Toward a Constructive Technology Criticism
In this report, the author draws on interviews with journalists and critics, as well as a broad reading of published work, to assess the current state of technology coverage and criticism in the popular discourse, and to offer some thoughts on how to move the critical enterprise forward.
Tow Fellow Sara Watson finds that what it means to cover technology is a moving target. Today, the technology beat focuses less on the technology itself and more on how technology intersects with and transforms everything readers care about—from politics to personal relationships. But as technology coverage matures, the distinctions between reporting and criticism are blurring. Even the most straightforward reporting plays a role in guiding public attention and setting agendas.
Further, she finds that technology criticism is too narrowly defined. First, criticism carries negative connotations—that of criticizing with unfavorable opinions rather than critiquing to offer context and interpretation. Strongly associated with notions of progress, technology criticism today skews negative and nihilistic. Second, much of the criticism coming from people widely recognized as “critics” perpetuates these negative associations by employing problematic styles and tactics, and by exercising unreflexive assumptions and ideologies. As a result, many journalists and bloggers are reluctant to associate their work with criticism or identify themselves as critics. And yet she finds a larger circle of journalists, bloggers, academics, and critics contributing to the public discourse about technology and addressing important questions by applying a variety of critical lenses to their work. Some of the most novel critiques about technology and Silicon Valley are coming from women and underrepresented minorities, but their work is seldom recognized in traditional critical venues. As a result, readers may miss much of the critical discourse about technology if they focus only on the work of a few, outspoken intellectuals.
Even if a wider set of contributions to the technology discourse is acknowledged, she finds that technology criticism still lacks a clearly articulated, constructive agenda. Besides deconstructing, naming, and interpreting technological phenomena, criticism has the potential to assemble new insights and interpretations. In response to this finding, she lays out the elements of a constructive technology criticism that aims to bring stakeholders together in productive conversation rather than pitting them against each other. Constructive criticism poses alternative possibilities. It skews toward optimism, or at least toward an idea that future technological societies could be improved. Acknowledging the realities of society and culture, constructive criticism offers readers the tools and framings for thinking about their relationship to technology and their relationship to power. Beyond intellectual arguments, constructive criticism is embodied, practical, and accessible, and it offers frameworks for living with technology.
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