Tech Media’s Impossible Pivot
We need adversarial reporting on Big Tech. But don’t expect it from journalists covering an industry they’re programmed to love.
By Aaron Timms
The Consumer Electronics Show is upon us once again, and suddenly the anxieties of the past year in tech — the Nazi question, Elon Musk and his one-size-fits-none cave capsule, Jack Dorsey at peace in Myanmar, bravely refusing to let genocide get in the way of a good night’s sleep — seem so distant, so small. For the tech media, CES is an opportunity to get back to the real business of what covering tech is all about: touching the shiny objects. Already the reports of CES’s new riches are tumbling in: 8K TVs! Empathetic robots! The foldable phone!
This is the tech media’s natural habitat: a place of giddy, goofy, ecstatic wonderment at the sheer possibilities of the future. Here the tech world can forget the forces besieging it, and the journalists covering tech can return to what they used to be, back in the days before Silicon Valley got too big and its negative externalities too obvious to brush aside: consorts to progress.
But if CES offers a reminder of how good tech media is at optimism — the product reviews, the trend pieces, the drooling over the new — it also recalls how bad the tech media is at holding the industry to account. The biggest tech story of 2018 was Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal. But that story did not emerge from established tech publications like Wired or Recode or The Verge, nor from the technology desks of The New York Times,The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, or The New Yorker. Instead, it was the work of a whistleblower and a British freelancer. Last year’s biggest story in tech emerged from the margins. The Information, the pricey subscription-only news service that’s considered a must-read among the Silicon Valley elite, sent its readers an email recently listing its ten most popular stories of 2018. They included a piece on “how Netflix’s management structure is rewriting the Hollywood script,” a chronicle of Lyft’s missed opportunity to overtake Uber as the country’s number one ride hailing app, and an updated org chart of “the people with power at Facebook.”
Democracy dies in darkness. Technology thrives on fluffiness.
The mainstream tech media has not, of course, let Silicon Valley completely off the hook. The publications listed above all ran stories in 2018 that were part of what’s known as the “techlash.” But the negativity of these pieces was blurred amid tech journalism’s abiding need to tell happy stories about Silicon Valley: the CEO setting the wayward company right, the startup doing the good thing for humanity, the cool new app, the successful VC. Tech journalists’ default vision of technology remains rosy.
In the past decade, as Gamergate, the yawpings of techbro culture and the 2016 election laid bare Silicon Valley’s power and capacity for society-wide harm, tech media has attempted a pivot: from boosterism to criticism. That pivot has mostly failed. Tech journalism today is unable to function or think with a truly adversarial mindset, something those at the top of the field seem eager to embrace. In early 2018, Nick Thompson, the soulful classical guitarist who moonlights as editor-in-chief of Wired, explained on a Recode podcast how his own thinking about tech has evolved since he began his career as a reporter in the early 2000s.
“We report from a country west of California called the future, and it’s awesome, right? But in 2017, you can’t have a clear-eyed look at the effect of technology in society and completely believe that anymore, at least I don’t think you can.” However, he continued, “in general, technology is definitely making the world a better place. I love my phone, right? I love all the technology coming in. I’m incredibly excited about AI. So what we try to do is take a clear-eyed look at the hardest issues that are in the world of technology. And we’re not dystopian, we’re not critical, we’re not negative, but we’re serious, and we’re clear-eyed.”
Instead of being critical, we are serious.
If this is the caliber of thinking we can expect to emerge from the country west of California called the future, there’s a good chance we’re all going to drown. Under the guise of this serious and “clear-eyed look at the hardest issues in technology,” Thompson and his fellow panhandlers for Silicon Valley ignore the hardest, most obvious reality of all: the tech industry has become a center of power. As that power grows, the argument that “technology is definitely making the world a better place” becomes less and less convincing. If anything, the weight of recent evidence suggests that technology, which has poisoned democracies and blitzed humanity’s collective attention span while forcing us all to endure endless Captchas of pedestrian crossings, is making the world worse. From a Panglossianism this blind, no truly coherent critique of technology can ever emerge. I love my phone, right?
“Stories from the future” is Wired’s tagline, but what’s most impressive about the tech media is how bad it is at telling stories about the past. In 2017, Pando Daily founder Sarah Lacy told Peter Kafka, “No one identified as feminist four years ago,” which would have come as news to the feminists of 2013, 2012, 2011, and every year stretching back to Mary Wollstonecraft. Ahistorical cluelessness of this sort is not unusual in tech journalism, which reflects the unique origins of the beat. Unlike political journalism, which has always been seen as an informal extension of government’s machinery of checks and balances (“the fourth estate”), or financial journalism, which emerged in response to the malpractice and greed of early 20th century capitalism, consumer-facing tech media started out, in the 1980s, as the work of amateurs and hobbyists. The earliest tech journalists had no intention of holding technologists to account, since they had no notion of Silicon Valley as a repository of power. By contrast, the original title of Fortune magazine, which launched in the wake of the 1929 stock market crash, was Power.
However much their editors claimed impartiality, early computer magazines such as Macworld and PC Magazine were part consumer trades, part fan sheets: their content consisted of product reviews and snippets of news about the new hires and strategy adjustments of tech companies. Silicon Valley had not yet gone mainstream; it was the preserve of self-styled geeks and visionary outcasts, a community apart, and the technology that emerged from the Valley was, by extension, something to champion and preserve. This sense of exceptionalism fired the foundational orientations of tech journalism as well, which quickly combined the clannishness and insularity of the message board with a limitless optimism about the power of technology to improve our lives.
Wired launched in 1993 with a promise to bring “context and meaning” to the coverage of technology and scorn “the computer ‘press’” (note the deep burn of those quotation marks) for mindlessly “churning out the latest PCInfoComputingCorporateWorld iteration of its ad sales formula cum parts catalog.” But the basic worldview of Wired remained fiercely, whiggishly pro-tech; the magazine’s founding mission statement talked of how Silicon Valley was leading “social changes so profound their only parallel is probably the discovery of fire,” and you can be sure that this was not meant as a criticism.
In subsequent decades these structural and cultural origins have proven tough to shake, not just for Wired but for the tech media as a whole. “I love my phone!” — to use Thompson’s example above — should be as irrelevant a predicate to tech journalism as “I got a home loan!” is to financial journalism. But tech media has never outgrown the natal instinct to gawk at the marvels of technology. The product release is still the most natural expression of itself. Meanwhile, the need for access to generate the inside stories that industry consumers of tech media most crave blunts whatever critical instincts tech journalists might naturally apply.
The era of online media has entrenched this basic emollience. Many “new” media companies — Vice, BuzzFeed, Vox, even smaller outlets like The Outline — are tech companies as well, funded by the same people and run according to the same principles as the startups of Silicon Valley. Tech has not just become a sector for the media to cover; it has become the media. Media executives are now convinced that in order for their businesses to thrive, they must adopt the practices, recommendations, habits and instincts of Silicon Valley, an achievement of persuasion that ranks among the tech industry’s greatest triumphs. This is how we get someone like Josh Topolsky, the type of techbro-lite new media editor who has no real talent for building a viable publication, but embodies Silicon Valley’s ad model addiction and indifference to human feeling.
Tech has not simply colonized the culture and business practices of media; it’s also come to control media’s distribution network, making the media dangerously dependent on traffic from the social web. In the process the media has essentially ceded the power to determine its own direction, often with disastrous results; the fields of the internet are littered with the corpses of media companies that heeded Facebook’s baseless advice to “pivot to video.” Over the past year, as Facebook has purged its news feed of actual news, the scramble to replace lost sources of social and video revenue has led the media not to reevaluate its subservient relationship to tech, but to discover new sources of reliance, often resulting in the creation of fresh conflicts of interest.
The latest and most fashionable of these comes via the “affiliate revenue” model, in which tech publications take a share of online sales generated by their coverage of apps and products. This is as clear a defeat of the incentives to ethical reporting as you’re likely to find in media today. Both Wirecutter, the New York Times-owned product review site, and Wired have identified affiliate content as an important new source of income, thus guaranteeing a healthy future for two of tech media’s dominant characteristics: app utopianism and dependence on commercial structures derivative of the Silicon Valley economy.
This colonization of the media by the technology industry makes criticizing tech an exercise in self-sabotage. Can media outlets funded by Silicon Valley VCs, run according to Silicon Valley startup strategy, and almost entirely dependent on the social tech behemoths to distribute and promote their content — an increasingly common trifecta — be truly impartial in covering tech? No media company, given these constraints, has the distance or perspective necessary to become a truly adversarial, independent chronicler of technology, to supply the critical edge we need to find a path out of our technological dysfunction. Criticism of the system cannot come from within the system.
And let’s be clear: that dysfunction is real. If political journalism emerged as an institution of democracy, there’s a fair argument that democracy is now a tool of technology — far more than it ever was in the days of TV, radio, and print. Silicon Valley’s damage to society can’t be measured by individual degradations alone — the destruction of public discourse, algo-borne bigotry, our addiction to iPhones — or even the sum of those degradations. What’s most disturbing about Silicon Valley today is its power to define everyday life, to determine the structures and relations within which our individual and collective problems emerge. The problems of democracy today emerge through structures provided by the tech industry. Discussions about the state of the media or the future of work unfold within the framework of what the big tech monopolists will or won’t do (and often on those monopolists’ very own platforms). Parenting is a negotiation of screen time, because screens are now a major component of the material structure of childhood. And on and on it goes.
There’s an irony embedded in this tale of woe. As the media becomes more heavily chained to the tech industry, the two sides of tech journalism — faith in big tech and the need to make money — have come increasingly into conflict. Tech’s colonization of the media has mostly been a bad deal for the media. The emaciation of digital media’s revenue streams — the dwindling online ad money and paltry returns on video — has occurred because of, not despite, the tech industry’s counsel. In comparison, the few media revenue successes of recent times — subscriptions and reader contributions — have had nothing to do with Silicon Valley. They’ve been anchored in reader loyalty, not adtech. The failure of Silicon Valley’s commercialization strategies, combined with the early successes of these extra-technological pathways to profitability, might have led a different industry to conclude that its faith in big tech was misplaced. But tech journalism will not cede the habits of a lifetime so easily.
True, the tech media was at the forefront of the “techlash.” But backlashes are transient and rarely transform the deep structures of power. Just look at the backlash to the financial crisis, which resulted in all of the big financial institutions getting bigger and no bank CEO going to jail. As L.M. Sacasas has pointed out, the purpose of the recent techlash has not been to question the place of technology in our lives but to civilize Silicon Valley, to root out its bad actors and subscribe those left behind to a softening code of new norms and expectations. The techlash, in other words, was about making technology better and repairing Silicon Valley ahead of its next growth surge. The assumption that technology will continue to dictate our most important interactions and desires was left mostly undisturbed. “Wired’s old slogan,” Nick Thompson said recently, “was ‘Wired is where the future is realized,’ and I sometimes joke that I want it to be ‘where the future is realized and the present is fixed.’”
The tech media still dreams, rather than worries, about the tomorrows technology will make possible. It still wants the future to be realized rather than stopped, despite the evidence crashing all around us of tech’s genius for ruin. Tech media’s pivot to criticism has failed, but only because it was impossible to begin with.
Aaron Timms is a freelance journalist. His writing has appeared in the Guardian, the Baffler, the Daily Beast, and many others.
Last edited: January 9, 2019
Author: Aaron Timms
Editor: Alexander Zaitchik
Illustration: Nicholas Zaillian