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The 25 best reads on the web this year

The 25 best reads on the web this year


2012's essential writing on tech, art, science, and culture

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Each week here at The Verge, we round up some of the best writing around the web, highlighting the stories, profiles, interviews, and in-depth reporting that rise above the daily churn. And, like last year, we’re taking a look back at the entire year's best non-fiction writing on technology, art, science, and culture. We've narrowed it down (ha!) to 25 essential reads from Gawker, London Review of Books, The New Yorker, The New Inquiry, and many more.

The Stranger: Cienna Madrid - The lying disease

But Alex swears that she didn’t start blogging in November 2010 with the intention of lying about cancer, AIDS, and rape, or manipulating her friends into changing her adult diapers (yes, that happened). The deception began with an opaque post here and there. "Oh I’m sick again" posts, as Alex calls them. "No one paid attention until I started full-time illness blogging." So in April 2011, she ordered two wheelchairs, oxygen tanks, face masks, some veterinary IV tubing, and other medical equipment from She also cut her hair off and told her IRL best friend that she had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She reasoned that this would help validate her story.

The New Inquiry: Nathan Jurgenson - IRL Fetish

But this idea that we are trading the offline for the online, though it dominates how we think of the digital and the physical, is myopic. It fails to capture the plain fact that our lived reality is the result of the constant interpenetration of the online and offline. That is, we live in an augmented reality that exists at the intersection of materiality and information, physicality and digitality, bodies and technology, atoms and bits, the off and the online. It is wrong to say "IRL" to mean offline: Facebook is real life.

Popular Science: Dan Baum - No Pulse: How Doctors Reinvented The Human Heart

To understand why they still haven’t succeeded, pick up a two-pound barbell and start curling it. Two pounds: nothing. But see how long you can keep it up. Twenty minutes? An hour? Two? Your heart does that all day and all night—35 million beats a year—for as long as you live, without ever taking a rest. Manufacturing a metal and plastic heart capable of beating that way for more than about 18 months has so far proved impossible.

Playboy: Carl Zimmer - King of the Cosmos (A Profile of Neil deGrasse Tyson)

When you add up the missing gravity or the missing cause of the gravity to this mysterious dark energy, it is ninety six percent of the universe." "That’s a lot," Henry says. "Everything we know and love—electrons, protons, neutrons, light, black holes, planets, stars, everything we know and understand—occupies four percent of the universe. Dark matter and dark energy is everything else. So we’re just dumb—stupid about what’s driving this cosmos

Gizmodo: Mat Honan - How Yahoo killed Flickr and lost the internet

It was a stunning failure in vision, and more or less the same thing happened at Flickr. All Yahoo cared about was the database its users had built and tagged. It didn’t care about the community that had created it or (more importantly) continuing to grow that community by introducing new features.

The New Inquiry: Matt Pearce - Shoot hip or die

Actually, it’s a coup; you no longer need high-altitude software like Photoshop like I did, no longer need expensive hardware to crash photography’s beauty party. This is the final stage of a revolution, the democratization of what used to be professional photography, and its hippest, most boring propagandists use Hipstamatic and Instagram. Never before have we so rampantly exercised the ability to capture the way the world really looks and then so gorgeously disfigured it.

Gawker: Adrian Chen - Unmasking Reddit’s Violentacrez, The Biggest Troll on the Web

Last Wednesday afternoon I called Michael Brutsch. He was at the office of the Texas financial services company where he works as a programmer and he was having a bad day. I had just told him, on Gchat, that I had uncovered his identity as the notorious internet troll Violentacrez (pronounced Violent-Acres). “It’s amazing how much you can sweat in a 60 degree office,” he said with a nervous laugh.

The Awl: Bethlehem Shoals - The Condition: Chronic Self-Disclosure

Instead of the internet working against our real lives in provocative ways, it became an extension of them. The looking glass was now a mirror; instead of reinventing us, the web simply provided more of us to the world, and more ways to take advantage of the world around us. We speak of Yelping and checking in on 4Square as if these were activities, when they are simply the day-to-day cataloguing of our lives—or, even worse, a grimly detached version of modern life in which we aspire to be ourselves. Mediation presents itself as a friendly tool when in fact it creates distance between us and the ordinary.

The Atlantic: Alexis Madrigal - How Google Builds Its Maps—and What It Means for the Future of Everything

It’s common when we discuss the future of maps to reference the Borgesian dream of a 1:1 map of the entire world. It seems like a ridiculous notion that we would need a complete representation of the world when we already have the world itself. But to take scholar Nathan Jurgenson’s conception of augmented reality seriously, we would have to believe that every physical space is, in his words, “interpenetrated” with information. All physical spaces already are also informational spaces. We humans all hold a Borgesian map in our heads of the places we know and we use it to navigate and compute physical space. Google’s strategy is to bring all our mental maps together and process them into accessible, useful forms.

The Believer - Meghan Daum - Haterade

This is by now an old gripe in journalism circles, many members of which will point out that the last word on the matter could well have been said three years ago when the Onion published its fake news story "Local Idiot to Post Comment on Internet." But if three years ago the phenomenon felt like a wave that was about to crest and then surely dissipate into a vague memory of some fleeting, anarchic period in the history of the internet ("Remember back in 2008 when only idiots posted comments?" we imagined ourselves chortling one day), it feels today like the disease-ridden aftermath of a flood. Ugly commentary doesn’t just litter the internet, it infects it.

London Review of Books: Emily Witt - Diary

Like most people I had started internet dating out of loneliness. I soon discovered, as most do, that it can only speed up the rate and increase the number of encounters with other single people, where each encounter is still a chance encounter. Internet dating destroyed my sense of myself as someone I both know and understand and can also put into words. It had a similarly harmful effect on my sense that other people can accurately know and describe themselves. It left me irritated with the whole field of psychology.

Buzzfeed: Maria Bustillos - How VCs Turned My Startup Into A Nightmare

Quite commonly VCs will fund a startup and then they will commence to spend the money themselves at a furious rate. That way you will need more and more, and be forever beholden as your equity melts down to nothing. Very few startups have made it through that gauntlet unscathed. In an ideal startup, every bit of equity would stay in ironclad hands. (Even Craig Newmark, by far one of the smartest and best Internet entrepreneurs in history, ran into trouble when a partner insisted on selling out his stake to the dreaded eBay, resulting in a poisonous relationship that is still being litigated to this day.)

domus: Dan Hill - In praise of lost time

Ironically, we may get little sense of perspective when presented with an endless Timeline of memories. Without forgetting, we are compelled to live in the past, to feel the weight of memories obscuring our ability to live in the present, to act. (This is almost a rear-view mirror of British philosopher John Grey’s critique of our obsession with the future. Perhaps both are “failing to cherish the present — the only time that is truly our own.”)

The New Yorker: Raffi Khatchadourian - Operation Delirium

To demonstrate the effects of VX, he was known to dip his finger in a beaker containing the lethal agent, then rub it on the back of a shaved rabbit; as the animal convulsed and died, he would casually walk across the room and bathe his finger in a Martini to wash off the VX.

Wired: Jerry Adler - Raging Bulls: How Wall Street Got Addicted to Light-Speed Trading

Human beings who make investment decisions based on their assessment of the economy and on the prospects for individual companies are retreating. Computers—acting on computer-generated market trend data and even newsfeeds, communicating only with one another—have taken up the slack. Conventional economics views all this as an unalloyed good: It is axiomatic that all trades are a net benefit to the economy because they enhance "liquidity," the ability of investors to buy or sell assets at the best price. Indeed, in 2007 the SEC instituted an ambitious new rule, the national market system, that opened the door to dozens of new venues for stock trading, but now that transaction times are measured in microseconds and prices are carried out to six decimal places, those opportunities have arguably gone past a point of diminishing returns.

Hipster Runoff: Carles - How Indie Finally OFFICIALLY Died: The Broken Indie Machine.

It is hard for me to ‘get legitimately excited’ about new bands because they aren’t really allowed to play by their own rules. They have to play by the rules of the large content farms, as dictated by a publicist who will ‘get them on’ a series of websites that allegedly craft their identity. Sure, some bands tour hard, winning over fans, and that will always probably be more important than ‘the internet.’ But the blogosphere used to be a place that could help artists, now it just boringly boxes them up in a content-farmmy way that might be more detrimental than the ‘old, boring magazines’ that we used to complain about.

The New York Times: Tim Kreider- The ‘Busy’ Trap

Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day. I once knew a woman who interned at a magazine where she wasn’t allowed to take lunch hours out, lest she be urgently needed for some reason. This was an entertainment magazine whose raison d’être was obviated when "menu" buttons appeared on remotes, so it’s hard to see this pretense of indispensability as anything other than a form of institutional self-delusion.

Entertainment Weekly: Film Crit Hulk - RIAN JOHNSON OPENS THE LOOP


CJR: Michael Shapiro - Six degrees of aggregation: How The Huffington Post ate the Internet

The ethos of the HuffPost newsroom was winning the Google search. "That," says a former employee, "was the thrill." Not the origination of the content, but the dissemination. Huffington Post, they understood, was not an enterprise whose core purpose was the creation of works of journalism—as significant or mundane as that can be. It was in the content business, which created all sorts of possibilities of what it could gather and, with a new headline and assorted tags, send back out, HuffPost’s logo affixed.

The Nation: Tim Wasserman - The Amazon Effect

How the Digital Age might alter attention spans and perhaps even how we tell one another stories is a subject of considerable angst. The history of writing, however, gives us every reason to be confident that new forms of literary excellence will emerge, every bit as rigorous, pleasurable and enduring as the vaunted forms of yesteryear. Perhaps the discipline of tapping 140 characters on Twitter will one day give rise to a form as admirable and elegant as haiku was in its day. Perhaps the interactive features of graphic display and video interpolation, hyperlinks and the simultaneous display of multiple panels made possible by the World Wide Web will prompt new and compelling ways of telling one another the stories our species seems biologically programmed to tell. Perhaps all this will add to the rich storehouse of an evolving literature whose contours we have only begun to glimpse, much less to imagine.

New York: Benjamin Wallace - Those Fabulous Confabs

Until recently, the universal self-­actualizing creative ambition was to write a novel. Everyone has a novel in them, it was said. Now the fantasy has changed: Everyone has a TED Talk in them. There are people on YouTube who upload webcammed soliloquies about whatever and title them things like "My TED Talk." There’s now even a genre of meta–TED Talks.

The New Republic: Evgeny Morozov - Form and Fortune

Likewise, a conventional technology company might be reluctant to launch a tablet computer that would compete with its own profitable line of laptops and desktops. But Apple defied such conventions. It has consistently been taking risks—internecine risks, competing against itself. Not only does it introduce products that vie with each other, but it is not afraid to say so: one of the first ads for the iPhone noted that "there has never been an iPod that can do this."Apple’s reasoning seemed to be that, while sales cannibalization may eat into short-term profits, it is not the worst thing that can happen to a great company. Whatever it may lose in sales, the company would gain in innovation—that is, its designers and engineers would never get a chance to slack off—and in branding: that is, new products(released with impeccable regularity) would guarantee regular press coverage and produce an even stronger association of its brand with progress and innovation.

The Baffler: Alex Pareene - Come On, Feel the Buzz

In debuting a minute-by-minute chronicle of the permanent campaign by, for, and about terminal Hill insiders, VandeHei and Harris went all in on the enabling fiction that the seamiest features of human nature—which would find full expression in Politico’s quest to discredit rivals, to distort simple political aims and ideas with drive-by caricatures, and to float personality-based digital memes across the gossip-driven agoras of social media—were themselves somehow news, and therefore newsworthy.

Pitchfork: Simon Reynolds - Resident Visitor: Laurie Spiegel’s Machine Music

“In a low information lifestyle, the ratio between incoming stuff and time spent processing inputs was completely different to how it is today. When I was a kid, I didn’t watch much TV. For a long while, until I saved up and bought myself a transistor, I didn’t have control of a radio. So I spent a lot of time thinking. Now we get very little time to synthesize and process relative to the amount of information coming in to us. That’s a major cognitive change in terms of how people experience life.”

Modern Luxury: David Talbot - How Much Tech Can One City Take?

In light of this, the time has come for a serious reckoning—for Mayor Lee, for the tech cognoscenti, and for the rest of the populace. In short, do we wish to be a city of enlightenment, or a city of apps? Many of those who have lived in San Francisco the longest and care for it the most are worried that their charmed oasis is becoming a dangerously one-dimensional company town—a techie’s Los Angeles, a VC’s D.C. If San Francisco is swallowed whole by the digital elite, many city lovers fear, the once-lush urban landscape will become as flat as a computer screen.

And if you prefer, grab all these pieces in a Readlist.