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.