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50 Books for Thinking About the Future

rand_logo.gifThe RAND Corporation is, in many ways, the height of official futurism. Founded by the Department of Defense in the 1950s, RAND has since spun off as its own organization, providing policy analysis for government and business across a spectrum of issues. It has a relatively well-regarded graduate school, the Pardee RAND school, and also runs the Pardee Center for Long Range Global Policy and the Future Human Condition. So when the Pardee Center released a list of what it considered the 50 most important books for understanding the future, I fully expected it to be full of very traditional perspectives on both the world and its changes. Although this was true for the most part, the list had its own pleasant surprises.

The intent of the list is twofold. The first intent is to act as a reading list for someone who wants to understand at a more-than-passing level the factors that we can say seem to be most pertinent today in thinking about the longer-range human condition. I would hope that anyone who had read all 50 of these books would have a good feel for history, for how to think about the future, for the kinds of trends that are likely to have a serious impact on the future, and for the kind of surprises that might befall us as we move into that future.
The second intent is to put a marker on the wall for such a list and to invite many more smart people to think about how we might improve such a list.

By and large, it's an interesting collection. The few books that I'd consider to be surprising entries on the list are found in areas of particular importance to us here, such as Jeff Sachs' The End of Poverty and Amory Lovins' Winning the Oil Endgame. In general, it's a more varied assortment of books than one might expect from an insititution like RAND, even if it is fairly traditionalist and (as the introduction admits) very Western-centric. It also makes for a good companion to the WorldChanging Reading List generated by the readers in the comments to Alex's post back in October.

Overall, there are eight books in the Pardee Center list that also show up in the suggestions from readers, and another half-dozen or so that I have on my bookshelf. One reason there aren't more is that a good number of the Pardee books are clearly academic or institutional in origin; another reason is that the WorldChanging readers clearly have a more expansive view of what makes for a good book for understanding the changes we're going through. Of course, as the above quotation suggests, the authors of the list await your suggestions as to how to make it better.

I encourage WorldChangers to take a look at the list and find something there that you wouldn't have thought to read, then go find it in the local library. You may not agree with the book's conclusions, but you'll have a better sense of how the people who think about the Official Future come up with their ideas.


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Comments (2)


Some more books:

The Arthashastra, by Vishnagupta Kautilya, ca. 300 B.C.E.

in which he spelled out in exhaustive detail the methods of statecraft, economics, law, war, etc. that he recommended, and that he had used to make Chandragupta Maurya emperor of India. Illustrates to modern readers how much has changed in 2300 years, and how much has not.

Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk, by
Peter L. Bernstein

A highly readable backgrounder that shows how probabilities and joint stock companies made possible long-distance sea voyages and world trade; Internet trade and globalization require similar innovations.

The Baroque Cycle, by Neal Stephenson

An amazingly comprehensive fictional examination of the key period also treated by Bernstein, in which modern mathematics, science, and economics arose.

Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Centuries, by Fernand Braudel

Three volumes of very detailed examination of the same period, at three levels: daily life, markets, and global capitalism.

Empire: The Rise and Fall of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power, by Niall Ferguson

How the world worked during the previous empire. It would be good to avoid some of the same mistakes and to learn from some of the successes.

Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War , by Robert Coram

How the military thinks and how it could think better: a theory of warfare from individual fighter planes to grand strategies of nations.

Blueprint for Action, by Thomas P.M. Barnett

Beyond military to global strategy; you may not agree with Barnett, but it's useful to read what he has to say.

The Battle for God, by Karen Armstrong

Fundamentalism in three religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Modernity produces reaction, which produces innovation, which is passed off as conservatism.

When Jesus Became God: The Struggle to Define Christianity during the Last Days of Rome, by Richard E. Rubenstein

In case after reading Armstrong's book you still think Islam has any corner on fundamentalism or that it and controversy over church and state or politics self-demolished by breach of hospitality are new phenomena, try this one about the fourth century A.D. struggles among Arius, Athanasius, the Emperor Constantine, and many others for the soul of a new religion.

The Principles of Scientific Management, by Frederick Winslow Taylor

The old way of western over-determined management.

The Cathedral and the Bazaar, by Eric S. Raymond

Many eyes bring bugs to light, many hands fix them, open source lets users check for them, and lack of centralization avoids monopoly.

Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, by Malcolm Gladwell

Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen, and how they can make change spread quickly.

Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software, by Steven Johnson

More detail on how things connect in non-hierarchical ways and new behaviors emerge.

The Future of Work: How the New Order of Business Will Shape Your Organization, Your Management Style, and Your Life, by Thomas W. Malone

What all this means for business.


Howard Silverman:

Thanks for pointing out the Pardee Ctr list, Jamais. That one "Macrohistory and Macrohistorians" certainly catches my eye.

For another selection, take a look at the "must read authors" at the center of the p. 5-6 Cooperative Strategy Map, which appears in the pub Toward a New Literacy of Cooperation in Business from Institute for the Future.



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