The end of the year is always a good time for a bit of introspection and self-reflection. It also seems right to pause to celebrate some of the high points from a challenging year.
We asked our writers and editors to look back over all the stories we published in 2021 and tell us which ones really stood out. Which stories did their colleagues publish that made them proud to work for MIT Technology Review? (And no, they weren’t allowed to choose their own.)
An edited version of the list runs below, but there was one story that our team kept coming back to as a touchstone for the kind of coverage that we do: Karen Hao’s investigation into Facebook.
Abby Ivory-Ganja, our audience engagement editor, said it was “showstopping.” She added: “It’s easy to think of tech companies as monoliths and CEOs and not as groups of people. But Karen did such a great job explaining problems at Facebook through Joaquin Quiñonero Candela. This was one of TR’s most widely read stories of the year, and it’s no surprise why once you read it.”
Charlotte Jee, news editor, said: “This article was a bombshell when it came out in March. It revealed, in painstaking detail, the full extent to which Facebook knew its algorithms drove people towards harmful, hateful content—and chose not to do anything about it. Why? Because, as Karen so perfectly put it, ‘The reason is simple. Everything the company does and chooses not to do flows from a single motivation: [Mark] Zuckerberg’s relentless desire for growth.’ If you read it now, in the light of the Facebook Papers, it looks so prescient.”
See if you agree. And then once you’re done reading that one, see what else the rest of our team chose as their top hits of the year.
Have a happy new year!
Michael Reilly, executive editor
A story about a giant, almost unbelievably complex machine that pushes engineering to the absolute max? Yes, please. Chip fabrication is not an easy subject to write about, but in Clive’s hands it’s a romp.
“It’s been said that young people dream of being rich, and rich people dream of being young.” Mix that sentiment together with a bit of exciting science and some investment from Jeff Bezos and other billionaires and you’ve got Antonio Regalado’s deep dive into the frothy world of longevity research.
We know algorithms are out there always nudging our thinking on things like shopping decisions and political opinions. Even so, this piece from Tate Ryan-Mosley is a stunner, showing just how far the algorithmic “optimization” of everything has seeped into young girls’ view of their own physical appearance.
Tanya Basu, senior reporter, humans and technology
Eileen has a knack for not only finding these stories but being able to investigate and piece together what some people in tech might not want exposed. Written in March, it was a sign of themes to come in the rest of 2021: covid deniers, snake oil treatments, and people with egos that supersede common sense and safety.
I feel like every NFT story is snarky and/or exclusionary, making them really hard for the average person to find something to care about in what’s arguably an important topic. Abby is able to hit that nerve here and exposes how a group of really vulnerable people who simply want to make art and a decent living are getting thrown under the bus by scammers.
It’s kind of sad that we have to make this statement in 2021, but here we are. What I love about this piece as a writer is the futuristic fiction that leads it off—and the realization that this isn’t science fiction anymore. What I love about this piece as a reader is that Charlotte has genuine hope and practical thoughts about the future of the internet that don’t make me feel like everything is lost. (Linda, our copy chief, agreed, saying: “As usual, Charlotte finds the brighter side.”)
Abby Ivory-Ganja, audience engagement editor
I loved this story from Patrick because it helped me understand the ransomware universe a little more. He really gives a view of the landscape from 36,000 feet, which I always appreciate.
This episode of our podcast In Machines We Trust about how pricing algorithms learn to collude really blew my mind. Our podcast team did such a great job of pulling back the curtain behind the price of an Uber ride or books on Amazon. They make it so easy to understand something complicated, and we are all better for it.
Amy Nordrum, editorial director, special projects and operations
This was a riveting tale of how an effort to crack down on cybercriminals by one of the world’s top law enforcement agencies went sideways. It’s a richly reported piece chock full of detail that will make you feel you were along for the ride amid the investigation’s many twists and turns. By the end, the FBI agents’ frustration is palpable and you’ll have a greater appreciation of why it’s so difficult to bring cybercriminals to justice.
This is a fun little story about how software is changing what it means to make music, in part by allowing musicians to create and play instruments that defy physics and that literally could not exist in the real world. There’s a funny backstory, too, about how one group’s painstaking effort to design software that very precisely imitates actual instruments was upended when real musicians got hold of it and started messing around.
Much has been written about the problem of AI bias. One potential solution involves auditing the underlying algorithms for bias. A cottage industry of consultants has sprung up to do just that, but it’s far from perfect. This story breaks down one particular AI audit to illustrate the limits of this particular approach.
Niall Firth, editorial director, digital
Back in 2020, Will had ventured into controversial territory, tackling one of the most hotly contested topics in AI—whether a true artificial general intelligence is even possible. In 2021 he decided to go one step further and ask: Could a machine ever be conscious? Drawing on philosophy of mind—and not afraid to get into truly deep conversations about the nature of consciousness—the story started out by asking what it would take for a machine to become conscious and self-aware. But it ended up with an even more complex conclusion: If a machine became conscious, would we even know? Come for the mind-bending philosophy, stay for the octopus anecdotes.
Karen’s tenacious reporting over Facebook misinformation and troll farms has rightly been praised, but I thought this story was brilliantly done. Sophie Zhang was a whistleblower who had exposed how fake accounts and likes on Facebook were allowing politicians to sway the public in countries outside the US, and potentially enable election interference. The story had been told, but no one had written a profile of her before. Karen showed readers that “for Zhang, the explanation of why she cared so much is tied up in her identity.” Telling that story was an expert piece of profile-writing that required sensitivity and compassion.
James Temple, senior editor, climate and energy
One of my favorite Tech Review reads this year was Eileen Guo’s scoop on a high-priced business conference that went forth in defiance of regional public health orders, and turned into a superspreader event. It was hosted by a high-profile Silicon Valley entrepreneur who had cofounded a covid-19 vaccine company. The deeply sourced story described in fine detail both the warnings that were made in advance of the event and the aftermath, including the apparent effort to limit communications about the ensuing covid-19 infections.
Antonio Regalado wrote a must-read profile of Alina Chan, the Broad Institute postdoc who helped revive the idea that covid-19 could have leaked from a lab in China. The story details how she researched and communicated the possibilities, the virologists she angered in doing so, and the pushback and even threats she’s received. But ultimately hers is a story about the nature of scientific uncertainty, and the sometimes fuzzy line between crackpot conspiracies, conjecture and unlikely ideas still in need of vigorous intellectual debate.
Charlotte Jee, news editor
The stakes for conversations about the vaccines are sky-high, and the debate has caused private, painful rifts in so many families. Many of us see the shots as the only meaningful way out of the pandemic, and the primary means to keep loved ones alive and well, so it’s deeply infuriating when others don’t see it the same way. This thoughtful, well-researched piece by Tanya was a timely reminder that people who don’t want to get vaccinated are still people, and while it may still be worth your while to try to persuade them, you should do so in a respectful manner. No one ever persuaded anyone by yelling at them.
Lots of us know by now that rather than erasing existing biases, many technologies amplify them. But every now and then you read something that makes you realize that the problem is even bigger—and more harmful—than you appreciated. This piece, which exposed how beauty filters perpetuate colorism (a form of discrimination against people with darker complexions), had that effect on me. It made me sad, it made me worried, and most of all it made me angry.
This piece can (and should) be read as a companion piece building on the excellent article Tate wrote in April about the impact of beauty filters on young girls' self-image.
Eileen Guo, senior reporter, features and investigations
I loved Tate’s story series on how tech and tech platforms affect perceptions of beauty. All three stories are excellent and worth a read (“I asked an AI to tell me how beautiful I am,” “Beauty filters are changing the way young girls see themselves,” and “How digital beauty filters perpetuate digital colorism”), as is the accompanying podcast episode. I love Tate’s willingness to include herself in her stories and her ability to do so in a way that is relatable: in the first story, she asks questions that the reader likely has as well, and she is empathetic in digging into the nuances of how beauty tech affects different communities differently. It’s also noteworthy to have this kind of in-depth treatment of “women + tech” issues, and I really hope she does more of it!
Cat Ferguson’s timely and well-told investigation into the CDC’s Vaccine Administration Management System (VAMS), the largely ineffective and incredibly expensive website to schedule vaccine appointments, was the type of investigation that MIT Technology Review is best positioned to do. It answered the question everyone had, back in that phase of the pandemic, about why it was so hard to schedule vaccine appointments, and it did so with depth and detail that comes out of Cat’s deep expertise in health tech and her great sleuthing and reporting skills. And it shed light on an area that doesn’t get as much scrutiny as it should: government tech. Much less sexy than investigating Facebook, but just as important.
Tate Ryan-Mosely, reporter, digital rights and democracy
James’s investigative reporting, a collaboration with ProPublica’s Lisa Song, was a momentous accounting of California’s carbon offset program. It found that companies could be gaming the system and undermining the climate goals of the project. It’s a super complicated subject, and James and Lisa were able to achieve an explanatory tone that made it accessible; it might be the story that I learned the most from this year. They also leaned into the nuances here, looking into questions of stewardship and how the program is impacting Native American tribes.
Eileen and Hikmat’s super-impressive reporting added much-needed evidence about the tools the Taliban were likely to have at their disposal following the US withdrawal from the country. It will become an essential history lesson about the dangers of propping up a government with surveillance tools, only to have them fall into the wrong hands.
Abby’s quick take on the January 6 riot squarely placed the event as a continuation of forces that have been gathering for a long time. At the time of publishing, the noise around the riot was all-consuming and blurry, and her take offered clarity and analysis based on her years of reporting.
Will Douglas Heaven, senior editor, AI
Inside the fight to reclaim AI from Big Tech's control
Karen Hao takes us behind the scenes at the birth of a movement, introducing the hopes and fears of the AI researchers pushing back against a status quo in which the world's most powerful technology is fast becoming monopolised by the world's most powerful companies.
This US company sold iPhone hacking tools to UAE spies
In a scoop that made other investigative journalists jealous, Patrick Howell O'Neill succeeded where others failed in unmasking a controversial company selling cyberweapons to foreign intelligence agencies. Few expose the shadowy international workings of cyber security so well.
Toronto wants to kill the smart city forever
The city wants to get right what Sidewalk Labs got so wrong.
Chinese gamers are using a Steam wallpaper app to get porn past the censors
Wallpaper Engine has become a haven for ingenious Chinese users who use it to smuggle adult content as desktop wallpaper. But how long can it last?
Yann LeCun has a bold new vision for the future of AI
One of the godfathers of deep learning pulls together old ideas to sketch out a fresh path for AI, but raises as many questions as he answers.
The US military wants to understand the most important software on Earth
Open-source code runs on every computer on the planet—and keeps America’s critical infrastructure going. DARPA is worried about how well it can be trusted
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