Constructive Technology Criticism Annotated Syllabus

Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University

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.

SYLLABUS OBJECTIVES

  • 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

PART I: TECH CRITICISM ORIGINS AND TENSIONS

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?

FOUNDATIONS OF TECH CRITICISM

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

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

SILICON VALLEY + THE MEDIA

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

CRITIC = LUDDITE/ANTI-PROGRESS?

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

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

TECH IDEOLOGY

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

MEANS AND ENDS OF CRITICISM

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,” 2013
Mendelsohn, “A Critic’s Manifesto,” 2012
Ursula Franklin, The Real World of Technology, 1990
Evgeny Morozov, “The Taming of Tech Criticism,” 2015

WHO IS A “CRITIC”

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,” 2013
Jillian C. York, “Closed Network,” 2014
Astra Taylor and Joanne McNeil, “Dads of Tech,” 2014
Tressie McMillan Cottom, “How to Make a Pundit,” 2014
Jenny 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 

PART II: KEY QUESTIONS FOR TECHNOLOGY

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?

MAN AND MACHINE

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 

DETERMINISM VERSUS SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION

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 

OBJECTIVITY AND POSITIVISM

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 

MORAL PANICS

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 

PART III: CRITICAL FALLACIES

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

DUALISMS AND ZERO SUMS

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 

BULLYING

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 

UNIVERSALIZING/ARMCHAIR PHILOSOPHIZING

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 

PART IV: CRITICAL APPROACHES

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

DESIGN AND FORM

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 Healthcare.gov,” 2013 

RECEPTION AND USE

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 

IDEOLOGY AND RHETORIC

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 

POWER, DIVERSITY, FEMINISM

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 

ECONOMICS AND LABOR

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,” 2015
Doug Henwood, “What the Sharing Economy Takes,” 2015 

HUMANITIES, ETHICS, AESTHETICS

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 

HISTORIES

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

PART V: CONSTRUCTIVE CONTRIBUTIONS

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?

ALTERNATIVES

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 

ACCOUNTABILITY

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 

OP EDS

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 

ADDRESSING PEERS

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 

FUTURES

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 

CRITICAL ENGINEERING AND DESIGN

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 

LIVING WITH TECHNOLOGY

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 

PART VI. BONUS: CRITICISM IN POP CULTURE, COMEDY, AND FICTION

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.