Holiday reading

Appearing on In The Black Digital site, December 2020

Samsung Rising
By Geoffrey Cain
Virgin Books, $35, 416 pages

Samsung is mainly known in the West for its phones but in its native South Korea it is a huge conglomerate that dominates the economy. This rollicking book recounts its path over three generations of the founding Lee family as it grew from a modest retailer of vegetables into consumer electronics and eventually chips and communications tech.

A focus for Cain is how Samsung interacts with Apple, as both a rival and an occasional ally. Along the way he looks at the internecine conflicts within the empire, the endless parade of scandals, and the Galaxy 7 phone (which tended to explode). Through it all Samsung continues to thrive, with plans for further global expansion. Not just rising but apparently unstoppable.

Better, Not Perfect
By Max Bazerman
HarperBusiness, $63, 256 pages

No-one is perfect, says Harvard academic Bazerman, but we all have an obligation to try to be better. The task of ethical self-improvement is best taken one day at a time, and business leaders should focus on how to create as much value as possible for the most people, in a sustainable way. Getting rid of waste (especially of time) is an important part of this, and everyone should determine what they really need to lead a satisfying life – and perhaps give away the rest. Bazerman illustrates his points with interesting cases, highlighting the need to consider one’s life and continually look for a path to betterment.

A World Without Work
By Daniel Susskind
Allen Lane, $45, 336 pages

People have been worrying about machines displacing human workers since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution but this lucid book makes the point that so far the fears have not been realised. Susskind argues that technology has vastly improved society by removing back-breaking jobs, increasing productivity and generating wealth.

However, he says, a qualitative change in work is now under way, driven by AI and robotic production. As remedies Susskind favours a system of skills-based education, increased regulation of tech companies, a ‘robot tax’, and financial incentives to encourage large-scale employment. The point, he says, is not to stop technological progress but to balance it with human needs.

Money: The True Story of a Made-Up Thing
By Jacob Goldstein
Hachette, $25, 304 pages

Why does money have value? Because people want it. Why do people want it? Because it has value. This paradox lies at the core of this fascinating book. Money might be only a consensual fiction, says Goldstein, but it is the driver of economic and social structures. He traces its development from lumps of metal to paper currency, connecting it to government policies, banks and financial collapses. He identifies taxation as the means by which a particular form of money is legitimised and has interesting things to say about the adoption of the euro. He also looks at Modern Monetary Theory and the rise of cryptocurrencies. It adds up to a genial, entertaining package.

Joy at Work: Organizing Your Professional Life
By Marie Kondo and Scott Sonenshein
Little Brown, $52, 256 pages

Kondo became a cult figure with her 2014 book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and in Joy of Work she applies the same theory to the workplace. A messy, cluttered desk is an unproductive desk, she says. Her co-author Sonenshein, a business researcher, provides the data to prove it. They advise taking a thorough inventory and getting rid of anything with dust on it. Only keep things that have a clear, helpful purpose.

The same goes for digital clutter. Get rid of all those old emails; keep no more than fifty on file and purge irrelevant contacts, links and material. Yes, this level of tidying up requires a certain ruthlessness but the eventual rewards make it worthwhile.

Behavioral Insights
By Elspeth Kirkman and Michael Hallsworth
MIT Press, $28, 248 pages

This book is meant to be a primer on behavioural science, and the authors do their best to keep it accessible. They argue that the idea that individuals, whether stakeholders or observers, act on a rational basis is often misplaced. Much of behaviour is nonconscious, habitual, and driven by cues in the environment or the way in which choices are presented. Kirkman and Hallsworth, experts in this field, offer ways to determine the real basis of particular decisions, which is useful information for managers and leaders. Another important aspect is how people can analyse their own decisions, aiming to reach the right outcome rather than the easiest one.

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