Where Critics Publish

Where does technology criticism and coverage live? Or rather, where are critics and journalists publishing about technology? This section surveys the places where criticism and coverage is thriving. Criticism exists in a wide range of formal and informal publications and in a range of media formats. Cobbled together from variety of sources, readers face a loose agglomeration that constitutes a body of technology criticism. The proliferation of venues and voices results in a seeming lack of coherence and a diffuse sense of the critical enterprise itself. Eveleth echoes this observation that criticism lacks a common venue: “I think so much of it happens on Twitter and not in defined journalistic spaces.”133

Virginia Heffernan’s work is an example of the hybrid venues that are evolving for criticism. She came to technology criticism by way of reviewing the screens that were becoming the new form of television as The New York Times’s television critic in her Medium column in the Sunday magazine. She, among others like Joanne McNeil and Robin Sloan, recently wrote for The Message, a collection on the platform Medium (which is discussed below). There is no New Yorker column for Heffernan’s kind of work aside from the occasional Critic at Large or the mixed-purpose science and technology Elements blog online. Pieces about the cultural implications of technology often end up in the Style section of The New York Times, written by a columnist who claims to “live in the future,”134 where fingers have completely replaced pens.135 Consistently identifiable criticism may not have the space and attention it deserves.

Alexis Madrigal notes that the space and attention for tackling critical questions about technology is, and has always been, an “elites game.” What has changed is that publications no longer command readers’ critical attention like they once did:

The Atlantic, London Review of Books, and twenty other websites no one’s ever heard of—where before they would have gone to one place, now they are going to their Facebook feed, Twitter feed, and they are seeing things from all over the place. The elite audience ends up reconstituting the elite publication out of all the views of many publications, some of which are elite, some of which are not, but all of which can cover things that would make it into that wheel of policy, wealth, power, etc.136

While traditional venues for cultural criticism still carry a lot of weight, they no longer have a monopoly on big ideas. With diversifying publication platforms, online critical contributions can be found anywhere, though their reach may be limited within specific social circles or a tech-savvy audience. Cultural publishing institutions still have the potential to reach the widest and most diverse audiences.

With this introduction, the paragraphs below offer a classification of venues hosting technology coverage and criticism.

Old Guard Cultural Institutions and Archaic Sectionalism

The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Atlantic

Technology coverage in legacy print publications is often limited by a section-oriented organization. Business and lifestyle angles on technology stories run parallel to each other, even though the concerns in these stories are increasingly commingled and tied together in the world. For example, Jenna Wortham’s features for the business section of The New York Times often say more about culture than they do about the economics of startups. She quickly outgrew the thematic limitations of the business section and has since moved on to the Sunday magazine.

Tom Standage shares the natural progression of technology stories across sections of The Economist: “The initial kind of theoretical work on something would be covered in our Science pages. Then it would kind of move in to [Tech Quarterly] where we would cover technology between the lab and the marketplace and the emerging technologies. Then eventually the companies evolved, you know the IPO would get taken over. Then you might see coverage in the business pages.”137

In contrast to the thematically focused section coverage of technology stories found in print publications, the reconstituted personal publication of the internet makes it easy to “forget what site I’m on when reading an article, let alone what vertical,”138 writes Pando contributor David Holmes. Context signals became a central point of contention in the controversy over whether Morozov plagiarized the work of academic Eden Medina or, in the tradition of the Critic at Large spot in The New Yorker, whether he was reviewing a set of ideas for a piece on the history of cybernetics in Chile.139 On a conference panel, Jenna Wortham shared an additional challenge of working within a traditional print journalism worldview when online readers lack traditional signals of a story’s importance, such as appearing above the fold:

When I started out my career I thought the end goal would be to write stories that would end up on the front page of The New York Times . . . I had a story that I was so proud of that went on the front page of The New York Times and someone tweeted at me and said, “I love that blog post,” and I was like, “Wait, but this was an A1 story that everyone around the world saw.” It was this really humbling moment that readers don’t care where stuff comes from. They just want it to be good and interesting and relevant to their lives.140

Niche and “Little” Magazines

Dissent, Jacobin, The Baffler, New Republic, Harper’s, The Nation, Los Angeles Review of Books, The New Inquiry, n+1, Model View Culture, Pacific Standard

Most of the more radical and politically focused criticism finds a venue in the “little magazines,” ones that have historically offered space to cultural commentary. Sarah Leonard describes her editorial approach: “Dissent is very much an upstream magazine. It puts out ideas. Hopefully, they are adopted by larger outlets. It’s the thing that intellectuals read. It’s not a mass-circulation magazine. We wish that it was. We try to do it in clear and non-jargony language so that anyone can pick it up, but the fact is that it is the definition of a little magazine which has a limited audience.”141

These articles tend to offer more intellectual arguments with lengthy word counts. But they also give venue to salvos like Morozov’s takedown of Tim O’Reilly.

Online First

The Verge, Ars Technica, The Atlantic Tech, The New Yorker Elements, Fusion, The Awl, Motherboard, BuzzFeed, New York Magazine Following

Evolving from the earliest tech-focused gadget blogs, new additions to the critical publishing landscape are either supplementing online content for print institutions or creating wholly new venues for publishing online. These online-first publications have emerged as ripe venues for tech-focused commentary.

Some of these venues arise from single-sponsor opportunities, like Max Read’s latest project for New York Magazine, Select All.142 The challenge with these venues is a matter of resources and pace. Matt Buchanan describes the tension of writing blog posts for The New Yorker: “How do I combine some weightiness with the reality of publishing on a daily basis?”143 Meyer points to the concept of “Stock and Flow,”144 describing the challenge in the world of online publishing for editors and writers to find the special balance between newsy, quick posts and longer researched arguments. “You need that really savvy creator making both of those at the same time. That blog post is about Alexis [Madrigal]. It’s by Robin Sloan, and it is explicitly about Alexis . . . I think Atlantic Tech probably fits in there.”145

While these sites may not be destinations for readers, their stories have the potential to make an impact and make the rounds regardless of where they are published. Madrigal comments on the challenge of this new model: “Maybe what’s really changed is that you don’t have to be [in those elite magazines] in order to get an idea into this sphere. What you do have to do is get enough people who are interested in that sphere to see that story initially. That’s where it gets tricky.”146


The Message, Backchannel, Matter

Joanne McNeil writes, “Kate Losse once called Medium the ‘inter-office bulletin for the tech industry,’ and that’s still what I think of this website.”147 Writers of technology from blogs and elsewhere found new homes when Medium put lots of money behind editorial experiments like The Message and Matter. That attracted quality writers and offered space for bloggy, thinking-out-loud pieces and experiments with form. At one point or another, The Message has included Robin Sloan, Clive Thompson, Joanne McNeil, Anil Dash, Zeynep Tufekci, Virginia Heffernan, Paul Ford, Tim Carmody, Quinn Norton, Tressie McMillan, and Craig Mod. As the name suggests, many of these pieces addressed the formal qualities of technologies in the McLuhan sense. Being a strange media startup, Medium’s strategy seems to have shifted as The Message has lain dormant since early 2016.


Flash Forward, Reply All, Note to Self

Given the robust podcast era, there are a number of podcasts that take a closer look at technologies and their human implications. Rose Eveleth, producer of the Flash Forward podcast (formerly known as Meanwhile in the Future . . . ) shared how the podcast form gives space for contemplating potential futures:

Podcasts are really good for a couple of things . . . I get to really set a scene in a way that it’s hard to do, I think, in print because there’s only so many times you can say, “Imagine a world . . . ” and then describe things, whereas with the podcast I get to build that world and really think about scenes and sounds and what it would sound like and what it would look like.148

Producer Ariana Tobin and show host Manoush Zomorodi are aiming to do something similar with WNYC’s Note to Self podcast. Originally known as New Tech City, the show evolved from covering the tech industry in New York to increasingly covering the human side of technology. Note to Self now attempts to answer the “what does it all mean” question, drawing from listeners’ real concerns about technology. Says Tobin about the kinds of conversations they have on the show, “We don’t fully know how this [technology] is affecting our lives. We haven’t had enough time to process it, so let’s all talk about this together now.”149 The podcast has been building community through specials and series that encourage discussion, like the special “Bored and Brilliant”150 and the “Infomagical”151 series.

Tobin shares that their goals for the podcast were “for listeners to feel like you’re part of a community of people who are asking the same questions and worrying about some of the same things and hashing them out in a smart way . . . You’re being guided in a way that at the end of it you feel slightly more equipped to deal with the world around you.”152

Acknowledging the diversity of venues for publication and the range of contributors adding to the discussion helps us see a wider, and potentially more positive, notion of what technology criticism is, where it exists, and how it thrives. Though this work may not immediately be recognized as criticism, and these writers may not be known as critics, seeing this work gives us a more robust and nuanced understanding of the current discussion about technology and society.

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