There’s a pretty ridiculous false binary playing out in tech journalism circles today between those who think that the technology industry is a joke and those who improbably think that most things that come out of Silicon Valley are “amazing.”
Quartz’s Christopher Mims fired the first shots last week, making the argument that 2013 was a “lost year in tech.” Setting aside the hyperbolic title for a moment, Mims makes some good points about how it’s been a pretty lackluster year for hardware, and on top of that the NSA revelations casted a pall on the nation’s biggest tech companies. While I grant these points and a few others Mims makes, with social media use and mobile penetration at all time highs, it’s a bit of a stretch to say nothing of any consequence happened in our digital lives in 2013.
Many of the counterarguments to Mims’ piece are also problematic, however. Take MG Siegler for example, the tech writer turned venture capitalist, who wrote:
The technology industry is without question the best industry to cover right now, in my mind. But it’s harder to stand out when you state the truth: how amazing most (not all) things are. It’s much easier to stand out by saying the opposite, even if (and maybe especially if) it’s not actually true. If nothing else, contrarians tend to attract page views.
So Siegler doesn’t want journalists to be negative for negativity’s own sake. I get that. But the notion that “most” things that come out of Silicon Valley are “amazing” is both ludicrous and contrary to much of what the tech industry stands for. Innovation and entrepreneurship are supposed to be at least a little about exceptionalism. People talk about Steve Jobs and Elon Musk in superhuman terms, yet if a calendar app and an electric car are both “amazing” then neither of them are.
Furthermore, Siegler writes as if negativity is the predominant tone in tech journalism when in reality the negativity is a response to the back-patting and lack of criticism that’s come to define much of the field over the past five years. Often when writers cover any one company or gadget, they seem to write about it in the context of a utopian technologically advanced culture, and how a given bit of technology either adds or takes away from it. They assume their readers’ complicity in that culture, and that these tech advances do constitute an aggregate positive, rather than a negative. Other times, the unwarranted positivity that’s still found in tech journalism may have less to do with utopianism and more to do with laziness: It’s a lot easier to repeat a startup’s own talking points than to think critically about it.
Siegler is just one example. In an otherwise thoughtful post about why the incremental innovations of 2013 do matter, John Gruber closes with this troubling quote:
There’s a nihilistic streak in tech journalism that I just don’t see in other fields. Sports, movies, cars, wristwatches, cameras, food — writers who cover these fields tend to celebrate, to relish, the best their fields have to offer. Technology, on the other hand, seems to attract enthusiasts with no actual enthusiasm.
Two points jump out here. The first is that perhaps we should make a distinction between “reviewers” and “journalists.” By comparing tech journalists to people who write about cameras and wristwatches, Gruber is limiting the field to people who write about gadgets. Not that there’s anything wrong with writing about gadgets. Tech products are expensive, so it’s nice to have people who know what they’re talking about tell us which ones to buy. But technology isn’t just about gadgets anymore. Apple, Google, and Amazon are some of the most influential companies in the world, and it’s the journalist’s job to keep them accountable, whether over labor practices, information security, or surveillance. Verbs like “celebrate” and “relish” are not always compatible with “accountability.”
The second point is this: Does it occur to Gruber and others that so-called “negative” tech writers really do love technology? And by calling bullshit when appropriate it elevates the companies and entrepreneurs that are really worth celebrating? Gruber says tech journalists should be more like movie critics and yet we see this instinct all the time in film criticism. Writers trash movies like “Grown-Ups 2,” because they are an insult to what great movies like “Inside Llewyn Davis” seek to embrace about the medium.
Gruber also mentions sports journalists, though he must not read writers like the Nation’s Dave Zirin very often. Zirin takes team owners and local governments to task over wasteful stadium building. He calls out racism, sexism, and homophobia in athletics. He identifies deep hypocrisy at college sports programs. He doesn’t do it, because he hates sports. He does it, because he loves sports and hates to see it marred by ugliness and corruption.
It’s true that knee-jerk cynicism is just as bad as knee-jerk utopianism. But all too often people in the utopian camp confuse skepticism for cynicism, just as cynics label well-earned praise as mere glad-handing. This tug of war is playing out throughout journalism and criticism right now, as evidenced by the “snark” vs “smarm” battle put forth by Gawker.
Tech journalism isn’t always an exact science either. Technologies and products that may seem inconsequential on first glance sometimes turn out to be far more significant than anybody expected (see Twitter). But the “us vs. them” mentality that’s arisen in tech journalism, mirrored by the same mentality between so-called “techies” and “non-techies” in Silicon Valley, only serves to obscure the reality behind what’s going on in technology today. And with more money and power concentrated in the industry than ever before, we can’t afford to fall back on these false dichotomies.
[Image via Thinkstock]