Tech journalism needs to grow up
We are all familiar with what passes for technology criticism. The internet is stuffed with digital publications dedicated to reviewing the hardware and software issuing from Silicon Valley. There are the fetish-style videos in which gleaming machines are unboxed, the gadget reviews that aspire to be long-form think pieces.
We need a better class of tech criticism. Even though these publications talk a big game about the disruptive nature of the industry they cover, their coverage remains decidedly less than revolutionary. Just as literary criticism looks beyond the cover design to the moral and literary merit of a work, so should the tech press refuse to judge a phone by its chamfered edge.
First, in defense of these fancy children of Consumer Reports, straightforward product reviews are necessary. If you are going to buy a tablet or a desktop, you'll naturally be interested in finding out how to get the most for your money.
But The Verge, Engadget, and a host of other tech publications are little more than consumer guides. Political journalists are digging into the privacy issues inherent in devices that collect data on our contacts, our communications, our purchase histories, and our financial information. A handful of intellectuals are busy examining the socio-historical implications of our technology, including undermining the almost childish notions, widely held in Silicon Valley, that technology will help overthrow authoritarian regimes. But the tech press, for the most part, does not do these things.
Seymour Papert called the computer the "Proteus of machines," meaning that it changes shape and use constantly. That means we need real critics of technology from a variety of fields. If even the much smaller publishing industry can inspire bracing moral, political, and humanistic criticism, surely the massive interest in our phones and personal computers can do the same.
For example, phone calls and voicemails have gone from conveniences, even useful reminders that our friends and family care for us, to annoying, extraneous demands on our attention — what could an anthropologist or historian tell us about that trend?
We can chart the reduced fuel consumption and greater ease of movement enabled by telecommuting, but can we figure out the downside costs in lost camaraderie and collaboration?
What does our increased habit of investing more of our energy into virtual communities built around common interest mean for the civic communities where we actually live and where political power is exercised over us?
Why has the ubiquity of machines that supposedly enhance our productivity and organization coincided with fear and even despair over personal productivity and organization?
How does our human capacity for informed judgment and wisdom change after we habituate ourselves to outsourcing so much critical judgment to machines?
Technological criticism could extend not only to the products, apps, and operating systems but to the very code that is used to compose software. Programming languages contain subtle biases for using certain solutions for common problems. These biases are magnified or institutionalized by the common use of larger software frameworks (a series of prefab conventions that help people write programs). Precisely because Silicon Valley has adopted a code-first, discover-a-business later model for entrepreneurship, we need intelligent critics who can scrutinize the businesses and even the social and cultural effect of popular software products.
And with the commoditization of most computer hardware, and the slow, iterative development of even high-end consumer smartphones, the review business is boring.
The tech industry and the journalists who cover it have declared that Silicon Valley's inventions, business, and culture represent a revolution as far-reaching as the dawn of the assembly line and the advent of the printing press. If that is even remotely true, then the tech press needs to grow out of its press-release and unboxing-porn culture and cover this revolution with all the probity, skill, and depth applied to other world historical events.