Gizmos

Year-End Lists Are Best Served Cold

I love reading roundups of great new products—from decades past. You should do it, too.

A collage of Popular Science "Best of What's New" covers.
Photo illustration by Slate

One of my favorite things on the internet is a sort of anti-internet: the Popular Science magazine archives. Issues spanning much of their history, including May 1924 (the cover features an illustration of a honey bee) through March 2009 (the cover is a modern skyscraper), are available to scroll through on Google Books, ads and all. I began perusing the archives when I worked at the magazine part time as a fact-checker, probably after being sent there on a research mission. I might not have been looking for a greater sense of meaning in working on something as ephemeral as a monthly paper publication, but it’s what those archives gave me.

Among these archives is an annual end-of-year cover feature called Best of What’s New, comprising 100 items of consumer tech, engineering feats, and the odd scientific discovery. The year-end list is a staple of media that I have participated in from time to time as a writer (it is fun and pays) at Popular Science and other publications. As a savvy reader, I’ve found these lists more confounding: I was alive and present for this whole year, so I don’t necessarily need the highlights in bite-size form. (“I trust that the December 1988 issue’s ‘Best of What’s New’ will be the first and last,” wrote one reader after the inaugural edition, saying it felt like a rerun.) At best, they earn a flick-through from me. At least the current ones. But year-end lists consumed stale? I love them.

Today, that 1988 issue that the reader derided is a charming safari through tech of the past, the stuff that was considered the cream of the crop of its time. The issue highlights such innovations as an 18-pound portable computer (small enough for a briefcase, boasts 2 megabytes of memory), the first low-cost video phone (at $500, still a deal honestly), a typewriter that catches both punctuation errors and clichés, and an update to the seedless watermelon.

I like to imagine aliens coming upon the wreckage of our civilization and consulting these volumes to learn what we treasured enough to exalt at the end of the year, perhaps tracing the technological origin of our smartphone addiction through the ever-more-dynamic screens cozying up to our bodies, or the downfall of our planet with more technologies that pump emissions and trash into the world than those that recycle. The 1995 issue features a “TV on a rope,” which can hang around the wearer’s neck and receive a signal, as well as a small parking-lot worth of cars and related automobile innovations, one involving a cleaner gas that I have never even heard of, and a feeble solar-powered camera. In the 2001 edition, there’s a QWERTY keyboard on a pocket-size device, a spacecraft landing on an asteroid, and an updated Mini Cooper.

This  year’s Best of What’s New lives online only. “Why? Because our print editions are all designed to last five years, and a story about the top innovations of 2018 doesn’t fit that mold,” tweeted editor-in-chief Joe Brown. (Disclosure: I was slated to work on that story as a freelancer, until my schedule got too busy—a feature of Best of What’s New that distinguishes it from your average true internet listicle is the shocking amount of time compiling it takes). It makes sense: Pop Sci has moved from being near-monthly to just four issues a year, so having one pegged to the year’s end would feel kind of lopsided. In this ever-digitizing media landscape of fast news, magazines-as-coffee-table-books offer a clear alternative to fast internet media, and a reason to subscribe. But it’s kind of a shame: The temporal specificity that Best of What’s New always gave the annual December issue is what makes the actual magazines so fascinating and fun to look at years down the line. With this new direct-to-website model, I hope they at least store the lists somewhere safe for the future.