Constructive Technology Criticism, or the story of my tattoo

I had the pleasure of giving an Ignite talk Harvard-MIT Fellows meeting, hosted at Nieman's Lippman House this Friday. We had fellows from Berkman, Nieman, Shorenstein, Institute of Politics, Weatherhead, Loeb, and Knight Science Journalism all talking about their work, in five minutes or under. 

And here's a good time to plug that Berkman is accepting Fellowship applications now through December 12. Join us here in Cambridge!

Here's the audio from my talk, and the notes from my talk below.

Constructive Technology Criticism, or the story of my tattoo

This summer, I got a tattoo.

I never thought I'd identify with something enough to want to write it on my body permanently.

But I was compelled by the I-beam text cursor.

 

You might recognize it better at this scale.

It’s the symbol that tracks mouse movements. It shifts from from a slanted pointer to a serifed line, as it hovers with potential over an open text field.

It is choosing to write.

i beam tattoo.jpeg

And that’s common thread through each step in my career. I realized over the last year that I’ve always written about technology.

As an analyst at a think tank, a marketer at startup, an undergrad Film and English major, even as an angsty pre-teen poet.

 

I see this tattoo is an identifier, marking myself as someone who writes about technology.

But as many tattoos often are, it is also milestone, marking my passage through a significant and challenging year.

 

When I arrived at Berkman last fall, I was surrounded by all these wonderful researchers, lawyers, journalists, and activists. 

But I had a crisis of identity. I didn’t know how to introduce myself. “Technology Writer” just wasn’t cutting it.

 

And then I failed.

The book I set out to write fell apart. My coauthor and I both wanted to write about the future of data, but we couldn’t find a common voice or shared perspective.

And so, I panicked. 

 

I felt like I had wasted half my fellowship year worrying about a book that wasn’t meant to be. 

My Berkman friends helped me see that it wasn’t a failure, but a step forward.

I had to switch modes. 

I went from negative self-definition, focusing on everything I was not, 

to focusing on all the positive things I was becoming.

 

And so I took all my mixed disciplines, my bridge between industry and academia, and my passion for writing. 

I gave it a name. 

I added it to my email signature and my twitter bio. 

And I became a Technology Critic. 

 

Free-associate “technology critic.”

“Gadget reviewers” and “curmudgeon contrarians” come to mind?

That’s because most prominent voices we have are either consumeristic shills (David Pogue) 

or counter-narrative trolls (Evgeny Morozov).

 

These critics tell us what bigger, bendable iPhone to buy, or idealize a time before the #selfie. 

They don’t grapple with politics, ethics, history, culture. 

If cultural critics can do this, why can’t technology critics?

 

Because internet. 

Contrarian views are click bait. 

They lead to totalizing headlines like “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” 

And drive us towards binary questions, rather than critical thinking. 

 

What if we treated technical artifacts like a text, 

ripe for analysis, interpretation, scrutiny, judgement. 

Technology criticism doesn’t need to be negative, it should be constructive. 

It should contextualize the role technology plays our lives and offer alternatives to shape the future. 

 

Right now, I’m putting that into practice in a series for Al Jazeera America, Living with Data

I examine our relationship to personal data and unpack our encounters with algorithms.

Personal stories develop a practical critical lens.

 

But I couldn’t have done it without Berkman.

After I gave up on the book last spring, my impending lunch talk lifted me out of my funk and focused my thinking. 

Berkman offered the platform, I pitched my idea, and everything else took off from there.

 

Berkman prioritizes active research to contribute to public discourse. 

We build tools to shape future platforms.

So my constructive approach to criticism comes out of this mission, 

in the same way that architectural criticism plays an operative role to influence the built environment.

I counted at least six hops between my idea and the network of friends who made it happen. 

These friends read my drafts, encouraged my voice, bolstered my confidence, confirmed my direction. 

I even got inked with friends I made at Berkman.


We are all privileged to be a part of our respective fellowships. 

We have the resources to experiment, the venues to discuss, the time to reflect, the network to encourage. 

(PLUG: I’m also writing wherever you will publish me; hey network of fellows!)


I leave you with these provocations:

Don’t be afraid to admit failure.

Explore new and old facets of your identity, scratch itches, and renew your sense of purpose.

Lean on the support network that surrounds you here. These people around you are invaluable.


You probably won’t go out and get a commemorative fellowship tattoo, but this year will certainly leave its mark.