We need more critical thinking about tech, not less

This is NOT me. It’s not you either. But some people think this caricature is an accurate depiction of anyone who thinks critically about technology.

Mathew Ingram at GigaOm has recently published a piece entitled Making fun of Silicon Valley is easy, but the next big thing looks like a toy. It bothered me as soon as I read it. Today I saw a few people I generally respect tweeting it and my unease grew. I’ll explain.

The point of the piece is, as is the current fashion in online writing, entirely spelled out in the headline. It’s fairly innocuous, but the message is clear. If you’re making fun of moronic Silicon Valley startups like Yo, or startups in general, you could be stupidly mislabeling the next Twitter or Facebook. Take this line of thought to its logical conclusion and the result is that it would be a mistake to question any new product or service in the tech space. I say no.

The same day that I read Ingram’s piece, I read this one on PandoDaily about a startup called Secret. The author of the piece, Sarah Lacy, has numerous concerns about this company and what they have created, concerns that seem eminently valid:

If Secret continues to grow with everyone trying to profit off of its popularity willfully justifying and ignoring the social cost, there will be Secret suicides. As a community, we will regret this. It will make the Craigslist killer and the Airbnb meth head-gate scandals look like nothing.

Lacy is a close watcher of the tech space. She has been writing about technology for 15 years. She has written two well-received books about it. But I guess she didn’t get the memo that Valley startups can turn into amazing, wonderful things even if they start out as silly or, in the case of Secret, morally and ethically questionable. She is taking a critical approach and thank goodness, because she explicitly addresses in her piece that others are unwilling or unable to do so.

That being the case, that there is a clear dearth of critical thought about technology, do we really need another exhortation to basically leave Silicon Valley entrepreneurs alone? If even light comedy about a frivolous new app is to be frowned upon, what does that say about the more serious criticism of an Evgeny Morozov or a Sherry Turkle?

The reality is that technology, on its own, is neither a benevolent force, nor an evil one. Your MacBook or your Facebook account don’t have feelings and motives. However, the people who built them and programmed them do. To pretend otherwise is utopian foolishness at best. At worst, it is dangerously careless.

3 Comments

  1. bootcheese3000 August 9, 2014

    I was going to click on that 1st link until you explained it, after that I wasn’t interested. Everybody’s trying to be the next Zuckerberg or make the next Twitter these days. Remember Chatter? Yeah, me neither. 😀

    I tend to stay away from most social networks and the hype surrounding them, that crap isn’t real to me nor are the people behind those keyboards typing the most ignorant moronic spiteful shit. And PLEASE don’t get me started on selfies. Now we got these new upstarts like vine, where you can make a video in 6 secs–WHY? It makes no sense, all it does is create a new generation of ADD/ADHD brats, impatient people who get bored with something after a few secs and want to move on to the next. People need to get a Life OUTSIDE the Internet, not on it. Whoever spends more time tweeting and taking selfies just to post on-line isn’t living at all, they’re attention-whoring seeking acceptance from people they’d probably never hang out with in person to begin with.

  2. Phil Wolff August 11, 2014

    Anna, I think you missed the point or context of @mathewi’s article. He was chiding those of us who too easily dismiss new products and startups. He was reminding us that what was once small and silly can become vast and impactful. And that our talent is limited in distinguishing between things that will stay small and silly vs. those with the capacity to become vast and impactful.

    So he too was calling for more discretion, judgement, and going beyond first impressions, despite what you may have thought of his headline.

    • Anna Tarkov August 11, 2014

      Thanks for the comment Phil. I’m pretty sure I didn’t miss the point or the context. I’ve been reading Mathew for a number of years so I’m very familiar with his style, views, etc. And, though it has no bearing on anything, I will say that I agree with him most of the time. I stand by what I recently tweeted. Ridicule or dismissiveness is still a type of criticism, though it is unsophisticated and not backed up by evidence. And it is also by no means a final ruling on a company or product. Mathew himself points out that he changed his mind about Twitter. You have to ask yourself what the point of this rebuke was. He starts out by writing that it has become popular to bash Silicon Valley. I can only conclude that this is concerning to Mathew, or else he would not have written this piece. So why is it concerning? Are entrepreneurs in danger of hearing someone making fun of a valley startup and deciding to not start a business themselves as a result? I think not and if that’s enough to dissuade them, they aren’t cut out for entrepreneurship anyhow. Why does an article like this need to be written if not to prop up the idea that tech startups shouldn’t be judged harshly lest everyone suddenly stop disrupting and innovating, take their ball and go home?

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