2023’s best reads and listens

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Better late than never, as usual, here is my roundup of 2023’s best reads, both for work and leisure, and also a rundown of my favourite podcasts.

I read like the world is coming to an end, so what follows is only my best of the best. I don’t gamify or track my reading, and neither should anyone. If it gets you reading more, tracking is fine. If the number becomes the objective, stop.

The header photo is of some of the brave women at my back, literally. If I need to, I will turn around and look at one of them and ask what would you do? how would you handle this? what would you have to say here? 

They make the hardest questions easy.

Work reading: know what you’re up against

2022, reading-wise, was all about internet governance and infrastructure. It was one of those odd situations where you get to the point where you’ve read everything you possibly can: it’s time to put it into practice. Which, professionally, I’ve done. That meant 2023’s reading focus could, and had to be, rather different.

I hate to break it to you, but you need to be preparing for the very real prospect of the second Trump presidency.

And to bring it full circle, you need to be preparing for what a second Trump presidency will likely mean for internet governance and infrastructure.

This goes well beyond platform T&Cs, or culture wars over content moderation, or pushes for surveillance disguised as child safety. This goes to what happens when the country which happens to host most global platforms, and a good chunk of physical infrastructure, either splits into 1990s Yugoslavia or splits into 1920s Germany. Because it’s going to be one or the other. Whether you want to deal with that or not.

To that end, my reading on knowing what we’re dealing with here included

Now obviously, I did not put myself through that for my mental health. I did it because I want to spend 2024 standing uncomfortably close to that ugly junction between all of that and the integrity of the open internet.

I want to plan ahead to deal with whatever has to be done, whatever that is.

If that’s where your thinking is too, get in touch and let’s get to work.

More work reading: other work books

Outside that lovely chunk of real-life dystopia,

  • I discovered Manchester’s own Meatspace Press, which publishes some really challenging books on tech and society. While their books are available in ebook and in open access, I ordered their whole canon in print edition, which is well worth the cost: they push the limits of graphic design and layout. Their most recent work is Eaten By The Internet, an anthology on the politics of internet infrastructure.
  • Show Me The Bodies by Peter Apps is the story of the Grenfell Tower fire, which is to say, the story of everything that led up to the fatal spark. It’s as much a story of the corporate depravity of Conservative Britain as it is a story about political avarice. But because Apps is such an excellent writer, he sets up the narrative in the style of Steinbeck: each chapter on a villain alternates with a chapter telling the story of a hero in the fire. As you know, very few of the heroes survive their chapters. All of the villains remain untouched.
  • Outrageous! by Paul Baker is a lively history of Section 28, the 1988 law which banned the teaching of “the acceptability of homosexuality”. As you read it, you will shake your head for an unexpected reason: you could be reading about any number of “child safety” internet bills being put forth today. The language is the same. The reasoning is the same. The moral hand-wringing is the same. The botched and unenforceable legislation outcomes are the same. It’s remarkable. Outrageous, even.
  • A very late addition to this list – technically, the first read of 2024 – is the official exhibition catalogue of the Dutch Resistance Museum, which I visited last week. The book repeats the 100 stories displayed in the museum of ordinary Dutch people who resisted the Nazi occupation in their own quiet ways. It also tells the story of some ordinary Dutch people who chose the wrong side, which is to say their careers. And sometimes, as below, it tells about those two people meeting at gunpoint. I can’t recommend this place highly enough: do visit the next time you’re in Amsterdam.

Click for full size

More work reading: articles

  • I finally found the courage to read Caitlin Dickerson’s Pulitzer-winning, book-length piece on Trump’s policy of family separations. There are things you read in your life that will leave you sitting there physically shaking. This is one.
  • The New Yorker ran an amazing piece on the corporate culture at the workplace created by the bro behind the Titanic submarine. You know, the one who decided he was going to disrupt physics with a Playstation controller? And got himself and everyone else killed? There is a lot in the piece that will be very, very, very, very, very familiar to many of you, dear readers. Go and see.
  • Origin Stories: Plantations, Computers, and Industrial Control by Meredith Whittaker is a reminder that we work in a field that was invented, at its very origins, to manage slave labour.


Podcasts are my secret weapon; my notes are full of things I’ve rushed to jot down as soon as they passed through my ears. I mostly listen to politics, tech, and the politics of tech, though I’m always up for a well-reported and meaningful story.

I don’t tell you how to listen, so please look for each of these in the podcast app of your choice.

First, the limited series that stood out for me this year:

  • The Last Soviet, the story of the Soviet cosmonaut stranded in space without a country to come back to, narrated by near-cosmonaut and-hopefully-future-astronaut Lance Bass from N-Sync (yes, you read that right)
  • Holy Week, about the days following Martin Luther King’s assassination, when America burned
  • Believe In Magic, another winner from Jamie Bartlett & co – though I’ve never heard him sound as physically broken by a story as he was by this investigation
  • A Very British Cult, which was vindication for anyone who has ever fended off a creepy business networking cultist
  • American Idols
  • Long Shadow
  • Will Be Wild – there you have three essential series on the American far right, explaining the evolution of Christian Nationalism from Waco 1993 to Trump 2024.

Those are in addition to the regular series that joined my weekly listens:

  • Ukrainecast, which deserves a special merit for being an outstanding show all around and also reminding us what the best of the BBC can be: honest, compassionate, often brutal, but always meaningful.
  • This Week in Ukraine (Kyiv Independent)
  • Pod Save the UK
  • Politics at Jack & Sam’s
  • Impossible Tradeoffs
  • The Bulwark
  • Straight White American Jesus, from Bradley Onishi (see above)
  • Techtonic

And of course, my essential policy listens:

  • Lawfare & Arbiters of Truth
  • Politico Tech & Westminster Insider
  • Euractiv Tech Brief
  • What Next TBD tech
  • Moderated Content
  • Techdirt
  • Tech Against Terrorism
  • Internet of Humans
  • Regulate .tech (hi Richard)

Let me pour one out now for a lost friend. I was heartbroken to lose Digital Planet, whose cancellation by the BBC was a travesty. The final ever episode, where the team delivered their heartfelt farewells, left me in tears. Gareth and Bill have carried on with their own little Gareth and Billcast, which I refer to as Continuity Digital Planet, but the loss left a gap that isn’t easily filled.

As for what the BBC themselves filled that gap with?

<rant> They pushed another one of their tech shows into the feed, an episode which rather said it all about the changing priorities of the UK’s tech press. It was an interview with Martha Lane Fox, who is arguably the most accomplished female tech entrepreneur in the UK, where the interviewer sat her down and breathlessly asked her ooh you were on the Twitter board tell us what E**n M**k is like IRL!!


I actually felt embarrassed for Martha, who was clearly being sent a message that her worth had been reduced to Woman Who Once Sat In A Room With A Famous Man. But instead of getting angry at the young Scottish presenter, I opted to feel rather sorry for her; after all, her managers are managing her to think that that’s how you do tech journalism. It is not. At least it was a good reminder why I stopped talking to them.


Personal reading: feet-up in the garden

After god knows how many years, I sat outside and re-read Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety. I don’t know how she did it. I don’t understand how she could turn my bright summer garden into a dark and fetid corridor in the backstreets of revolutionary Paris. And I don’t think anyone has truly comprehended what we lost when we lost her.

As for new reads:

  • Trust by Hernan Diaz – easily my book of the year. There’s a reason it won the Pulitzer Prize. Please read the book before it’s inevitably ruined by the film adaptation.
  • Metronome by Tom Watson. This is how to do dystopian fiction: you don’t explain what the world has become. You just focus on the people living in it, and let their actions do the explaining.
  • Civilisations by Laurent Binet: oh yes this here is what I like. An alternative history in which the Incas of Peru sail east and conquer western Europe.
  • Hell Sans by Ever Dundas and The Pharmacist by Rachelle Atalla: here’s the thing about Scottish women writing dark and dystopian sci-fi. They don’t have to imagine spaceships or post-apocalyptic civilizations. They just have to take a little bit of everyday real life, in Brexit Britain, and nudge it along a wee bit into its own very plausible alternative reality. Both of these novels do that so well.
  • Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel. This is a bit of experimental fiction, as she builds a multiverse connecting her previous novels and also her own presence within them. I don’t know where she’s going with the idea and neither I think does she, but you know what?

She’s going there, and I like that.

Personal reading: Пушкінопад

In 2023, having not much else to do, I engaged in some ugly soul-searching about something bad I did in the 1990s. No, not that, or that, or that. Not that guy (yuck), or the other guy (woo hoo), or the one inbetween (shhhhh). Not that either. And not that. What was it?

Basically, I have been plagued with guilt over my US undergraduate minor in Russian language and literature. That has been accompanied by a reconsideration of my subsequent career in cultural diplomacy between the US and the then post-Soviet states, which was mostly Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. I thought all of that knowledge, and experience, was long behind me. Then came February 2022, and everything I thought I’d left behind was in front of me again.

In other words, I was wrestling with the question:

had I been part of the problem? Did I play a role in creating this?

Let us consider the mitigations. On the one hand, as a university student, I read what was in put front of me. The curriculum was essentially Russian colonial – post-Soviet in name, Russian in practice – because that’s how it was. Very little outside what you might call the core curriculum of the classics had been translated into English. So yeah, there was Dostoevsky, Goncharov, Lermontov, Gogol (AHA!), Bulgakov, and, well, yes, Pushkin. I watched some Georgian cinema for the film bit. That was as exotic as it got.

So what else could I have done? Despite being a mere undergraduate, I did blag my way into a graduate-level course (go 1999 me!) on the History of Ukraine, which gave me as much of an overview as was possible at the time. (Below is one page of the syllabus.) There wasn’t any actual literature reading, but it’s not as if I would have had a spare moment to read any. Of course, I knew – as I had been taught – that the history of literature had been the history of Russia dominating and oppressing the others, including Ukraine. But it never once occurred to me to go find those voices.

As for my early career, at the turn of the millennium, let’s remember the times. Yeltsin was a happy drunk. Putin was an efficient municipal manager. McDonald’s and Coca-Cola and all that. Walls had fallen, people were coming together, everything was all good. You can’t judge 2000 by 2022.

Or can you?

Ultimately I decided it that the questions of my complicity were not my judgement to make: it was a Ukrainian’s. That judgement came in the form of an essay by Andriy Bondar, which you will find in the book Ukraine 22: Ukrainian Writers Respond to War. And after reading that, I had my answer.

Yes. I had been part of the problem. Yes, I had played a role in creating this.

Ukrainians are calling their cultural decolonisation Пушкінопад, Pushkinopad, which literally means “moving away from Pushkin”. So I have been engaging in my own personal Пушкінопад, as I’ve come to call it, as I take personal responsibility for putting right my wrongs.

For me, where I am now, that means that all I can do is read as much Ukrainian writing as I can get in English translation. Right now, all I can do is de-colonise my own education on my own time. There are other things I can and will do, when the time comes.

Three books have been greatly helpful in exposing me to a sort of curricular reading list. The first two are anthologies edited by Mark Andryczyk: Writing from Ukraine: Fiction, Poetry, and Essays since 1965, and also Ukraine 22: Ukrainian Writers Respond to War. They are useful for finding contemporary writers. The third was Serhii Plokhy’s The Gates of Europe, which includes quite a lot on suppressed Ukrainian literature.

The Kyiv Independent is excellent for pointers on newly translated works. I support them with a monthly subscription, as should you if you take an interest in the war, particularly as it so often scrolls off the domestic news pages now.

As for the rest, I just follow the algorithims where they take me. So far that’s a lot of Kurkov, Zhadan, and Belorusets. I’m trying to read one translated Ukrainian novel a month. So far, so good. Next up is Mesopotamia.

As for the language itself, I seem to understand 50% of it quite well. I could properly learn it very easily, but every time I see verb declension tables in Cyrillic – again – it gives me the fear. I’m too old for that level of trauma.

So that’s the literature bit of my Пушкінопад. I’m doing a few other things to make up for my errant choice of early career, but you don’t need to know about that.

By the way, here was my Christmas jumper, courtesy of Saint Javelin. I wish it had come with sound effects.

The Author

I’m a UK tech policy wonk based in Glasgow. I work for an open web built around international standards of human rights, privacy, accessibility, and freedom of expression. The content and opinions on this site are mine alone and do not reflect the opinions of any current or previous team.