A few weeks ago, Alexis Madrigal — a chum and one of my favourite science and technology writers — punted a question out to his Twitter followers: “If you could hire any three journalists working primarily online today, who would they be?”.
It was an interesting question, though I struggled to answer, and he got plenty of response since he’s big on the internets. (In fact, Alexis is pretty big everywhere now, at The Atlantic they just refer to him as MADRIGAL He probably has his own theme tune, too).
Anyway, I was pondering the state of the way technology (as a subject) gets written about, and thought I’d pinch his MO.
I didn’t get a shedload of responses, but here they are:
In addition I threw in a couple of personal favourites off the top of my head (Madrigal himself and Steven Johnson, though I could have entered more); three people kindly mentioned me (I’ll ignore those); and we also had an anti-vote for David Pogue. Remember that there’s no doubt some selection bias — I’d imagine Guardian or former Guardian writers are likely to get slightly more attention from my Twitter followers, for example — but it’s a start.
So what does it say?
First, that my followers are a discerning bunch. Many of the people on this list are very good writers indeed (many of their suggestions would also rank in mine).
Second, that I suspect they thought about the question a little more than I expected. Going by Alexis’s previous list — which I thought was fairly patchy in terms of quality — I’d expected to see a few more “people who write a lot”. A few more newsbreakers, for example. But although some of these people do reporting, I’d say that apart from Ulanoff and Topolsky, there’s not really a top league tech news reporter in there. The people on the list are largely included because of their analytical skills and/or storytelling chops.
I also thought a few science writers would creep in, since the two spheres are so similar (I think technology is essentially the real world application of science, while scientific discovery usually relies on technology to make its advances). Nobody seemed to mix them up.
Finally, I think it says a lot about what we think “technology writer” means. To me, “technology” is really about the application of ideas to create systems and products that are meant to change our lives in some way. Technology is the ability to harness the inhuman — ideas, systems, machines — to empower what it means to be human. That stretches all the way from millennia-old technologies such as fire or writing or the wheel through to modern standards such as the web, nuclear energy or the mobile phone.
Amid the shrill stampede of what passes for technology news, there’s not much space for reflection. And even when there is space, it’s usually dominated by the demand for reader-friendly narratives about “the radical future of something familiar” or “the truth about something you thought you already understood”. That means there really aren’t many outlets for this sort of deep thinking about how technologies change us, or examination of what they promise.
So when we think of people who write about technology we often think of those who simply tell us facts about products or companies. Sometimes, if they’re lucky or very good, they write about ideas and systems. But the limitations of “technology writing” mean that actually most of the best writing about technology tends to come from people who have more latitude — cultural critics who are given space to talk about ideas and society. For example, I might not have entirely agreed with Zadie Smith’s NYRB piece on Facebook, but it was one of the most enjoyable, searching writing that appeared in a sea of froth last year. Or there are the times that John Lanchester writes about technology businesses or when Jon Ronson brings his unique abilities to bear on the case of Pentagon hacker Gary McKinnon.
Ultimately, the answers to the question “who’s your favourite technology writer” made me happy, because there are some great writers. But they also made me sad, because there aren’t enough of them. Technology is a massively important part of our lives, yet we don’t spend nearly enough time or attention helping cultivate and reward informed, sharp, incisive writing about it.
Addendum: I agree with nearly all the picks that people sent me, but there are quite a few more people who I’d have included. The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta has a remarkable clarity, for example. His colleague Malcolm Gladwell has perfected a way of telling stories about innovative ideas, as has Clay Shirky — somebody who doesn’t write enough. I love Kevin Kelly for his dedication to challenging preconceptions and Paul Graham for writing with the efficiency of a programmers while still making it pleasurable to read. I enjoy what Joel Johnson can achieve when he hits the space between public and personal. There are a host of bloggers — from Ethan Zuckerman to Jason Kottke who I doubt consider themselves writers, but choose their words and subjects so carefully they can often taken the form of art. Or somebody like Dan Hill, who is incredibly lucid and ranges broadly and deserves a greater platform.
There are more, but I’ve rambled on enough already. It’s a long list!
Photograph used under CC license courtesy of Flickr user HJ Barraza