Thursday, 31 December 2009

My 2009 in Important Reading for Human Beings

The end of the year is a time for looking back over the previous one, looking forward to the next one and other such clichéd nonsense. I am, however, increasingly interested in the future: what’s going to happen in the next 1-10 years? How is it going to go down, and what will be the consequences of that 'getting down'? I believe the outline of the answers to these and many other fascinating and unrelated questions can be glimpsed by casting our eyes back over the year of 2009 while keeping in mind the one to come. So I present to you, this list of My 2009 in Important Reading for Humans Beings.

A word on my methodology: These were all posted to my Facebook account at one stage or another, a good indicator of my own estimation of their value and importance. That's about the extent of the methodology.

This is the first of a planned three parts, the first being constrained to pieces written or published this year that I found to be important reading; the second will be pieces that are perhaps less ‘important’ but no less interesting or potentially informative as to the shape of things to come; and the final third piece will be are pieces I discovered this year, written in previous years and decades that, I found particularly prescient or relevant.

This list begins in March.

March 19, 2009 – ‘The Big Takeover’ by Matt Taibbi

The first piece on my important reading list in 2009 is Matt Taibbi’s Rolling Stone expose on the 2008 GFC bailout and what it means for the future of our society. It’s big, it’s long, and it’s assertive in its assessment of the future impact of the ‘necessary evil’ that was the $700 billion dollar bailout. If Taibbi is suggesting we may be living in the tail end of the era of the American Empire – with his opening allusion to insurance giant AIG as “a dissolute nobleman gambling away the family estate in the waning days of the British Empire” – then it is an assertion rapidly gaining currency, as we shall see at least once more further down the list.

April 15, 2009 – ‘Inside the Precision Hack’ by Paul Lamere

The next piece of important writing comes from an unlikely source – the ‘Music Machinery’ blog pulls the thread behind a online poll and uncovers the machinations of the group of anonymous users from 4chan who came together to rig the poll by stuffing ballots. There are a couple of ways to read this piece; as either a rather typical cautionary tale about the underlying potential for abuse in online media, or as testament to the growing power and political influence of anonymous. This was no Fox News ballot stuffing – it was Time and they let it stand. The fact that the people in charge decided to leave the results as is perhaps says more than any simple poll result.

May 21, 2009 – ‘A Day At Sydney’s Pinball Expo’ by Ben Abraham

Because this is an indulgently personal list, I’m going to say that the next important piece was something I wrote for Kotaku Australia about visiting Australia’s first annual Pinball Expo. It’s important, I feel, less for the points that it makes about the differences between Pinball and Videogames (which are kind of interesting) but because it represents a mainstream videogame media willing to publish writing about games from an untried author, writing that’s a bit different, a bit off the beaten track and that’s a bit more experimental. Of maybe it’s nothing of the sort – it’s still on my list.

May 28th, 2009 – ‘Shhhh. Newspaper Publishers Are Quietly Holding a Very, Very Important Conclave Today. Will You Soon Be Paying for Online Content?’ by James Warren

In a short piece (for this list of generally extra long pieces) at The Atlantic, James Warren mentions that a News Industry group were meeting that week to discuss monetizing online news content. It’s an important piece because, firstly, in the time since the piece was posted in May some news organisations have actually begun to charge for their content online. The future for online news is still uncertain, but I hazard a guess that, as hinted at by the earlier piece on Anonymous, it’s future is going to be influenced more and more by people like 4chan’s anonymous and less and less by the Packers and Murdoch’s of this world.

June 6th, 2009 – ‘The Learjet Repo Man’ by Marc Weingarten

In this piece for the website Salon, Marc Weingarten chronicles the upswing in business for one high flying reposesor of luxury items like private jets and expensive yachts that accompanied the 08/09 financial crisis. If Taibbi’s ‘The Big Takeover’ was about the political implications of the bailout, then ‘Learjet Repo Man’ is about a small, vertical (ha!) slice of the practical impact on post GFC life.

June 14th, 2009 – ‘TehranElection on Twitter’ by Abdul-Azim Mohammed

Instrumental in spreading the first Iran Election twitter info, the 31 tweets all from the day and night of June 14th spoke of injustices at the ballot boxes and restricted internet and phone access as the government spread its own election winning propaganda. His last tweet is only “I have to shut down for a bit, the police are looking for satellites” but the word was out, and plenty of other Iranian twitter accounts sprung up to similar effect. As far as I know, his ensuing fate is unknown and my cursory googling turned up no relevant contemporaneous hits.

June 13th, 2009 – ‘The Obama Haters’ Silent Enablers’ by Frank Rich

In a piece for the New York Times Frank Rich writes about the increasing politicisation of republican media outlets like Fox News and their inflammatory influence on the extreme political right of America. Rich asserts that these “silent enablers” in the media could very well be trying to incite indirect violence against the President. It’s a sobering thought, and alongside another piece later in the year, can be looked upon confidently as indicators of a polarisation in politics in 2009, as the gaps between the left and the right were wedged right open.

June 30th, 2009 – ‘The Not-So-Hidden Politics of Class Online’ by Danah Boyd

Boyd presented her research findings at the ‘Personal Democracy Forum’ in New York and it’s important reading because it challenges the rhetoric employed in tech circles that often has the tendency to ascribe utopian properties to technology. The crux of her argument is that, “For decades, we've assumed that inequality in relation to technology has everything to do with "access" and that if we fix the access problem, all will be fine. This is the grand narrative of concepts like the "digital divide." Yet, increasingly, we're seeing people with similar levels of access engage in fundamentally different ways. And we're seeing a social media landscape where participation "choice" leads to a digital reproduction of social divisions.” Important stuff and again it’s a theme that will come back later in this year’s list.

July 5th 2009 – ‘I’m a proud braniac’ by Roger Ebert

Another trend perhaps always present in every year but particularly easily identifiable in 2009 was an up-swell of defensive reactions to critical thinking and reasoned, thoughtful critique. Roger Ebert wrote in defence of reading ‘too much’ into films instead of passively and unquestionably consuming in a piece titled “I’m a proud braniac”. More recently this year we even got ‘Moffs Law’ summing up why the case for ‘not thinking as much’ is not really a valid discursive argument.

July 6th, 2009 – ‘Babes of the BNP’ by Gavin Haynes

This year saw an interesting phenomenon in the UK in the form of unprecedented voter support for the British National Party, a far right extremist political party that would like nothing better than to reverse immigration and send everyone non-white out of Britain. It’s seems to me it’s only further evidence of the widening between the left and the right across the globe, and it’s important to understand why these people think the way that they do. So, to find out we have this cheeky series of interviews with the ‘Babes of the BNP’. Easy targets perhaps, but it’s quite amazing to see just how misinformed some of them are.

July 6th, 2009 – ‘Huh?! 4 Cases Of How Tearing Down A Highway Can Relieve Traffic Jams (And Save Your City)’ by Yonah Freemark and Jebediah Reed

In a case (or four) of the accepted wisdom being turned on its head for the betterment of everyone, Freemark and Reed write about how removing freeways in four cities around the world has actually improved traffic flow, as well as being beneficial to the city. This is a personally important piece of reading because it reflects a gradual eclecticising of my interests. I’ve somehow gained the belief this year that the low-level curiosity instilled in me by diversifying my reading habits will pay dividends in the long run. There really is no telling which fascinating new tangent will inform some other area of interest or lead to some interesting new idea.

July 15th, 2009 – ‘Confessions of a Radical Prof’ by Julie Matthaei

As if proof of the previous point, I bought a book earlier this year about print design for magazines and online, which led to finding the website that ran this fascinating and important piece. Matthaei is an economics professor here explaining the failings of economics teaching in providing an education to its students. For example, “I always took care to explore the fact that equilibrium – where the supply and demand curves cross, and quantity supplied equals quantity demanded – does not mean that everyone is happy, or that basic needs are met. Many people could, in fact, be starving because they are too poor to be able to “demand” what they need. Even when no lines or shortages exist, people can still be dying from starvation. Despite my lessons, many of my students were unable to point out the falseness of the statement “everybody is happy in equilibrium” on their tests. As the earlier pieces on the GFC have made patently clear, we need more professors like Matthaei to teach these kinds of things to the next generation of economists.

July 15th, 2009 – ‘Losing my religion for equality’ by Jimmy Carter

In a year marked strongly by the aforementioned growing divide between the political left and right (which I can’t seem to stop mentioning – probably because it was a big deal, right?) it’s notable when someone argues for a more moderate stance on religion and equality, doubly so when it’s a former US President and now-former southern Baptist. Here he is arguing for equality before dogma, and a new equality for women in the Christian faith.

July 21st, 2009 - ‘An Easy Way to Increase Creativity’ by Oren Shapira and Nira Liberman

Another piece I found personally important, if not, perhaps, on the same scale of world-wide socio-political import as others on this list, was an article in Scientific American that detailed research that found gaining distance from a problem, even purely imagined mental distance, increases ones creativity and ability to solve problems. Absolutely fascinating, and something I’ve found applicable a number of occasions this year.

July 29th, 2009 – ‘New Game Column at Edge’ by Chris Dahlen

Another important moment for games writing this year was the green-lighting of Chris Dahlen’s (now not so new now) weekly Edge column. It’s an important piece because, again, it represents the triumph of more of what I want to see from games writing. Offbeat, occasionally humorous, just as often insightful, and always grounded in something like personal experience, Dahlen’s column (and there are too many good ones to mention them all) was an important part of my 2009.

August 5th, 2009 – Symbol of Unhealed Congo: Male Rape Victims by Jeffrey Gettleman

For all the patting on the back we (and I include myself) may do here in the west, there are still so many places of the world that are just not okay. Rape is always a tragedy, but something in the stories of the male rape victims of the Congo seemed to capture something of the absolute desolation of the place, as Jeffrey Gettleman writes some of their stories for the New York Times.

August 4th, 2009 - ‘When Did Americans Turn into a Bunch of Raving Lunatics?’ and August 11th, 2009 - ‘What Really Happens When You Demand the President Produce His Birth Certificate?’ by John H. Richardson

Something of a reasonably late development in the year was the almost-legitimisation in the conservative American media of the ‘Birthers’ and their absolute conviction that President Obama was not a real American. Esquire’s John H, Richardson goes on the road throughout the Bible belt to find out first hand why these people are such sore losers. Then again, I bet they said the same thing in the aftermath of the 2004 election controversy.

August 11th 2009 – ‘TIE Fighter: A Post 9/11 Parable’ by LB Jeffries

LB Jeffries piece on the old LucasArts TIE Fighter game talks about its renewed relevance in a post 9/11 world. It was another important moment because it was another case where games writing took itself seriously and went, I’m okay with this. It employed a kind of poststructuralist approach by viewing the game with modern eyes, and in our context, rather than its original one, which is kind of what the rest of the art world has been used to doing for forty-odd years.

August 15th, 2009 – ‘What’s Good For as good as it gets for America’ by Zachary Karabell

A piece in Newsweek about IBM and the shift in it’s global workforce out of America and into other emerging markets brought everyone that read it up to speed on that post-American-Empire thing once again. The important point from the story is that “This is the new world of global business, one in which the U.S. becomes simply a market among markets, and not even the most interesting one.” And that’s both pretty important and a pretty interesting change. I’ll bet my bottom dollar that’ll be a factor in 2010.

August 5th, 2009 – ‘Garbage In’ by Diana Holden

This year saw the “pacific garbage patch” explode into the public’s consciousness (or mine at least) with a number of high profile pieces (including one on the ABC programme catalyst back home in Australia) about the large area of the pacific ocean that attracts rubbish and that is now filled with floating debris. Looking at the scale of some of the world’s biggest garbage dumps (including the pacific garbage patch) is an important thing to do, and the accompanying pictures with the story are quite impacting. Waste, managing increasingly scarce resources and the attendant economic effects were (and are going to be) big and important issues in the coming year and decade.

September 13th, 2009 – ‘We still have the same disease’ by Margaret Wente

But I’m not making a list of the issues, but a list of the most important pieces of writing about the issues. Here’s economist Nassim Taleb writing on the one year anniversary of the Lehman Bros collapse about the economy, and saying rather unfortunately that ‘We still have the same disease'

September 14th, 2009 – Redactor Agonistes by Daniel Menaker

A fascinating essay on the book publishing business, with some estimations about reader numbers and explanation of why books that get published get published. The money quote: ‘Genuine literary discernment is often a liability in editors. And it should be -- at least when it is unaccompanied by a broader, more popular sensibility it should be.’ I wouldn’t mind turning some writing into a book one day, so this was eye opener for me. It also echoed sentiments more commonly seen in the newspaper industry (such as the piece linked earlier) with the feeling that, if not dying away, then certainly the nature of the industry is undergoing some fundamental changes.

7th September, 2009 – ‘Douglas Coupland: the writer who sees into the future’ by Decca Aitkenhead

This interview with author Douglas Coupland, who I have never read anything of before this interview, is important because while it’s ostensibly about promoting his novel ‘Generation-A’ Coupland is more interested in talking about pig picture ideas, the future, and a whole bunch of interesting peccadillo’s of his personality. It’s also important for me because Coupland sounds like the kind of non-traditional thinker I aspire to – for example, Coupland says he can never throw away his art objects “because an object is interesting because it's the crystallisation of a good idea. And I like being surrounded by good ideas.”

24th September 2009 – ‘Diary’ by Roy Mayall

If I recall correctly, the person who originally posted the link to this expose of the UK’s Royal Mail compared it to a real life version of The Wire. It’s another striking example of corporations valuing profit over people, and it’s another important piece of writing from 2009.

24th September, 2009 – ‘Lost Vegas’ by Pete Samson

In a combination of news and personal interest story, UK’s The Sun does a story on the people living in the sewers under Las Vegas. This is exactly who and what our society is producing; these are the kinds of people The West creates, even if it isn’t immediately visible.

September 24th, 2009 – ‘Mobile money in the poor world’

A story in The Economist (which has now been gated behind a subscription) was about the importance of mobile phones in developing countries and some of the possible technologies, including micro transactions of money via SMS, which the mobile phone is enabling in third world countries. One of the things that 2009 saw time and again (as in the earlier Myspace/Facebook piece) was proof that technology is neither neutral, nor was being on the very cutting edge necessary for development.

September 25th, 2009 – ‘One more go: Why Halo makes me want to lay down and die’ by Margaret Robertson

The end of the short lived tenure of Offworld as its own separate blog from the main Boing Boing posts was marked by Margaret Robertson’s important piece, a discussion of the eternal quality of the original Halo. It was also important as a demarcation of the Offworld that so many had such high hopes for.

September 2nd, 2009 – ‘A Virtual Life. An Actual Death’ by Mark Steven Meadows and Peter Ludlow

This piece looked back over the real-world and second life death of one rather prescient internet user and commenter who you’ve almost definitely never heard of before. The focus of the story, a woman known as Carmen Hermosillo who, before her death in 2008, was intimately acquainted with many of the peaks and pitfalls of virtual life is looked, examining her life both real and virtual, as a progenitor for many of the issues facing an increasing number of people coming to terms with virtual existence online. It sounds dramatic, and it is, but the authors note that, “The thing that killed Carmen was the thing she spent her entire online life warning us about.”

October 2009 – ‘The Story Behind the Story’ by Mark Bowden

In ‘The Story Behind the Story’, Bowden takes an in depth look at how news gathering in the US has become increasingly politicised, as the work traditionally done by proper journalists gets outsourced to amateur and professional political groups. It’s viewed through the lens of the media’s obsession with a pair of clips of then-supreme court -justice-to-be Sonya Sotamayer. The decline – and let’s be honest, it’s been nothing but a decline – in print journalism revenues and staff means that the quality of reporting and, perhaps more importantly, fact checking and context gets lost in the race to the juiciest ‘sound bites’. An important dissection of another overarching trend of 2009.

October 2009 – ‘They Shoot Porn Stars, Don't They?’ by Susannah Breslin

In an inspired move, ‘They Shoot Porn Starts Don’t They?’ made a website that looks and reads like a magazine article, but remains its own thing entirely. Breslin spent some time in California’s San Fernando Valley looking at the effects of the US economic downturn on the porn industry and the result is as touchingly personal as it is insightful and revelatory. Avoiding clichéd depictions of the actresses and actors themselves, it shows the good and the bad in this most definitely not recession proof industry.

June 9th, 2009 to October 11th, 2009 – ‘Alice and Kev’ by Robin Burkinshaw

One of the most important things in games writing that happened this year was the beginning – or perhaps the more important part was actually the ending – of the blog/story/comic/tale of Alice and Kev. Its incredible popularity demonstrates that not only are people willing to read non-traditional essay writing and stories about games, but that they are actually hungry for them.

October 12th, 2009 – ‘Why Snark Works’

In this short review/summary of David Denby’s book ‘Snark’ the unknown author of the ‘A Grammar’ tumblr blog makes some observations about ‘Why Snark Works’ and what it does to online communities – essentially, it works more effectively and efficiently to weed out those that are not ‘in’ on the jokes, explicating the culture of a website better than any list of beliefs or aspirations could ever do. Important reading because of the prevalence of snark in almost every online context.

October 14th, 2009 – ‘Off White’ by Tony Martin

Martin’s website ‘The Scriveners Fancy’ is ostensibly a comedy website, but as with just about everything he does, it more-often-than-not comes with an edge of intelligent commentary, and his witty and biting reaction to the Hey, Hey, It’s Saturday ‘Blackface Skit’ is an important read for Australia.

October 20th 2009 – ‘Nearly universal literacy is a defining characteristic of today’s modern civilization; nearly universal authorship will shape tomorrow's’ by Denis G. Pelli & Charles Bigelow

This short piece at Seed magazine discusses how, if current trends in Twitter take-up and usage continue universal authorship could soon become as ubiquitous as universal literacy…

November 5th, 2009 – ‘Neutral on Neutrality’ by Scott McClellan

…and then, soon after the aforementioned piece, I read this one examining Marshall McLuhan’s ideas and their applicability to Christians interested in using media in evangelism. Echoing the sentiments of Danah Boyd’s piece on technological utopianism and Facebook/Myspace class issues, McClellan notes that technology is not a wholly neutral thing which, in light of the above Seed magazine piece, leads me to wonder about the effects these Twitter/Facebook/Myspace universal authorship technologies will have on society in the future. What (if any) effect will the technology of Twitter have on our ability and interest in communicating with each other? These are the important questions.

November 11th, 2009 – ‘SPIEGEL Interview with Umberto Eco

'We Like Lists Because We Don't Want to Die' by By Susanne Beyer and Lothar Gorris

Umberto Eco is another of those thinkers often appreciated for his diversity and eclecticism – in this interview with the German magazine Spiegel Online they even go so far as to reference him as a ‘polymath’. Eco talks about all sorts of things in this interview, with the stand out being the assertion that “We like lists because we don’t want to die” which is an interesting way of looking at things.

November 18th, 2009 – ‘pueraria lobata’ by Rob Holmes

More questioning of conventional wisdom here in an interesting breakdown of the idea of ‘introduced species’ of plants. Holmes argues that by declaring any species of plant ‘introduced’ is a social construct that draws an artificial line in time as though nature were a static thing to be preserved. Which is rather artificial when you think about it, and the piece references a Slate article that details “scientific push-back against the making of binary distinctions between ‘native’ and ‘invasive’ plants”. After all, as human beings we are part of nature ourselves.

November 27th, 2009 - ‘Here’s Kamahl!’ by Andy Quan

Peril Magazine is an Australian arts and culture journal that aims to provide insight and commentary on Asian-Australian arts and culture. Here they interviewed the preeminent Australian performer Kamahl about how Australia is (or isn’t) dealing well with issues of racism. It’s important in the wake of the Hey, Hey, It’s Saturday ‘Blackface Skit’ controversy and the event is discussed.

April 7th, 2009 – ‘The Dark Side of Dubai’ by Johann Hari

I read this piece right at the very end of the year – in November no less – and it seemed to make perfect sense to read it at that time, so I’m placing it here, our of order. In November/December the world was worrying about Dubai defaulting on as much as $50 billion dollars worth of debt, and this piece seemed to fit right in with the general mood about the place and its possible future – according to Hari’s time there and interviews with members of it’s migrant labour force, Dubai is a town build on cheap, almost slave labour and rife with class divisions.

December 1st, 2009 – ‘Somali sea gangs lure investors at pirate lair’ by Mohamed Ahmed

Reuters ran an investigative piece on the sea gangs of Somalia and their cooperative investments scheme. The rise and rise of Somali pirates was another important thing that worried the western world in 2009 and accompanying it was the concept of the ‘failed state’.

December 14th, 2009 – ‘The future of the Australian Liberal Party’ by Peter Hartcher

Australia has not been unaffected by the oft identified widening Left/Right divisions in politics, and here Sydney Morning Herald political editor Peter Hartcher discusses what the recent elevation of Tony Abbott to the Liberal leadership means for the future of the party, and by inference, the Australian political landscape.

December 20th, 2009 – ‘Crash State’ by Geoff Manaugh

BLDGBLG runs the terrifically important think-piece about the future of the state of California and, more generally a post-bankruptcy metropolis looks like. Manaugh presents two alternative futures for a bankrupt major city, each just as likely as the other, and wonders what we can do to influence the future towards the more palatable one.

December 19th, 2009 – ‘David Simon’ interviewed by Jesse Pearson

Vice Magazine interviews David Simon, creator of HBO’s critically acclaimed TV series The Wire, widely acknowledged as being the most interesting/important television series of the past year, even the past decade. In the long and informal interview, Simon talks about his creative process and the beliefs and ideologies that inform his work.

December 22nd, 2009 – ‘How do I know China wrecked the Copenhagen deal? I was in the room’ by Mark Lynas

Lynas was there, attached to a political delegation at the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit and he tells frankly of a China that decided to flex its political muscle. He dissects why it derailed what many had hoped would be a cut-and-dry worldwide agreement on the need for change.

And that was the year in important writing as I saw it, linked it and recommended it to friends and colleagues. I should thank everyone who linked me to these important artifacts from 2009 - there are probably too many to name, but a large portion of the credit can be given ascribed to Christopher J. Hyde and his fantastically eclectic blog '25 Times a Second'.


rob said...


Glad you enjoyed the piece on invasive species. Though I don't think there's ever been a direct link between our blogs, I actually have read and enjoyed a number of items here, after being pointed to you at some point by Rock Paper Shotgun (for some reason, I enjoy reading about video games more than I enjoy playing them, which I think makes me a very odd person, but I'm coping). Thanks for the kind words -- and pointing out that piece on TIE Fighter (which I adored back in the days when I made time to finish video games).


Chris Hyde said...

hey, thanks for the shout out. glad I could help point the way to some stuff you found of use.

Ryan said...

I just spent about my whole day reading a lot of these articles. Not that I really had the time to, but so many of these were so interesting I couldn't stop.

Really a good post and tons of interesting articles I missed, thanks.