Essays on Technology and Culture

Our Job as Technology Writers

Yesterday, I described the job of technology writers as “helping people choose what’s right for them.” All too often, however, we establish our camps then relentlessly defend those products we use and/or attack those that others do. There’s an almost feudalistic world in technology where one is either an Apple fan, or an Android fan. (Or one of those other OSes out there. Bet someone still has a Palm Pre they use every day.) This worldview may come from spending a lot of time in the Apple sphere, which only comes with the territory of being an Apple user. I’m not likely to get information about what I want on Paul Thurott’s Windows Super Site, or from Gizmodo who has been pissed at Apple ever since the stolen iPhone 4 saga.

One the one hand, the second-class citizen status of Apple users from the 90s until the release of the iPhone and iPad, was guaranteed to foster an attitude of snark towards the “competition.” This is something that even permeated Apple’s advertising and messaging, culminating in the—admittedly hilarious—PC vs. Mac ads. Yet, this sort of behavior isn’t exclusive to Apple fans. Stick your head into the comments on any (non-Apple-focused) technology news site, and see the flamewars for yourself. If this the discourse that passes among passionate users of technology, we’re in trouble.

It’s not the fault of technology writers for inspiring polarized discussion in comments. It’s not polarized discussion in comments that inspires polarized discussion in the technology sphere. These are both symptoms of a larger problem of psychology and tribalism that occurs in any sphere of human endeavor. I’m sure you’ll find corners of the internet where supporters of linguistic relativity flame supporters of linguistic determinism with the same fervor as Apple and PC/Android users.

The people with the ability to control and define the terms of the debate are technology journalists and pundits. I’d love, and would even pay good money, to read pieces along the lines of Andy Ihnatko’s switch to Android that provide legit, unbiased comparisons of products on a level much deeper than feature comparison checklists. I want to read people smarter than me discuss the benefits and tradeoffs of a closed, App Store environment like iOS versus Android’s free-for-all(-ish) environment, without resorting to talk about “freedom” and the virtues of open source. I’d like to see someone switch from Apple’s ecosystem to a Windows ecosystem and talk about the benefits and drawbacks. I’d like someone to do the same thing from the other direction.

There are two things standing in the way of making these happen. One is that these sort of articles require a lot more time and nuance than is available on most of the high-profile sites. For every piece of awesome long-form journalism on The Verge, there’s dozens of shorter pieces going up every day. By any estimation, a short, feature checklist product review is going to be easier to write than a detailed product comparison built around a deep dive from a user perspective. This leads to the second problem: short, easy articles give you more page views, ad views, and Google Juice.

Not that I want to make a scapegoat of Internet Advertising and blame it for the state of things online. These are problems that predate Internet advertising, and even the Internet as a concept. Advertising is just another factor that is simply not helping. It’s an added financial incentive to keep posting polarized and polarizing articles because that’s what will bring in the ad impressions. The problem still lies within all of us, and so does the solution. Let’s stop focusing on how right we are for using certain tools, and instead focus on using the communicative power we have to teach people how to find the right solutions for their problems. We can do this no matter which company’s products we prefer to have on our desk and in our pockets.