How Journalists and Academics Hold Tech Accountable
Evan Selinger in conversation with Clive Thompson
This is Open Dialogue, an interview series from OneZero about technology and ethics.
I’m Evan Selinger, a professor of philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology. One of my favorite activities is talking with smart and engaging people who think deeply about responsibility and the paths for creating a better future. In the “Open Dialogue” series, I’ll reach out to academics, journalists, activists, tech workers, and scientists to explore how to better understand controversies, more thoughtfully analyze innovation, and critically determine which leading ideas and behaviors need to change.
I’m excited to talk this week with Clive Thompson about how the media covers responsible uses of technology. Thompson has long reported on tech for outlets like the New York Times and Wired. Throughout his book Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World, Thompson displays a heightened ethical sensitivity to how software impacts society.
Thompson and I have had recurring conversations about Big Tech and power and the allure of trying to solve problems by optimizing efficient solutions, even when doing so eliminates socially valuable friction. Whenever Thompson makes guest appearances in my Philosophy of Technology courses, students praise his ability to clearly communicate complex ideas that effectively connect STEM and humanities disciplines.
There’s another reason I wanted to talk with Thompson about how the fourth estate is doing. Our initial conversations profoundly impacted how I conduct academic research on tech ethics. When Thompson and I first discussed the differences between tech reporting and humanities theorizing about technology, he made a compelling case that the two outlooks should mutually inform one another. Academic insights into matters like technological affordances should illuminate good reporting. And good academic analysis shouldn’t be so theoretical that it’s narcissistically enamored with concepts and ideas that sound impressive to specialized groups but are out of touch with lived experience. This way of putting things helped me appreciate why Thompson’s writing tends to be…