My Top 5 Academic Books of 2021

I’ve bought a lot of books this year and read… many of them. Almost all of them were not, directly speaking, surveillance books. I’m a bit bored of surveillance and privacy books at this point. That’s no reflection on my colleagues, just that I’ve been off in other places. I’ve been reading a lot about planetarity and extraplanetarity (space!), and I’ve been going back to reading more environmental writing. This used to be my field (I have an MSc in environmental management) and I used to teach in this area, as well as having been an eco-activist for many years. I’m trying to put surveillance, environmental and (extra)planetarity together in various ways right now and these are the things that have been making me think.

  1. My favourite book, by a long way, was David Graeber and David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything (Signal, 2021). Completed just before Graeber’s untimely death which robs us of one of our most free-ranging and unencumbered thinkers, this books challenges almost everything we thought we knew about why things are the way they are and how they got this way. The first chapter on how indigenous North American thinkers influenced the enlightenment is stunning enough in itself, but each chapter that follows brings rigorously contrarian arguments, which take down the superficial approaches of populist writers (like Harari and Pinker et al.) along the way.
  2. I read two books on extraterritoriality and space this year and they are both in my Top 3. Daniel Deudney’s extraordinary Dark Skies (Oxford, 2020) is the weightier and more theoretically dense, but no less enthralling and a real kick-in-the-teeth for the Elon Musks of this world who think we can live on Mars.
  3. Much shorter and more fun, but still highly enlightening, is Fred Sharmen’s Space Forces (Verso, 2021), which offers a breezily-written history of how we have understood the possibility of life in space, as well as how it has been tried so far.
  4. Peter Drahos comes from a totally different background to me (Business / Management), but his book, Survival Governance (Oxford, 2021) offers a challenging argument on how the solution to the climate crisis will have to come from the Chinese state – or humanity as a whole will have no future. It’s not a blame-thesis: Drahos is simply acknowledging the dual political and economic power that the Chinese empire will have in the coming century: if nothing more radical happens in the meantime (see below…), China will be the only major power able to direct the transformation that is needed, whatever we think about China otherwise.
  5. Alternatively, a bracing little manifesto, How to Blow Up a Pipeline, from Andreas Malm (Verso, 2021) suggest a more direct approach. This reminded me of where I came from and what we may need to do, sooner rather than later, in the emergency in which we now find ourselves.

Finally, my bonus read was the long overdue reissue of the one of the most important founding works in surveillance studies, Oscar Gandy’s The Panoptic Sort (Oxford, 2021). Gandy is of course well-known within surveillance studies and has already been recognised with the Outstanding Contribution Award by the Surveillance Studies Network, but is only now being rediscovered outside as a precursor of almost all the work on algorithmic and data bias, ethics and accountability – and this by a scholar of colour in the early nineties. The new edition is enhanced by a new introduction and afterword by Oscar, who remains one of the most delightful, as well as insightful, people who I have met in academia.

There were also some really disappointing and bad books I read this year, but the less said about them, the better…

Author: David

I'm David Murakami Wood. I live on Wolfe Island, in Ontario, and am Canada Research Chair (Tier II) in Surveillance Studies and an Associate Professor at Queen's University, Kingston.

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