Covering tech? You might want to lighten up

What’s the difference between journalism and criticism? The division is baked into many newsrooms, where reporters are expected to remain as objective as possible and reveal bias where it exists, while critics rely on the strength of their opinions and the arguments underpinning them.

Nowhere is this as evident as in technology writing, where criticism is often seen as standing against progress. Tech critics cry that smartphones are ruining our brains, that Facebook is making us lonely, that Google is making us stupid. In a recent report, Tow Fellow Sara Watson counters the narrative that criticism has to be pessimistic. There is a lot of room, she argues, for thoughtful criticism that lands somewhere between ominous narratives written by luddites and the latest gadget review, noting that this type of constructive tech criticism has the potential to shape the discourse and future of tech.

Constructive criticism, Watson writes, “skews toward optimism, or at least toward an idea that future technological societies could be improved.” By meeting readers in their daily experience of technology, it offers “tools and framings for thinking about their relationship to technology and their relationship to power. Beyond intellectual arguments, constructive criticism…offers frameworks for living with technology.”

Technology writers have a great opportunity to collaborate with engineers and the like to shape the future of tech, rather than portray it as corrosive to humanity. As technology is increasingly integrated into our lives, the work of both the journalist and the critic to document and direct it. The idea isn’t to upend the hard-won skills of balance and reporting. It’s to see criticism as a constructive part of the reporting process, a way for journalists and others to contribute, not just to gadget reviews but to a robust sense of technology, how people use it, and how it could be better.

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In part because of the stigma that surrounds tech criticism, Watson notes, there are few incentives to contribute to the public discourse around technology. Many academic, bloggers, and even reporters do critical work, yet few technology writers identify with the title of critic, preferring to be thought of primarily as reporters. Clive Thompson, a longtime technology writer for New York Times Magazine and Wired, told Watson that he thinks of himself as “really straightforwardly a journalist.”

As a result, the crew of recognizable tech critics, including Sherry Turkle, Nicholas Carr, and Evgeny Morozov, is relatively small. They aren’t speaking to the masses, or even the Silicon Valley folks, Watson notes; they are speaking to each other.

Tech criticism must aim to open up the conversation, not to close it, Watson argues. She suggests that headlines are part of the problem. Rather than “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” a publication might ask: “How Are We Using Facebook?” It’s not the sexiest headline, but Watson notes it might lead to a more productive conversation.

Last week, the Tow Center for Digital Journalism hosted a panel on Watson’s work that brought together some exemplary figures representing the diverse forms that positive technology criticism can take. Panelist Virginia Heffernan described herself as an unusual critic in that she is “dazzled” by new technology, rather than skeptical. Heffernan argues that we should see the internet as art, and bring the tools of cultural criticism to bear on the online world.

At the panel, she emphasized that, with citizen journalists taking videos of breaking news all over the world, reporters must increasingly focus on interpreting material, rather than finding it. We don’t need more video from Syria, Heffernan said; we need journalists to be able to read that video and its metadata, verify it, and put it in context. And interpreting images is the work of the critic. “When you’re reporting on images, you’re also doing criticism.”

Another panelist, Rose Eveleth, runs the podcast Flash Forward, in which each episode starts with a scene from the future. This allows Eveleth to experiment with fictional ideas about where technology might go. Eveleth said she is able to follow this creative impulse because podcasters develop a unique trust with their listeners; her audience agrees to go where she wants to take them. “There’s so much glittery, breathless writing about technology that fails to slow down and think about why we’re making these things, who we’re making them for, and who we’re leaving out when we make them,” Eveleth told Watson.

Panelist John W. Herrman, a David Carr Fellow at The New York Times and former co-editor of The Awl, concurred. He shared advice from a colleague not to go into writing with a piece of technology of mind, but to start by embedding himself among people, which will inevitably lead to technology. When covering tech, either as a reporter or a critic, journalists should accept and work with what they typically resist, Hermann said, arguing that “to write about technology is to be constantly disoriented.”

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Nausicaa Renner is editor of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism’s vertical at Columbia Journalism Review. She tweets at @nausjcaa.