Reluctant Critics

I found through my interviews that who gets to or wants to contribute to the critical discourse as a “Critic” is limited. With a few prominent voices leading the charge of mainstream technology criticism, many writers I spoke with wanted to avoid associations with the problematic styles, tactics, and traps I describe above. I found that many journalists and bloggers are thus reluctant to associate with criticism, and only few identify with the title of “Critic.”

Given the shortcomings of the recognized Critics, it’s no wonder that journalists and bloggers covering the tech beat are reticent to take up the criticism cause. But my work uncovered an emerging cohort of writers who are bringing a critical approach to their writing, and their work exemplifies some of the best technology criticism today. Recognizing their contributions to technology criticism as examples in practice helps to build a more evolved notion of technology criticism as a whole. Regardless of their titles, these writers are taking positions and making editorial choices that do the important work of critique by holding power accountable, by introducing and expanding upon ideas, and even through deep investigative reporting. Each of these journalistic efforts contributes to critical discourse in meaningful ways. At the center of their work, they are giving readers tools for thinking about how we relate to technology, how we use it, and how it impacts our lives.

Virginia Heffernan’s Twitter bio encapsulates many writers’ hesitation to don the critical mantle. She has described herself as “something like a critic.”106 Magic and Loss strongly stakes her claim as a technology critic, however hesitant she might be. Though she may not read like Morozov or Turkle, her work widens the current understanding of what technology criticism can be, and what it can do to help readers understand the world. Heffernan shares “the deep feeling that digitization has cost us something very profound.” But she also encourages readers to relish new forms of media. Her passion for her subject pulls technology criticism out of a relentlessly pessimistic spiral.107

The more helpful and subtle contributors to technology criticism I uncovered in my research wouldn’t necessarily call themselves critics. They are writers like Rebecca Solnit and Astra Taylor, whose title is author rather than critic. Or they are journalists like Clive Thompson, Alexis Madrigal, and Virginia Heffernan, who are covering technology and culture. They are polymath designers, technologists, and writers like Robin Sloan, Craig Mod, and Paul Ford. They are academics like Kate Crawford or Zeynep Tufekci.

When pushed on their reluctance to be called critics, much of it is due to a commitment to reporting. Thompson, who frequently does the work of contextualizing new technologies and their meanings, is adamant that he thinks of himself as “really straightforwardly a journalist.”108 Robinson Meyer shares, “What I do, I think of mostly as technology journalism, honestly, because it’s a less pretentious title [than technology criticism] . . . A lot of what we do can fall under the mantle of technology criticism. We tend to talk about it in terms of journalism.” He adds:

The critic sits somewhere and has ideas, and a journalist or a reporter gets out into the world and finds things then discards them, continually having to shuttle your work into the world, continually having to shuttle your thoughts with what you’re seeing in the world . . . Having to talk to other people using the things and seeing how it works in real life and how people feel empowered by it and how people feel disempowered by it—I think that tends to make work better. That tends to improve ideas and bring in new ones.109

Michael Keller adds that he associates a Critic as a columnist with an identifiable voice. “Food critics, technology critics, they are almost like columnists because they have personalities. A reporter doesn’t view him or herself as having a personality in that same way.”110 Though many journalists shy away from acknowledging any bias or position, Max Read encourages more to do so:

It is important that writers and journalists take sides and say, “Not everything is going to be great. Not everything is great.” Especially as Silicon Valley . . . sucks up into itself and starts publishing everything directly on Medium and refuses to even engage with journalism. I think the last thing that journalism has in that case—if it has lost all access—is the rhetorical ability to make a case. That is probably flattering to think that “by the force of my pen I might take down Marc Andreessen,” but it’s about all I have left.111

Though Clive Thompson exclusively identifies as a reporter, his cultural-trends pieces rely on in-depth interviewing and near-ethnographic understanding of users’ behaviors with and interests in technology.112 He also draws on history to tie trends back to their precedents and precursors. It is hard not to see the contributions to cultural criticism in his work, however thoroughly reported it is. Alexis Madrigal still thinks of himself as an “aughts blogger,” starting with an idea and working outward from there. He shares, “I grew up, and probably still am at heart, more an aughts blogger than I am a pure play journalist . . . I think of that as a specific genre practically where you basically had thoughts and then did reporting around them.”113 Though he often speaks to designers and users and develops a story, Madrigal’s approach to writing leans toward the analytic aspects of criticism rather than straight storytelling. Morozov, a self-styled critic, acknowledges he does not report, but only researches and theorizes based on what has already been put out in the world. While their sources and methods differ, these writers’ work is idea-driven.

Matt Buchanan points to a wholly different group of critics as inspiration for what’s missing from technology criticism today: “I aspire to be more like Susan Sontag and Hannah Arendt. That’s probably where technology critics should be aspiring to . . . What is On Photography, but a huge tract of technology criticism? That’s where I think tech critics should be drawing from increasingly, Susan Sontag, and not Walter Mossberg.”114

Sontag defined photography and its relationship to art forms that came before it and gave us language to address the aesthetic and ethical questions surrounding photographic practice. “In teaching us a new visual code, photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe,” Sontag wrote. “They are a grammar, and even more importantly, an ethics of seeing.” Virginia Heffernan recognizes the potential for this approach, and explicitly ties her recent work to this lineage of cultural criticism.115

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