The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

August § The Common Test / 2016-02-16 21:04:46
Robin § Unforgotten / 2016-01-08 21:19:16
MsFitNZ § Towards A Theory of Secondary Literacy / 2015-11-03 21:23:21
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Robin § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 05:11:02
P. Renaud § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 04:13:09
Jay H § Matching cuts / 2014-10-02 02:41:13

The Op-Tech genre of journalism, Pt. 2
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More thoughts on Op-Tech writing at major dailies. In particular, I had a sentence that I wanted to squeeze in, but forgot about until an hour after I hit submit: “Op-Tech is equal parts business, politics, and aesthetics.”

Think about it! Most of this journalism is about major corporations who each release a handful of significant products or technologies each year. In a few cases, a Pogue or Mossberg will spotlight peripheral objects by smaller companies. But it’s really about major trends and players in the tech sector, trying to understand and evaluate what’s happening. That’s the business end.

But again, Op-Tech writers don’t largely touch on issues of manufacturing, personnel, law, everything the tech reporters do. They write as users (albeit expert users) for users. They talk about the aesthetics and experience of using an object, and make recommendations to users (and only occasionally to companies) about how best to use and whether to purchase a business or service. This is where they’re closest to food or movie reviewers.

Think about it! Like a meal or a movie, personal digital technology is criticized primarily according to the aesthetic experience of the user. I’ll ramp that up beyond the bounds of plausibility. New gadgets or software packs are among our most important aesthetic objects, more significant and universal than books, TV shows, or movies – so much so that the paper of record requires experts to weigh in on their value and importance.

At the same time, technology writing is political in a way that most aesthetic criticism simply isn’t. What I mean is that 1) there are real arguments between partisans, and 2) these arguments have significant real-world consequences — in ways that criticism of movies or restaurants, simply don’t, unless you live in the right part of Manhattan.

This, I think, is why so many people get upset about the cozy relationship between Op-Tech columnists and the companies they cover – they feel as though criticism, any criticism that might question the strategies of the Major Powers (yes, I’m talking about Apple, Microsoft, and Google as if they were empires on the verge of World War I), is shut out or at least diminished and contained for that reason. The weird position of the major guys as reviewers/insiders/brands appears to guarantee that.

My response would be 1) that you don’t need or even want a David Pogue or Walt Mossberg to be running around playing Edward R. Murrow, and 2) that job is open – at least that sliver that hasn’t largely been filled by magazine writers, academic critics, and independent bloggers.

Still, I would love to see more writing in newspapers that really focuses on the aesthetics of tech – Virginia Heffernan is really the model here – or the broader ramifications of tech policy. Imagine if the New York Times had an opinion columnist – right next to Krugman, Dowd, Brooks, and the rest – writing about the intersection of technology, politics, and culture? Not in Slate, not in the Chronicle of Higher Education – but smack in the middle of the NYT, WSJ, or the Post.

After all, EVERYONE who reads the editorial page of the Times has an opinion about who OUGHT to be writing for the editorial page of the Times.

I say, let’s treat this like it were actually already happening: write your model nominees in the comments below.

9 comments

Snarkmarket, obviously. Rotate the title three ways, that way you can all keep your day jobs. (or lack there of, Sloan)

Saheli knows what’s up 😉

This is a really good question. I don’t think I have a specific name, just a general description. (Although I did think immediately of Roger Ebert. He’s a graceful, generous writer, and it would be really interesting to see his brain applied to questions of tech and culture. But then I just couldn’t imagine him as the NYT op-tech columnist, for some reason.)

So in general, I think I want somebody with these characteristics:

1. The most basic tech chops, and an affinity for technology. You can’t be a movie critic if you are fundamentally suspicious of film as a medium. Likewise technology.

2. A big, generous imagination. I think of Geoff Manaugh at BLDGBLOG in this regard. Your default mode of thinking should be, “ooh, where could this go, what could this become, for good and for ill?”—you should have to constantly be reigning yourself in, not prodding yourself forward.

3. A keen eye for human-scale detail. Here I think of Jan Chipchase, the global techno-anthropologist and blogger. (So cool.) I want somebody who’s always spying on people as they use their cell phones. I think there ought to be a strong element of anthropology (or “anthropology light”) to this; you want somebody who can pull that off without reverting to “so, my cab driver told me the craziest thing…!”

Clive Thompson is a good candidate, based on these requirements, but I feel like he’s already a sort of op-tech columnist at large, so we ought to give somebody new a chance 😉

By the way, I like the (intentional? unintentional?) implication in the title. “Op-ed” is a contraction of “opposite editorial”—that’s where you found these writers in the paper. So “op-tech” is “opposite technology”—and if we give that a generous reading, it feels right.

Dan says…

Wait. Really? The “op” in “Op-ed” doesn’t stand for “opinion”? Consider my mind blown.

Tim Carmody says…

Well, in a literal sense – it seems like a good Op-Tech columnist would be opposite the technology page, adding context and opinion to the business news and practical reviews.

Tim Carmody says…

But yeah, I totally glossed it as “Opinion-Technology.” I also thought about “Tech-Ed,” but I think that’s best reserved for technical education.

Fal-lows! Fal-lows! Fal-lows!

Tim Carmody says…

To answer my own question – the guy I keep coming back to is Marshall McLuhan. Just forget for a moment that he’s been dead for thirty years – I can’t think of anyone else who could move back and forth between the scholarly-cosmic and the topical-observant. They had the guy on the Today Show in the 70s to talk about the Ford-Carter debates.

Dan says…

Could we all pause to reflect on “Just forget for a moment that he’s been dead for thirty years”: calling back the dead is definitely bigger, but not more humble.

Group of nerds all study various necronomicons for years, and sacrifice much blood and treasure, all just to raise Marshall McLuhan from the grave, entirely so that he can supply them with awesome, panoramic media criticism. That’s gonna be a short story.

Final scene has Zombie McLuhan in tattered, worm-eaten tweeds*, holding an iPhone in one hand and an Xbox controller in the other, his face flickering between horror and ecstasy.

*First wrote this as tweets: whoah.

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