Here is a partial list of the books that have most shaped my practice, as a computer scientist, over the past five years:
- Homo Ludens, by Johan Huizinga. (Protip: Read the whole thing, not just chapter 1.)
- Discipline and Punish, by Michel Foucault. (“Panopticism,” in particular)
- More Work for Mother, by Ruth Schwartz Cowan.
- Understanding Media, Laws of Media, and The Medium is the Massage, all by Marshall McLuhan. (Protip: I know nothing of his work.)
- Illness as Metaphor, by Susan Sontag.
There are no “computer” books on this list. Computer books help you do things with computers, but they don’t help you figure out what you ought to be doing with computers. For that you have to look at the people and society around you, you need to see the assumptions and the background that everyone else is ignoring. You need to solve the problem that no-one else has even noticed.
This is what the humanities produce, first and foremost: Awareness of the unnoticed background. Ian Bogost’s recent blog posts about utility of the humanities reinforce this point. He says, of humanities scholars:
We earn respect by calling in worldly secrets, by making them public. (Beyond the Elbow-Patched Playground)
Wasting their work, by ignoring it, is very nearly a crime. If you are a computer programmer, or a computer scientist, you have an incredible power to reshape the world and, thereby, the lives of the people around you.
Put down that OpenGL manual, and pick up something that has some ideas in it.