In 2021 I read 38 books. Following from my CuriousMindsDiversePeople Challenge, I kept track of the diversity of authors and topics. For example, 25 of the authors self-identified as women, 14 were non-US authors, 4 discussed disability and 11 LBTQ+ topics.
Below are my personal highlights from 13 of them that made me think differently about data, artificial intelligence, design, sustainability, feminism, pleasure, and God. I’m listing them in the order I read them.
Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions by Gloria Steinem. If you are a feminist and somehow feel guilty that all the books on the topic depress you, I thoroughly recommend this book as audio, since Steinem herself narrates most of it. It’s a collage of articles written at different points in her life about walking the talk on feminism and women’s rights and the importance of challenging both the small and the big oppressions. All that is delivered with wit. A huge bonus!
The Responsible Business: Reimagining Sustainability and Success by Carol Sanford. In 2020, I learned about the concept of regenerative as an “upgrade” to sustainability. This book provides food for thought and examples about how to make businesses adopt practices that benefit their employees, users, communities, and the planet. However, I missed a more critical view of some of the study cases, especially for big tech companies, which is the area I’m more familiar with. For example, Facebook and Google are portrayed as the paradigm of regenerative businesses, without any mention of their questionable practices as employers and business models. Still, the book provided valuable insights for my talk Regenerative Business: Embedding ethics and inclusion in workplaces, products, and services at the Cambridge Agile Exchange last February (recording here).
The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis by Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac. As I mentioned above, I’m very interested in sustainability as a framework for diversity and inclusion efforts and this book had the appeal that the authors led negotiations for the United Nations during the historic Paris Agreement of 2015, I loved Christiana’s TED talk (access here), and they make use of futuristic narrative or futures thinking to force us to see how our present choices will impact tomorrow’s life in this planet. Specifically, the book presents two possible scenarios for our planet in 2050: (1) If we fail to meet the Paris climate targets and (2) if we few meet them. In a world where we are buried in data and infographics about CO2 emissions, I found the mapping of a typical day in 2050 for both situations a very refreshing alternative to convey urgency.
Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good by Adrienne Maree Brown. This book was suggested by a coach I respect a lot, Tara Mohr, during a co-working session. I was very intrigued by the reviews in Amazon mentioning the author read and sang in the audiobook and I decided to listen to it. The book is somehow a collage of experiences of different kinds of pleasure (and lack of it) for women and minorities. It goes far beyond sexual pleasure, exploring topics such as food, drugs, disability, etc… through essays, poems, and songs. I found the book is uneven and a little bit long, but definitively thought-provoking in its core belief that minoritized groups have been denied their own pleasure and that to claim it back is a form of challenging the status quo.
Data Feminism by Catherine D’Ignazio and Lauren F. Klein. My absolute favourite! My background in computational chemistry and engineering combined with my professional career in services has a strong data aspect, including creating models that fit and explain datasets, collecting and analysing user surveys data, and migrating customer data and support tickets through acquisition integrations. In 2020, I published our report on the effect of covid-19 on the unpaid work of professional women, based on 1,300+ survey responses. Through all those experiences I’ve honed my data skills; still, I’ve learned so much from this book! Don’t get put off by the “feminism” label, this book provides a framework to treat data with the care and context that deserves, making sure that we not only look at the data we have but also whose data is missing.
Atlas of AI: Power, Politics, and the Planetary Costs of Artificial Intelligence by Kate Crawford. This is an excellent book to understand how artificial intelligence is impacting our lives and the planet. The storytelling is amazing and it’s backed up by data. I could go on for pages about why this is an essential read to understand what’s at stake with this technology: From the materiality of AI and enchanted determinism to emotion-sensing and mass surveillance. Among the tons of insights from the book, I want to share two. First, the value of moving the conversation from AI ethics – which is often seen as the realm of experts – to talking about the asymmetry of power AI fosters. Second, the realization that artificial intelligence is a system to centralize power.
Mother of Invention: How Good Ideas Get Ignored in an Economy Built for Men by Katrine Marçal. The book was marketed as a portray of how many innovative products have been sidelined because they were created by women – the suitcase with wheels – or were advertised for women – the electric car. The book is that and more. For example, it showcases how historically women were seen as closer to nature than men and that this belief was socialized as taming women meant taming nature. Also, the comparison between witches – women looking at nature for knowledge – and wizards – men looking at books for knowledge. I don’t agree with some of the assertions in the book such as that men are terrified of their bodies or that only men’s jobs are at risk because of automation. The author reasons that since women’s jobs are relational, they are safe. In my view, women have consistently borne the brunt of job recessions. Also, men occupy top executive positions, which at the core should be relational jobs.
Mission Economy: A Moonshot Guide to Changing Capitalism by Mariana Mazzucato. This book makes a strong case for the need to tackle big systemic problems as missions rather than projects. The author describes how the mission to take the first human to the Moon was actually funded and organized very differently than how we now assign a budget, resources, and timelines to initiatives of such magnitude. The book presents a compelling account of all the key innovations that were generated as a consequence of that effort that spanned several years. Where I disagree with the author is in her premise that small and medium enterprises don’t deserve to be specially supported because of their size and that only the best solutions should be funded. Complex problems don’t get one solution, they need multiple solutions to cater to the variation of experiences among different groups.
Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman. This is the only fiction book of the lot and is definitively worth a read. As the title says, these are short stories that propose creative versions of the afterlife. In one God is a married couple. In another, we’re atoms of God’s body. And so on… It’s sometimes fun, sometimes profound, sometimes weird.
Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? (And How to Fix It) by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic. I was not very convinced to read this book as I’d already read the author’s article in HBR on the topic as well as his TED talk. However, a woman that I admire as an inclusive leader shared with me her notes of the book and I thought there was more to it than the article. I wasn’t disappointed. The book goes into detail discussing its premise that “we don’t need to advance women in organisations but rather hinder the progress of mediocre men” and shares research on our biases about leadership and their negative impact on organizations. Whilst the analysis of the causes is very good, I was left waiting for the specifics on the solutions.
Dear Black Girl: Letters from Your Sisters on Stepping into Your Power by Tamara Winfrey Harris. This is a compilation of letters the author received as part of “her Letters to Black Girls project, where she asked black women to write honest, open, and inspiring letters of support to young black girls aged thirteen to twenty-one. Her call went viral, resulting in a hundred personal letters from black women around the globe that cover topics such as identity, self-love, parents, violence, grief, mental health, sex, and sexuality. ” The letters are so full of insights, inspiration, and real lived experiences that the book is an absolute treat, no matter your skin colour or your age. I wish I’d have read this book when I was a teenager.
Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code by Ruha Benjamin. I’m a fan of the author. She’s a terrific speaker that every time blows my mind no matter if she talks about design, technology, or diversity and inclusion. There are so many gems in her book. Some of them are: “Database design is an exercise in world-building”, “Racism is a thief. Used to enable stealing by white people”, or “Design is a colonizing project”. She brings attention to the language we use to refer to artificial intelligence and technology in general. For example, “detection” is not the same as “recognition” or “tech is ahead” when in fact it reproduces old biases. The author doesn’t stay away from controversy and – like myself – considers that allyship reinforces privilege. Instead, we need people to put skin in the game and embrace co-liberation/co-belonging.
Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need by Sasha Costanza-Chock. My first contact with the author was when I read their award-winning article Design Justice, A.I., and Escape from the Matrix of Domination, where they discuss the importance of designing for the pluriverse and decolonizing artificial intelligence. At the end of the article, the author appends the 10 Design Justice principles. The book is a thought-provoking deconstruction of our beliefs around design. For example, how designers get to decide who gets access to services and products. Even more, how they may force users to misrepresent themselves to gain access. For example, a census with only male and female options for gender will force intersex and no-binary people to misclassify themselves if they want to fill it in. The author also prompts us to consider the difference between how we treat citizens and users, how the stories we tell about the design of new technology shape the horizons of what is possible, or that the concept of smart cities implies cities are products to be optimized. I especially liked that the author shares design alternatives in detail and frames Design Justice as a practice that makes choices explicit, ensuring a fair allocation of benefits.
Before I go
This article provides a good summary of why sex designation is on a spectrum and how binary designations can be damaging for intersex people.
A boost of energy
I loved this article written by the mother of an autistic child on how the need to teach her daughter “skills of savouring” prompt her to explore her own pleasure.
News from me
My Ethics and Inclusion Framework, created in 2019, has been featured in a research paper that studies how ethics-focused method designers create approaches to aid practitioners in identifying ethical concerns, imagining potential futures, defining values, and evaluating existing systems.
At the time, I remember getting challenged by people about the benefit of prompting creators to slow down and broaden the decision-making criteria when developing their product or service. Others challenged my dual ethics-inclusion approach, telling me that ethics covered “everything”!
Fortunately, there are a lot of others who have supported my vision and shared with me how my workshops and talks on the framework had changed how they design products and services and inspire them and their teams to embed ethics and inclusion in their work.
Inclusion is a practice, not a certificate!