I doubt this will ever rise to the status of “controversy” but a piece on the CJR Website--for Columbia Journalism Review--raises the question. Are some writers going out of bounds by criticizing technology rather than simply reporting it? What ought they be doing?
Writer Nausicaa Renner, associate editor at CJR and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, writes that sometimes “criticism is often seen as standing against progress." Used as examples was a 2012 story in The Atlantic that suggested Facebook is making us lonely, and another Atlantic article, from 2008, asking if Google is making us stupid.
Renner brings this up because a colleague, Sara Watson, took a deeper dive into the topic, studying the history and evolution of technology coverage in a paper called “Toward A Constructive Technology Criticism.”
Watson says a lot of tech bloggers offer opinions, but don’t want to be called critics, and secondly, that many of them associate “criticism” with negative opinion, rather than a chance to make an optimistic, constructive appraisal.
“Technology criticism evokes visions of loom-smashing Luddites and told-you-so Cassandras,” Watson writes. “Something about criticism in the context of technology seems to suggest that technological change is problematic, or something to be resisted entirely. Yet other forms of cultural criticism don’t share this fault-finding burden. In other contexts, criticism is understood to be thoughtful consideration and close analysis rather than oppositional judgment and rejection.”
But as years have gone on covering the inner workings (or not) of technology morphed in what seems to me to be a pretty logical next step: What does all this stuff mean? It's a question journalists and deep thinkers ask. It's also one people in the business ask every day, with varying degrees of seriousness.
“Today the technology beat focuses less on the technology itself and more on how technology intersects with and transforms everything people care about—from politics to personal relationships,” Watson writes.
“Many of the writers I spoke with acknowledged that covering technology has matured beyond just writing about tech as a subject—the ‘tech beat.’
She quotes an Atlantic editor, Robinson Meyer who says, “There’s just this understanding now that technology is necessarily intersectional …It got boring just writing about technology all the time, and it stopped being new, so it was like, ‘Where do people go now?’ The answer is understanding what [tech] crosses over with, what [tech] intersects with.”
Oh, is that so? Columbia sponsored a panel on Watson’s work. I wasn’t there but it would take quite a few panel discussions to figure out how tech coverage is changing and how it ought to change.
It seems from my very outside view, that a lot of technology coverage comes from a mainly positive and possibly way too positive point of view. I think that’s a pretty wise, protecting-your-ass stance that filters down, or comes up from, the people who produce it. Predicting the technology consumers actually want, and predicting what technology will be able to do, is just such a trick bag. Is something good? Bad? It is truly hard to say.
Great post, PJ. And I agree with you.
The way I see it is that tech ventures invest vast sums of money telling us how amazing their products are. And, from my time in tech, a major part of the time their products are vaporware or don't achieve the big social claims they make (remember when computers were supposes to eliminate paper? Or Uber was for the little guy just wanting to make a little bit of money?)
For example, I've dug into the amazing hype around Amazon. Now Amazon is a valuable part of the market. But they aren't what they claim - nor what so many writers claim for them. Balance is important - and without balance I see corporations wasting billions of dollars they'll never get back based on exaggerated theories of tech.
Here's what I wrote about Amazon - especially not that they have never made profit on online retailing and still have no business model that makes money there. In fact, their investors are subsidizing exaggerated services (like Prime) that take business away from other retailers but are not sustainable in the long run. Where is the press on this one?
AMAZON – RETAIL’S 800-POUND GORILLA…OR CRAFTY COYOTE?
The publishers at the bottom of the food chain, are laughing right now.