Favorite Essays of 2023
Every year, I keep a list of my favorite essays that I read online. Some I save because of their content, other because they surprised, and still others because I admire their formal qualities whether that’s dazzling sentences or an interesting structure. Below are some of the best essays I read in 2023 online (omitted from this list are things I read in print).
A goal for 2024 is to seek out smaller-run, focused, and independent publications. You’ll notice lots of big names on the list this year and as I head into the new year, I want to make an effort to counter the big publications with the emerging, the new, the experimental.
Call me basic, but the best thing I read this year was Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s profile-not-profile of Taylor Swift for the New York Times Magazine. I’ve been reading Brodesser-Akner’s profiles for years (and loved her debut novel Fleishman is in Trouble) but I felt like she did something new here: it was personal and essayistic, critical and pointed but also fun, funny, and structurally innovative. This is one of those essays that as soon as I finished it, I wanted to reread it and figure out a way to teach it in a class. A perfect writer-subject pairing and piece that deserves attention, both for the subject and the form.
Like many people, I guess, I found myself reading more than I wanted to about artificial intelligence (for better and for worse). I’ve written before about my ambivalence around the AI debate as it stands today — I’m neither hopeful for a revolution nor scare for the end of humanity — and find the term “artificial intelligence” to be increasingly imprecise in discussing a set of technologies that increasingly feel like a hyperobject. The best writing I read on AI this year came from sci-fi writer Ted Chaing in a series of essays in The New Yorker. In February, he wrote “Chat GPT Is a Blurry JPEG of the Web”:
Think of ChatGPT as a blurry jpeg of all the text on the Web. It retains much of the information on the Web, in the same way that a jpeg retains much of the information of a higher-resolution image, but, if you’re looking for an exact sequence of bits, you won’t find it; all you will ever get is an approximation. But, because the approximation is presented in the form of grammatical text, which ChatGPT excels at creating, it’s usually acceptable. You’re still looking at a blurry jpeg, but the blurriness occurs in a way that doesn’t make the picture as a whole look less sharp.
This analogy to lossy compression is not just a way to understand ChatGPT’s facility at repackaging information found on the Web by using different words. It’s also a way to understand the “hallucinations,” or nonsensical answers to factual questions, to which large language models such as ChatGPT are all too prone. These hallucinations are compression artifacts, but—like the incorrect labels generated by the Xerox photocopier—they are plausible enough that identifying them requires comparing them against the originals, which in this case means either the Web or our own knowledge of the world. When we think about them this way, such hallucinations are anything but surprising; if a compression algorithm is designed to reconstruct text after ninety-nine per cent of the original has been discarded, we should expect that significant portions of what it generates will be entirely fabricated.
He followed this up in May with the incisive “Will A.I. Become the New McKinsey?”:
I’m not very convinced by claims that A.I. poses a danger to humanity because it might develop goals of its own and prevent us from turning it off. However, I do think that A.I. is dangerous inasmuch as it increases the power of capitalism. The doomsday scenario is not a manufacturing A.I. transforming the entire planet into paper clips, as one famous thought experiment has imagined. It’s A.I.-supercharged corporations destroying the environment and the working class in their pursuit of shareholder value. Capitalism is the machine that will do whatever it takes to prevent us from turning it off, and the most successful weapon in its arsenal has been its campaign to prevent us from considering any alternatives.
This resonates with Danielle Allen’s thesis that what we call AI is really just “centralized planning”. She spoke about this, along with other topics I’m interested in, on The Ezra Klein Show. James Bridle, who I had on Scratching the Surface a year ago, also wrote about the “stupidity of AI” which echoes Noam Chomsky’s “The False Promise of ChatGPT”. If you want even more AI, Chris Hayes’s podcast interview with Kate Crawford is also worth a listen.
Alex Murrell’s The Age of Average feels like an instant classic — capturing the visual landscape of our day complete with receipts. I read this a few times and even assigned it to a few classes this year. My students found it, I think, both depressing and encouraging: they were developing the skills to move beyond the blandness Murrell points to. In the New York Times Magazine, Jason Farago also points to the strange pace of innovation in his piece, ”Why Culture Has Come to a Standstill”](https://www.nytimes.com/2023/10/10/magazine/stale-culture.html).
Michael Kazin’s brief and smart history of American socialism shows that the Left has had a greater reach on influence on American society than we sometimes give it credit:
During the winter of 1825, Robert Owen, a rich manufacturer from Wales, gave two addresses, each about three hours long, to joint sessions of Congress. There was, he told the lawmakers, an urgent need to establish “a New System of Society,” one that would be based “upon principles of strict justice and impartial kindness.” Owen condemned the reigning economic order, which he called “the trading system,” as selfish and inhumane at its core. It trained people “to obtain advantages over others,” he argued, and gave “a very injurious surplus of wealth and power to the few” while exacting “poverty and subjection on the many.”
Owen predicted the coming of a new order that would liberate Americans from their plight. An economy organized for “mutual benefit” would enable men and women to leave the irrationality of relentless, often violent, competition behind them. “In the new system,” he promised, “union and cooperation will supersede individual interest.”
The legislators treated Owen and his ideas with great respect. Several Supreme Court justices came to hear him; so did the outgoing president, James Monroe, and the incoming president, John Quincy Adams. Because neither Thomas Jefferson nor James Madison, who were then quite elderly, could leave their Virginia estates, Owen brought his message to them. He paid a visit to John Adams up in Massachusetts as well.
Every living president at the time was thus willing to hear the visionary radical’s sharp critique of the capitalist society emerging both in the United States and across the Atlantic. Their curiosity was a sign that the market system, for all its promise of plenty, was not yet a settled reality defended by all men of wealth and standing.
Speaking of socialists, Nick Haramis’s profile in T Magazine on fashion’s favorite socialist designer Miuccia Prada is the best thing I’ve read on on Prada, possibly ever. (Rachel Syme on Thom Browne in The New Yorker was my other favorite fashion read this year.)
More profiles! New Yorker profiles continue to be a consistent element in my reading diet. This year, I loved Lauren Collins on Balenciaga’s creative director Demna, Burkhard Bilger on musician and scientist David Sulzer, Hua Hsu on Randall Park, Alex Abramovich on writer/director Paul Schrader, and Patrick Radden Keefe on Larry Gagosian. The first three paragraphs of Ian Parker’s profile of NY mayor Eric Adams might be my favorite opening paragraphs of the year.
Essays on the end of design thinking are not new but this year, they seemed to come faster than ever, perhaps with the news that the design studio IDEO, contemporary design thinking’s chief evangelist, was laying off a third of their staff. Rebecca Ackermann wrote about it in the MIT Technology Review, Anne-Laure Fayard and Sarah Fatallah wrote about how design thinking misses the mark in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, and Megan Marz wrote about ‘digital whiteboards’ — not design thinking specifically but spiritually connected — in Wired.
Lastly, I found myself thinking about Sasha Frere-Jones’s meditation on Japanese Jazz Kissas, audiophiles, and expensive speakers more than I expected this year. Perhaps its because I’ve recommitted to listening to music — broadly and deeply — again this year but this hit at so many things I love.
I’ll leave it there. What did you like reading this year?