lives
Books of the year 2023: History