We asked writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here is the best in science and tech.
Director of the Knight Science Journalism program at MIT and author of The Poison Squad.
For more than a year, Meera Subramanian has been traversing the country for InsideClimate News, creating a series of vivid and wonderfully balanced portraits of small communities wrestling with the havoc of climate change (whether they admit it or not). This one from October, focused on an increasingly flood-washed area called Blish Point, stands out for me. It’s a tapestry-like picture woven of relentlessly rising seas, threatened homes and businesses, the politics of climate change science, and pure, stubborn human reluctance to give up on a beloved way of coastal living.
Subramanian never raises her voice or treats any viewpoint with less than respect — although she occasionally deftly slides in the scientific arguments that counter climate denialism. She has an elegant way of making both people and place live on the page. The result is a compelling and compassionate narrative in which this one small, beautiful, vanishing strip of Massachusetts, perched on the edge of an encroaching ocean, becomes a microcosm for the much bigger story of change — and its reckoning — now being realized around the world.
Freelance science journalist, former Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT, and lecturer at Northeastern University’s School of Journalism.
God Is in the Machine (Carl Miller, The Times Literary Supplement)
Whether it’s your social media feed, prison sentence, or driverless car, our world is increasingly governed by algorithms. The terrifying thing is that we’re quickly approaching a horizon after which no one will be able to explain the code used or decisions made to build these things. This sobering excerpt from Carl Miller’s book, The Death of the Gods: The new global power grab, makes startlingly clear our ignorance of the machines we’ve hacked together. “Truth is dead,” as one programmer tells him. “There is only output.”
Tech reporter at The Verge and co-host of Why’d You Push That Button?
Instagram has fundamentally changed where and why we visit the places we do. Alex Vadukul’s piece on New York Italian restaurant Forlini’s taps into this idea. He perfectly captures how one establishment’s demographics can change over time. One group of patrons goes for the food and convenience — Forlini’s is next to the courthouse — while another prefers it as a backdrop for Instagram photos. Vadukul includes incredible quotes, too, especially the one in which a Forlini’s owner marvels at how influencers manage to drink alcohol and stay thin. I wonder that, too.
Writer-in-residence in biological sciences at Columbia University, previously editor at Nautilus and The Believer.
There’s a lot of bad science writing about transhumanism − rich people wanting to live forever by uploading their minds to computers, etc. But Rushcoff explores the very human drive for a post-human future by elegantly tracing links between the failures of global capitalism, the growing divide between rich and poor, the ongoing climate catastrophe, and what transhumanism is really all about: escape. It’s the best thinking I’ve read on the subject, and the piece stands out as a clear articulation of how some imagine − or fail to imagine − our digital future. I’m still haunted by the moment when a super-wealthy CEO who has paid to pick Rushcoff’s brain about “the future of technology” asks, “How do I maintain authority over my security force after the event?”
Investigative data journalist at The Markup, research scientist at the Center for Civic Media at MIT.
See No Evil (Miriam Posner, Logic)
Posner’s piece on using software to make supply chains more transparent contains some powerful observations. It elegantly highlights how some characteristic features of modernity have harmed rather than helped this endeavor. Large scale, distributed networks like the internet and global supply chains might be more resilient and efficient than their predecessors, but they are almost impossible to regulate. Similarly, modular information design and the ‘black box architecture’ of software helps scale businesses, but they can also obfuscate the decision making process of those in charge, leading to a lack of accountability.
As we grapple with the challenge of how to hold algorithmic decision-making accountable for the harm it can cause, this piece reminds us that the harm is often a feature of these systems, not a bug.
Neel V. Patel
Science and tech journalist, contributor to The Daily Beast, The Verge, Slate, Wired, Popular Science, Foreign Policy, and New York Magazine.
Facebook had a bad year, culminating most damningly in a New York Times’ report in November that showed the company’s inability to safeguard the platform from nefarious parties trying to influence the 2016 election, as well as its unwillingness to take responsibility and make fixes. But the insidiousness of Facebook in the U.S. dwarfs what’s happening overseas. Davey Alba, writing for BuzzFeed News, illustrates how Rodrigo Duterte and his autocratic regime in the Philippines leveraged the platform to disseminate false news and propaganda, exacerbating the carnage inflicted by his war on drugs and dismantling many of the country’s democratic structures. It’s a terrifying example of what happens when our biggest fears of the unregulated sprawl of Facebook are realized.
Audience editor, Longreads
Can Dirt Save the Earth? (Moises Velasquez-Manoff, The New York Times Magazine)
Readers may be more familiar with Nathaniel Rich’s historic New York Times Magazine story from this summer, Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change, than with this epic piece on dirt that came out back in April, but Moises Velasquez-Manoff literally redefined on-the-ground reporting — on soil itself. This story helped me dust off all of my murky grade school memories of nutrient cycles while teaching me anew why these basic, natural processes are so relevant to every sustainable challenge we face. Maybe I’m just a fan of solarpunk, but I love reading about known, practical mitigation methods that are worth doing anyway, even past all of our many missed opportunities and catastrophic points of no return. Carbon farming may not be enough, but what it can do might still be miraculous. Stories that neither sugarcoat real options nor deny that any exist at least give us some time back — if not enough for a full second chance, then enough to do something more meaningful, ultimately, than wait.
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Read all the categories in our Best of 2018 year-end collection.