Style Guide for Writing About Technology

Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University

Through my technology criticism research, I asked writers and journalists to identify common fallacies and failures of technology writing. What follows is a style guide, offering tips on how not to write about technology, whether in reporting, features, or criticism. Think of this as a guide for avoiding the most egregious clichés and obscuring jargon.

Of course, writers will follow style guidelines for their publication of choice, but editors and writers alike can borrow from these basic principles for how to write better and more useful stories about technology. If you’ve got tech writing clichés or pet peeves to share, add them here as a Medium response or send them to @smwat or saramariewatson@gmail.com. This is presented as part of the Tow Center report on Constructive Technology Criticism, available for download here.

Framing

Moral panics sensationalize. 
Moral panic narratives suggest we’re on an inevitable path toward catastrophe. If you are worried about the women and children, you may be building up a moral panic narrative. Moral panic narratives present extreme emotional arguments that obscure nuance and shut down debate. Though these stories are deployed to block certain technological change, they aren’t without merit. Panics can be a good indicator of something important, touching a nerve and changing our relationship to time, space, or to each other.

Progress narratives are seductive.
Progress narratives suggest we’re on a good path forward toward an ideal or better future state. But whose idea of the future is this really? Ask instead: Who is this future better for, easier for, faster for, more efficient for? Watch out for these narratives deployed by public relations and press releases.

Don’t blame the technology.
It’s people that both build and use technology. For example, Tinder isn’t responsible for a “dating apocalypse” and hookup culture, but it might amplify and encourage existing behaviors and activities. It’s more interesting to explore how, and in which ways, technologies and people interact.

Technology is always political.
Question rhetoric that suggests otherwise —“objectivity,” “meritocracy,” and “neutrality.” Technology is always optimized toward something, which is a human and therefore political, social, and ethical choice.

Is your issue with technology? Or is it actually late capitalism?
It’s easy to conflate the two, but often worrying about one means it’s difficult to address the engineers and developers who take that context for granted. And then we’re all talking past each other.

Technological determinism is making you ask reductive questions and write bad headlines.
Google is not making us stupid. Aspire to better.

Don’t pathologize behaviors and technologies.
We bring our issues to devices as much as they influence our behavior. Facebook is not making us lonely.

The future of ____ isn’t here yet, so we don’t know what will happen. And ____ isn’t dead yet, so don’t write a eulogy for it.
Those stories are tired, and usually no more than speculation. Usually the conclusion is that we just don’t know yet.

Language and Rhetoric

Don’t use industry jargon.
If you have to rely on industry jargon to tell your story, you are probably too close to it. “Disrupt,” “innovate,” “startup,” “sharing economy.” Many words like these make it into a cultural lexicon and expand far beyond their initial context, and often end up meaning almost nothing. These honored words also gain a certain moral power, which can be a dangerous combination.

Don’t use lazy shorthands.
“Uber for X” obscures more than it illuminates. Though it may be common parlance for entrepreneurs’ elevator pitches, using the logistics platform as a shorthand comes with a lot of baggage.

Don’t write about “realms.”
What is this, Game of Thrones? The online and offline, virtual and real, continue to blur and are no longer meaningful distinctions. Nathan Jurgenson calls this false binary “digital dualism,” or “the common (mis)understanding is experience is zero-sum: time spent online means less spent offline.”

I didn’t let this get published. You shouldn’t either!

Data is not ones and zeros.
No one codes like that. Don’t use it in imagery or in language to stand in for the digital. I vetoed this image for a series exploring how data is used in our everyday lives. “Code” is not ones and zeros, and The Matrix was so 1999.

Algorithm—I don’t think it means what you think it means.
“Algorithm” often stands in for something else, like “formula,” “filter,” or even “heuristic.” It may be that the misuse of the word is perpetuated by PR and marketing, which uses the word to make technologies seem complicated, futuristic, and, above all, proprietary.

Don’t write about “the internet” when you really mean “people on the internet.” 
Or “smart phone apps.” Or “Reddit.” Take this, for example: “Social networks seem to be feeding a cycle of action and reaction. In just about every news event, the Internet’s reaction to the situation becomes a follow-on part of the story, so that much of the media establishment becomes trapped in escalating, infinite loops of 140-character, knee-jerk insta-reaction.” This sentence imagines the internet as a singular actor, rather than a collection of different platforms for discussion. It reduces down to the technology rather than to the people using it.

Avoid the royal “we.” 
Be precise in who you are referring to, especially when it’s yourself. Which cohort are you representing? Narrow it down to avoid insisting that your reader is having that shared experience with you, too.

“Once the stuff of science fiction” is trite.
It’s gee-whiz reporting. Alexis Madrigal suggests a “categorical ban” on framings like this, saying they don’t add any information to the lede.

Describing technologies as “creepy” is just a feeling. 
That’s an interesting place to start the story, but there’s much more behind that. Dig deeper. Find out what, precisely, is creepy about the scenario —what does it say about our attitudes toward control, automation, or our sense of ourselves? Do you feel like you are being spied on? Is there a better word, like “uncanny,” to describe a more precise problem with the experience?

Don’t bother with overused quotes about technology.
“The future is already here —it’s just not evenly distributed yet.” —William Gibson*
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” — Arthur C. Clarke
“Data is the new oil.”*
“If you’re not paying for something, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.” — blue_beetle on Metafilter

Responsible Reporting

Is the story smothered under the secret sauce? 
Proprietary technology might be too good to be true. Don’t fall for the magic trick, or the man behind the curtain.

Talk to people.
Not just founders and CEOs or engineers, but actual users. Non-users. People outside your demographic.

*Attribution disputed.

Compiled with inspiration drawn from The Economist, On the Media’s Breaking News Consumer’s Handbook, and Quartz. Thanks!

Read the complete report on Constructive Technology Criticism.

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