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.

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.

Researching with the Tow Center

I'm pleased to share that I'll be joining this amazing cohort as a Research Fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. I have been inspired by a lot of the work coming out of there, especially on Algorithm Accountability reporting that influenced the aims of the Living with Data series. In the coming year I'm further exploring the idea of constructive technology criticism. Here's the project description in detail:

Constructive Technology Criticism
Tow Fellow: Sara Watson
Contemporary technology criticism is a product of the internet, characterized by oversimplified binary questions, clickbait headlines, and sensationalizing explorations of moral panics and progress narratives. Technology criticism has the potential to play an operative role in shaping the design, adoption, and policies around emerging technologies. Sara’s work explores how Constructive Technology Criticism can improve the broader cultural discourse about technology, not only commenting on the technologies we have, but also influencing and shaping the technologies we want.

I'm grateful to the Knight Foundation for funding this work, which I've been thinking a lot about over the past year and I'm grateful to have the time and space to dive into it in greater depth this coming year. 

I'll be working virtually from Singapore and hanging out with the cohort in Slack, and in NYC when I can get there. And I'm also still affiliated, mostly virtually, with the Berkman Center this year. I'm planning on sharing a lot of the work in process, asking for feedback on reading lists and syllabi, building up style guides, etc. Stay tuned here and on the Tow Center blog for updates.

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.

Mindful Data Podcast

I had the pleasure of talking with Chris Dancy and Klint Finley for two episodes of their Mindful Cyborgs podcast. I've been a fan of the show for a while, and highly recommend episodes with Kate Darling, Nathan Jurgenson, and Ernesto Ramirez. I spent a lot of time listening to the show last year while I was doing research on the Quantified Self, so I was thrilled when they reached out to talk about my Data Doppelgängers article. We ended up talking about a whole lot more than that, including my background in enterprise IT, and the evolving role of constructive technology criticism.

In a lot of ways, "Mindful Cyborgs" is just another way of saying technology critic—Dancy described it as a process of becoming aware of our relationship to technology. Like the show's title, I draw a lot of inspiration from Donna Harraway in talking about non-binary discussions about human relationships with tools and technology. Asking whether it's all good or all bad doesn't really get us anywhere. Instead, starting from a position that assumes technology is always a part of human life—what sets us apart as humans—allows us to ask more constructive questions.

The episode is embedded below, and you can subscribe to the Mindful Cyborgs podcast on iTunes or Soundcloud. Stay tuned for the second episode shortly...