Longreads Best of 2017: Science, Technology, and Business Writing

We asked writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here is the best in science, tech, and business writing.

Deborah Blum
Director of the Knight Science Journalism program at MIT and author of The Poisoner’s Handbook

The Touch of Madness (David Dobbs, Pacific Standard)

A beautifully rendered exploration of the slow, relentless creep of schizophrenia into the life of a brilliant graduate student, her slow recognition of the fact, and the failure of her academic community to recognize the issue or to support her. Dobbs’ piece functions both as an inquiry into our faltering understanding of mental illness and our cultural failure to respond to it with integrity. It’s the kind of compassionate and morally-centered journalism we should all aspire to.


Elmo Keep
Australian writer and journalist living in Mexico, runner-up for the 2017 Bragg Prize for Science Writing

How Eclipse Chasers Are Putting a Small Kentucky Town on the Map (Lucas Reilly, Mental Floss)

Anyone willing to write about syzygy in the shadow of Annie Dillard’s classic 1982 essay “Total Eclipse” has balls for miles. Reilly’s decision to focus on the logistics faced by tiny towns preparing to be inundated by thousands of eclipse watchers was inspired. It brilliantly conveyed the shared enthusiasms that celestial events animate in us. Between these two essays, I’m convinced a total eclipse would be a psychic event so overwhelming I might not survive it. I’ve got 2037 in Antarctica on my bucket list — if it’s still there in twenty years.   


Rose Eveleth
Producer and creator of the Flash Forward podcast

A Very Old Man for a Wolf (Emma Marris, Outside)

The story of the wolf in question, called OR4, hits on every fascinating, murky, and difficult piece of our human interactions with our wild predators. We want to be close, but not too close. We want to admire and preserve them, but only as long as they follow our rules. Marris does an incredible job of teasing out how humans and wolves both try to survive while at odds with one another.

Facebook’s Secret Censorship Rules Protect White Men From Hate Speech But Not Black Children (Julia Angwin, ProPublica)

Everything in ProPublica’s Machine Bias series is a must read, in my opinion. They’re doing an incredible job opening up the algorithmic black boxes tech companies hide behind, revealing how they are all biased in their own ways. This particular piece helps us understand how Facebook is parsing hate speech. Considering that Facebook is a powerful platform for news and information, it’s worth taking a hard look at who they’re choosing to protect. Follow up this feature with another smart bit of reporting in which the team at ProPublica bought ads targeting anti-Semitic phrases like “Jew hater.”


Tim Hwang

Director of the MIT-Harvard Ethics and Governance of AI Initiative, and editor of the California Review of Images and Mark Zuckerberg.

Using Artificial Intelligence to Augment Human Intelligence (Shan Carter and Michael Nielsen, Distill)

The field of computing has often been characterized as a struggle between Doug Englebart’s vision of machines as a tool for intelligence augmentation and the full automation contemplated by artificial intelligence. Carter and Nielsen make an argument for a new emerging path: artificial intelligence augmentation (AIA), the use of AI systems to help develop new methods for intelligence augmentation. It’s a journey that starts with a simple demo and accelerates into a fractally fascinating and complex discussion.

Also wonderful is Distill itself — a beautiful, richly interactive approach to explaining and clarifying the often arcane finer points of machine learning. Two great tastes that taste great together.

The Mother of All Swipes (Marie Hicks, Logic Magazine)

Hicks busts up the prevailing folklore that attributes the origins of computerized dating to Operation Match — the brainchild of a troika of Harvard undergrads in the 1960s. Running parallel is the story of Joan Ball, working-class woman from East London who launched her punch card-driven Eros Friendship Bureau close to a year before the technology appeared in the US. It’s an awesome lens for thinking about how the aspirations that lead to computational power have been used as a salve to loneliness.


Andrea Valdez
Editor, Wired.com

Reflecting On One Very, Very Strange Year At Uber (Susan J. Fowler, personal website)

Before Roy Moore and Al Franken, before Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose, before #MeToo and Harvey Weinstein and the ever-unfurling list of politicos, media men, and Hollywood elites stood accused of sexual misconduct, there was an essay published in February by a former Uber engineer detailing allegations of sexual harassment she experienced during her two years working at the popular ride-sharing company. Fowler’s bombshell post set off a reaction that not only led to the eventual downfall of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, but prompted a number of tech companies to examine their own workplace cultures — and in some cases, fire or suspend their own executives.

To say one blog post catalyzed a movement is a weighty mantle to lay upon anyone’s shoulders, but it’s hard to ignore the influence Fowler’s essay had in sparking the current national dialogue about power imbalances, workplace behavior, and sexual misconduct.


Kashmir Hill
Senior reporter on Gizmodo’s Special Projects Desk

On YouTube Kids, Startling Videos Slip Past Filters (Sapna Maheshwari, The New York Times)

When I think back on the best stories of a year, I am usually drawn to the ones I wish I had written myself. This year it was Sapna Maheshwari’s dive into the disturbing videos served up to kids on YouTube. It has all the best elements of great technology reporting: algorithms gone wrong, victims suffering harm, and shocking screenshots. It also resulted in action, with YouTube announcing plans to increase its video-reviewing moderation team to over 10,000 people, a staggering number that still pales in comparison to the millions of hours of video uploaded each year.

Something Is Wrong on The Internet (James Bridle, Medium)

I discovered Maheshwari’s story through James Bridle’s meditation on it in his wonderfully titled Medium essay “Something is Wrong on the Internet.” His meandering, hand-wringing post linked a number of articles on the topic of disturbing videos targeted at kids and captured the anxiety many of us feel about an attention-weaponized internet being pointed at young, developing minds.


Julia Rosen
Freelance science journalist based in Portland, Oregon.

The Touch of Madness (David Dobbs, Pacific Standard)

This engrossing piece weaves one woman’s experience with schizophrenia into the broader history of mental illness, and the growing recognition that its manifestations are profoundly shaped by culture. Dobbs’s detailed reporting includes masterful descriptions of how schizophrenia alters people’s perceptions of reality. The woman, Nev Jones, is herself an expert on how society’s attitudes about mental illness shape the experience of those affected by it. Both Jones and Dobbs force us to reckon with our own beliefs about conditions like schizophrenia and what harm they might do.

A Very Old Man for a Wolf (Emma Marris, Outside)

I read this story at a coffee shop, which was a mistake because — as friends had warned would happen — I found myself weeping helplessly into my latte after I finished it. Marris tells the story of OR4, the first wolf to set foot in Oregon in 70 years, and his run-ins with humans, most notably with Russ Morgan, the wildlife biologist who, until recently, served as the state’s wolf coordinator. The two met many times in the decade OR4 lived in eastern Oregon, where he raised dozens of pups, hunted elk and deer in the rugged Wallowa Mountains, and inevitably killed livestock. The relationship between Morgan and OR4, in Marris’ elegant telling, is like one between an Old West sheriff and an infamous outlaw. It is full of tension and mutual respect, and the tragic understanding that they occupy incompatible worlds that will eventually collide.


Ingrid Burrington and Surya Mattu
Journalism R&D residents at Eyebeam

Thousands of Criminal Cases in New York Relied on Disputed DNA Testing Techniques (Lauren Kirchner, ProPublica)

Kirchner’s investigation shows that not all DNA evidence is equal, incisively illustrating the challenges of using forensic technology for prosecution. It demonstrates how these closed technologies are leveraged against defendants who have no way to challenge the accusations being made using their DNA. It’s also a fantastic example of how journalism can hold governments accountable for their uses of closed technologies: Kirchner’s reporting led to the release of the source code for New York City’s Forensic Statistical Tool.


Michelle Legro
Senior editor, Longreads

Bodega Isn’t Just Bad Branding, It’s Bad Business (Helen Rosner, Eater)

Silicon Valley has a tendency to invent things that already exist: blenders, buses, the snack machine. Helen Rosner is sick of it. Not simply because of the hubris and waste, though there’s plenty of that, but because it exemplifies the tech industry’s obsession with the “last hundred feet.” It’s a failure not of imagination, but of logistics.

This piece, which grew out of a spectacular thread on Twitter, is a searing condemnation of the back end of so many startups, which are “poorly constructed and unsustainably scaled.” Rosner reminds us what success looks like to these companies, and how they wear the hollow crown of late-capitalism: “Bodega’s success will not be measured by how well it truly replaces the stores it wants to eliminate — by how many lives it makes better, how many jobs it creates, how many communities it strengthens, or how many families it serves. Like most startups, its success will depend on whether its founders and investors make money.”


Ethan Chiel
Contributing editor and fact checker, Longreads

So What If We’re Doomed? (Brian Calvert, High Country News)

Large sections of Calvert’s lushly written, deeply personal essay thinking through the ecocide may not seem like science writing, and if that bugs you I can only encourage you to keep going. A non-exhaustive list of the topics covered includes the poet Robinson Jeffers, the value of natural beauty, Calvert’s family history in both the 20th and 17th centuries, a retreat in the Spanish Pyrenees, and photographic art documenting the trauma climate scientists endure. At the outset it may seem as if Calvert is suggesting that the right response to climate science is a kind of quietism, but the way in which he grapples with what we as a species have done to this planet is far more complex.

The Judge’s Code (Sarah Jeong, The Verge)

Among many other things, Sarah Jeong’s profile of Judge William H. Alsup should be commended for putting to rest the question of whether or not Alsup knows how to code in Java (he doesn’t, he just learned a little during the first Oracle v. Google trial). Having taken care of that in the first few paragraphs, Jeong goes on to deliver a fascinating and complex profile of a judge who has and continues to preside over some of the most important tech-related cases of the present day, including Waymo v. Uber, which is currently on Alsup’s docket. She also weaves in questions and arguments about how judges, the press, and the public ought to approach cases where things get technical, without sacrificing any of Alsup’s humanity or charm.

The New MacBook Keyboard is Ruining My Life (Casey Johnston, The Outline)

It’s satisfying to read good writing about hardware, especially when it’s good writing about bad hardware. When our myriad devices function properly it can be easy to forget that they are one design flaw away from an enormous headache. The problem only gets more severe as some hardware producers, especially Apple, try to offer lighter computers and close off their product ecosystems, often by building computers or phones for which seemingly small fixes require maintenance that Casey Johnston rightly calls “major surgery.” This can mean going without your computer or smartphone for a while, something which, depending on your job or lifestyle, can be costly or even untenable.

Johnston writes about this in the context process of trying to repair her MacBook’s spacebar, laid low by an errant speck of dust. She not only captures the absurdity and attendant frustration of dealing with Apple’s bizarre repair supply chain, but also seems to suggest that if the company doesn’t do better, then perhaps its customers should go elsewhere.