The Best Technology Writing 2010

The Best Technology Writing 2010

Julian Dibbell Editor
Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    The Best Technology Writing 2010
    Book Description:

    The iPad. The Kindle. Twitter. When the Best Technology Writing series was inaugurated in 2005, these technologies did not exist. Now they define our 21st-century lives. As Julian Dibbell writes in his introduction toThe Best Technology Writing 2010,"The digital is us. Yet for that reason, it is also something more, a lightning rod for our feelings about technology in general." Whether it is Sam Anderson's giddy but troubled defense of online distractions, David Carr's full-throated elegy to the dying world of pre-digital publishing, Steven Johnson's warm appreciation of Twitter's bite-size contributions to collective human intelligence, or Evan Ratliff's fascinating month-long quest to disappear without a digital trace, many of the essays gathered here register our intense and complicated fascination with digital media. But as Dibbell notes, these essays also remind us that some of the most disruptive and fascinating technologies continue to come from beyond the digital world. Jill Lepore's writing on the politics of breast-feeding gadgetry, Stephen Silberman's investigation of the placebo effect in pharmaceutical testing, Burkhard Bilger reporting on efforts to build a better cook stove for the developing world, and Tad Friend's profile of electric-car developer Elon Musk's efforts to head off environmental catastrophe all invite us to reflect on how many aspects of human experience remain fundamentally unchanged by digital technology.

    Packed with marvelous essays on technologies old and new,The Best Technology Writing 2010is an outstanding addition to this "fantastic" (Cory Doctorow), "fascinating" (Chris Anderson) series.

    The Best Technology Writing 2010includes essays written by:Sam AndersonBurkhard BilgerJoshua BearmanMark BowdenDavid CarrDouglas FoxTad FriendBen GreenmanVanessa GrigoriadisJames HarkinAdam HigginbothamAlex HutchinsonSteven JohnsonKevin KellyJill LeporeAlexis MadrigalJavier MariasMike MassiminoEvan RatliffDaniel RothClay ShirkySteve SilbermanAnnie TrubekLawrence Weschler

    eISBN: 978-0-300-16565-4
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-x)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)
    Julian Dibbell

    Dear reader: You hold in your hands a technology as transformative as any yet invented, and no, I don’t mean the Apple iPad or Amazon Kindle on which you may, for all I know, be reading these words. Nor for that matter do I mean the sort of content-delivery system you’re more likely looking at just now—the traditional ink-and-paper book, its familiar design essentially unchanged since the time of Augustine. No, what I am talking about is a technology to which the book, electronic or otherwise, has always been and always will be merely a peripheral device. I’m talking...

  4. Vanish
    (pp. 9-37)
    Evan Ratliff

    August 13, 6:40 pm: I’m driving East out of San Francisco on I-80, fleeing my life under the cover of dusk. Having come to the interstate by a circuitous route, full of quick turns and double backs, I’m reasonably sure that no one is following me. I keep checking the rearview mirror anyway. From this point on, there’s no such thing as sure. Being too sure will get me caught.

    I had intended to flee in broad daylight, but when you are going on the lam, there are a surprising number of last-minute errands to run. This morning, I picked...

  5. Why We Tweet
    (pp. 38-49)
    Steven Johnson

    The one thing you can say for certain about Twitter is that it makes a terrible first impression. You hear about this new service that lets you send 140-character updates to your “followers,” and you think, Why does the world need this, exactly? It’s not as if we were all sitting around four years ago scratching our heads and saying, “If only there were a technology that would allow me to send a message to my 50 friends, alerting them in real time about my choice of breakfast cereal.”

    I, too, was skeptical at first. I had met Evan Williams,...

  6. Baby Food
    (pp. 50-64)
    Jill Lepore

    There are some new rules governing what used to be called “mother’s milk,” or “breast milk,” including one about what to call it when it’s no longer in a mother’s breast. A term, then, nomenclatural: “expressed human milk” is milk that has been pressed, squeezed, or sucked out of a woman’s breast by hand or by machine and stored in a bottle or, for freezing, in a plastic bag secured with a twist tie. Matters, regulatory: Can a woman carry containers of her own milk on an airplane? Before the summer of 2007, not more than three ounces, because the...

  7. Thinking Machine
    (pp. 65-77)
    Douglas Fox

    Kwabena Boahen’s love affair with digital computers began and ended in 1981, when he was 16.

    Boahen lived outside the city of Accra in the West African nation of Ghana. His family’s sprawling block house stood in a quiet field of mango and banana trees. One afternoon Boahen’s father rolled down the driveway with a surprise in the trunk of his Peugeot: a RadioShack TRS-80—the family’s first computer—purchased in England.

    Young Boahen parked the machine at a desk on the porch, where he usually dismantled radios and built air guns out of PVC pipe. He plugged the computer...

  8. David Hockney’s iPhone Passion
    (pp. 78-83)
    Lawrence Weschler

    After two decades of regularly finding himself caught up in all sorts of seemingly extraneous side-passions (photocollages, operatic stage design, fax extravaganzas, homemade photocopier print runs, a controversial revisionist art-historical investigation, and a watercolor idyll), David Hockney, now age seventy-two, has finally taken to painting once again, doing so, over the past three or four years, with a vividness and a sheer productivity perhaps never before seen in his career. This recent body of work consists almost entirely of seasonal landscapes of the rolling hills, hedgerows, tree stands, valley wolds, and farm fields surrounding the somewhat déclassé onetime summer seaside...

  9. Airships
    (pp. 84-91)
    Javier Marías

    A few years ago, I wrote an article in which I confessed, in rather jocular fashion, to a fear of flying, even though—with no little show of courage—I board a plane about twenty times a year. I’m pleased to say that I now feel much more confident during flights, perhaps because I’ve grown used to it or perhaps, as the trail of years behind us grows, we become more scornful about our possible future life and more satisfied with the life we’ve already accumulated. However, over a period of at least twenty years, plane journeys—of fifty minutes,...

  10. Naked Truth
    (pp. 92-94)
    Ben Greenman

    Even the greatest art works can be revitalized by new technologies. As a result of carbon dating and infrared analysis, a painting once credited to an obscure nineteenth-century artist is believed to be a long-lost work of Leonardo da Vinci. This year’s Beatles remasters applied modern recording technology to the group’s iconic albums. And then there’s the epiphanic experience of watchingRoad House, the 1989 bouncer/philosopher drama starring the late Patrick Swayze, on Blu-ray. Just ask Mr. Skin.

    Mr. Skin, also known as Jim McBride, has spent the past decade overseeing his popular Web site of the same name, which...

  11. Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable
    (pp. 95-104)
    Clay Shirky

    Back in 1993, the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain began investigating piracy of Dave Barry’s popular column, which was published by theMiami Heraldand syndicated widely. In the course of tracking down the sources of unlicensed distribution, they found many things, including the copying of his column to on usenet; a 2000-person strong mailing list also reading pirated versions; and a teenager in the Midwest who was doing some of the copying himself, because he loved Barry’s work so much he wanted everybody to be able to read it.

    One of the people I was hanging around with online back...

  12. Do You Own Facebook? Or Does Facebook Own You?
    (pp. 105-123)
    Vanessa Grigoriadis

    Let’s begin with a typical parable of life in the era of web 2.0. On Presidents’ Day, Julius Harper turned on his computer at 9 a.m. This was later than usual, but he had the day off from his job as a video-game producer in Los Angeles. He began his daily “blog check”—Digg, Reddit, “anything interesting, disasters, plane crashes”—before turning to a post on the Consumerist, a consumer-advocacy blog, about the finer points of user privacy on “Facebook’s New Terms of Service: ‘We Can Do Anything We Want With Your Content. Forever,’” it read. “Facebook’s terms of...

  13. The Answer Factory
    (pp. 124-136)
    Daniel Roth

    Christian Muñoz-Donoso is going to make this job pay, he’s got to move quickly. He has a list of 10 videos to shoot on this warm June morning, for which he’ll earn just $200. To get anything close to his usual rate, he’ll have to do it all in two hours. As he sets up his three video cameras on the rocky shore of a man-made lake in Huntington, Massachusetts, he thinks about the way things used to be. He once spent two weeks in a bird blind in his native Chile to capture striking footage of a rarely seen...

  14. Hearth Surgery
    (pp. 137-164)
    Burkhard Bilger

    Two men walked into a bar called the Axe and Fiddle. It was a Thursday night in early August, in the town of Cottage Grove, Oregon, and the house was full. The men ordered drinks and a vegetarian Reuben and made their way to the only seats left, near a small stage at the back. The taller of the two, Dale Andreatta, had clear blue eyes and a long, columnar head crowned with gray hair. He was wearing a pleated kilt, festooned with pockets and loops for power tools, and spoke in a loud, unmodulated voice, like a clever robot....

  15. The Inkjet Counterfeiter
    (pp. 165-173)
    Adam Higginbotham

    Behind an anonymous-looking door on the fifth floor of the United States Secret Service headquarters, on H Street in Washington DC, is a small, windowless room known by the agents who work there as “the specimen vault.” Lining the walls are dozens of filing cabinets filled with narrow steel drawers, containing scores of transparent plastic sleeves. In each sleeve is an individual note of US currency—a single, five, ten, 20, 50 or 100. The face value of the cash runs to millions of dollars. But the money in the drawers is worthless.

    The specimen vault is the reference library...

  16. Handwriting Is History
    (pp. 174-185)
    Anne Trubek

    At 11 p.m. on Dec. 27, I checked my inbox out of habit. I had 581 new e-mails. All had been sent between 8 and 11 p.m. The days between Christmas and New Year’s are not usually a busy time for e-mailing. What was going on?

    It turns out that the home page for had linked to a short article I had published a year earlier. In the article, I argue that we should stop teaching cursive in primary schools and provide some background on the history of handwriting to back up my claims.

    The comments on my piece...

  17. In Defense of Distraction
    (pp. 186-205)
    Sam Anderson

    I’m going to pause here, right at the beginning of my riveting article about attention, and ask you to please get all of your precious 21st-century distractions out of your system now. Check the score of the Mets game; text your sister that pun you just thought of about her roommate’s new pet lizard (“iguana hold yr hand LOL get it like Beatles”); refresh your work e-mail, your home e-mail, your school e-mail; upload pictures of yourself reading this paragraph to your “me reading magazine articles” Flickr photostream; and alert the fellow citizens of whatever Twittertopia you happen to frequent...

  18. A Crime of Shadows
    (pp. 206-238)
    Mark Bowden

    Detective Michele Deery works in a cubicle in the basement of the Delaware County courthouse, in Media, Pennsylvania. The only window is high on the wall, over a tall filing cabinet, and opens into a well, below ground level. The space feels like a cave, which has always struck Deery as about right, because her job is to talk dirty online to strange men.

    Deery seems altogether too wholesome for the work. She has athletic good looks, with tawny skin, big brown eyes, and long straight brown hair that falls over her shoulders. Her parents sent her to Catholic schools,...

  19. Global Impositioning Systems
    (pp. 239-252)
    Alex Hutchinson

    When Alison Kendall’s boss told her in 2007 that her civil service job was being transferred to a different building in another part of Vancouver, she panicked. Commuting to a new office would be no big deal for most people, she knew. But Kendall might well have the worst sense of direction in the world. For as long as she can remember, she has been unable to perform even the simplest navigational tasks. She needed a family member to escort her to and from school right through the end of grade twelve, and is still able to produce only a...

  20. Plugged In
    (pp. 253-273)
    Tad Friend

    In a dressing room above theLate Show with David Lettermanstage, the electric-car magnate Elon Musk sat on a sofa, eating cookies. Three of his employees hovered around him anxiously. Musk, thirty-eight, is the chairman, C.E.O., and product architect of Tesla Motors, and he was appearing on Letterman to show off the company’s newest design: a sleek sedan called the Model S. Tesla plans to have the vehicle in production by 2011—at which point, if you believe Musk, gasoline-powered cars will suddenly look like oxcarts.

    On this April day, he was wearing black half-boots and a gray hacking...

  21. Caught in the Net
    (pp. 274-283)
    James Harkin

    Thursday 26 March 2009, day 66 of Barack Obama’s presidency, may be remembered as the moment at which his clean-living administration went to pot. The occasion was the launch of Obama’s online town hall, Open for Questions, designed to build on the momentum of his net-fuelled campaign by inviting ordinary Americans to pose questions directly to their new leader. The idea was touted in advance on the White House website, and 92,000 people rolled up online to speak directly to the president.

    When the roster of questions bubbled up to the president’s monitor at the press conference, however, most were...

  22. Telegraphs Ran on Electric Air in Crazy 1859 Magnetic Storm
    (pp. 284-288)
    Alexis Madrigal

    On Sept. 2, 1859, at the telegraph office at No. 31 State Street in Boston at 9:30 a.m., the operators’ lines were overflowing with current, so they unplugged the batteries connected to their machines, and kept working using just the electricity coursing through the air.

    In the wee hours of that night, the most brilliant auroras ever recorded had broken out across the skies of the Earth. People in Havana and Florida reported seeing them.The New York Timesran a 3,000 word feature recording the colorful event in purple prose.

    “With this a beautiful tint of pink finally mingled....

  23. Technophilia
    (pp. 289-301)
    Kevin Kelly

    An acquaintance of mine has a teenage daughter. Like most teens in this century she spends her day texting her friends, abbreviating her life into 140 character hints, flinging these haikus out to an invisible clan of mutual texters. It’s an always-on job, this endless encapsulation of the moment. During dinner, while walking, on the toilet, lounging in bed, or in any state of wakefulness, to chat is to live. Like all teens, my friend’s daughter tested the limits of her parents’ restrictions. For some infraction or another, they grounded her. And to reinforce the seriousness of her misconduct, they...

  24. Can D.I.Y. Supplant the First-Person Shooter?
    (pp. 302-312)
    Joshuah Bearman

    The face of the enemy flashed across a 20-foot screen. “That’s right,” Jason Rohrer announced. “It’s Roger Ebert.” There were a few boos, as several hundred people stirred in their seats. The film critic’s cherubic face stared at the audience. “Ebert said video games can’t be art,” Rohrer said. “He issued all of us a direct challenge. And we need to find an answer.”

    Rohrer was addressing the Game Developers Conference, one of his industry’s premier trade events. Each spring, the conference convenes in San Francisco, and among the tens of thousands of people who attend is a burgeoning fringe...

  25. The Placebo Problem
    (pp. 313-327)
    Steve Silberman

    Merck was in trouble. In 2002, the pharmaceutical giant was falling behind its rivals in sales. Even worse, patents on five blockbuster drugs were about to expire, which would allow cheaper generics to flood the market. The company hadn’t introduced a truly new product in three years, and its stock price was plummeting.

    In interviews with the press, Edward Scolnick, Merck’s research director, laid out his battle plan to restore the firm to preeminence. Key to his strategy was expanding the company’s reach into the antidepressant market, where Merck had lagged while competitors like Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline created some of...

  26. The Fall and Rise of Media
    (pp. 328-331)
    David Carr

    Historically, young women and men who sought to thrive in publishing made their way to Manhattan. Once there, they were told, they would work in marginal jobs for indifferent bosses doing mundane tasks and then one day, if they did all of that without whimper or complaint, they would magically be granted access to a gilded community, the large heaving engine of books, magazines and newspapers.

    Beyond that, all it took to find a place to stand on a very crowded island, as E. B. White suggested, was a willingness to be lucky. Once inside that velvet rope, they would...

  27. Tweet from Space
    (pp. 332-332)
    Michael James Massimino

    From orbit: Listening to Sting on my ipod watching the world go by—literally...

  28. About the Contributors
    (pp. 333-336)
  29. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 337-338)