Longreads Best of 2015: Business & Tech

We asked a few writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in specific categories. Here, the best in business and tech.

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Sheelah Kolhatkar
Kolhatkar is Features Editor and National Correspondent at Bloomberg Businessweek.

Towers of Secrecy: Stream of Foreign Wealth Flows Into Elite New York Real Estate (Louise Story and Stephanie Saul, The New York Times)

This was a fascinating, important story, the first in a multipart series. It’s the result of many months of intensive reporting, the kind that we could use a lot more of. It explains a phenomenon that many people living in major cities around the world may have noticed, the emergence of new mega-towers and mansions where single units sell for $100 million or more. They are largely, this piece reveals, places for the foreign superrich to park their money, which is often done anonymously through the use of LLCs. My friend Andrew Rice took a bite out of this subject too, with an earlier cover story for New York Magazine, “New York Real Estate is the New Swiss Bank Account,” that was also great.

The Couture Club (Rebecca Mead, The New Yorker)

On its surface this is a piece about fashion—a couture runway show staged by Italian designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana like nothing I’ve ever experienced. But it’s also a fascinating window into the world economy. While Greece was negotiating a restructuring of its debt, the wealthiest (like, the 0.001%) people in the world assembled for a four-day orgy of parties and conspicuous consumption (the gowns start at $40,000). The descriptions of the clothes and the jewelry were amazing— “A stunning necklace, wrought with jewelled and enamelled flowers, fruits, and butterflies, weighed heavily on its display stand”; “One model showed off a patchwork fur jacket in which the pelts of various animals had been dyed vivid colors to make a fantastical new creature.” Overall, it was delicious and disturbing escapism.


Ashlee Vance
Vance is a writer at Bloomberg Businessweek and the author of the New York Times bestseller Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX and the Quest for a Fantastic Future.

The Genesis Engine (Amy Maxmen, Wired)

Crispr appears to be the most important bio-tech breakthrough to come along in many years. The mainstream press had largely missed its importance and then—boom—this piece from Wired and Amy Maxmen appeared. The story tackles the tough work of describing in digestible terms how Crispr allows scientists to edit DNA. That’s the immediate payoff. But it also wraps all this science up in a gripping narrative of how the discovery came to be and what it might mean for people in the future. It’s one of those rare first swing, definitive type pieces and deserves everyone’s attention.

Facebook AI Director Yann LeCun on His Quest to Unleash Deep Learning and Make Machines Smarter (Lee Gomes, IEEE Spectrum)

This is not so much a story as an interview, but it’s a damn important one. There’s been so much written about Artificial Intelligence this year and much of it is thin and confusing. Here, Facebook’s director of AI Yann LeCun offers up some of the clearest explanations you will find anywhere of the toughest concepts behind modern AI. LeCun is not a huckster or a hypester. He provides a clear-eyed look at just how far AI technology has come and how far is still has to go. It’s a great read for anyone who wants to wrap their head around AI and feel conversant on the subject.


John Herrman
Herrman is co-editor of The Awl.

What Happens Next Will Amaze You (Maciej Cegłowski, Idle Words)

This is an essay adapted from a talk that feels like it was adapted from some imaginary greater text. It’s sprawling and surprising and less careful than confident. It is excellent. In this one presentation, Maciej talks about regulation in the way I expect the rest of us will in two years; he talks about privacy in ways that make other critics sound feeble and captured; he argues comfortably from perspectives mainstream tech writers would strain to even reach. All that said, my most honest endorsement is a petty one: he’s infuriating to some of the people who infuriate me most. What more could I ask for?

Depressiongrams (Jamie Lauren Keiles, The Message)

One of the best things I read about depression all year; one of the best things I read about writing and art all year; one of the best things I read about Instagram this year. It’s a tidy essay about a short time and a small place that is rigged with a shattering aside in nearly every paragraph. Lesser writers would have ruined this essay with a big muscular ending (or an extra few thousand words. Is this even a #longread??? MODS???). But Jamie doesn’t.


Kevin Roose
Roose is the news director at Fusion, and the executive producer of Real Future, a new TV documentary series about technology and the future. He is the New York Times bestselling author of Young Money and The Unlikely Disciple, and was previously a business and technology writer for New York magazine and the New York Times.

Instagram’s TMZ (Jenna Wortham, New York Times Magazine)

My first nomination is Jenna Wortham’s NYT Mag piece on the Shade Room, an Instagram-only publication that focuses on celebrity news. It’s a piece that made me realize that, while much of the digital media was obsessing and handwringing about The Future Of Publishing, there was this entirely separate set of people who were just going out and *doing the work*, creating publications native to new media that had none of the legacy hangups or procedural ankleweights of the competition, needed no deep VC pockets to enact their visions, and that were often more capable when it came to finding and amplifying diverse voices. It’s a too-short piece (I could have read 10,000 words on it) but Jenna’s piece stuck in my head as an exemplar of technology journalism that focuses on what is *actually* new and innovative, and doesn’t just rely on prognostication from the same old voices.

Hot Startup Theranos Has Struggled With Its Blood-Test Technology (John Carreyrou, Wall Street Journal)

My second nomination is John Carreyrou’s Wall Street Journal investigation of Theranos, which took a darling of recent Silicon Valley mythology out behind the shed and put a bullet in its skull. The original piece was, of course, devastatingly well-researched and thorough, but it’s the fallout from the story—the regulatory mess around the biotech sector, the increasingly mystique-laden character of Elizabeth Holmes, the silly and unconvincing defenses attempted by tech tribalists (who are unaccustomed to scrutiny that leaves a mark), and the swirl of financial uncertainty that has come to surround other big venture-backed businesses since the piece was published (deservedly or not)—that make it obvious that Carreyrou’s work will be fought over for years.


Nitasha Tiku
Tiku is senior writer for BuzzFeed News covering technology and culture. 

The Rating Game (Josh Dzieza, The Verge)

It’s eerie how quickly consumer behavior has adjusted to the luxuries of on-demand apps. We feel guilty for hailing an Uber, but we can’t help ourselves. Josh Dzieza’s piece zooms on the effect on just one feature—instant rating systems. Tech companies claim that rating your Uber driver or a Handy housecleaner with a tap of your smartphone is “two-way” street that offers “mutual accountability.” But only one side can lose a job over it.

Dzieza argues that these monitoring tools turn customers into “ruthless middle managers,” “hypersensitive to any error.” He walks the reader through the broader significance: Companies can only get Uber-sized by using dispersed, untrained contract workers. It’s cheaper to turn customers into supervisors than manage that workforce. The efficiency of these systems is making them increasingly popular. And that efficiency also obliterates worker protections, subjecting them to racial bias and arbitrary demerits. Vivid anecdotes make the new American “master-servant relationship,” as one driver put it, harder to shrug off.

The CEO Paying Everyone $70,000 Salaries Has Something to Hide (Karen Weise, Bloomberg Businessweek)

Karen Weise investigates the real reason that Gravity CEO Dan Price decided to pay all his employees a $70,000 salary. I slept on this story initially because Price’s spiel always struck me as a ploy to go viral, but the mystery builds slowly towards unexpected ends. Weise highlights the strangeness one can unearth by diligently fact-checking a company’s claims. Price’s saga may not have widespread implications, but Wall Street Journal’s expose on Theranos raised the bar on tech reporting and Weise makes you wonder what else startup CEOs are hiding.


Longreads Editor’s Pick: Mark Armstrong
@markarms

Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future (Ashlee Vance)

First, Let’s Get Rid of All the Bosses (Roger D. Hodge, The New Republic)

Vance’s book on the CEO of SpaceX and Tesla is not just compelling for its deep reporting on one of the most interesting people in technology today; it’s also an excellent lesson in how a journalist navigates the challenges of getting ever more access without handing over independence or control of a project. Vance talked with everyone—family members, employees, and Musk himself—without giving his subject final signoff.

Pair Vance’s book with Roger Hodge’s similar reporting feat inside the quirky online shoe giant Zappos. Hodge was granted access to the company, its executives, and employees, as they embarked on a radical experiment to eliminate management and embrace Holacracy.

See the entire Longreads Best of 2015 Collection.