From Backend Systems to Back Pockets: A Brief History of Technology Coverage

Technology, and its media coverage, has changed in the last twenty years. The magazine Wired came of age moments before the dot-com bubble started blowing up. As one of the first magazines on the web, and the first with banner ads, Wired and HotWired bridged the print world and the frontier of online technology journalism. It was one of the first mainstream venues to focus on consumer technology, albeit only for consumers of a certain affluent and connected class. Before Wired, technology coverage had been largely left to publications of the International Data Group publishing consortium, like ComputerWorld, InfoWorld, and CIO, going back as early as 1967. Managed by an offshoot of the technology company International Data Corporation, these trade press publications were written for and by the industry itself. Thus, technology coverage had been mostly targeted at industry professionals or the Silicon Valley subculture (such as readers of the Whole Earth Catalog).

The optimistic and gadget-loving ethos of Wired spawned more niche technology blogs covering the proliferation of consumer devices. With the popularization of platforms like WordPress and Blogger, media corporations began to take blogging seriously as a new venue for niche content. Gadget blogs emerged that catered to geeks who were already spending time on their computers at home and at work. The gadget-market advertising dollars rolled in. Gizmodo launched in 2002 just moments after the first bubble, and Engadget began two years later in 2004.

At its peak, the rivalry between Gizmodo and Engadget inspired a 2008 Wired article depicting boys wandering the booths of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), shouting expletives and throwing gang signs at each other. Former co-editor of The Awl Matt Buchanan got his start at Gizmodo and recalled what it was like to cover CES: “It was like the fucking Super Bowl. You just needed as many bodies as possible to cover as much of the floor as possible.”18 As an indication of how much journalistic coverage of technology has changed since then, Buchanan notes that it is now almost considered a mark of shame to be sent to cover CES.19

Buchanan, recalling those early days before the iPhone came out, says:

We didn’t realize it at the time. We were at the forefront of how people were changing . . . how everything was going to work. We were chronicling the front lines of that, and we didn’t even realize it . . . I started at Gizmodo in December of '06. One year before the iPhone came out. When I first started, you still wrote about MP3 players and Nokia N95. Big screen TVs were still a thing that were worth waxing on and on about.20

The relationship between technology and everyday life began to change profoundly when the iPhone reached saturation in the mobile phone market. The iPhone meant anyone, not only businessmen with BlackBerries, could be connected all the time. Anyone could have access to mobile computing power. The line between enterprise technology and personal computing blurred as consumer devices and cloud services made it easier for users to switch between contexts. Alexis Madrigal points to this as an important shift for readers of technology coverage. He notes that:

[Coverage changed] once people started using cellphones all the time and encountered all of the wonders and complexities and problems of that. Technology reporting—if that was basically hagiography technology—just stopped working. People were like, “Bullshit. That’s not the only way that could work. I have a phone. I know how this goes. I spend sixteeen hours a day engaged in technology. You can’t tell me there’s only going to be good things that are going to come out of it.”21

Readers of technology coverage were now a little closer to technology, and for more parts of their daily lives. And technology became something more people talked about and cared about. People all over the world joined Facebook as it opened beyond college email addresses.

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