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The Markup’s Year in Illustration: 2023

Some of our most compelling illustrations that we published this year

Illustration by Gabriel Hongsdusit; animation by Joel Eastwood

While generative AI actively seeks to devalue creative work, we turn to illustrators and their expertise to amplify and improve our reporting on technology. Illustration is a powerful storytelling tool at The Markup, where our investigations tend to be about things happening behind screens and browser windows, invisible or seemingly innocuous to the naked eye. 

This year, artists have helped us bring readers into these complex stories. An arresting image of pop-ups and vignettes of people in crisis, inspired by Dutch graphic artist MC Escher, tells a story of how suicide hotlines are sending sensitive data to Facebook. Or an illustration of an ethereal floating caterpillar, referencing the timeless children’s book by Eric Carle, invites readers to learn more about ChatGPT’s complicated ability to create bedtime stories. I also illustrated a zine on how we illustrate tech and AI at the Markup.

Here is a sampling of some of the most evocative illustrations that we published this year, and the stories that accompany the art. 

Ariel Davis created a tapestry of skin tones, hairstyles and facial features in this captivating illustration about a database of mugshots being used to train AI.

Special Database 18
The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has maintained a dataset of mugshot photos of 1,573 people for decades, including 175 minors—until we asked about them

Illustration of a mosaic, with each square being a crop of a different person's mugshot. There is a variety of skin tones and facial features. There are bright green overlays on top analyzing the facial features.
Caption: Credit:Ariel Davis

For this guide on collecting data from internet plans, we wanted to show that it was accessible and participatory—almost like playing a video game; Joi Fulton’s 3-D character acts as a delightful stand-in for the reader.

Slow Internet? Find Out What Side of the Digital Divide You’re On
All you need to test for disparities in internet speeds and pricing is a computer, internet access, a Google account, and some free time

Illustration of a character behind a computer with a puzzled look on their face. There are two bubbles to the left and right of them containing different internet plan information and numbers.
Caption: Credit:Joi Fulton

Brian Britigan took a cinematic approach to visualizing algorithmic discrimination. Our wide-shot perspective shows a Black woman blocked by imposing survey questions and scores, while a White person walks toward the light in the distance, no obstacles in sight.

A Racially Biased Scoring System Helps Pick Who Receives Housing in L.A.
And it’s probably happening in your community too

Illustration of a Black woman pushing up against an enlarged square with the number 7 on it. There is a white person walking over the squares as steps in the background. On each square are survey questions.
Caption: Brian Britigan

Each time you load a page with ads, a lightning-fast auction takes place to determine what targeted ad will appear. Taking inspiration from Alice in Wonderland, we came up with an underground auction of jelly bean characters to explain the process.

How Your Attention Is Auctioned Off to Advertisers
In mere milliseconds, online advertisers scrutinize your personal data and bid for your eyeballs

Digital illustration of a hologram of a person's head, with glowing blobs emitting around it. The hologram is surrounded by bean characters who are staring at it.
Caption: Credit:Gabriel Hongsdusit

The ghostly, hypnotizing TV screen in Anson Chan’s illustration reminds me of the movie Poltergeist and does a fabulous job of showing how a smart TV watches you as much as you watch it.

Your Smart TV Knows What You’re Watching
Here’s how to turn off “automated content recognition,” the Shazam-like software on smart TVs that tracks what you’re watching

Digital illustration of a living room, where the furniture and objects are being sucked pixel by pixel into a television displaying a bright white screen
Caption: Credit:Anson Chan

To show how we illustrate tech and AI at The Markup, I created a zine heavily inspired by manga, featuring The Markup’s name in kanji, Chinese characters used in Japanese, and rough thumbnail sketches of illustrations that we’ve published.

Zine: How We Illustrate Tech (and AI) at The Markup
A lot of what we cover is tough to visualize. We’ve developed a number of tricks to help—and a comic to tell you all about them

Illustration featuring panels of rough pencil sketches of illustrations that The Markup has published. Overlaid in the center of the image are the Chinese characters 置標 which translate to “The Markup.”
Caption: Credit:Gabriel Hongsdusit

Eva Redamonti’s Escher-like maze is a rich, dizzying composition of vignettes on a sensitive subject that’s difficult to illustrate: suicide hotlines.

Suicide Hotlines Promise Anonymity. Dozens of Their Websites Send Sensitive Data to Facebook
The Markup found many sites tied to the national mental health crisis hotline transmitted information on visitors through the Meta Pixel

Surreal digital illustration of various vignettes and closeups of people in pain and suffering. At the center of the composition is a phone showing a text conversation with a crisis center.
Caption: Credit:Eva Redamonti

I love how Victor Bizar Gómez plays with scale in this illustration; the menacing size of the policeman spying on a Latine jogger adds so much tension to this image.

How Ring Cameras Have the Power to Perpetuate Bias to Police
Cops already listen to the needs of wealthy and White residents far more than that of people of color. Tech companies threaten to make the problem worse in the way they share community surveillance.

Digital illustration of an oversized male police officer holding a Ring device like a magnifying glass. The Ring device is emitting a red ray of light over a brown-skinned jogger, who is looking back at him.
Caption: Credit:Victor Bizar Gómez

Privacy policies are dense, dry documents. For this guide, I wanted a visual that broke down the different sections of a privacy policy in a fun, unexpected way, taking cue from the color palette and aesthetic of Nickelodeon cartoons.

How to Quickly Get to the Important Truth Inside Any Privacy Policy
An investigative data journalist and a former tech lawyer teach you how to spot tricks and hidden disclosures within these interminable documents—and even how to claw back some privacy

Digital illustration of a phone displaying a privacy policy, with various parts of it highlighted and annotated with numbers. Behind the phone are 6 vignettes that are numbered. The first vignette shows a car with a dashed line pointing to a location symbol. The second vignette shows a series of spheres on a conveyer belt passing through a machine; they end up as cubes. The third vignette is a bunch of browser windows with little fuzzballs interspersed among them. The fourth vignette shows two hands about to shake, and dollar signs are behind them. The fifth vignette shows a room, with eyes peering in the back of the room. The sixth vignette shows a black tentacle creature chasing a blue cursor character.
Caption: Credit:Gabriel Hongsdusit

Jarred Briggs’ interpretation of the limits of AI cancer detection technology through pixelating an X-ray is an elegant solution in this clever visual, and reinforces the fact that the most important part of this story is the person, not the AI.

An AI Diagnosed Her with Breast Cancer. Then She Ran an Experiment to See How Accurate It Was
A conversation with Meredith Broussard

Digital illustration of a woman, with her left hand holding her elbow. There are magnifying glasses to each side of her showing a closeup of her X-ray, but the image is being dissolved into pixels.
Caption: Credit:Jarred Briggs

Sean Oh’s beautiful, graphic illustration of an AI caterpillar (an homage to the illustrator Eric Carle) has so much soul. Its interplay of tactile textures, patterns and marks is a reprieve from the lifeless hyperrealism conjured up by generative AI.

The Very Hungry Algorithm: Bedtime with ChatGPT
Balancing enthusiasm and fear in the age of AI

image with purple/blue background with starts in the sky of a child on a bed looking at a computer generated catepillar
Caption: Credit:Sean Oh

The moody, chilling lighting in Adrián Astorgano’s endless library of heads heightens the drama in this eerie illustration about the ways ad companies, represented by spooky scientists in this case, package, describe, and commoditize you.

From “Heavy Purchasers” of Pregnancy Tests to the Depression-Prone: We Found 650,000 Ways Advertisers Label You
A spreadsheet on ad platform Xandr’s website revealed a massive collection of “audience segments” used to target consumers based on highly specific, sometimes intimate information and inferences

Digital illustration of scientists analyzing a wall filled with boxes containing human heads. Some scientists have clipboards, others are picking up the heads off the shelves.
Caption: Credit:Adrián Astorgano

Visualizing big tech companies like Meta can often lead us to cliches like blue thumbs and angry emojis. Julia Galotta’s creature hiding in the shadows is a memorable representation of a presence that is silently monitoring and tracking teenagers. The monster, who is literally absorbing into itself everything this girl has read online, is a great metaphor for the ubiquity and massive size of online tracking.

Facebook Watches Teens Online As They Prep for College
An investigation by The Markup found Meta’s pixel tracking students from kindergarten to college

A children’s book style illustration of a child reading a textbook online, as a scary monster sucks up all her browser history, simulating the way the online trackers on popular kids websites quietly suck up identifying information about youth.
Caption: Credit:Julia Galotta

Allison Vu depicted intergenerational communication beautifully in this stunning illustration about misinformation in Vietnamese American communities. I’m especially impressed by its restrained color palette and rich detail in the facial features of the depicted women.

Second-Generation Americans: What to Do When Loved Ones Are Sharing Misinformation
Don’t get into a political argument. Talk about misinformation instead

Illustration of a young Asian woman holding an umbrella while walking with an older Asian woman; both are being shielded by falling exclamation points and YouTube thumbnails
Caption: Credit:Allison Vu
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