Better Living through Criticism

Acknowledging the realities of society and culture, constructive criticism offers readers the tools for thinking about their relationship to technology and their relationship to power. Beyond an intellectual argument, constructive criticism is embodied, practical, and accessible, and it presents frameworks for living with technology. The technology critic can provide readers tools for thinking about their relationship to technology. This approach starts from the assumption that people live in the midst of mobile devices, wearable sensors, cameras, RFID chips, and more, and it offers frameworks for judging those realities for ourselves.

Upon the departure of David Pogue and Walt Mossberg from their posts at The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, respectively, in 2013, Matt Buchanan wrote that the next great technology critic would not be a gadget reviewer: “The kind of technology guidance that consumers need today differs markedly from what they needed in 2006 . . . The most meaningful personal-tech decisions left for the average person to make, [are] about . . . an entire digital ecosystem that surrounds and permeates their life, and which will affect every other piece of technology that they buy.”175

Buchanan’s articulation identifies a need for more and different kinds of critical writing about technology as the questions we ask of it change and mature. Michael Sacasas echoes this need for balanced, nuanced criticism: “Neither unbridled optimism nor thoughtless pessimism regarding technology foster the sort of critical distance required to live wisely with technology.”176

Promoting Magic and Loss, Virginia Heffernan addresses some practical ways for people to stop feeling so guilty or ambivalent about their time online, which has been much pathologized.177 She writes: “Stop beating yourself up. The internet has a bad reputation for being a silly distraction, and people who like it are considered brain-damaged addicts. Once and for all, internet users: You’re not addicted or diseased; you’re enraptured. Pop culture is always said to be bad for you.” She invites readers to make the most of the internet that works for them: “Take the best and leave the rest . . . Find the channels that align with your integrity, and quit the rest. Life is too short to force yourself to tweet (or pin or post).”

Criticism, cultural or otherwise, is at its peak potential when it offers readers new ways of seeing, knowing, and experiencing that articulate an innate feeling, a concern, or question. As writer and critic Daniel Mendelsohn puts it: “What I was really learning from those critics each week was how to think. How to think (we use the term so often that we barely recognize what we’re saying) critically—which is to say, how to think like a critic, how to judge things for myself. To think is to make judgements based on knowledge: period.”178

Constructive criticism also has the potential to empower users to demand more of their own lives, and of technologies and institutions that shape them. A good template for this kind of criticism could be borrowed from other fields. For example, architecture critic Alexandra Lange describes the potential for criticism to empower readers with tools to see and judge the built environment for themselves, “to be able to recognize good planning and become advocates for it.”179 Like architecture criticism, technology criticism shares this empowering potential by offering the means to “recognize, articulate, and argue” for the technology we want to live with.180

Ursula Franklin extends the architectural metaphor, acknowledging the importance of understanding the built systems of technology all around us:

As I see it, technology has built the house in which we all live. The house is continually being extended and remodeled. More and more of human life takes place within its walls, so that today there is hardly any human activity that does not occur within this house. All are affected by the design of the house, by the division of its space, by the location of its doors and walls. Compared to people in earlier times, we rarely have a chance to live outside this house. And the house is still changing; it is still being built as well as being demolished.181

Technology is all around us. It is inextricably a part of our contemporary society. As Franklin suggests, technology is changing all the time, as do the ways we choose to live with it. Finding the means to articulate the nature and qualities of this change, whether political, economic, aesthetic, or otherwise, is arguably one of the most important tools for living.

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