From Solar in Borneo to Buzz Aldrin on Mars: Our Favorite Long Reads of 2012

Technology might not always solve big problems, but it did get the president reëlected. The best long reads of the past year unpack the story behind the story.

After spending months closely reporting the 2012 presidential election, veteran journalist Sasha Issenberg described in detail just how the Obama campaign used a combination of technology expertise, big-data acumen, and old-fashioned political savvy to gain a critical advantage. Longtime political operative Joe Trippi also shared his ideas on how, in his words, technology has restored the soul of politics.

Moon malaise: It’s been more than four decades since Buzz Aldrin, shown here in a photograph by Neil Armstrong, walked on the moon. Our cover story “Why We Can’t Solve Big Problems” asked why we no longer seem eager to take on ambitious projects.

Stepping back from today’s politics, MIT Technology Review looked in depth at our seeming inability to tackle truly important technological problems and challenges. In our November issue, with a cover featuring former astronaut Buzz Aldrin lamenting “You Promised Me Mars Colonies. Instead, I Got Facebook,” we explored our inability to solve big problems and why we can no longer conjure up the enthusiasm and courage for manned space exploration and, in particular, for a mission to Mars, despite the lingering hopes of some at NASA. But in the same issue, we offered examples of those who are truly taking on big problems, including researching the growing and complex problem of dementia.

One of the most pressing economic issues for the United States is its loss of manufacturing prowess. In “Can We Build Tomorrow’s Breakthroughs?” we examined how innovation and the ability to create new technologies are closely linked with having a robust manufacturing sector. The article asked, are we in danger of losing our core ability to innovate?

One of the joys of long-form journalism is its ability to take you to places that you might never have seen—or even imagined. In reporting on efforts to use solar-based microgrids to bring electricity to the millions without it, we took you to remote regions of Borneo, describing how new solar power is being carved out of the lush jungle. And in a piece that toured the countryside of Germany, we showed how that country is rapidly and successfully moving toward renewable energy and away from nuclear power.

In other features, we took you to places where most of us just don’t have access. Getting inside Facebook’s research organization, we explained exactly “What Facebook Knows.” In another feature, we took you to Vancouver and what might be the first commercial quantum computer, and explained why Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and the CIA are both betting it works.

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