from the a-guide dept
Tech journalism is evolving, including how it reports on and critiques tech companies. At the same time, tech journalists should still serve as bullshit detectors and hype slayers. The following tips are intended to help navigate the terrain.
As a general rule, beware of overconfident techies bragging about their innovation capabilities AND overconfident critics accusing that innovation of atrocities. If featured in your article, provide evidence and diverse perspectives to balance their quotes.
Minimize The Overly Positive Hype
“Silicon Valley entrepreneurs completely believe their own hype all the time,” said Kara Swisher in 2016. “Just because they say something’s going to grow #ToTheMoon, it’s not the case.” It’s the journalists’ job to say, “Well, that’s great, but here are some of the problems we need to look at.” When marketing buzz arises, contextualize the innovation and “explore why the claims might not be true or why the innovation might not live up to the claims.”
Despite years of Techlash, tech companies still release products/services without considering the unintended consequences. A “Poparazzi” app that only lets you take pictures of your friends? Great. It’s a “brilliant new social app” because it lets you “hype up your squad” instead of self-glorification. It’s also not so great, and you should ask: “Be your friends’ poparazzi” – what could possibly go wrong?
The same applies to regulators who release bills without considering the unintended consequences — in a quest to rein in Big Tech. To paraphrase Kara Swisher, “Just because they say something’s going to solve all of our problems, it’s not the case” (thus, bullshit). It’s the journalists’ job to avoid declaring the regulatory reckoning will End Big Tech Dominance when it most likely will not, and to examine new proposals based on past legislation’s ramifications. See, for example, Mike Masnick’s “what could possibly go wrong” piece on the EARN IT Act.
Minimize The Overly Negative Hype
When critics relentlessly focus on the tech industry’s faults, you should contextualize them within the broader context (and shouldn’t wait until paragraph 55). Take, for example, this article about the future of Twitter under Elon Musk, which claimed: “Zuckerberg sits at his celestial keyboard, and he can decide day by day, hour by hour, whether people are going to be more angry or less angry, whether publications are going to live or die. With anti-vax, we saw the same power of Mr. Zuckerberg can be applied to life and death.”
No factual explanation was provided for this premium bullshit. Even though this is not how any of this works. In a similar vein, we can ask Prof. Shoshana Zuboff if she “sits at her celestial keyboard, and decide day by day, hour by hour, whether people are going to be more angry at Zuckerberg or the new villain Musk.” I mean, she used her keyboard to write that it’s in their power to trade “in human futures.”
If the loudest shouters are given the stage, you end up with tech companies that simply ignore all public criticism as uninformed cynicism. So, challenge conventional narratives: Are they oversimplified or overstated? Be deliberate about which issues need attention and highlight the experts who can offer compelling arguments for specific changes (Bridging-based ranking, for example).
Look For The Underlying Forces
Reject binary thinking. “Both the optimist and pessimist views of tech miss the point,” suggested WIRED’s Gideon Lichfield. This “0-or-1” logic turns every issue into divisive and tribal: “It’s generally framed as a judgment on the tech itself – ‘this tech is bad’ vs. ‘this tech is good.’” Explore the spaces in between, and the “underlying economic, social, and personal forces that actually determine what that tech will do.”
First, there are the fundamental structures underneath the surface. Discuss “The Machine” more than its output. Second, many “tech problems” are often “people problems,” rooted in social, political, economic, and cultural factors.
The pressure to produce fast “hot takes” prioritizes what’s new. Take some time to prioritize what’s important.
Stop With “The END of __ /__ Is Dead”; It’s Probably Not The Case
The media and social media encourage despairing voices. However, blanket statements obscure nuances and don’t allow for productive inquiry. Yes, tech stocks are plummeting, and a down-cycle is here. That doesn’t mean the economy is collapsing and we’re all doomed. It’s not the dot-com crash, and we can still see amazing results (e.g., revenue surges over 20% Y/Y in 1Q’22) despite supply chain shortages. There are a lot more valuable graphs in “No, America is not collapsing.”
Also, Silicon Valley is not dead. The Bay and other tech hubs expanded their share of tech jobs during the pandemic. Even Clubhouse is not dead (at least, not yet). Say “farewell” only after it’s official (RIP, iPod).
Also, Elon Musk buying Twitter is neither “the end of Twitter” nor “the end of democracy as we know it.” It’s another example of pure BS. The Musk-Twitter deal can fix current problems and create a slew of new ones. It’s too soon to know. Sometimes, when you don’t see how things will end up, you can write, next to the speculation, that you just don’t know. Because no one does. Your readers would appreciate your honesty over a eulogy of Twitter and all democracy. Or maybe they won’t. IDK (and that’s okay).