This section seeks to classify some of the tactics and approaches used to write about technology, drawing from the broader group of bloggers, journalists, academics, and even industry leaders who contribute to the critical discourse about technology. They do so by bringing certain critical lenses to bear on the challenges and problems that technology (and the social and cultural systems around technology) pose. For example, recapping the editorial approach of The Atlantic Tech, Madrigal wrote in 2012: “What does all this add up to? A project to place people in the center of the story of technology. People as creators. People as users. People as pieces of cyborg systems. People as citizens. People make new technologies, and then people do novel things with them. But what happens then? That’s what keeps us writing, and we hope what keeps you reading.”153
Critique of this kind does not exist in a vacuum. Most writers apply a lens of analysis to address a particular critique of technology. These writers care deeply about the ways technology operates in the context of particular social justice, economics, ethics, and historical framings. In this mode of criticism, academic disciplines and framings make their way into critical work in productive, illuminating ways. This section lays out the critical lenses that a wider set of writers are using to understand technology. These lenses include power, form, aesthetics, ideology, histories, and futures. Acknowledging these positions, frames, and points of view helps to clarify the contributions these critics make to the dialogue about technology.
What follows is a collection and classification of the ways technological critiques are applied and examined by a range of writers, drawing from a wealth of recent examples and topics covered by an expanding set of voices. These are not schools of thought in technology criticism, but rather vectors through which writers can approach any given technology in order to expand the inquiry beyond the technological object to include its social dimensions. Of course, these vectors are not mutually exclusive, and they are often deployed in tandem. The categorizations also map to further commentary in the annotated syllabus and suggested readings in Appendix A.
|Critical Lenses||Questions that Lenses Help Ask|
|Design and Form||How does the design, development, and structures of technology shape its nature, uses, and impact?|
|Reception and Use||What is it like to live with technologies? How are they adopted? How do people think about their own use of the technology in their lives? How do users’ practices and behaviors differ from those of technologists and designers?|
|Ideology and Rhetoric||What are the underlying assumptions and unspoken values behind technological change? What are the principles that guide engineers and investors, and shape the culture of technologists?|
|Power, Diversity, and Feminism||How are marginalized people represented in the design, development, and use of technologies? What are technologies’ relationships to power structures, and how are they employed as tools for control? How can designers better respond to and respect users’ diverse and dynamic needs?|
|Economics and Labor||If technologies disrupt markets, how do they do so? How does Silicon Valley influence the nature of work, both in building a new work culture and in supplanting traditional structures of institutional labor?|
|Humanities, Ethics, Aesthetics||How do we read technologies as texts? All technologies are human constructions, so how can we evaluate their ethics and aesthetics as such? How do technologies extend and constrain human experience?|
|History||What is uniquely innovative about new technologies? What can we learn from their predecessors? And what can we learn about the trajectory of technologies by looking both at successes and failures?|
|Futures||How do future scenarios help us think through social impacts and ethical questions in concrete, relatable ways? How can critics responsibly discuss future scenarios while avoiding sensationalized and reductive dystopian or utopian visions?|
Critical Lens: Design and Form
The design of technologies, their affordances and their defaults, encourage and direct users in specific ways. No technology operates outside its human creators. Critical work using this lens deconstructs the technical architectures and forms of meaning-making embedded in the formal structures of technology. Writer and technologist Paul Ford’s examination of Twitter for Bloomberg Businessweek elaborated on the complexity contained in a mere 140 characters.154 And my interviewees often referenced Ford’s longer interactive piece “What is Code?” as a clear, technical analysis of the shape and structure of contemporary systems.155 Many of the writers of formal technology criticism come from technical backgrounds and speak from the position of the engineer. Media studies and architectural criticism also influence material critiques.
Critical Lens: Reception and Use
Critique that focuses on users takes attention away from the innovation or the engineer behind technology and directs it toward the technology’s utility to people in the wild. Work in this lens looks at how technologies are adopted and how their use expands beyond their original intended purposes. Focusing on reception and use also puts novelty in the background and directs attention toward technologies that continue to be useful long after they are introduced or innovative. Critique here depends on embedded ethnographic or journalistic practice to understand users’ behaviors, as well as self-reflection on one’s own practices. It might also come straight from users, as was the case when Eric Meyer described his disturbing reminder of the death of his daughter in Facebook’s automatically generated year-in-review. He first shared this on his blog,156 after which Slate picked up and reposted the story on its website.157
Critical Lens: Ideology and Rhetoric
Critiques of the ideology and rhetoric of the tech industry and Silicon Valley take nothing for granted. Work in this lens considers the political positions of those shaping technological power, even when those voices purport to be apolitical. This kind of work questions underlying assumptions and positions taken as given. John Herrman suggests that this is the work of taking technologists’ proclaimed future projections seriously:
A lot of tech criticism clusters around these performances, either rejecting industry claims as brazen or arrogant or accepting them as inevitabilities. There is, of course, a third way to approach these claims and what results from them. To understand them as promises that might be kept, if possible. Or as threats that are, if not imminent, at least genuine. To less accept or reject than to just take it all very seriously.158
Writing about Google, media and law scholar Siva Vaidhyanathan describes ideological and rhetorical attention precisely: “We need to examine what Google has told us about itself, its means, and its motives as it makes the world anew in these ways, and to interrogate and evaluate both the consequences of Googlization and the ways we respond to it.”159 For example, Elmo Keep used an opportunity to follow aspiring politician and transhumanist Zoltan Istvan to discuss the life-extension libertarian values being explored in Silicon Valley.160
Nathan Heller shares his concern about unexamined jargon: “Certain of the industry’s buzzwords have gone mainstream. What does ‘innovation’ really mean? What constitutes ‘disruption’? Whatever specific meaning these terms may once have had is now completely lost; everybody and his sister tosses those words around, usually abstracted to the point of meaning nothing. That’s slightly unsettling to me: honored words that mean almost nothing can be very dangerous.”161
This work unravels founding myths and marketing jargon to get to the core issue at hand. Much of this work is supported by science and technology studies, critical theory scholarship, and intellectual history to follow the thread of ideas as they are applied and enacted in new contexts.
Critical Lens: Power, Diversity, and Feminism
Many writers have lamented the dominance of Silicon Valley’s white, male, hetero engineers who are building and testing technology for themselves, potentially missing the needs and concerns of other underrepresented populations. For example, writing for Bloomberg Businessweek, Vauhini Vara covered why black coders are scarce and harder to keep in the workforce, looking at specific initiatives at Howard University.162 These critiques often consider power and the possibility of oppression and coercion through technology. Many of these critiques stem from those underrepresented populations surfacing their concerns publicly to raise awareness of the problem and capture the attention of engineers who could change things. Rose Eveleth summarizes the primary question of this work: “Is this [technology] making things better for people? And who are those people?”163 She’s applied this to technologies that seek to track and manage bodies or that improve functionality and mobility as prosthetics that cannot anticipate all needs universally.
Critical Lens: Economics and Labor
Stemming from business coverage traditions, economic lenses “follow the money” behind the technology, looking at business models, funding, growth, competition, and monopolization cycles in the tech sector. These critical takes on the economics of technology go beyond absorbing the latest 10–K statement from Google and instead try to take a longer view of the business of technology. Writing that covers the economics and labor of technology takes as its subject both the disruption of traditional forms of work and the very nature of work in Silicon Valley. These writers address what happens when companies claim to support more perfect and natural markets, even though they still control the supply of goods through algorithms. This is an approach taken by Data & Society researchers Tim Hwang and Madeleine Clare Elish in their analysis of Uber’s market rhetoric.164 Or writers address the fallout effects of employment paradigms shifting toward gig work.
Critical Lens: Humanities, Ethics, Aesthetics
Looking to the humanities, one can read technologies as media artifacts that undergird, shape, and influence culture. Borrowing from art, media, and literary theory, these writers explore the formal structures and limitations of new technological forms, often placing them in dialogue with those that came before. Virginia Heffernan most explicitly tackles technological change through a humanist aesthetics of the internet in her book, Magic and Loss. Heffernan excels at tying things together, bringing canon into conversation with cat videos. Her description of the visceral experience of virtual reality in Oculus Rift draws on French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre’s La Nausée. She rediscovers Walter Benjamin’s lost aura in Etsy handmades and in tears spilled over a cracked iPhone.165
Critical Lens: History
The tech industry has a remarkably bad long-term memory, so everything old is new again. The last generation of tech only serves as the present state to be disrupted by the new. Paying attention to the history of new technologies—where they come from, how they are adopted, and even how they fail—gives us insight into our present technological moment and contextualizes trends that otherwise want to exist outside of any antecedent. Tom Standage, frustrated by the sense of breathless novelty in early internet coverage, looked to the telegraph to surface how global communication changed once before in The Victorian Internet. Clive Thompson, writing a regular column for The Smithsonian, starts with current trends of technological change and revisits the social concerns of their historical antecedents—from infographics to the photocopier to pneumatic tubes.
Critical Lens: Futures
No longer limited to works of science fiction, cultural writers are reporting from the unevenly distributed future by talking to real early adopters, and taking thought experiments to their logical conclusions to test if these are the futures that we want to build for ourselves. Entire publications like Gizmodo have reimagined themselves as future-oriented, changing their subhead from “Everything is technology” to “We come from the future” in the last year. Critical-future writers may not consider themselves “futurists,” but they are interested in telling stories that illustrate potential futures. Of his Real Future work for Fusion, Madrigal says, “Scenario planning and gaming out what might happen, you can actually make arguments that other people can’t make.”166 On her podcast Flash Forward, Rose Eveleth explains:
I lean on science fiction a lot to help me bend my mind to think about ways that different bits and pieces of our future technology might work, or shape us, and in particular I’ve been really interested in Afrofuturist writing recently, and have revisited Dark Matter and the more recent Octavia’s Brood for insights. But mostly I try to really talk to “regular” people as much as I can about how they view tech and what they struggle with or love or use.167