Toward a Constructive Technology Criticism

Sara M. Watson, writing for Columbia Journalism Review’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism in 2016:

Technology criticism evokes visions of loom-smashing Luddites and told-you-so Cassandras. Something about criticism in the context of technology seems to suggest that technological change is problematic, or something to be resisted entirely. Yet other forms of cultural criticism don’t share this fault-finding burden. In other contexts, criticism is understood to be thoughtful consideration and close analysis rather than oppositional judgment and rejection.

I rediscovered this essay following discussion of Marc Andreessen’s whining essay published earlier this week. I think Watson’s report is as important as Andreessen’s would be disposable if not for its author; though it is long, it is worth your time.

The time when Watson’s report was released seems significant to me: October 2016. As she observed, it was just three years and a few month after Edward Snowden’s leaked intelligence documents dinged up the reputation of the U.S. technology sector — arguably the first major challenge to generally glowing coverage of new tech products and services for the preceding decade. But it was published just before the 2016 U.S. presidential election produced an upset — and downright upsetting — victor, a result enabled in part by targeted advertising.

That event sent much of the mainstream U.S. press to more completely investigate the mysterious world of large technology companies from a perspective that could most optimistically be described as “more skeptical”, but more realistically as “more negative”. There were some pretty badly reported stories from this period of time, for sure, but I do not think that is a fair summary of the entire field. It meant publications with more prestigious names and larger budgets were able to dig into the kinds of topics industry websites had been writing about for years. Reporters asked about privacy and discriminatory advertising and moderation policies and all kinds of things which had mostly stayed out of mainstream newspapers. Their coverage was not entirely rosy before the election but, afterward, it was decidedly more pointed.

Unfortunately, that means much of the ongoing discussion about platforms is still the product of a partisan political context. To be sure, it is worth scrutinizing how targeted advertising could play a role in putting an extremist candidate in one of the most powerful offices in the world, but it is not remotely the whole story. Erin Kissane has been reexamining and more fully contextualizing the role of Meta’s products in Myanmar, for example.

Watson’s exploration of technology criticism clearly comes from a place of appreciation for both technology and criticism. That is among the many things which I think Andreessen’s series of mission statements misses entirely. High technology is the fabric for our world today, and the companies which produce it ought to be treated as such: they create extremely useful things which are very powerful and, thus, demand an expectation of responsibility previously ascribed in the private sector only to petrochemical companies and banks. It is perfectly reasonable to question their motivations, products, services, tax structures, power, marketing, media relationships, and societal impact. I am as guilty as anyone of straying from the frameworks Watson has suggested, and I intend as always to do better.

Also, RIP, the Awl.