Published! Tow Center Report on Constructive Technology Criticism

I’ve landed back in Singapore after a whirlwind trip filled with family [BABY!], friends [WEDDING!], and some serious business [CONFERENCES AND TALKS!]. Most significantly last week, I released the report on Constructive Technology Criticism with the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, which I’ve been a remote research fellow with for the last year or so.

Complete report online at CJR, or downloadable in ebook formats at gitbook.
Style Guide for Writing About Technology and Annotated Syllabus are also available on Medium.
 I welcome your comments, additions, and further suggestions.

Being Stateside meant I got to pull together some of the people who inspired and motivated the research for a panel discussion in New York. It was a great chance to highlight some of their contributions and insights about how tech coverage and criticism are changing. Here’s the video, featuring all stars Virginia Heffernan, John Herrman, and Rose Eveleth.

It’s just barely been a week since we published and I’m eagerly watching the response to what turned out to be a pretty lengthy project (30K words, including appendices!). Working largely on my own from Singapore, it was easy to lose touch with the energy that motivated the project. There's nothing like the thrill of pressing 'publish' and getting feedback to motivate further work. On Twitter people are screenshotting a surprising range of quotes and insights from the report and even posting links to it alongside commentary in other languages. I love seeing what resonates, and I’m pleased to see folks are actually reading that deep into the report.

I’m especially excited because friends and colleagues have shared with me how this thing connects to their own work. I did not expect, for example, it would speak to my friends’ recent thinking on middle school English literature canon and pedagogy! I intended to corral a bunch of different threads and ideas together in one place so we could start having a conversation around them. It’s gratifying to see hints that it is already delivering on that potential.

It's all the more personally gratifying when the seeds of this project began as an exercise in soul searching: “What should I call myself? ‘Tech Writer’ doesn’t cut it.” Surrounded by lawyers, academics, documentary film makers, and journalists, I struggled to pin down how to introduce myself in those heady September introductory days starting as a fellow at Berkman in 2013. The soul searching continued the following year as a writing collaboration fell apart, for reasons that seemed to highlight the differences in our approach. Where there are struggles and uncertainty, there's usually something interesting worth digging into, and my personal struggle led me to exploring bigger tensions in the way we write and talk about technology and society at large.

I’m using the next couple days for jetlag-fueled musings and lining up my next steps to figure out how this work continues and evolves, in practice or in theory. Absentee ballots have been sent. Back in steamy Singapore I'm already missing fall, but I'm grateful for the crisp taste and burst of energy I got on this trip.

The Art of Tech Criticism

I have followed the internet, and Virginia Heffernan’s career documenting it, for more than a decade. And I have anxiously awaited this book since her column first hinted at magic and loss in 2011, and when she previewed her personal journey with the internet at length in her 2012 Berkman Center talk, “The Digital Dialectic.” When I graduated in 2007 with a joint degree in English Literature and Film Studies, I looked to Heffernan’s column as confirmation that the shifts in digital culture I cared about mattered, and that the humanities had something to bring to the conversation as we were figuring out what the internet meant, together. Like Heffernan, I was drawn to the Berkman Center for Internet & Society its co-founder Jonathan Zittrain—where people were thinking about what this internet thing meant to the world. Full disclosure, I've always kind of envied her job. So, here's my review of Heffernan's Magic and Loss, and why it matters to expand our notion of what technology criticism is and what it can do for us.

As we begin to take the internet for granted, it’s more important than ever to recognize the need for robust and diverse technology criticism. We grapple with which metrics we should use to judge Facebook’s integrity in serving us, as a social platform or as a journalistic entity. Wealthy Silicon Valley VCs with a grudge can ruin entire publications by throwing their weight behind lawsuits. Publishers tiptoe around criticizing tech companies because social platforms and newsfeeds control access to their audiences. We need to stop seeing technology criticism as destructive; rather, it gives us the opportunity to shape the future of technology in our everyday lives. Heffernan’s nuanced example in Magic and Loss expands the notion of what technology criticism can and should be.

Read more at Columbia Journalism Review.

Things Facebook Thinks I Care About, Ranked

20. Cats
19. Millennials
18. Adventure
17. Fatherhood
16. Renminbi
15. Cloud computing
14. Orange (fruit)
13. Gratitude
12. Bag
11. Fluid dynamics
10. Edible mushroom
9. Laser
8. Company
7. Pressure
6. Cervical vertebrae
5. Self-esteem
4. Life
3. Water
2. Year
1. Human skin color

Sourced from Facebook Ad Preferences. This post is also published on Medium.

Input Please? Review v 0.1 of My Technology Criticism Reading List

I've just posted a massive reading list that's the background for my Tow Center Project on Constructive Technology Criticism. The list is up on the Tow blog, as well as a post on Medium so you can comment directly on specific readings in line

I could use your help! Given my interdisciplinary background, this list is by no means comprehensive or canon. And I’m drawing in a few less-than tradition sources like podcasts and literary fiction that are doing some important work that I think exemplifies a critical, balanced, and humanist approach to constructive technology criticism.

What are your favorite examples of technology criticism? What books or articles influence the way you think and write about technology? Any examples of tech writing that make you cringe? Where are my institutional and disciplinary blind spots? What are the pieces of technolgoy writing you keep going back to, the ones that made you go “huh,” the ones that got you so angry you tweetstormed about them? And if you’ve got a suggestion for a more dynamic tool for collaborative reading lists, send it my way!

Check out the list and comment here.

Creepy Digital Humans

I'm on the most recent episode of the Digital Human podcast, talking about our uncanny relationship with our Data Doppelgängers. The show goes explores everything from gothic literature, to philosophy of the self, to cyber twins and Googlegängers. I discuss the anorexia ad example from this Atlantic article I wrote last year. I also argue that we should pay attention to our data doppelgängers, even when they give us the creeps, because they are our best clues into how our data is operating on our behalf. 

Listen to the episode on BBC Radio 4 or on iTunes.

I'm a huge fan of this podcast, and I highly recommend the rest of the Digital Human back catalog. Aleks Krotoski explores the psychological aspects of our relationship to technology.