Technology Coverage Versus Technology Criticism

This report makes a key distinction between technology coverage as it is practiced by journalists, and technology criticism as it is practiced by critics. As this report will elaborate, coverage and criticism form a continuum and are not dichotomous categories, but it is worth elaborating these two ideal types, as well the spaces between them. The basic difference between coverage and criticism is the difference between describing what technology is versus what it all means.

objective subjective
facts opinions
reporting interpreting
fourth estate policy recommendation
agenda setting filling holes in public conversation
investigation synthesis
breaking trending
research analysis
impartial judging merits
tick-tock details commentary
neutral assessment
description deconstruction
impartial disapproving
watchdog fault-finding
article column or opinion
inverted pyramid argumentative essay
real-time long durée
concise nuanced

Journalism about technology looks like: reporting, facts, the fourth estate, agenda setting. This kind of writing is constrained by PR embargoes and exclusive access. It can suffer from regurgitating Silicon Valley jargon and from telling seductive stories, as in the case of Theranos being judged as a startup rather than a medical company. Producer and freelance writer Rose Eveleth points to the problem: “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.”11 Dave Lee, tech reporter for the BBC, further asks if the role of technology journalism is meant to be “reporting every concocted venture capital investment, or being the first draft of our digital history.”12

On the other hand, criticism about technology looks like: analysis, interpretation, commentary, judging merits, and unfavorable opinions. In the best cases, criticism offers the opportunity for context setting, and for asking questions beyond the tick-tock of technical development and into the how’s and why’s of a larger cultural shift. Criticism leaves room for interpretation, analysis, assessment, and more systematic inquiry. Popular criticism seeks to question established and unexamined knowledge—the assumptions and positions taken for granted. As author and contributor for The New York Times Virginia Heffernan reflects, criticism should “‘familiarize the unfamiliar’ and ‘de-familiarize the familiar.’”13

In other words, the critic articulates why we like the things we like, why we don’t like others, and poses possible explanations of what these artifacts say about our culture. While hesitant to describe his work as criticism, associate editor Robinson Meyer acknowledges some of the features of criticism The Atlantic Tech aims for: “We aspire to be essayistic; we aspire to be constellational in our thinking, and we aspire to be incisive and insightful. Those are all traits of criticism. A lot of our work also is about naming things that don’t have a name yet.”14

Criticism, in the context of technology, seeks to make meaning out of technological change. Contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired, Clive Thompson offers a concise vision of tech criticism as work that “wrestle[s] with this question of how tools and their affordances change and alter the fabric of everyday life . . . asking,] ‘How is technology affecting the warp and woof of everyday life?’”15 Meyer adds that tech critics “observe and pay attention to tools and objects of power as they come into the world . . . and imagine the application of those tools and extrapolate into how they’ll shift the environment around them to better understand what the good and bad of them [might be].”16

A critic of technology is not merely a gadget reviewer, weighing in on consumers’ decision to buy the latest bendable iPhone. Thompson explains the distinction, looking back to his time covering video games for Wired:

I insisted, pompously, that I was a critic and not a reviewer. The difference is a reviewer is trying to stay current and is interested in telling you whether or not something is worth your money. If something is a terrible game, they will say, “This is a terrible thing to play.” A critic is someone who is interested in the meaning of games and so it doesn’t matter whether or not the game is any good. I would frequently write about terrible games because they did something that was interesting.17

Though criticism and coverage may share subjects and space in the same publications, both forms follow a similar path as their relationship to the tech industry matures and evolves.

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