Essays on Technology and Culture

The Problem With Technology Evangelism

Is there a douchier title in technology than “Evangelist”? It should conjure up images of people on street corners passing out fliers for a church, political party, or other organization you don’t want to join, and who will yell at you if you brush them off. It’s excessive, and it’s polarizing. Though a lot of us want to tell the world about what we love—that’s half of what social networks are designed for [1]—the problem is that, unless it’s a specific social context, nobody wants to hear about it.

That’s what makes the idea of the “Evangelist” so obnoxious. I say this as a happy member of the Cult of Apple, but one reason why Apple users are so often mocked is the evangelistic fervor with which they freely promote their company’s products at the expense of other things, often without prompting. [2] If it’s annoying when people do it for free, how annoying is it when someone is being paid to do it? The problem is that, the instant money enters the equation, a person’s credibility is potentially compromised. The hand that feeds is also a hand that holds the leash, or the rod.

It’s why John Gruber is skeptical of Apple’s hiring of Kevin Lynch as VP of Technology. Working for Adobe, and promoting Flash on mobile devices was parroting the company line. He may have believed it, he may not, but I’d trust an independent partisan over a corporate partisan any day—which is why I trust Gruber. Apple may hook him up with review units and inside info, but he earns his living the hard way. Kevin Lynch is doubly boned here—if he really thought Flash was a good mobile technology, he was wrong. If he was just parroting the company line, he’s dishonest, which makes for the worst kind of evangelism.

Evangelism in technology is merely marketing taken to an extreme. It’s an attempt to put a name and a friendly face to an entity that has no face. No technology company is innocent here—the evangelist is an established business practice, for better and for worse. Too often, the evangelist is pushing a product that is known to be sub-par, brushing the flaws under the rug. The skeptical technology user needs to be aware, and to poke, prod, and otherwise see past the curtain of whiz-bang buzzwords to see what lies within, lest they get suckered. As dangerous as it is to be a naysayer, total buy-in to the evangelical crowd us just as bad.

  1. The other half is having the social networks advertise the things we love to other people, and have what other people love advertised to us.  ↩

  2. To make the second reference to Andy Ihanatko’s Android piece in as many days, the Reddit thread about his piece had more than a few people calling him a traitor, and an equal number saying that nobody should care because Andy’s a nobody.  ↩