How Zeynep Tufekci Keeps Getting the Big Things Right

And when it came to the pandemic, she sounded the alarm early while also fighting to keep parks and beaches open.

“I’ve just been struck by how right she has been,” said Julia Marcus, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School.

I was curious to know how Ms. Tufekci had gotten so many things right in a confusing time, so we spoke last week over FaceTime. She told me she chalks up her habits of mind in part to a childhood she wouldn’t wish on anyone.

“A bunch of things came together, which I’m happy I survived,” she said, sitting outside a brick house she rents for $2,300 a month in Chapel Hill, N.C., where she is raising her 11-year-old son as a single parent. “But the way they came together was not super happy, when it was happening.”

These are, by her lights, the ingredients in seeing clearly:

  • Knowledge that spans subject areas and academic disciplines, which she happened onto as a computer programmer who got into sociology.

  • A habit of complex, systems-based thinking, which led her to a tough critique in The Atlantic of America’s news media in the run-up to the pandemic.

Add those things to a skill at moving journalism and policy through a kind of inside game, and Ms. Tufekci has had a remarkable impact. But it began, she says, with growing up in an unhappy home in Istanbul. She said her alcoholic mother was liable to toss her into the street in the early hours of the morning. She found some solace in science fiction — Ursula K. Le Guin was a favorite — and in the optimistic, early internet.

In the mid-1990s, still a teenager, she moved out. Soon she found a job nearby as a programmer for IBM. She was an office misfit, a casually dressed young woman among the suits, but she fell in love with the company’s internal bulletin board. She liked it that a colleague in Japan wouldn’t know her age or gender when she asked a technical question.

She stumbled onto the wellspring of her career when she discovered an email list, the Zapatista Solidarity Network, centered on Indigenous activists in southern Mexico who had taken up arms against neoliberalism in general and land privatization imposed by the North American Free Trade Agreement in particular. For Ms. Tufekci, the network provided a community of digital friends and intellectual sparring partners.

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