The Atlantic Tech Canon

By Alexis C. Madrigal

Nearly every topic has a canon, a set of classics that you need to know. These works are recognized as key touchpoints of analysis and understanding. Technology, though, seems to resist that sort of thing. We think of it as something that is changing too fast for anything to remain relevant for long.

But it is precisely because technology does change that its lasting works are so important. What remains after round after around of creative destruction has proven its value. Many of the works that reach that threshold are scholarship, but certainly not all of them. We tried to reach deep and wide with this canon. We began with more than 200 suggestions from tech writers and scholars on Twitter and whittled them down to this core group.

Of course, no one will be wholly happy with this list. It may be a little too academic for some. Too focused on the recent past for others. Perhaps it's not digital-centric enough.

That's why we're thinking of this canon as a living document. We want your suggestions, which you can send us through this form. We're also more than open to critique or help. This is the start of the conversation, not the end, and we hope you'll help us sharpen our vision of what works deserve lasting glory.

At this point, the actual rankings are approaching arbitrary. These works all stand as great works that deepen and broaden our conceptions not just of what technology is, but what it means.

The great themes of technological art and literature are represented: the control of nature, the control of electrons, cyborgs, artificial intelligence, network building, Gutenberg, the rise of the digital. Read these books. They are worthwhile.

If there is one thing that stands out to me looking at the entire tech canon, it's that history matters in technology because history is how the world got to be the way that it is. (There are two books in the top ten with the word old in their titles.) We might be inventing the future, but it's out of the rags, riches and remainders of the past. We can't escape history, even by making new things.

And why try? It is how people use and shape technology -- where we intersect with our machines -- that determines what the world's possibilities become. If we left out all we humans already know and have made and bring to newly created things, we'd only know half the story. Our bodies and our brains and our ideas and our laws matter.

We are the software that runs the world's hardware.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2010/09/the-atlantic-tech-canon/62818/