The Best Tech Writing of 2010

Writing, whether it appeared in print or on a blog, was dissected, critiqued, relinked and shared faster than ever in 2010. Just take a look at the recent arguments on the Lamo/Manning Wikileaks chat logs between Salon's Glenn Greenwald and Wired's Kevin Poulsen that have spilled out from traditional columns to Twitter and back again. A New Yorker article from Malcolm Gladwell kicked off an Internet-wide debate on the efficacy of social activism through social networking, and discussion of the Internet's attack on our and ever-dwindling attention spans raged all year long. We took a look back at this year's most notable, controversial and challenging tech articles, picked some of our favorites and broke down the rest by privacy, entertainment, life and the Web, Web culture, people, business and gadgets. Fire up Instapaper or your favorite reading app and enjoy!

Top 15

Zadie Smith - Generation Why - The New York Review of Books
From the opening scene it's clear that this is a movie about 2.0 people made by 1.0 people (Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher, forty-nine and forty-eight respectively). It's a talkie, for goodness' sake, with as many words per minute as His Girl Friday. A boy, Mark, and his girl, Erica, sit at a little table in a Harvard bar, zinging each other, in that relentless Sorkin style made famous by The West Wing (though at no point does either party say "Walk with me"-for this we should be grateful).
Gladwell - Why the Revolution Will Not be Tweeted - The New Yorker
Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice. We are a long way from the lunch counters of Greensboro.
William Gibson - Google's Earth - New York Times
We never imagined that artificial intelligence would be like this. We imagined discrete entities. Genies. We also seldom imagined (in spite of ample evidence) that emergent technologies would leave legislation in the dust, yet they do. In a world characterized by technologically driven change, we necessarily legislate after the fact, perpetually scrambling to catch up, while the core architectures of the future, increasingly, are erected by entities like Google.
James Verini - The Great Cyberheist - New York Times
Gonzalez was debriefed and soon found to be a rare catch. Not only did he have data on millions of card accounts stored on the computer back in his New Jersey apartment, but he also had a knack for patiently explaining his expertise in online card fraud. As one former Secret Service agent told me, Gonzalez was extremely intelligent. "He knew computers. He knew fraud. He was good."
Glenn Greenwald - The Strange and Consequential Case of Bradley Manning, Adrian Lamo and WikiLeaks - Salon
A definitive understanding of what really happened is virtually impossible to acquire, largely because almost everything that is known comes from a single, extremely untrustworthy source: Lamo himself.
Jaron Lanier - The Hazards of Nerd Supremacy: The Case of WikiLeaks - The Atlantic
Julian Assange, in defending his actions sees a vindicating contradiction in this difference: How can information be both dangerous and inconsequential, he asks? He sees information as an abstract free-standing thing, so to him, differences in perspective and circumstance mean nothing. This is how nerd supremacists think.
Maria Bustillos - Wikileaks and the Dangers of Hubris - The Awl
A closer look at these matters brings us to the real value of WikiLeaks. Over and above their oft-stated goal of scaring the bejesus out of any would-be misbehaving varmints in power is an even simpler and more valuable message for the public: don't believe anything you read. No seriously, not one single thing.
Jeffrey Zeldman - Stop Chasing Followers -
Following doesn't mean paying attention. You don't want numbers on Twitter, not really. What you want is to follow and be followed by human beings who care about issues you care about.
Thompson - What is IBM's Watson? - The New York Times
This, Wolfram says, is the deep challenge of artificial intelligence: a lot of human knowledge isn't represented in words alone, and a computer won't learn that stuff just by encoding English language texts, as Watson does. The only way to program a computer to do this type of mathematical reasoning might be to do precisely what Ferrucci doesn't want to do - sit down and slowly teach it about the world, one fact at a time.
Paul Graham - The Acceleration of Addictiveness - Paul Graham
The next 40 years will bring us some wonderful things. I don't mean to imply they're all to be avoided. Alcohol is a dangerous drug, but I'd rather live in a world with wine than one without. Most people can coexist with alcohol; but you have to be careful. More things we like will mean more things we have to be careful about.
Matt Richtel - Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction - The New York Times
"Their brains are rewarded not for staying on task but for jumping to the next thing," said Michael Rich, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and executive director of the Center on Media and Child Health in Boston. And the effects could linger: "The worry is we're raising a generation of kids in front of screens whose brains are going to be wired differently."
Robin Sloan - Stock and Flow - Snarkmarket
I feel like flow is ascendant these days, for obvious reasons-but we neglect stock at our own peril. I mean that both in terms of the health of an audience and, like, the health of a soul. Flow is a treadmill, and you can't spend all of your time running on the treadmill. Well, you can. But then one day you'll get off and look around and go: Oh man. I've got nothing here.
Gary Kasparov - Chess Master and Computer - The New York Review of Books
At one point I realized that I was drifting into trouble in a game against one of the "Kasparov" brand models. If this machine scored a win or even a draw, people would be quick to say that I had thrown the game to get PR for the company, so I had to intensify my efforts. Eventually I found a way to trick the machine with a sacrifice it should have refused. From the human perspective, or at least from my perspective, those were the good old days of man vs. machine chess.
Ian Bogost - Cow Clicker: The Making of Obsession -
Even over the few days I spent developing Cow Clicker, I found myself watching people play, listening to feedback, and imagining changes. I "listened to my players" and made enhancements far beyond what was reasonable for a work of carpentry or a simple parody. It's hard for me to express the compulsion and self-loathing that have accompanied the apparently trivial creation of this little theory-cum-parody game.
Beepo the Dolphin - Do The New Tablets Own Up To The Hype? - The Onion
Without further ado, let's get to the 800-pound gorilla of the bunch, the iPad. The device's unimaginative name belies its sleek, creative design, which is everything we've come to expect from Apple. It's pretty to look at, and they've worked out a lot of the touch-screen kinks that plagued the iPhone and iPod Touch. It's also much smaller and lighter than a laptop, making it easy to tuck under a fin when you're swimming out the gate, and thanks to Apple's dominance in the smartphone field, there will be thousands of applications for it.


Tim Elfrink - Hack Pack - Miami New Times
He'd betrayed the Secret Service and cost U.S. companies and credit card users big money. TJX alone lost 46.5 million credit card numbers and spent more than $132 million paying back customers, fixing security flaws, and defending itself in lawsuits. Banks, retailers, and payroll companies racked up "hundreds of millions" in expenses, prosecutors said.
Nancy Scola - Washington's I.T. Guy - The American Prospect
Given Obama's reputation as a our most tech-savvy president to date, and one whose election was due, in part, to online organizing, Malamud is betting that he can get this administration to see the wisdom in open-source government. His success or failure will speak volumes about whether Washington will reap the benefits of the Internet age -- or whether the current celebration of technology culture will simply fade away.


Nathan Heller - Trench Coat, Unlit Cigar - Slate
The two feeds are co-written anonymously by former Observer staffers Peter Stevenson and Jim Windolf, and although their semi-private joke has lately started going public-the Village Voice not long ago alluded playfully to Wise and Cranky; New York Magazine's "approval matrix" dubbed the latter "brilliant" and "lowbrow"-the two accounts are still essentially undiscovered. They shouldn't be. Whether one has a table at Elaine's or a stool in the local dive bar (or both), the Kaplan dispatches offer one of the most entertaining and ambitious uses of Twitter yet.
Tom Bissell - Video games: the addiction - The Observer
Video games and cocaine feed on my impulsiveness, reinforce my love of solitude and make me feel good and bad in equal measure. The crucial difference is that I believe in what video games want to give me, while the bequest of cocaine is one I loathe. I do know that video games have enriched my life. Of that I have no doubt. They have also done damage to my life. Of that I have no doubt. I let this happen, of course; I even helped the process along. As for cocaine, it has been a long time since I last did it, but not as long as I would like.
Michael Heilemann - George Lucas Stole Chewbacca, But It's Okay - The Binary Bonsai
Chewbacca didn't spring to life out of nowhere, fully formed when Lucas saw his dog in the passenger seat of his car. That's the soundbite. A single step. The reality is complex and human. From vague names floating around, the kernel of an idea, changing purposes and roles of characters, major restructuring, the design hopping from person to person, scrapping the existing concept and going down a different path, seeing existing things in a different light and having to conform a range of ideas to complement and enrich one another.
Ricardo Gutierrez - How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Technology - The Atlantic
But seriously, the music industry was the first to get hit in the switch to digital, that I can think of. Everyone at the top resisted. They couldn't see their industry going away, not after windfalls a few years prior. Even the studios couldn't imagine that they wouldn't be needed as much, seeing as it took so much money to record an album. Technology changed that.

Web and Life

Gary Wolf - The Data-Driven Life - New York Times
Adler's idea that we can - and should - defend ourselves against the imposed generalities of official knowledge is typical of pioneering self-trackers, and it shows how closely the dream of a quantified self resembles therapeutic ideas of self-actualization, even as its methods are startlingly different.
Megan Garber - Clay Shirky's "Cognitive Surplus": Is creating and sharing always a more moral choice than consuming? - Neiman Journalism Lab
Is creating cultural products always more generous, more communally valuable, than consuming them? And why, in this context, would TV-watching be any different from that quintessentially introverted practice that is reading a book?
Nathan Schneider - In Defense of the Memory Theater - Open Letters Monthly
What concerns me about the literary apocalypse that everybody now expects-the at least partial elimination of paper books in favor of digital alternatives-is not chiefly the books themselves, but the bookshelf. My fear is for the eclectic, personal collections that we bookish people assemble over the course of our lives, as well as for their grander, public step-siblings. I fear for our memory theaters.
Alex Balk - Is The Internet Making Us All Crazy Or Just Me? - The Awl
This is not obviously something completely exclusive to the Internet. We've all had the experience of stepping out of a car and suddenly realizing, "Wait, I just drove all the way home and have no memory of doing it." But there's a very different feeling to this one; it's almost as if my brain is creating my own avatar and putting it in a space which lacks the constraints of time or much physical detail.
Alexis Madrigal - The Man Who First Said 'Cyborg,' 50 Years Later - The Atlantic
Here's the thing: For most of us, cyborg ends at the human-machine hybrid. The point of the cyborg is to be a cyborg; it's an end unto itself. But for Clynes, the interface between the organism and the technology was just a means, a way of enlarging the human experience. That knotty first definition? It ran under this section headline: "Cyborgs -- Frees Man to Explore." The cyborg was not less human, but more.
Steven Pinker - Mind Over Mass Media - New York Times
The new media have caught on for a reason. Knowledge is increasing exponentially; human brainpower and waking hours are not. Fortunately, the Internet and information technologies are helping us manage, search and retrieve our collective intellectual output at different scales, from Twitter and previews to e-books and online encyclopedias. Far from making us stupid, these technologies are the only things that will keep us smart.
Tom Meitzer - Social networking: Failure to connect - The Guardian
This love/hate relationship with social networking is widespread. Ablett's experiences echo those of many others who find they simply cannot live without Facebook. To sign off from its pages is to excise yourself from social groups and invitations, to vanish from friends' lives. So we get stuck in a vicious circle, compulsively checking each other's status updates and feeling alienated as a result.
Dan Ariely - Why online dating is so unsatisfying - BigThink
You have no time to create a social network. We work long hours, so it's really a system where we don't have time to find people for ourselves. It's taboo to date people at the work place, the social networks are weaker in the physical world. We move all the time and we don't have a yentl or parents to tell us what to do
Steve Lohr - Now Playing: Night of the Living Tech - The New York Times
Attention spans evolve and shorten, as even the most skilled media jugglers can attest. "I love the iPad," admits Mr. Negroponte, "but my ability to read any long-form narrative has more or less disappeared, as I am constantly tempted to check e-mail, look up words or click through." And people, every bit as much as technology, shape the churning media ecology.

Web Culture

Farhad Manjoo - YouTube vs. Der F├╝hrer - Slate
David King, a YouTube product manager, told me that the system can find extremely fuzzy matches. It can spot when a copyrighted video has been transformed in some way by an uploader-for instance, it can finger a basketball game even if you pause, rewind, and then replay a clip from it, and it can identify Eric Cartman if you record a clip of South Park by holding your camera up to your TV.
Olia Lialina - Prof. Dr. Style - Contemporary Home Computing
Primitivity tells us the story of the browser being not only a browser, but also an editor. Every user of the early web was a producer of web content. Web pages were to be opened in the browser to look at them, but also to edit them, using existing pages as templates for new pages. The simple design of HTML made it possible for the first users to create state of the art pages with only four to five principal tags. The result was an extremely fast growing web. There were not many options, this is why we got many pages.
Coupland - A radical pessimist's guide to the next 10 years - The Globe and Mail
In the same way you can never go backward to a slower computer, you can never go backward to a lessened state of connectedness


Jose Antonio Vargas - The Face of Facebook - The New Yorker
Zuckerberg's ultimate goal is to create, and dominate, a different kind of Internet. Google and other search engines may index the Web, but, he says, "most of the information that we care about is things that are in our heads, right? And that's not out there to be indexed, right?" Zuckerberg was in middle school when Google launched, and he seems to have a deep desire to build something that moves beyond it. "It's like hardwired into us in a deeper way: you really want to know what's going on with the people around you," he said.
Maureen Tkacik - Look at Me! - Columbia Journalism Review
What I'm talking about is, of course, a lot easier to do with the creative liberties afforded a blog-one's humanity is inescapable when one commits to blogging all day for a living. I don't think it's a coincidence that Andrew Sullivan, one of journalism's preeminent blogging brands, is one of very few journalists to have endured his own sordid sex scandal.
Robert Wright - Internet vs. Obama - The New York Times Opinionator
It's no exaggeration to say that technology has subverted the original idea of America. The founders explicitly rejected direct democracy - in which citizens vote on every issue - in favor of representative democracy. The idea was that legislators would convene at a safe remove from voters and, thus insulated from the din of narrow interests and widespread but ephemeral passions, do what was in the long-term interest of their constituents and of the nation. Now information technology has stripped away the insulation that physical distance provided back when information couldn't travel faster than a horse.
Frederik Balfour and Tim Culpan - The Man Who Makes Your iPhone - Bloomberg Businessweek
It actually wasn't until late May, after the ninth Foxconn employee had leaped to his death, that Foxconn went into full crisis management mode, stringing more than 3 million square meters of yellow-mesh netting around its buildings to catch jumpers and setting up a 24-hour counseling center staffed by 100 trained workers.
Thomas Goetz - Sergey Brin's Search for a Parkinson's Cure - Wired
In Brin's way of thinking, each of our lives is a potential contribution to scientific insight. We all go about our days, making choices, eating things, taking medications, doing things-generating what is inelegantly called data exhaust. A century ago, of course, it would have been impossible to actually capture this information, particularly without a specific hypothesis to guide a researcher in what to look for. Not so today. With contemporary computing power, that data can be tracked and analyzed. "Any experience that we have or drug that we may take, all those things are individual pieces of information," Brin says. "Individually, they're worthless, they're anecdotal. But taken together they can be very powerful."


Tony Hsieh - Why I Sold Zappos - Inc.
These ideas about the power of our company culture had yet to be proved. As I talked to Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, who visited our headquarters in 2005, I realized that to Amazon, we were just a leading shoe company. If we sold, we'd probably be folded into their operations, and our brand and culture would be at risk of disappearing. That was why we told Jeff that we weren't interested in selling at any price. I felt like we were just getting started.
Devin Friedman - The Viral Me - GQ
Is that all social media is doing? Playing psychological video games in ways that form habits and drive revenue for Internet companies? Ashvin says no. And he points to Quora as an example of why this isn't the case. Quora actually does make you feel optimistic. It's a thingy that is meant to harness the collective knowledge of all the smart people who use the Internet and get them to answer human questions and provide nuanced human answers.
Jeff Simmermon - We're Launching ESPN3 and Streaming ESPN Online On October 25th - untangled
[L]et's call this thing what it is. It's the mother of all value-adds to the biggest audience of all: the screwing-around-at-work network. The entire Internet economy is built on simultaneously enhancing and destroying workplace productivity, and now that's going to a WHOLE new level.

Gadgets and Tech

Joanna Stern - RIM seems to be as lost as my BlackBerry - Engadget
Which brings me up to today. With my Curve lost somewhere between my hotel and San Francisco airport, a major industry question suddenly became very personal: a year and a half after buying the 8530, was there really no solid smartphone option in the market from RIM? Obviously, I knew the answers to that question -- I'm a tech editor after all -- but it wasn't until I saw Lazaridis speak a day later that I saw the writing on the wall for me and the company: RIM doesn't have a competitive smartphone now, nor will it have one any time in the near future.
Marco Arment - Great since day one -
Neither Google nor the current Android device manufacturers embody the part of Apple's culture that allows them to release a great product on day one. They have a different pattern: It's always getting better. We're always supposedly one or two releases from it being really great.
Adam Greenfield - ultramapping - Speedbird
One relatively recent and very simple intervention, made possible by the lamination together of three or four different kinds of technology, has completely changed what a map is, what it means, what we can do with it. It's this: that for the very first time in human history, our maps tell us where we are on them.
Matt Jones - On the iPad - Icon
Take the best of what you understand of your readership and the decade or so that many magazines have spent on the internet and look to exploit the social technologies of the web, rather than run to present your content as an isolated recapitulation of a mid-1990s CD-ROM.
David Pogue - Looking at the iPad From Two Angles - The New York Times
The haters tend to be techies; the fans tend to be regular people. Therefore, no single write-up can serve both readerships adequately. There's but one solution: Write separate reviews for these two audiences.
Alexander Chee - I, Reader - The Morning News
A lover's e-reader just doesn't give off the same feeling of secrets and possible belonging in the way a bookshelf can. E-books will never be rare books or limited editions. It just isn't the point of an e-book.
Jane Hu - The Full Duplex Press: My Gmail Phone - The Awl
If soon we lose even the string of numbers that separates our abstract phone-identity from our physical selves, the phone will, once again, increase its pervasiveness and omnipresence. More and more, we move ourselves into an apparatus-a communication armor, owned and provided by corporations-that can send and receive messages at all times.
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