Traps of Styles and Tactics

Most Critics perpetuate negative associations by using unexamined assumptions and ideologies. In this section, I list common fallacies and follies present in much contemporary, mainstream technology criticism. In doing so, I aim to both surface hidden patterns in the writing of current technology criticism and to empower future technology critics to avoid these traps. Further examples of common framing problems and clichés found in technology writing are provided in the style guide in Appendix B.

Style and Tactic Traps Questions to Ask of the Critics
Controversy and Counter-Narrative Is this a real concern, or is it an easy takedown of a trendy topic?
Missing People What do actual users think, and how do they use the technology?
Generalizing Personal Gripes Is this representative of a larger concern?
Cults of Personality, Bullying, and Misrepresentation Does focusing on this one person make us miss the bigger picture?
Preaching to the Choir What audience is this trying to convince?
Deconstruction Without Alternatives If this is the problem, what can we do about it?

Style and Tactic Trap: Controversy and Counter-Narrative

Ironically, mainstream technology criticism is itself a product of the internet and media conditions it seeks to criticize. Contrarian views are clickbait. They lead to totalizing headlines like “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”75 Critics have often fallen into the trap of the vacuum-filling, counter-narrative strategy to remind readers why they should all be worried.

Critical writing, particularly in the quick cycle of hot takes, has to garner attention. They rely on sensationalizing tactics, akin to those of cable news, as law professor and contributor to The New Yorker Tim Wu puts it in his review of Morozov’s book.76 Morozov’s vindictive personal attacks and counter-narrative arguments grab attention, and he’s successful because such controversy and contrarian headlines result in clicks.

Farrell dissects how contrarian and controversy tactics undermine critics’ messages, using Morozov as an example: “Morozov’s success shows how trolling can be a viable business model for aspiring public intellectuals . . . [Critics] work within the same system as their targets, in ways that compromise their rejoinders, and stunt the development of more useful lines of argument.”77 Morozov himself acknowledges this fact: “I’m very conscious of what I’m doing . . . I’m destroying the internet-centric world that has produced me. If I’m truly successful, I should become irrelevant.”78. While these strategies may draw attention to the problems that Critics raise, they end up doing more harm than good by clouding the argument and incensing their targets to the point of ignoring the message.

Style and Tactic Trap: Missing People

More than just missing the social and political factors that bring a technology into existence, Critics of technology often fail to address the people for whom the technology is made. In his review of Morozov’s To Save Everything, Alexis Madrigal points to the missing users: “Without a functioning account of how people actually use self-tracking technologies, it is difficult to know how well their behaviors match up with Morozov’s accounts of their supposed ideology.”79

Critics also tend to write in the idiomatic royal “we” without representing real users’ interests or perspectives. Madrigal again articulates the importance of talking to people: “It is in using things that users discover and transform what those things are. Examining ideology is important. But so is understanding practice.”80 Criticisms that don’t take people into account—either users themselves or the social systems in which they live—are functionally useless to readers, policymakers, and the creators of these technologies.

Much mainstream criticism also fails to understand the development cycle within technology companies. Most tech writers have not spent time working within a technology company, and they usually don’t gain access to developers, engineers, and designers within the company without careful mediation through corporate PR. So while Critics might be capable of writing more nuanced critiques that take into account the human side of technological development and management, this would require a greater degree of access and mutual trust between tech companies, reporters, and critics. For example, greater understanding of software development would lend more credibility and efficacy to outsider critiquesii.

Style and Tactic Trap: Generalizing Personal Gripes

Another common mode in mainstream technology criticism is for the Critic to generalize personal gripes about technology into blanket judgments about technological progress. This is the mode used by Franzen when he complains about Twitter, a technology that threatens his livelihood by distracting him from his writing practice and changing the way his readers consume media. It can also be seen in Morozov’s description of the safe in which he locks his internet router so he can write his damning screeds without distraction. Lanier has issued similar laments about the lost analog range in lossy, compressed music. And Carr has expressed his own wistful longing for the stick shift with which he learned to drive.

In this mode of mainstream criticism, Critics seem to worry about the collective present and future on our behalf, but they are actually worried about themselves. Morozov recognizes this, and so he has headed back to the academy to add further credibility to his gripes: “It is easy to be seen as either a genius or a crank. If you have a Ph.D., at least you somewhat lower the chances that you will be seen as a crank.”81 But even a Ph.D. can’t generalize the personal gripes that some Critics project onto the broader culture. Picture the Critic, sitting in his leather office chair, stroking his chin and milling over his analysis of society without evidence beyond his subjective experience. This is an association a number of my interviewees cited as a deterrent to being known as a Critic.

Style and Tactic Trap: Cults of Personality, Bullying, and Misrepresenting Ideas

Though it is important to understand the ideological positions of the titans of the tech industry, some technology Critics unduly focus attention on individual personalities in isolation from their contexts. Profiles and takedowns of Silicon Valley moguls like Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, Mark Zuckerberg, and Tim O’Reilly make for compelling (anti-)hero narratives, but they often miss the details of the larger system and the labor that surrounds them. These profiles also perpetuate the mystique of ownership and power attributed to these Silicon Valley leaders.

Morozov, in particular, is guilty of personal, vindictive, intellectual bullying of his targets, no matter what side of the argument they represent. Whether it’s commentators like Jeff Jarvis, Tim O’Reilly, and Clay Shirky, or the heads of technology companies, Morozov punches up, down, and sideways. One of Morozov’s mentors, Joshua Cohen, lifts the veil: “I don’t think he has written anything yet that withstands the kind of close critical scrutiny that he gives to other people’s work.”82 And despite his close attention, Morozov ends up “distorting their arguments (sometimes to the point of intimating that these people are saying the opposite of what they do say) . . . In ways that are both offensive and extravagantly wrong, Morozov tempts these intellectuals to respond in public.”83 And, Farrell argues, this continues the cycle of the clickbait attention economy.

Though a narrow focus on personalities can miss important context, this kind of criticism can also be an important corrective for the hero narrative so common in technology circles. For example, in writing for Valleywag, Sam Biddle and Nitasha Tiku took a tabloid approach to the industry, holding the industry to account for its hypocrisies, excess, and thinly veiled ideologies. Clearly critical, snarky, and often mean in the way many early Gawker network bloggers were, John Herrman and Elmo Keep both said they missed Biddle’s devotion to “slash in every direction.”84

Style and Tactic Trap: Preaching to the Choir

Mainstream critical writing performs well because it appeals to readers’ established positions and biases. Incendiary posts target skeptical readers likely to forward on these pieces to their family members. As Tim Wu puts it, “Because of its hostile and abstract air, the main audience for Morozov’s work won’t be Silicon Valley readers, but tech-hating intellectuals warmed by his attacks because they already despise Google, Twitter, and maybe just the West Coast in general.”84 These arguments do little to change minds. They dig deeper into an entrenched position, and they fall on deaf ears, thus minimizing their potential for impact.

Style and Tactic Trap: Deconstruction Without Alternatives

One of the most widely recognized Critics of technology has made it his mission to destroy the industry and everyone associated with it. Writing against what he calls “solutionist” thinking, i.e. that all problems are potentially solvable (and often with technology), Morozov facilely avoids offering alternative solutions. “Morozov insists that his refusal to be useful is its own kind of usefulness—and even, as he recently wrote in one of his essays for German newspapers, an intellectual duty.”86 Senior editor at The Nation Sarah Leonard acknowledges that Morozov’s tactics have their place: “Some people are just born critics. They’re not going to come up with the answers. That’s fine. If their critiques are sharp and intellectually productive, that’s great.”87 Heffernan adds of Morozov, “He put so much heavy twentieth-century pressure on these seemingly fragile forms.”88

Madrigal acknowledges, “It’s a lot to ask of a critic to both demolish the existing ideology of technology and replace it with something better, but Morozov has never had small ambitions.”89 Morozov’s critique of solutionism conveniently inoculates him from providing solutions or alternatives to the current state of technocratic thinking. Perhaps he offers different ways of thinking about technology and its capabilities for influencing and producing change, but these are little more than tools for thinking and certainly not tools for construction.

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