Why Does Tech Journalism Suck?

Chris Dahlen at Pitchfork Media laments the state of technology journalism:

I keep hearing the same gripe from the critics of the critics of pop
culture: Today’s writers eat it. Nobody knows how to cover music, or
movies, or video games, or any of the other media that matter. We need
someone to swoop in and save us: We need a new Lester Bangs, or a new
Hunter S. Thompson– one of those guys who made criticism and
alternative journalism seem so vital back in the 1960s and 70s. Where
they hell did they go?

[…] But I think I’ve found the answer: We don’t have a new Bangs or
Thompson yet because pop culture today is primarily a technology story.
And we don’t know how to write about technology.

Oh sure, we cover tons of stories about technology. We write up every new thing from could-be-big trends– whatever happened to the podcast revolution, anyway?– to tiny but buzzworthy ones, like that "personalized" Jessica Simpson download they’re selling at Yahoo! Music. The problem is that every time we write about some new technology like podcasting, we go through the basic template– explain how it works, decide whether grandmothers will care about RSS feeds, and so forth– and we quote the same types of people: The early adopter, the industry analyst, the skeptic. And no matter what context the story falls into and how important the subject may seem, the overall tone is always the same: whatever it is, it’s "neat." […]

[Tech] magazines are digging deeper ruts in fallow soil. Wired‘s devolving into Cosmo for geeks: It hypes and glosses over tech the way Cosmo turns
the most spectacular human experience, the orgasm, into bulletpoints.
And who else is out there in the popular press? We know that our
readers probably play an Internet-enabled XBox 360 that can pipe movie
trailers while they’re listening to an iPod and instant messaging their
friends on a laptop. But what’s the real story– that we’re entertained?
We almost need a refresher course in media studies, รก la Marshall
McLuhan. We should start with McLuhan’s quote– "After more than a
century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous
system itself in a global embrace"– and step by step, relearn our
relationship to the world.

[…]  The tech press says we’re at a buffet of gadgets and gizmos; but we
should be knocking over the table and eating off the floor. We have to
strip away the geekery, the gadgetry, and the consumerism, and instead
of explaining why this brave new freakshow interests us, we have to
understand what it’s doing to us.

Link: Pitchfork Feature: Column: Get That Out of Your Mouth #27.

(via Slashdot)

It’s a nice rant and I agree up to a point.  There’s some good stuff out there, but it takes a bit of searching.  I was going to make a list, but I don’t have time right now — for anyone who cares, I’ll leave it to you to scan the book list to the left and the ugly unsorted link collections to the right.  Sorry for the disorganization.

One recommendation that’s not here (and not really tech, but pop culture and business culture): The Baffler magazine, and Thomas Frank’s books (especially One Market Under God).

India rejects Negroponte’s Laptops

I missed this bit of news last week.  From The Register:

India has decided against getting involved in Nicholas Negroponte’s One Laptop Per Child scheme – which aims to provide kids in developing countries with a simple $100 machine.

The success of the project depends on support, and big orders, from governments. The loss of such a potentially huge, and relatively technically sophisticated market, will be a serious blow.

The Indian Ministry of Education dismissed the laptop as
"pedagogically suspect". Education Secretary Sudeep Banerjee said: "We
cannot visualise a situation for decades when we can go beyone the
pilot stage. We need classrooms and teachers more urgently than fancy
tools."

Banerjee said if money were available it would be better spent on existing education plans.

Link: India rejects One Laptop Per Child | The Register.

Via Techdirt, who call the preference for classrooms and teachers over computers an "ideological stumbling block."

Update: More news this week — the project now says they have orders for 4 million, from Thailand, Brazil, Argentina, and Nigeria.  When they have orders for 5 million they’ll start production.  Link: One Laptop Per Child gains ground | The Register.

Brad King’s “Long Tail” Meta-Review

Brad King, on his Technology Review blog, promises a different kind of review of Chris Anderson’s book The Long Tail, which has been reviewed just about everywhere by now:

Well,
the most obvious difference will be that I’ll start by laying out my
feelings about the book before I’ve read one word of it. Once that’s
finished, though, I’ll be heading down to Borders to purchase the book
(a very un-long tail action). Then, over the next few days, I’ll post
the review in small chunks, sort of a long-tail-type review, taking
into account readers’ responses. And if Anderson finds this, maybe a
note of response from him as well.

So why do the review now, when so much has already been written on the book?

Here
is where my real bias is revealed. Anderson’s book has garnered much
attention in the press, at least as much for his position with Wired
as for the book’s subject. His position has given the book a weighty
feel, and, like others in the technology press, that concerns me a
little. When word of the book bubbled around the digital water cooler a
few years ago, among the digerati that make up my world, its main idea
— simply stated, that digital commerce enables businesses to create
successful niche markets — was hardly revolutionary.

For those
who had been covering the entertainment industries for any length of
time, this idea had been discussed for years. For that reason, I think,
I was initially put off by the idea of book: it just wasn’t news or
news making. While those in various industries were searching for ways
to capitalize on the end of the inventory age, Anderson seemed to be
discovering that inventory no longer mattered. It was a bit like
closing the barn door after the horse had escaped, which Lee Gomes
explains much more elegantly than I in his Wall Street Journal column today.

Link: TR Blogs: The Long Tail: a Pre-Review.

I don’t quite get all the fuss either.  I’m looking forward to King’s thoughts.

Francis Collins on Religion and Science

Geneticist Francis Collins is getting lots of publicity, and lots of flack, for his new book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.  There seems to be some disbelief that a scientist would try to push his faith like this.  I don’t see how this is much different from some of Richard Dawkins’s and Daniel Dennett’s books, though.

For some of the flack, see this post over at ScienceBlogs: Neurotopia (version 2.0) : Francis Collins is Confused.

Update: Salon just published a good interview with Collins — Salon: The Believer.  I think he and his book come across better in this interview than in previous media coverage.

Teen Sets Text Messaging Record

From AP:

A Utah teen with fingers of fury is once again the speed text-messaging king of the world. Ben Cook, 18, of Provo, Utah, returned to the top of the cell-phone text-messaging heap Friday at a Denver text-off at a water park, blazing through a 160-character standardized message in 42.22 seconds.

Link: Utah Teen Sets Text Messaging Record.

I hope he has health insurance by the time the repetitive stress injuries kick in.

When I was a kid, the speed contest of the day was Rubik’s cube.  Coincidentally my top time was also around 40 seconds, thank you very much.

Is Soy Food Scare For Real?

A recent article on possible health risks of eating too much soy is making the internet rounds and scaring lots of people: Guardian Unlimited: Should We Worry About Soya In Our Food?

The answer from the Guardian is clearly yes — you should worry.  While it wouldn’t be the first time that the food industry kept food risks hidden from consumers (as has possibly happened in certain cases with genetically modified foods), I’m skeptical of this article.  It seems alarmist and is based largely on a single source — a Dr. Mike Fitzpatrick from New Zealand.  After a little searching I found his website, Soy Online Service, which assures us that it’s run by private citizens without any outside funding.

Yet there’s a whiff of conspiracy theory about this site.  Similar material about the hidden dangers of soy can be found in such places as Nexus Magazine ("an international bi-monthly alternative news magazine,
covering the fields of: Health Alternatives; Suppressed Science;
Earth’s Ancient Past; UFOs & the Unexplained; and Government
Cover-Ups").  There’s a lot of anti-soy material like this on the web, and it seems to go back at least ten years or so.  Scanning it gives me the feeling I got a few years back when a friend tried to warn me off of Diet Coke.  I naively looked to the web for answers.  You can find an awful lot of people on the web convinced that aspartame will kill you, along with an awful lot of evidence that those people are kooks; mostly though, you’ll just be exhausted from the effort.

Maybe there’s something to this soy thing — I don’t know.  Perhaps some well-intentioned people learned a little bit about toxicity (but not quite enough), got scared, and thus a webspiracy was born.  This story could use some perspective from disinterested scientists (I don’t think Fitzpatrick counts — he may not make money off of this, but he has surely staked his career on it).

Update: A little more Googling and I’m convinced this is conspiracy territory.  (Other people probably realized this immediately — I guess I’m a little slow.)  I don’t know what the Guardian’s reputation is for accuracy, but I think it’s safe to say they slipped up here.  There’s apparently quite a history of anti-soy fearmongering.  I’ll leave the Googling as an exercise for the reader.

Wikipedia Celebrates 750 Years Of American Independence

The Onion does a good job on Wikipedia today.  Excerpt:

"It would have been a major oversight to ignore this portentous anniversary," said Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, whose site now boasts over 4,300,000 articles in multiple languages, over one-quarter of which are in English, including 11,000 concerning popular toys of the 1980s alone. "At 750 years, the U.S. is by far the world’s oldest surviving democracy, and is certainly deserving of our recognition," Wales said. "According to our database, that’s 212 years older than the Eiffel Tower, 347 years older than the earliest-known woolly-mammoth fossil, and a full 493 years older than the microwave oven."

Link: Wikipedia Celebrates 750 Years Of American Independence | The Onion – America’s Finest News Source,
via Bookninja.

No doubt someone will now add a typically humorless wikipedia article that describes the article.

Human-Powered Artificial Intelligence

Sheep
Salon has a fascinating article today about Amazon Mechanical Turk, which is Amazon.com’s on-line workforce project.   Companies pay people pennies to carry out simple online tasks because it’s cheaper than programming computers to do them.  It takes its name from the 19th century fake chess-playing robot "The Turk".  Excerpt from Salon:

The 21st century twist on the Turk, conceived by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos,
doesn’t try to hide the people inside the machine. On the contrary, it
celebrates the fact that we have become part of the machine. For fees
ranging from dollars to single pennies per task, workers, who cheekily
call themselves "turkers," do tasks that may be rote, like matching a
color to a photograph, but they can confound a computer. Conceived to
help Amazon improve its own sites, Mturk.com is now a marketplace where
many companies have solicited workers to do everything from
transcribing podcasts for 19 cents a minute to writing blog posts for
50 cents. Amazon takes a cut from every task performed. […]

To a labor activist like Marcus Courtney of WashTech, a tech workers
union, the whole arrangement represents a dystopian vision of a virtual
sweatshop. "What Amazon is trying to do is create the virtual day
laborer hiring hall on the global scale to bid down wage rates to the
advantage of the employer," he says. "Here you have a major global
corporation, based in the United States, that’s showing the dark side
of globalization. If this is Jeff Bezos’ vision of the future of work,
I think that’s a pretty scary vision, and we should be paying attention
to that."

Link: "I make $1.45 a week and I love it" | Salon Technology.

Google has starting getting in on this type of action too, though perhaps less publicly.  How long before someone proposes this scheme for Negroponte’s future $100 laptop workforce?

The picture above is from The Sheep Market, a wonderful little art thesis project by Aaron Koblin.  He paid online workers two cents apiece for 10,000 drawings of sheep, which he now offers for sale in sticker form for $20.

Age and Technology

(Updated 7/27 with link to article.)

This passage, from an essay by Megan Mullen on Marshall McLuhan’s classic Understanding Media, struck a chord with me and might with others of 1960s vintage:

I feel a deep personal connection with Understanding Media because the book was published the same year I was born.  We have both entered middle age now.  For me, this means being frustrated with people older than I am for feeling ill at ease with technologies that both fascinate me and facilitate my everyday tasks.  It also means being equally frustrated with those younger than I am (particularly my students), who seem to have lost touch with narrative-driven technologies such as books and old-style movies.  I also feel a certain sense of paranoia, suspecting that younger people now place me in the category of those discomfited by newer technologies.

Source: Megan Mullen, "Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media: Coming to terms with the future he foresaw", Technology and Culture, April 2006.