The World of Technology Criticism

The World of Technology Criticism

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The World of Technology Criticism

Being a technology critic doesn’t necessarily mean one is opposed to technology, just as being an art critic doesn’t mean one is opposed to art. What it means is taking a reflective look at technology, at its good parts and its bad parts and helping people to connect it to other aspects of society and life.

This is a very thorough analysis of the field of technology criticism by Sara M. Watson. It’s probably much deeper than many people would care to dive, but there are a number of interesting parts. The history is helpful because it helps situate technology coverage in journalism and how criticism has slowly emerged over time.

There’s a bit of an inside-baseball, insider feel to this piece, especially the categorizing of different types of technology criticism and the different people in each grouping.

If you’re short on time, I’d suggest jumping to the “Toward a Constructive Criticism” section ( and then scrolling up to the “Critical Lenses” section and reading from there. This will give you a feel for what Sara sees as the major sub-categories of technology criticism, which is interesting in itself. From there, you can continue on towards the section on “constructive criticism” where she lays out some recommendations.


  1. I’m going to read this tonight – hopefully it’s not reactionary or knee jerk. Would be refreshing to read something that isn’t. I have a reflex almost to just disregard so-called skeptics of technology nowadays, if only because I had to wade through a swamp of pseudo-skepticism for so long I grew utterly weary of it.

    So something that is actually serious and thoughtful would be nice to read.

    I’ll dig into it later.

  2. Yeah, this is definitely not skeptical, Darius Gabriel Black  – in fact, that’s her point. She sort of does a take-down on critics that are unidimensional in their assessment of technology.

  3. I’ll be back on Sunday for this one.

  4. This is a curious mixture of pure gold (for being discussed openly) and bizarre (for having to be discussed at all). I would be a rich man for every time my critiques of Google have gained me gushingly silly demands to leave Google Plus, and ditto for Apple, MS, etc, etc.

    And yet critique is inherently focused on being constructive. Without needing to say so, or mentioning anything that some idiot thinks sounds acceptably positive.

    Good find, Gideon Rosenblatt. Thanks for sharing. It’ll take me a while to absorb it all.

  5. Gideon Rosenblatt This looks excellent — I’ve only been skimming it back-to-front (a reading trick of mine), but the depth, detail, thought, etc., are quite considerable. How the hell did this turn up for you?

    paul beard Woozle Hypertwin John Poteet John Hummel Joerg Fliege M Sinclair Stevens should take a look.

  6. Thanks Peter Strempel and Edward Morbius. One of the people at YES! Magazine who I work with shared this with me a week or so ago and I’ve had it up in a tab, waiting to read. It takes some time to get through, and it feels a little too “insider” to me, but having said that, I found it very encouraging to see that there is a fairly robust network of people with this mindset.

  7. Gideon Rosenblatt I’ve got … those tabs too.

    If the damned things will stay open.

    I’m seriously hurting for info management tools.

  8. I think I’m a critic too despite being pro technology and pro its ability to solve many ails. I guess I expect the best of it however, and recognize it will take work so that its mechanisms don’t end up widening already existing gaps in society’s power distribution.

  9. A preliminary response –

    Watson’s survey is a solid piece of academic research (she calls it a report, which may have a functional meaning that escapes me). It is a much better basis for an undergraduate journalism unit than much of the other piffle that passes for that.

    Like all works, though, it has lacunae. Absences that are as telling as the content. The most striking one is that you could easily form the impression that technology and its critique are solely American domains. This is a serious flaw because of an American intellectual accommodation with cretinism. In case I need to justify that statement, you need look no further than the reportage of the American presidential contest. Everywhere but in the USA even rigidly conservative media are shocked at the vulgarity and ignorance that pass for ‘reportage’ of ‘relevant’ issues and ‘debate’ (have a look at what the crypto-libertarian Economist has to say, for instance).

    In the context of the Watson piece it matters because she argues that critique should countenance or ignore in its coverage idiocy, mendacity, and cartel gangsterism, solely because these are now American norms. In my book that is neither sound journalistic practice nor more than a partisan position in itself as the basis for critique.

    There are also some annoying genuflections to academic political correctness. Her passing mentions of identity politics and ‘feminism’ are almost comical given that these issues should have been largely subsumed by the objectivity and balanced sense of readership she also mentions. That both should be mentioned means neither actually matters in commercial journalism, save as clichéd, sanctimonious mantras.

    That aside, her discussion of the traps in critique does much to debunk the uniformly idiotic conception of it that comes from an inexplicably dopey demand that all writing must have literal meanings. A demand that is often tied to irrational cause and effect propositions of the kind she tries to debunk. A demand that is routinely made by both nominally educated people and pig-ignorant interlocutors. It usually finds expression in imbecilic propositions like: ‘Well, it’s a corporation so it has no obligations but to its shareholders’; or ‘Well, you shouldn’t use it then’, or ‘Well the other side did X, so why criticise Y for Z?’.

    Critique must be free to exercise critical analysis, and if that is seen as negativism, so be it. I think Watson navigated those rapids admirably by sidestepping a personal commitment and quoting instead The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal, saying what would otherwise have to be said originally, that we all ‘need people who are super radical, anti-technology, anti-capitalist. You also need people inside the companies who are just barely more ethical than the next person. Also you need people who try and connect the big ideas of technology companies with the ethical standards the country at least nominally sets out for itself. You need all those different things. You need people who are completely uninterested in the ideological battles that are super into reporting the dirt on these companies. Exactly how things are going. You need all of those different components, I think, and I would just say, in my more humble moments, that I realize I’m just one lever’.

    If only these actually existed.

    Strangely enough I found myself nodding most vigorously while reading a quote from the über-Ecco New York Magazine’s Max Read about the negative connotation of the word ‘critical’ itself:

    It is important to keep the word than actually find a softer word because I think the real danger of, let’s say, the technology industry right now and maybe technology generally is that it is necessarily positivist. It is ideologically committed to ideas of success and end points and perfect, empirically derived futures. I think that some small amount of negativity implied in the word criticism is important for us to hold on to. I think it is good to say that not everything that is being proposed to us by the Marc Andreessens of the world is going to work out. In fact, a lot of it relies on suppositions that are deeply harmful and shitty and crappy.

    I confess that the majority of names Watson drops as critics draw a blank from me, but the unexpected absences left me wondering. No Marcuse or Habermas. No George Packer. In critique these strese strike me as odd omissions. Still, a paper of this nature is bound to exclude many more things than its already significant scope allows it to include.

    Watson probably decided some time ago that the horseshit associated with a purely academic career isn’t worth the PhD just yet, but I hope she finds time and occasion to complete it, as an outsider, before becoming a presence in how journalism is taught in the USA. The current state of the industry is awful, and the consequent expectations of its readership are so abominable that even twenty years ago a dispassionate description of that landscape would have been smirked at as a grotesque overstatement.

  10. Well-stated, Deen Abiola​. That’s pretty close to his I’d describe my relationship to writing about technology too.

  11. Thanks for the detailed reflections, Peter Strempel​. Glad you found it useful.

    She comes out of the journalism world, so that inevitably colors her coverage. She misses someone like Brian Arthur, for example, who is one of the most insightful writers I’ve read on the subject. I did reach out to her on Twitter with his name and she seemed appreciative, however.

    The point about it being US-centric is an important oversight. Although, to be honest, like you, I didn’t recognize many of the names; and while I spot-checked and found most of them in the Bay Area, maybe there were some non-US contributors buried in there. Hopefully, others will jump in to fill out the geographic hole.

    I think I’m following your point about literal meanings, but am not sure. Do you mean jumps in logic? Assumptions that obfuscate clearer understanding?

  12. Gideon Rosenblatt Literalism is a blight not just in the discussion spaces inhabited by ideological and religious zealots, who demand that scripture must be interpreted literally rather than metaphorically, or, for example, that aged constitutional documents do not also have important and enduring meanings derivable form their intentions rather than merely their purely literal meanings.

    It is an especially annoying feature among nominally highly qualified people in the STEM fields, who confuse the absolutism of math and formulaic design for a universal dictate that all human endeavours and communication must also be driven by the same exclusive precision – by the same literalism.

    So when I proposed the caveat that Watson’s work should not be read too literally, I mean at once that my own endorsement of it is not as a formulaic set of instructions, and that any temptation to interpret it as a checklist of iron laws would undermine its usefulness.

    In that context I am particularly concerned that literalists will be tempted to zero in on the sections contrasting technology coverage with technology critique, and traps in styles, tactics, ideology, and unexamined positions as tick and flick checklists rather than as food for thought and points of discussion.

    So, for example, when Watson lists ‘facts’ as a characteristic of technology coverage, but not of critique, this should not be interpreted to mean that critique must never contain facts. And when she proposes that zero sum or dualist arguments can be flawed for not admitting pluralist positions, this does not mean that critique must never propose dualism or zero sum problems, just that doing so should be contextually justified rather than confected to suit an unstated agenda.

    Does this explanation put into sharper relief what I mean by literalism, and why a literalist interpretation of Watson would make her work far less useful than a more reflective approach?

  13. Yes. Thank you, Peter Strempel. That helps clarify quite a bit. And yes, I agree: taking her recommendations as some sort of new dogma would be a huge mistake.

    The focus on the word “literalism” is what threw me off and I think it’s because I’ve been coming across it more these days in books like Patrick Harpur’s The Secret Tradition of the Soul and others, where the meaning is more akin to the dry “this and only this” interpretation of many scriptures and spiritual texts.

    I understand your point though; and agree.

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