Technics & Civilization by Lewis Mumford (Univ. of Chicago, $25). This 1934 book invented media theory, the notion that our technologies create entire environments that reshape life as we know it. The invention of the clock led to hourly employment. The capital-intensive machinery of the industrial age led to consolidated corporate power. Mumford said it all, first.
Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology by Neil Postman (Vintage, $16). Still the simplest explanation of how new technologies get the better of us: We make a tool, we change our lives to accommodate the tool, the tool becomes our new reality. Think cars, TV, computers, smartphones...
Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth by Buckminster Fuller (Lars Muller, $20). This is the biggest little book I know, jamming the grandest ideas of the 20th century's greatest designer into just 120 pages of conversational text. In brief, our problems are not laws of nature, but artifacts of bad design decisions. And we can change them.
Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber (Melville House, $22). The gripping saga of how debt — an abstract virus — became the default operating system for all human commerce. It represents the original "gamification" of business, and a rule so deeply embedded in our culture that we forgot it was invented.
The Peripheral by William Gibson (Berkley, $17). Gibson's novel describes a digital economic landscape only a notch or two more extreme than our own, and plays out a scenario detailing what happens when we get all the tech we want, but it's all geared toward extracting value from us. Crazy brilliant.
Capital by Karl Marx (Penguin, $58 for three volumes). If America had never begun equating Marx's thought with Soviet-style communism, this book would likely have become incorporated into the business arsenal along with Sun Tzu's The Art of War. Marx was the first — and best — at understanding the economy as a system that not only is informed by existing power relationships but also reinforces them. All talk of digital businesses as ecosystems comes from here.
—Douglas Rushkoff is the author of Present Shock and more than a dozen other books about media, technology, and culture. His latest, Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, argues for changing the path that the digital economy has put us on.