Strong Silent Types: Evil Robots and Their Way with Words

The best writing about technology that I read in 2013

So it's come to this. A list post at themachinestarts.com. Well, I see no problem with celebrating truly fantastic writing from some of my favourite publications scattered far and wide across the web.

I read quite a lot in 2013. All of the articles listed below came to me via Pocket, an app I use pretty much every day. I read these pieces on public transport, waiting for planes, in queues for something, and at home.

The pieces I've chosen to highlight here are all ones which, for one reason or another, made me go, "yeah, this is great." (They're listed roughly in the order I read them, first to last, by the way). It's by no means a comprehensive selection, just a reasonably representative one. Have a look and - do yourself a favour - read them.

 

1. FFFFFUUUUUUU: Rage Comics and Communal Cyber-Authorship
By Patrick Carroll @ The American Reader
Disclaimer: I read this in January, but it may have been published before then. Unfortunately, there is no timestamp on the article! But it deserves inclusion here for being a brilliant assessment of the ffffuuuuuuu rage meme and its origins within weirdo web comics.

2. For Amusement Only: The Life and Death of the American Arcade
By Laura June @ The Verge
The facts and anecdotes that bubble up in this piece are fascinating. It turns out that the history of video game arcades is tightly bound to the pinball halls of early/mid 20th Century America.

3. The Web-Deprived Study at McDonald's
By Anton Troianovski @ Wall Street Journal
Nothing has captured how Internet access can be a litmus test for economic disparity better than this piece, in my opinion. It gets not just at the gap in broadband provision across the USA, but the reasons why that's a real problem - for real people.

4. The Incredible Rise and Fall of a Hacker Who Found the Secrets of the Next Xbox and Playstation - and Maybe More
By Stephen Totilo @ Kotaku
You might have to take this one with a little pinch of salt, but it's worth it. This is a brilliantly told story about a mysterious figure and the possibility that he got access to some of the hottest video game news of the year.

5. How "Golden Eagle Snatches Kid" Ruled the Internet
By Chris Stokel-Walker @ BuzzFeed
There is not only a fascinating tale behind the creation of this hugely viral super hoax, but all kinds of things to say about how and why people on the Internet reacted to that hoax the way they did.

6. Toward a Complex, Realistic, and Moral Tech Criticism
By Alexis Madrigal @ The Atlantic
Evgeny Morozov published a book this year. Many people wrote reviews of it. This was my favourite for being the most balanced and, perhaps, the most thorough that I found.

7. Materiality Matters: Confronting Digital Dualism with a Theory of Co-Affordances
By PJ Rey @ Cyborgology
Having grown somewhat weary of posts about digital dualism, this piece offered a fascinating new avenue for discussion which I hope Rey will explore further in the future. Suddenly responses to contrasting media can be understood as mutually reinforcing. This will change the way you think about "digital versus print" forever.

"This will change the way you think about 'digital versus print' forever"

8. Weird Twitter: The Oral History
By John Herrman and Kate Notopoulos @ BuzzFeed
Sneered at by some of the weirdoratti, this article was nonetheless a rich, sprawling delight that made an admirable effort at getting inside the strange culture of what is sometimes referred to as "Weird Twitter". Proponents of weird tweets, right up to the legendary @dril, laid their thoughts bare.

9. We know when Dzhokhar Tsarnaev Sleeps
By Zachary M. Seward, Leo Mirani and Ritchie King @ Quartz
In the difficult aftermath of the Boston Bombings, attention focused on alleged bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. This piece was brilliant and, I thought, moving in demonstrating just how little we can truly understand about people involved in catastrophic events, despite the data about themselves that they may make public to the world.

10. An Interview with Computing Pioneer Alan Kay
By David Greelish @ Time
It's difficult to imagine greater visionaries in the history of personal computing than Alan Kay. This interview is sort of a demonstration why. The sheer reach and depth of his knowledge, and the detail he includes in his answers, is mind-blowing.

11. Europe Honours LCD Screen Pioneer Martin Schadt
By Leo Kelion @ BBC News
This little article really struck me as brilliantly researched and truly enlightening in providing a potted history of LCD screens and their significance to modern computing.

12. Frank Ahearn: The "Digital Hit Man" Who Can Help You Disappear
By Ian Steadman @ Wired.co.uk
This guy knows his shit. A shortish interview, but it really made me think about the identifying details lying within all the little bits of technology we each rely on daily, and never even think about.

13. The Teenage Radio Enthusiasts Who Helped Win World War II
By Katia Moskvitch @ BBC News
This is as British a wartime tech story as it gets. During the Second World War, the UK relied on all kinds of home grown talent with special skills to aid the war effort - and teenagers who could listen in to enemy radio broadcasts were bloody useful, apparently.

"teenagers who could listen in to enemy radio broadcasts were bloody useful, apparently"

14. William Gibson on Burroughs, Sterling, Dick, Libraries, The Uncanny, The Web
By Brent Cox @ The Awl
Gibson's New York Public Library appearance back in April sounds like it was a blast. This write-up gathers all the best details and focuses on Gibson's comments about literary influence and, excitingly for me, his coinage of the term "cyberspace". (If you like this, check out the phenomenal interview with Gibson published in The Paris Review in 2011).

15. Computer Visionary Who Invented the Mouse
By John Markoff @ The New York Times
One of computing history's greats left us in 2013. This obituary of Douglas C Engelbart is very well written and captures his contribution to technology as we now know it.

16. Cracking Suicide: Hackers try to Engineer a Cure for Depression
By Adrienne Jeffries @ The Verge
You hear the word "hacker" and you probably don't think about "depression" - but hackers are human and they can suffer from mental illness just like the rest of us. This was an unusual and thought-provoking feature about the shattering impact of suicide within the hacker community.

17. Rencon: a "Turing Test for Musical Expression"
By Olivia Solon @ Wired.co.uk
So your computer can talk to you, but can it sing - or play a piano - with real human expression? The people behind Rencon are constantly trying to find out. I really loved the detail in this piece on how computer performers are assessed for human-ness.

18. I am an Object of Internet Ridicule, Ask me Anything
C. D. Hermelin @ The Awl
Hermelin felt the full, violent force of Internet scorn this year after being identified - and hated - as a so-called "hipster". In this great piece he reveals the truth behind the stereotype so many leaped to label him with.

19. Confessions of a Drone Warrior
By Matthew Power @ GQ
A candidate for the best technology related feature of 2013 in my view, this incredible piece by Matthew Power relates the experiences of Brandan Bryant. Bryant spent years as a top weapons targeting co-pilot fighting in America's secretive drone war.

"Bryant spent years as a top weapons targeting co-pilot fighting in America's secretive drone war"

20. An Introduction to a Small Part of the United States' Domestic Surveillance
By Adam Rothstein @ The State
If you want some historical context for spying on American citizens by American intelligence agencies, this is where you should start.

21. Maker of Animated GIFs Waits for Offbeat Moments
By Sarah Lyall @ The New York Times
A breezy news section headline belies the colour and detail of this piece about a guy who is perhaps the most dedicated, prolific and successful creator of sports GIFs the world has ever known.

22. Oregon Trail: How Three Minnesotans Forged its Path
By Jessica Lussenhop @ City Pages
Another trip down memory lane, but it's a real good 'un. The Oregon Trail is to educational video games what Wimbledon is to tennis - the pièce de résistance. This is the story of how, on a whim, The Oregon Trail got made and then took over America.

23. I Challenged Hackers to Investigate me and What They Found out is Chilling
By Adam L. Penenberg @ Pando Daily
I loved this piece because it wasn't a freak-out. The hackers, actually, had a pretty hard time creeping into Penenberg's life. But eventually they got there. And what gets revealed about our personal security along the way is worth knowing - and thinking - about. The security firm Penenberg hired later did a fantastic three-part series of blog posts on the whole thing.

24. The Hunt for one of Gaming's Most Mythical Creatures
By Simon Parkin @ The New Yorker
Bigfoot may or may not exist in Grand Theft Auto? And there is a whole cult around trying to find him? Yup. This is fantastic.

25. "I'm the Original Voice of Siri"
By Jessica Ravitz @ CNN
There was a lot of stuff written about Siri's voice this year, but I liked this piece the most. It turns out that Susan Bennett has a long career in lending her voice to machines - from ATMs to telephone call menus. But Siri, she soon realised, was a whole different story.

 

That should have your reading list nice and plump for the holidays, shouldn't it? I do hope you get a chance to check some of these out. 

Oh, and have a Happy Christmas! Don't worry, The Machine Starts will be back in 2014. It's going to be a big year and I can't wait to get started.

Stay connected ;)

 

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