How Things Worked in 2023
The way we live now: At peace with our ignorance.
When the Great Recession struck in late 2008, I was working at Gawker. There was too much bad news every day to give each individual item its own blog post. So, for a year or two, I wrote a daily roundup called Recessionomics, which linked all of the depressing recession reporting—business failures, layoffs, bad economic stats, etcetera—in a write-through, a sort of half-serious attempt to put all of the doom into a little narrative. Each one of those posts would begin with the line, “The way we live now,” and then something that tried to sum up the narrative to come. “The way we live now: desperately seeking redemption,” or whatever. In their ceaseless quest to impose some editorial order on life’s chaos, these columns were bite sized versions of the projects that every news outlet undertakes each December—the end-of-year roundups, the grand buckets into which the past eleven months of news content are poured, sorted, and presented to you, the reader, as an instant encyclopedia of What Just Happened.
The practical purpose of all of this end of the year content is to allow publications to fill space in the last couple of weeks so that their employees can go on vacation. But the editorial proposition of them—that a year in the life of the world can be collated and categorized and defined by a list of events in Pop Culture and Politics and Local Eats—is notable mostly for the poignant, hopeless audacity of its ambition. I always imagine the Omnipotent Ruler of the Universe gazing down and saying, “Aww, cute. They think they can summarize life.” In reality, all of the words that all of mankind has written for the past five thousand years are not enough to capture all of the events that pass in a single instant on this planet, not to mention any others. I like journalism, and I respect The News, but we always have to keep in mind that it is a tissue-thin artificial frame laid over the roiling exotic mystery of life in this world. What do the frogs in the pond care about pop culture? What does the fisherman whose only concern is the migrations of the fish care about the Year in Taylor Swift? What does the elderly nursing home patient locked in a disappearing swirl of memories care for the machinations in Washington? What does the mother of the newborn whose world is defined by a growing infant care for the Newest Tech? These lenses that we desperately shuffle through to impose order on our world capture less than a percent of a percent of a percent of the wonder of existence. It is fine for us to organize things into our little packets of information for our own ease, but we should never mistake this as “knowing” about “life” in general. If you pull back a little more, we are all trapped on a tiny speck in a vast and boundless universe whose borders we will never know or see, a fraction of a grain of sand on a beach more enormous than we can comprehend, destined to never understand the full scope of where we are or why. The great mystics long ago figured out that you might as well sit in a cave and meditate as read the newspaper. You’re just looking at different aspects of one thing too big for any of us to see.
I am glad that you all chose to spend some of your valuable time this year, in this infinitesimal oasis of life in a sea of emptiness, reading How Things Work. I know that you could have instead struck a lotus pose and gazed at a single blade of grass and achieved equal or better insights. So I appreciate that you came here instead. None of us can truly claim to know what happened this year, but if we all turn our attention in the same direction, our beam of light gets stronger.
The five most popular How Things Work stories this year
Who Is Your Enemy, My Brother?
The real Rich Men North of Richmond.
You Have to Grind This Motherfucker Down
The only correct way to interview This Guy has never been tried.
Young Morality and Old Morality
Wisdom means listening to the angry youth.
Insurance Politics at the End of the World
Shall we do climate change the hard way, or the harder way?
The Cannibal South
An inferiority complex-ridden region depends on eating its own.
Five More I liked
Automate the CEOs
The one positive case for AI
We're All Mice Trying to Chew Through a Trillion Dollar Tree
You are in the same fight we are.
Housing Is a Labor Issue
Landlords are taking all our wage gains. It doesn't have to be this way.
It Would Be a Shame If You Sacrificed All This Good Domestic Policy In Order to Kill a Bunch of Kids
Biden is putting all his accomplishments at risk for a terrible reason.
We Don't Work For You If We Don't Work For You
On the boundaries of freelance employment.
My God.. I wrote a lot of other crap this year too, including
In These Times: At UFCW, A Reform Movement Rises
Can essential workers follow auto workers and revolutionize their union?
Defector: Men at Work
The Guardian: Americans are hungry to be part of unions.
So why is US labor so timid?
The Hammer: Power, Inequality, and the Struggle for the Soul of Labor will be published by Hachette Books on February 13. Available now for preorder.
The How Things Work Heroes of 2023
The How Things Work one piece of advice for 2024
Unionize your workplace.
The one thing you can do if you like to read How Things Work
Become a paid subscriber to help this site survive for another year. Doing this now will give you a good, lucky feeling going into the new year.
I have written thousands and thousands of stories for many different publications over the two decades of my writing career. But I have never had my own publication until this year, 2023. And I must admit that every single new subscriber here and every person who reads and shares the stories here feels much more special to me than those things have in the past. It’s nice. Thank you, with the utmost sincerity, to all of you who read this site. You have encouraged me that the dream of independent media is real. I hope you will keep reading, and I hope you will bring your friends. In 2024 we are going to the moon! Together.