What we (don't) write about when we write about technology

The other day this tweet from Nathan Jurgenson appeared in my feed:

finished my weekly reading of the NYTimes tech section. it is almost indistinguishable from the business section

It reminded me of some frustrated notes I’d made in the pub a few months ago and then done nothing with. So this is me doing something with them.

I was concerned, at the time, with what I disparagingly (if you can intuit a disparaging tone from the particular slant of hand-written quotation marks, which I believe in this case you can) labelled “tech journalism”. I meant this term to encompass all the things I didn’t like about the way we - by which I mean authors, journalists, bloggers - write about technology. In many ways I think technology is actually a misleading term here, but I'm not sure we have the vocabulary to talk about it in nuanced enough ways yet, and maybe this is at the heart of the problem: we don't need to just change the way we write about technology, we also need to develop a more precise language with which to write about it.

Anyway, here’s the thing: I don’t think we are really doing “technology” enough justice.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the rock ‘n’ roll myth lately, the myth that says if you play at the right venue on the right night you’ll get noticed by some bigshot industry dude and get signed and get rich and get famous. This myth, admittedly, has some basis in reality: that did happen to some people, and it will undoubtedly, as unlikely as it sounds, happen again to other people. But it doesn’t happen to most people, and in my view it isn’t necessarily what’s most interesting about music, even if it does happen. Ultimately the music itself is still the most interesting thing, the people playing the music, the people hearing it, the relationship between sound and feeling, what Alex Ross calls “a peculiar American dream, this notion that music can give you a new personality, a new class, even a new race”.

The startup world has its own version of the rock 'n' roll myth. People my age are running companies valued at millions of dollars, or billions of dollars. Spend enough time in a dark room coding and you, too, could get rich quick. Journalists in the mainstream media write very compellingly about this very compelling story, and rightly so: it’s big news.

But I worry that what gets lost in the flurry of excitement about technology as a business (money! risk! investment! valuations! rags to riches! riches to rags!) is excitement about the technology itself: the software, the applications, the websites, the whatever. By emphasizing money over meaning, we often ignore the opportunity for an examination of anything more relevant than, "How This Social Networking Site Can Help Brands Engage With Customers!"

The important point here is that business ≠ technology. Business is certainly an aspect of technology, and I don’t dispute the need to write about this aspect. I do fear, however, that we’re on the verge of forgetting that ideas and implications matter as much, in many contexts, as money and marketing. By simply transposing technology and business, there’s a lot we miss writing (and talking) about. Technology can be a mirror, an indicator; it can be challenging, damaging, constructive, life-changing. It can influence our ways of being in the world as much as our ways of being in the world influence what tools we develop or how we behave online.

So I crave a different form of “tech journalism” (though I suspect journalism is not really the right word here): writing on the sociology of technology, perhaps. In my (very unscientific) view, we’re seeing more of this sort of thing now than we did six months ago (or maybe I'm just looking harder now). But it’s often specialist and fairly academic stuff - hugely enjoyable to read and discuss, but not necessarily part of the ongoing mainstream technology narrative. And I still have the sense that a lot of “tech journalism” is just business journalism wearing a slightly hipper hat.

There are obvious exceptions to this; the Atlantic, for instance, springs to mind. And the landscape is certainly undergoing a change - Sarah Lacy left TechCrunch to start (the admittedly business-focused) PandoDaily; Milo Yiannopoulos asked: “Where are the columnists, the brave iconoclasts? The people who can make insightful links between technology and other disciplines, draw distinctions, see revealing connections?” and then launched the delightfully if sometimes uncomfortably bitchy online magazine The Kernel, which aims to publish “high-quality writing about the way technology is rapidly changing our lives”.

My sense is that the tech section and the business section will, eventually, have to diverge. Perhaps they are already diverging; perhaps the sparks and rumbles online, the new ventures, the longer-form essays, are evidence of that. I hope so, anyway; it would be a shame to ignore a whole space ripe for exploration.