Constructive Technology Criticism Annotated Syllabus

Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University

Sara M. Watson
Oct 4, 2016 · 11 min read

This reading list was originally published in a report for the Tow Center for Digital Journalism: Toward a Constructive Technology Criticism. It reflects a broader, more generous definition of what technology criticism can and should be, and therefore includes a diverse range of contributors. Where possible, it pairs academic texts with examples in practice from popular media.

You can use this as a syllabus, following a structured path through the literature following question prompts as guidance for the readings and discussion. You can also dip in to a section as needed. The list is meant to be a primer to the major questions concerning technology and society, and how those questions are addressed in the popular discourse. More suggested resources and readings are available and constantly updated in the expanded and collaboratively edited Zotero group. Read the complete report here.


  • Catalog the ongoing meta-discourse about technology writing and criticism
  • Pair popular articles with canonical academic work about technology
  • Build a primer and resource for writers covering questions about technology and society


What does technology criticism look like in practice? How is the relationship between technology companies and journalism affecting critical journalism? How can criticism help surface the assumptions and values behind technologies and their development? Which writers — critics or otherwise — contribute to the public discourse about technology and society, and how?


How have public intellectuals and theorists approached technological change in the past? How is technology criticism changing?

Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization, 1934Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology, 1954Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, 1964Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, 1964Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, 1985Kevin White, “The Killer App,” 1994


How is the relationship between technology companies and journalism changing? How does this limit the critical voice of the media in holding technology powers accountable to society? When revenue and access to audience are mediated by technology powers, how does this constrain who can afford to publish probing criticism about technology?

Adrienne Lafrance, “Access, Accountability Reporting and Silicon Valley,” 2016John Herrman, “Tech Is Eating Media. Now What?,” 2015Mike Ananny, “It’s Time to Reimagine the Role of a Public Editor, Starting at The New York Times,” 2016Emily Bell, “Facebook Is Eating the World,” 2016Ben Smith, “Uber Executive Suggests Digging Up Dirt on Journalists,” 2014Nellie Bowles, “What Silicon Valley’s Billionaires Don’t Understand about the First Amendment,” 2016


How and why does technology resist criticism? How does criticism move beyond Luddite, anti-progress associations?

Michael Sacasas, “What Does the Critic Love?,” 2012Evan Selinger, “Why It’s Too Easy To Dismiss Technology Critics: Or, The Fallacies Leading A Reviewer To Call Nicholas Carr Paranoid,” 2014Jill Lepore, “The Disruption Machine,” 2014


What do technologists take for granted, and what are their shared influences and epistemological stances? How do those positions and assumptions surface in our technologies and in a technologically driven society?

Ellen Ullman, Close to the Machine, 1997Fred Turner, From Counterculture to Cyberculture, 2006\cite{turnercounterculture}Elmo Keep, “Future Perfect,” 2015Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron, “The Californian Ideology,” 1995


What is technology criticism for? Who is its intended audience? How can it affect real change, socially and politically? What does radical technology criticism look like, and what are its limits?

Matt Buchanan, “Waiting for the Next Great Technology Critic,” 2013Mendelsohn, “A Critic’s Manifesto,” 2012Ursula Franklin, The Real World of Technology, 1990Evgeny Morozov, “The Taming of Tech Criticism,” 2015


Which voices are represented and published today? Who gets to — or wishes to — call themselves a “critic”? What have critics of technology accomplished so far?

Henry Farrell, “The Tech Intellectuals,” 2013Jillian C. York, “Closed Network,” 2014Astra Taylor and Joanne McNeil, “Dads of Tech,” 2014Tressie McMillan Cottom, “How to Make a Pundit,” 2014Jenny Davis, “Our Devices Are Not Turning Us into Unfeeling Robots,” 2015 Rose Eveleth, “Why Aren’t There More Women Futurists?,” 2016 Sara M. Watson, “How Virginia Heffernan Is Reinventing Tech Criticism,” 2016 


Which tried and true questions about technology continue to puzzle those who think deeply about technology? Which new questions about technology are arising that haven’t been addressed before? What can writers learn from theorists and historians in the academy about how we frame our questions about technology and society?


How is technology — the ability to extend one’s skills and abilities with tools — the thing that makes us most human? How does technology sit in opposition to our humanity? How does what we consider to be a technology in a given age change over time?

Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto,” 1991 Sara Hendren, “All Technology Is Assistive,” 2014 Norbert Wiener, Cybernetics, 1948 


To what extent do technologies have inevitable trajectories? How do technologies constrain possible uses, and how do users and designers shape technologies’ directions and embed ideologies and values within them?

Nicholas Carr, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” 2008 Stephen Marche, “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?,” 2012 Wiebe E. Bijker, Thomas P. Hughes, Trevor Pinch, and Deborah G. Douglas, The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology, 2012 Langdon Winner, “Do Artifacts Have Politics,” 1980 Andrew Feenberg, The Critical Theory of Technology, 1991 


How do technologies both remove human influence and bias, and formalize other assumptions and biases in their design and application?

Tim Hwang and Madeleine Clare Elish, “The Mirage of the Marketplace,” 2015 Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar, Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts, 2013 


How and why do moral panic narratives dominate critical responses to technology? How can they be easily spotted, anticipated, and avoided to move discourse beyond fear-based criticism?

Ben Rooney, “Women And Children First: Technology And Moral Panic,” 2011 Walter Kirn, “If You’re Not Paranoid, You’re Crazy,” 2015 danah boyd, It’s Complicated, 2014 Tom Standage, “The Culture War,” 2006 


How are critics falling short of their potential for cultural contribution?


How and why does technology encourage the use of binary oppositions in critical discourse? How can we encourage critical discussion that allows for nuance and complexity?

Sherry Turkle, “Stop Googling. Let’s Talk.,” 2016 Zeynep Tufekci, “Is the Internet Good or Bad? Yes.,” 2014 Nathan Jurgenson, “Digital Dualism versus Augmented Reality,” 2011 Nathan Jurgenson, “The IRL Fetish,” 2012 


Personalizing debates in technology thought leadership often end up misrepresenting arguments and shutting down conversation rather than encouraging discussion. How are these tactics endemic to a current internet attention economy of the media? What might be more effective means of argumentation?

Evgeny Morozov, “The Meme Hustler,” 2013 Evgeny Morozov, “The Internet Intellectual,” 2011 Michael Meyer, “Evgeny vs. the Internet,” 2014 


Critics are often characterized as armchair philosophers, theorizing from their own experience without empirical basis. How can critics recognize and avoid this trap?

Alexis Madrigal, “Toward a Complex, Realistic, and Moral Tech Criticism,” 2013 Jonathan Franzen, “Technology Provides an Alternative to Love,” 2011 Jonathan Franzen, “What’s Wrong with the Modern World,” 2013 


What specific lines of inquiry inform quality contributions to the critical discourse? How are critiques sharpened through precision and focus?


How technologies are designed matters. What affordances do they have? How do they direct and constrain possible uses? What are they optimizing for? And what are the political and social influences they reveal? How do the design, development, and structures of technology shape its nature, uses, and impact? How can we pay attention to elements of the materiality of technology and infrastructure that are otherwise hidden or taken for granted?

Paul Ford, “What Is Code? If You Don’t Know, You Need to Read This,” 2015 Paul Ford, “The Hidden Technology That Makes Twitter Huge,” 2013 Alexis C. Madrigal, “The Machine Zone,” 2013 Rusty Foster, “Don’t Go Chasing Waterfalls: A More Agile,” 2013 


How people actually use technology is as important as the invention of it. What is it like to live with technologies? How are they adopted? How do people think about their own use of technology? How do users’ practices and behaviors differ from those of technologists and designers?

David Edgerton, Shock of the Old, 2011 Ruth Schwartz Cowan, More Work for Mother, 1983 Suzanne Fischer, “Why the Landline Telephone Was the Perfect Tool,” 2012 Eric Meyer, “Inadvertent Algorithmic Cruelty,” 2014 


What are the underlying assumptions and unspoken values behind technological change? How can we critically examine a system of technological production that purports to depoliticize through objectivity? What are the principles that guide engineers and investors, and how do those principles shape the culture of technologists? How do those principles propagate in the world?

Alexis C. Madrigal, “What’s Wrong With ‘X Is Dead,’” 2010 Mat Honan, “Please Stop Calling Gadgets Sexy,” 2011 Ian Bogost, “What Is ‘Evil’ to Google?,” 2013 Molly Sauter, “In Televangelist of Technology Kevin Kelly’s Divinely-Guided The Inevitable, the Future Isn’t Quite for Everyone,” 2016 danah boyd, “It’s Not Cyberspace Anymore.,” 2015 Virginia Heffernan, “A Sucker Is Optimized Every Minute,” 2015 


How are marginalized people represented in the design, development, and use of technologies? Who gets to design and build technologies? And how do systems of power perpetuate structural forms of bias? In a white, male-dominated Silicon Valley, how do critics surface intersectional concerns? What are technologies’ relationship to power structures and how are technologies employed as tools for control? How can designers better respond to and respect users’ diverse and dynamic needs?

Helena Price, The Techies Project, 2016 Joanne McNeil, “Why Do I Have to Call This App ‘Julie’?,” 2015 Vauhini Vara, “Why Doesn’t Silicon Valley Hire Black Coders?,” 2016 Rose Eveleth, “How Self-Tracking Apps Exclude Women,” 2014 


If technologies disrupt markets, how do they do so? How does one market come to replace another? How does Silicon Valley influence the nature of work, both in building a new work culture and in supplanting traditional structures of institutional labor? What can “follow-the-money” journalism tell us about priorities and power in technological development?

Tim Wu, The Master Switch, 2010 Caroline O’Donovan and Jeremy Singer-Vine, “How Much Uber Drivers Actually Make Per Hour,” 2016 Caroline O’Donovan, “2015 Was The Year Work Stopped Working,” 2015Doug Henwood, “What the Sharing Economy Takes,” 2015 


How can we read technologies as texts? All technologies are human constructions, so how can we evaluate their ethics and aesthetics as such? How do technologies extend and constrain human experience?

Virginia Heffernan, Magic and Loss, 2016 Jaron Lanier, You are Not a Gadget, 2010 Susan Sontag, On Photography, 1977 Whitney Mallet, “Miranda July and Paul Ford Cyberstalked Me,” 2016 Joanne McNeil, “Overfutured,” 2010 


Everything old is new again. What is uniquely new about new technologies? What can we learn from their predecessors? What can we learn about the trajectory of technologies by looking both at successes and failures? How can we avoid what Tom Standage calls “chronocentricity” — the egoism that your own generation is living in the cusp of history — by looking to the past?

Tom Standage, The Victorian Internet, 1998 David E. Nye, Electrifying America, 1990 Friedman A Brief History of the Wristwatch,” 2015 Clive Thompson, “How the Photocopier Changed the Way We Worked — and Played,” 2015


How can technology criticism mature? How can it be more constructive? How can it pose alternatives and be more impactful by seeking to influence design, policy, and adoption of new technology?


How can writers avoid the pitfalls and clichés of technology writing? What can constructive technology criticism accomplish in bringing together instead of tearing apart? How can criticism reach specific audiences to affect change?

Sarah Jeong, “How to Make a Bot That Isn’t Racist,” 2016 Jonathan Zittrain, “Facebook Could Decide an Election Without Anyone Ever Finding Out,” 2014 Tim Wu, “Book Review: ‘To Save Everything, Click Here’ by Evgeny Morozov,” 2013 Bruno Latour, “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” 2004 Karen Levy, “The Case for Precise Outrage,” 2016 


If algorithms are the secret sauce, how do we hold companies accountable for their proprietary practices? How can critics responsibly cover fast-moving and glittery tech narratives with limited resources and technical access or skills?

Tom Hamburger and Matea Gold “Google, Once Disdainful of Lobbying, Now a Master of Washington Influence,” 2014 Julia Angwin, Jeff Larson, and Surya Mattu, “Machine Bias,” 2015 Nick Bilton, “The Secret Culprit in the Theranos Mess,” 2014 


What does constructive technology criticism look like in practice? To what extent must constructive alternatives and solutions be limited to the opinion section? What are the benefits and drawbacks of the form? Who is best positioned to wrote this form of criticism?

Zeynep Tufekci, “Volkswagen and the Era of Cheating Software,” 2015 Kate Losse, “The Art of Failing Upward,” 2016 Evgeny Morozov, “Why Growing Old the Silicon Valley Way Is a Prescription for Loneliness,” 2015 Jonathan Zittrain, “Don’t Force Google to ‘Forget,’” 2014 Susan Crawford, “The New Digital Divide,” 2011 


How can writers encourage change by speaking directly to engineers and designers within the technology community? What authority do writers need in order for their message to reach Silicon Valley effectively?

Anil Dash, “Who Makes Your Apps,” 2015 Anil Dash, “Toward Humane Tech,” 2016 Tristan Harris, “How Technology Hijacks People’s Minds,” 2016 


How do future scenarios help us think through social impacts and ethical questions in concrete, relatable ways? Whose visions are represented in these futures? How does one report from the future without effectively writing fiction? Are futures the unique purview of criticism? How can critics responsibly discuss future scenarios while avoiding sensationalized and reductive dystopian or utopian visions?

Rose Eveleth, Flash Forward, 2015–2016 Rose Eveleth, “The ‘Kitchen of the Future’ Isn’t Just Retro, It’s Regressive,” 2015 Alvin Toffler, Future Shock, 1970 Joanne McNeil, “Postcards from the Futch,” 2015 


How can we provoke discussions about technology by posing and building functional alternatives? What means can we use to express critique beyond the written word?

Lauren McCarthy and Kyle McDonald, pplkpr, 2015 Julian Oliver, Gordon Savičić, and Danja Vasiliev, “The Critical Engineering Manifesto,” 2011 


What does criticism offer the average informed reader? How can criticism empower users with frameworks for thinking about our everyday lives with technology?

Manoush Zomorodi, Note to Self, “Infomagical,” 2016  and “Bored and Brilliant,” 2015 Douglas Rushkoff, Program or Be Programmed, 2011 Alexis C. Madrigal, “How We Think About Technology,” 2012 


Where does criticism surface in popular storytelling? How do comedy and satire offer an accessible and entertaining form of technology critique? Which audiences do these stories reach that other forms of communication don’t? How do these pieces of popular culture become reference and shorthands for conversations about technology and society more broadly?

Silicon Valley, 2014–2016 Minority Report, 2002 Ex Machina, 2015 Dave Eggers, The Circle, 2013 Black Mirror, 2011–2016 John Oliver, “Net Neutrality,” 2015 Louis C.K. “Everything Is Amazing And Nobody’s Happy,” 2008 Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg, Modern Romance, 2015 

Read the complete report here.

This research was funded by the Tow Center through a gift from The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Tow Center

The Tow Center for Digital Journalism at the Columbia…

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store