Strategies for Constructive Technology Criticism
Here I present a few strategies and principles for writing and thinking about constructive technology criticism. These strategies are synthesized from exemplary work that exhibits these features, from my research interviews with journalists and editors, and from theoretical material on criticism more broadly. Writers and editors eager to take criticism to the next level might use these principles as a starting point for framing and directing critical work.
Rather than pitting stakeholders against each other, constructive criticism brings stakeholders together. In “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam,” foundational science and technology studies theorist Bruno Latour outlines what could be described as a constructive vision for all criticism: “The critic is not the one who debunks, but the one who assembles. The critic is not the one who lifts the rugs from under the feet of the naïve believers, but the one who offers the participants arenas in which to gather.”169 Constructive criticism offers technologists framings that are novel and useful for thinking about their products and their users, bringing ideas together rather than tearing them apart.
Henry Farrell offers, “Criticism should start from the premise that people will disagree, often for good reason, and seek to sharpen that disagreement in useful ways rather than to wave it way.”170 Rather than shutting down conversations, or posing takedowns that are impossible to engage constructively, technology critics might frame their work to invite conversation, and back and forth.
Constructive criticism can start by asking better questions. Better questions are open questions, rather than closed ones with foregone conclusions or judgments already embedded from the start. Betteridge’s law of headlines applies here: Most headlines phrased as questions can usually be answered, “No.”171 A more mature criticism of technology doesn’t ask whether Google is making us stupid, but rather asks why editors and readers are prone to posing these questions in the first place.
LACKING: Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?
BETTER: How Are We Using Facebook?
Surfacing Values and Ideology
Constructive technology criticism resolves the tension between technological progress and a desire to improve and build the tools we want and need. Constructive technology criticism acknowledges that technological change is a process and is not inevitable, and therefore it can be approached with a sense of curiosity and dialogue rather than deconstruction or rejection.
Constructive technology criticism deals with questions of practice, ethics, adoption, and use. The normative work of the critic is to surface values, both those of users and those of the makers of technology. So often these values are implicit in the technocratic promise of pure objectivity and market forces. But those values often obscure the more political and social needs of users, as well as the biases that engineers take for granted. Critics can articulate and name emerging norms and values. As we adopt new technologies, our expectations of ourselves and others change. We learn to use new tools, and new behaviors emerge. Norms around those behaviors follow subtly and slowly. They are often the unspoken rules of engagement. The constructive technology critic can help us articulate and understand those behavioral and ethical changes.
The constructive critic needs to be precise in her criticism. Karen Levy puts it perfectly when commenting on the streak of outraged takes that ignored the context of a particular mandatory fitness tracking scheme in a college. She writes:
Tech criticism often stands in for more generalized complaints about the state of the world. When we get anxious about data collection or electronic surveillance or algorithmic decision-making, we may be less worried by the technology per se than by what it signifies. It’s about impersonality and bureaucracy; it’s about quantification and the flattening of social experience; it’s about neoliberalism and the intensifying concentration of capital. To be sure, new technologies might illuminate the scope and reach of these dynamics into our daily lives, or represent their intrusion into formerly sacred spheres. And in doing so, tech might exacerbate the inequities and injustices that these systems wreak on our world. So technology is not a strawman here—far from it. But we should be clear about which quality of a specific tech it is, precisely, that raises our hackles.172
Anil Dash echoes the need for precision when talking about technology companies that play many different roles, explaining what describing them as the “tech industry” obscures: “Rather than accepting that a company like Facebook, which knows more about our personal lives than any entity that’s ever existed, is simply ‘tech,’ we should talk about it as an information broker, as an agent of government surveillance, as a media publisher, as a producer of unmanned drones, or in any other specific description that will assign appropriate accountability and context to their actions.”173
This attention to precision is reflected in the work of writers and thinkers who draw on their technological or entrepreneurial expertise, such as Paul Ford and Anil Dash, or on their expert knowledge of surrounding social and political systems, such as Sarah Jeong’s work on tech law for Motherboard.
Being a constructive critic also means being generous. Constructive criticism acknowledges that the people behind these often demonized, monolithic companies are doing their best, and with good intentions. Instead of tearing down their stupidity and shortsightedness, constructive feedback may mean critics have a receptive audience not only among the users of the technology, but also among its creators. The most satisfying response to a piece of criticism can be an admission from inside the industry that says, “Yes, this is a tough nut to crack.” The constructive critic has done something to help articulate the problem better and perhaps even offer alternatives. Criticism that treats the entire technology industry like an easy target full of engineers with misguided intentions does not foster dialogue.
The constructive critic writes in the space of high-minded, intellectual audiences and captures the ethos of a wider readership, offering concrete ways of addressing the problems with technology.
For the most part, society has accepted many technologies as inevitabilities, as foundational structures upon which contemporary life relies. Criticism that only offers rejection doesn’t do us much good in the real world. Criticism that instead takes into account the realities and practicalities of users’ lives guides readers in choosing how to use technologies for themselves, and can also influence how technologies are designed to meet users’ needs.
Constructive technology criticism is actionable. Constructive technology criticism is more than an intellectual exercise, naming phenomena with a catchy label. Policies can be changed. Designs can be influenced. Consumers can make more informed choices. Users can be more conscious of their practices and behaviors.
Constructive technology criticism is realist. It is situated not in ideals, but in grounded experience.
Constructive criticism poses alternative possibilities. It skews toward optimism, or at least toward an idea that future technological societies could be better than today’s.
For inspiration, critics might look to literary critic and theorist Northrop Frye, who says that out of the current condition of society, criticism constructs “a vision of the society we want to live in.”174 Beyond naming a problem, constructive technology criticism can pose alternatives to better address the gaps in our technological needs. Alternatives may not be fully fledged solutions, but they are a step in a different direction. They could take the form of a policy recommendation or a concrete design fix. Sometimes alternatives may be nothing more than a thought experiment. The constructive critic addresses the inevitable question, “What do we want instead?”
Helping readers imagine alternatives to the things that aren’t quite working is one significant lever for holding technological institutions accountable. If critics offer an alternative or demand a choice, companies are forced to consider their options. It’s stronger than a deconstruction or a teardown. The constructive critic influences the future direction of technologies by generating consumer demand for change. That might look like anything from asking Uber to show customers their passenger scores to demanding that Facebook set up more user-friendly privacy settings with concrete illustrations of their effects. Once readers are given the tools or seeded with the alternatives, demand for change can grow.
To be fair, knowing what the positive, constructive alternatives could be is the hardest question to answer, and that’s especially hard if you are writing as a journalist. Where should these alternatives live, only in the opinion section? And writers posing ideas for alternative structures might better be incentivized to build those alternatives themselves, as entrepreneurs with VC funding, rather than writing about it for pennies per word.