Open Dialogue

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 more optimistic than mine. Issues of temperament aside, many of my go-to concepts and narratives focus attention on what’s wrong with the world — how what people and organizations do can fall short of ideals. A great deal of Thompson’s writing reveals surprising moments of creativity, passion, and success.

This transcript of our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Evan Selinger: Did you just got back from your first work-related pandemic trip?

Clive Thompson: Yes. For several months, I did the best I could conducting interviews over Zoom. But magazine journalism distinguishes itself by offering immersive, almost documentarian coverage.

Selinger: Welcome home! Let’s start with the big question. Overall, do you think the current wave of tech coverage is rising to meet the big challenges of the day?

Thompson: Many journalists are writing about the impact technology has on society, including social media having this catalytic power on the warp and woof of our everyday thought, and they’re knocking it out of the park! To put their contributions in perspective, here’s a comparison. Feminism went from being a niche topic that was only occasionally reported on to a way of looking at social relationships that informs lots of reporting. Similarly, tech coverage evolved from an obsession with covering the latest capacity of consumer products to widespread, ethically, and politically informed reflections on a range of impacts. I’m not saying things are perfect. There’s still plenty of misogyny. And not all tech reporting is great. Sometimes it’s just rewritten industry press releases.

Selinger: I could pile on the list of problems, ranging from tech companies having too much control over who has access to their data to there not being enough opportunities at major publications for minorities and other marginalized groups to address how technology impacts their lives. But, as always, I appreciate your positive outlook correcting my gloomier instincts. So, let’s stay focused on the quality coverage.

Why did this shift occur toward focusing on how technology influences how we think, communicate, socialize, work, and play? In academia, disciplines like philosophy, sociology, and anthropology have grappled with these issues for a long time. Since the reflections aren’t always written to be easily understood by nonspecialists, and since they can run short on illustrative examples, I’m sure it only accounts for some inspiration.

Thompson: One quick thing to counter some of the gloom on your mind. Yes, nondisclosure agreements and appeals to intellectual property limit vital access. At the same time, there are plenty of great investigative stories that these constraints don’t impede. Think of the fantastic follow-ups to Adrian Chen’s 2014 Wired piece on the terrible working conditions of Facebook content moderators, like Casey Newton’s “The Trauma Floor,” or the coverage of Sarah T. Roberts’ book Behind the Screen.

As to the overall positive changes in tech reporting, there are several factors to consider. Let’s start with recent events. Given what’s happening in politics, reporters these days are much more likely to critically interrogate issues like how technology shapes what news people consume and how they discuss it, what information they consider factual and dismiss as fake, and how influential political figures like presidents address the world in real time. Academics have been focusing on issues like platform power for some time. But now they’re dinner table topics. Social media platforms banning Trump is front-page news.

Selinger: For sure. Not too long ago, I only had wonky conversations about Section 230 of the Communication Decency Act with my law professor colleagues. Now, thanks to politicians complaining about censorship on social media, it’s the kind of thing that can come up in family text chains.

Thompson: Discussions of Section 230 and related issues are fascinating. When tech companies create search engines and news feeds, they build editorial products. Tech executives claim their algorithms aren’t editorial, but this is obviously untrue. You can tell it’s untrue because when they go to court to defend themselves lawsuits over their algorithmic choices, they say “Well, the actions of our technology constitute an opinion, so it’s protected speech.” So, they know their feeds and search engines are editorial in nature. Every time Sheryl Sandberg or anyone like her gets up and says “We’re not journalists,” they’re either lying to themselves or lying to someone else.

The denial is frustrating because if tech wanted to learn about how to manage the tension between making money and being responsible editorially, there’s a tradition for 100 years in traditional media to draw from. At its best, traditional media has tried to figure out how to balance the need to make money with the need to be somewhat responsible in what they do editorially. It’s not like from the start newspaper editors didn’t realize they could reach high circulation just by publishing stories about things that people have strong emotional responses to, like ghastly crimes. And they still do that, all the time! But many top media outlets also spent decades trying — failing often, but at least trying — to balance “give the audience what they want” with “we also need to report on what’s happening overseas.” There was a ton of experience tech firms could have referred to, but they didn’t.

Another reason tech coverage is improving is changing demographics. Younger reporters grew up observing technology deeply and profoundly impacting their lives and the lives of everyone around them. They don’t need to be convinced that it’s essential to understand technology’s far-reaching impact. Fortunately, many editors see their perspectives as valuable.

My point about the virtue of changing demographics goes beyond tech coverage. Think back to the protests about race and policing in Ferguson. Organizations like Buzzfeed that had younger and more diverse staff immediately understood that what was happening was really significant and quickly sent over effective reporters.

Selinger: How different was the situation earlier in your career?

Thompson: When I was a Gen X freelancer and my bosses were boomers, they honestly believed the internet was mostly a silly fad that would eventually go away. They saw everything from instant messaging to e-mail and blogging — which, at that point, was called “journaling” — as frivolous. At the same time, they wanted some coverage of the digital technologies that millions of dollars were being poured into developing.

Selinger: Did you immediately recognize how shortsighted these editors were?

Thompson: No, it took me a while to see how transformative the innovations would be. At first, I clung to the old-fashioned belief that important journalism follows the model of traditional political reporting. I thought that to be a “serious” reporter, you wrote about traditional politics. It was only later that I realized tech writing could tackle politics and social change too.

Selinger: Understandable. To some extent, we’re all products of our time and biased by our experiences. When I was in grad school, my dissertation advisor was a guy named Don Ihde. Don had an immense influence on the field of philosophy of technology, and he was deeply skeptical of political-economic analysis. Why? He spent so much of his career fighting against technological determinism by highlighting the creative uses of tools that designers never envisioned. Later on, he had a hard time seeing how profoundly Big Tech can influence collective behavior.

Is it fair to say the public was unprepared to confront algorithmic power during Trump’s presidency because, at least at first, many reporters expected traditional norms to be more influential?

In asking this, I have to acknowledge that some people have more foresight than others. Plenty of academics warned that YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook would be weaponized to promote extremism, especially under the current state of regulation.

Thompson: Yes, many academics called it and can rightly say, “I told you something like this would happen.” Still, many of us were gobsmacked by how extensively bad actors manipulated information.

Selinger: In the moment, it can be hard to know when a warning about future dangers is prescient. After all, so many technological predictions are flawed. But what about the younger generation of reporters? Given their formative experiences, should they have been more attuned?

Thompson: They got played. Reporters covering memes didn’t realize how politically dangerous irony can be — that it’s not just a laughing matter. They also didn’t recognize that writing these stories meant they were doing precisely what hate groups wanted: giving mainstream media attention to propaganda. These groups were looking to game the system — to find a way to expand their messages beyond dark places like 4chan and normalize offensive content. Whitney Philips’ report, “The Oxygen of Amplification: Better Practices for Reporting on Extremists, Antagonists, and Manipulators” brilliantly captures the situation.

Put in generational terms, just as boomers were given a shock to the system that forced them to acknowledge that the internet will have lasting influence, so too were highly savvy younger reporters shocked into better understanding images have greater power than their stories could contain and more meaning than narratives provided.

Back to your point about academic warnings… Part of the challenge of being prepared for the future is that when you tell people “bad things will happen,” you’re telling them what to move away from. That’s obviously useful! But it isn’t enough. People want to know how to flourish and what to move towards.

Selinger: Agreed. It’s a serious limitation of my writing, and lots of academic publications that I admire. The sections devoted to criticism are much more detailed than the parts that offer positive recommendations for making things better.

Thompson: Don’t be hard on yourself. Identifying complex problems and pain points is an important job. And as we’ve both been implying, practical constraints are an essential part of the problem. Because Big Tech has monopoly power, there are limited practical options for bringing about change. It’s hard to separate out the good potential of the internet — the theoretically great things we can get from it — from the fact that, as a practical matter right now, it’s dominated by a small handful of monopolistic companies. Ian Bogost put the point well in one of his pieces in The Atlantic. He said that a future with computers is fine. The problem is being stuck with commercial services that aim to harvest our attention for their benefit.

And since I mentioned Ian, I should make a broader point. Part of the reason we have such better tech writing these days is that we’re not limited to traditional journalists. Some of the best discussions of technology in the public sphere are authored by people who you wouldn’t traditionally think of as journalists, like academics who happen to be really good at adding context to current events. For example, in addition to Ian, there’s Zeynep Tufekci, Ethan Zuckerman, Safiya Umoja Noble, danah boyd, and so many of the thinkers at Data and Society and elsewhere, and you. The upside of disintermediation is they don’t need to have permission from a major publication. They can write something amazing on Medium, and it can get a massive readership.

There’s one more thing I want to emphasize about why tech reporting changed for the better. The artificial divide between supposedly high and low culture continues to break down. For example, it’s awesome that people are reporting on topics like online makeup tutorials or TikTok trends to broaden conversations about gender.

Selinger: It can take a lot of curiosity and empathy to avoid trivializing everyday activities. What everyday activity would you like to have better coverage of?

Thompson: The increasing rise of video as the core rhetorical strategy for communicating with the public. It’s not everywhere. Popular platforms like Substack are exploding with text. But the shift to video is common enough. So much so that it’s troubling our society is mostly ignorant of the implications of the moving image becoming the dominant rhetorical form.

Selinger: Even with all the foundational work on topics like inquiry into modes of representation, the spectacle, ocularcentrism, and the like?

Thompson: I think we’re dealing with a different type of moving image utterance. It’s not a one-to-many form we’re pressured to consume. It’s a one-to-many activity, like the causal speech act of texting an unbelievably weird video or picture to a friend.

Selinger: Like when I confound my in-laws by responding to a text chain where my sisters-in-law share pictures of their babies, and I respond by transforming the everyday images into satirical memes where talking babies comment on politics? My in-laws don’t get it. And I have to admit, beyond my aesthetic love of the absurd, I’m not sure I entirely do either.

Thompson: It’s wild, but I’ve looked hard to find someone who has thought deeply about the matter and can do a good job explaining it. I haven’t found anyone. Perhaps we’re temporarily stuck in a dominant mode of thinking that’s too connected to the dominant technologies of the moving image from the last millennium: movies and television.

Prof. Philosophy at RIT. Latest book: “Re-Engineering Humanity.” Bylines everywhere. http://eselinger.org/

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