It's about time a sociologist wrote an amazing and accessible book for a non-specialist audience. Everything Is Obvious: *Once You Know the Answer by Duncan J. Watts is that amazing book.
For too long, the economists, psychologists, historians and evolutionary psychologists have owned the popular non-fiction category. No longer. Sociology is back!
And what a sociologist. Check out the Wikipedia entry on the author:
"Duncan J. Watts (born 1971) is an Australian researcher and a principal research scientist at Yahoo! Research, where he directs the Human Social Dynamics group. He is also an external faculty member of the Santa Fe Institute and a former professor of sociology at Columbia University, where he headed the Collective Dynamics Group."
Or his list of publications from his Yahoo Research page - (which brings up 1,734 results).
The dude is barely 40.
Now I'm biased to be psyched about a great popular non-fiction book written by a sociologist, as I am a (somewhat lapsed) member of this tribe. For a while now, it seems as if the evolutionary psychologists, the biologists, the behavioral economists, and economic historians have been debating, discussing and writing about the most interesting ideas, theories and trends.
Sure, we have Sudhir Venkatesh (Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets) but nobody like Dan Ariely, Richard Florida, Steven Levitt, Tyler Cowen, Simon Schama, Niall Ferguson, Leonard Mlodinow, Sam Gosling, Steven Pinker, Ian Ayres, or Daniel Gilbert. (Wow…all males in this list - taken from my Audible list of academics who have written popular books that I really liked. Not sure if I like what this says about my own lack of diversity in what I read).
The big idea underpinning "Everything is Obvious" is that the massive amounts of data created by Web 2.0 search, networking and communications platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Facebook and Yahoo gives social scientists the tools to test the relationship between individual and group preferences, actions and beliefs. According to Watts, sociology is due for a renaissance, as the Web can be utilized as a tool to run social experiments that were previously not possible with traditional survey techniques.
Watts has run a number of these experiments, which have the common theme of calling into question commonly held beliefs about the origins and catalysts for a range of trends and outcomes. For instance, Watts takes on Malcolm Gladwell's conclusions in The Tipping Point that a small group of "influentials" can start and drive consumer trends.
Every Sociology 101 course (a class I've taught more times than I care to remember) should assign "Everything is Obvious". Watts provides a nice synthesis of the main tenets of sociology (from Durkheim to Parsons), moving fluently between the worlds of sociological theory, technology, and popular culture. We might find that the number of sociology majors will increase if we let this book lose in our courses.
What other companies have a resident sociologist? My respect for Yahoo has dramatically increased.
When I was in 9th grade (in 1984) I subscribed to 4 car magazines: Motor Trend, Car & Driver, Road & Track, and & Automobile. Today, my fondest dream is to own zero cars and to rent an occasional Zip Car (preferably a Prius, Volt, or Leaf) whenever the need for driving should arise.
Reading "Engines of Change" was a good reminder for me about how important automobiles once loomed in my worldview. At some point my passion for cars was replaced by a passion for computers and technology. At 14 I thought I wanted to be an automotive journalist, and 42 I'm very happy to work at the intersection of education and technology (and to be driving a minivan - slowly).
I'm betting that my story, one of a shift from a love of automobiles to a love of computers, is not unique. How many teenagers who once spent time changing spark plugs and reading car magazines morphed into building PCs and hanging out on computing message boards? I have this theory that today's computer geeks were yesterday's car enthusiasts - and that is why today's Apple new product announcements are so much more exciting than the new model car launches.
Ingrassia takes us back to a time when new cars really mattered. He profiles 15 cars that have had a large impact on American culture. These stories are all engaging and well-told, and in learning about the Model T or the Corvette or the Mustang or the Honda Accord we also learn a great deal about the times in which they were introduced. This is not a book about the "15 best cars of all time", rather Ingrassia is interesting in describing the cars that had the biggest cultural impact.
Ford's Model T literally changed how American society was organized, as an affordable mass produced automobile was a prerequisite to a rural to urban migration and a mobile society. The Honda Accord was the first Japanese car to be built in a U.S. factory (in Ohio), and ushered in a long-term transition away from UAW dominance and the decline of The Big 3. The Chrysler minivan (a Lee Iacocca encore after bringing to life the Mustang) killed the traditional station wagon, empowered a new generation of soccer parents, and eventually led to Mercedes Benz's disastrous and short-lived purchase of Chrysler.
Ingrassia is a terrific writer, and is also the author of the excellent Crash Course: The American Automobile Industry's Road to Bankruptcy and Bailout-and Beyond. I hope that Ingrassia's next project is about the only cars that really excite me now, cars that run on electricity (although his chapter on the Prius in Engines of Change is excellent).
I think that there is a huge market of computer geeks (and educational technologists!) just waiting to buy our first batter powered car, as soon as the technology improves and the costs come down to a point where electric cars are nearly competitive with gas powered vehicles.
The world, or at least my world, needs more high quality concise books. Bryson's new Shakespeare, from the Eminent Lives Series, is one of the genres better examples.
The Modern Library Chronicles is another imprint with some excellent texts. To quote from their page:
"Modern Library Chronicles feature the world's great historians on the world's great subjects. Lively, accessible, and brief (most under 150 pages), these authoritative short histories are designed to appeal to general readers as well as to students in the classroom".
Wonderful, sweeping economic history of the world by one of my favorite writers (Bernstein also wrote "The Birth of Plenty"). These "big" history and "big" thought books are a great antidote to the short time frames and disposable knowledge of our blogging and information overload world. Helps to have a long-term framework to understand our own material lives. Excellent counterpart to Friedman's The World is Flat.
Fascinating extension of the evolutionary psychology framework. Argues that our brains have evolved in often "klugy" ways, meaning that evolution favors what works (and what comes first) and not what is optimal. I learned a good deal about things like memory, emotions, and perception...and now I know why I can be so dumb sometimes. Well written....a fun read.
Fun book from the NYTime's Magazine Consumed column...delves into the world of "murketing" - the new method of connecting with consumers who are immune to traditional mass marketing. Some interesting connections on how we could "market" educational technology.
You will never go into someone's house or office in the same way again. A psychologist who pioneered the field of personality research based on peoples stuff.
The author, a physicist at Cal Tech, is among those rare academics who both write beautifully, and can manage to make complex explanations understandable. This book definitely changed how I understand some fundamental aspects of my life and the lives of those around me, as getting a handle on randomness and probability (which again, our brains don't seem to be built easily to accomplish), helps illuminate some of the fundamental errors in judgment that I seem to make all too often.
Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Richard H. Thaler, Cass R. Sunstein covers many of the same studies and experiments, and then puts a public policy slant on the conclusions. I'm finding in these sorts of books that the same academic studies and examples pop-up time after time, which is good as it takes me about 5 times to get them straight. Where Sway helped me understand why I'm susceptible to make bad decisions, Nudge helped me understand how I can use the principles of "choice architecture" to influence events and decisions. Both worthwhile reads for folks like us who have a vision of education we are trying to implement, both in terms of why people do things the way they do, and some "libertarian paternalistic" ways to shape decisions and actions.
The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior by Ori Brafman, Rom Brafman is a sweet, short popularizer of the current social psych and behavioral econ research.
The original academic and body of research that Gladwell based his best-selling "Blink" on. Gigerenzer experiments on "fast and frugal" decision making have many implications for situations we face all the time in our lives - I just have not quite worked out if I'm so easily swayed and nudged (see below), and my mental probabilistic machinery is so poor (again see below) when I should trust my gut feelings and when I should do the opposite.
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