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Does Tech Criticism Still Matter?
Reflecting on Reboot’s third birthday
Reboot turns three today. This makes it a toddler in human-years, a young adult in dog-years, and either way the longest project I’ve ever nurtured. That’s longer than I spent at Stanford and longer than my longest job.
In light of this milestone, I wanted to reflect on Reboot’s work at a high level: not just the world we want to achieve, but also the method—writing and criticism—we’ve chosen to get there. I hope you give it a read.
Does Tech Criticism Still Matter?
By Jasmine Sun
As Logic Magazine cofounder Ben Tarnoff recently tweeted, “tech critiques themselves have begun to feel algorithmic.” The headlines repeat themselves: X is not a panacea. Silicon Valley is reinventing the Y. Tech bros are ruining Z. On one hand, it’s a good thing that tech criticism has graduated into the mainstream. On the other, these ChatGPT-level takes feel like a worrying signal of a dying discipline.
I consider it irresponsible to continue editing Reboot, a publication about technology, without engaging these questions. In the vein of organizational subtraction, it would be both wasteful and self-important to continue the project past the need for its existence—especially as we enter our fourth year.
So I ask honestly: Ought Reboot continue to exist? Are we adding any value? Are we teaching people something they don’t already know? Or, conversely, at what point are we simply “raising awareness” for the same old problems, gloating about our moral superiority, and doing nothing to change them?
Tech critic Evgeny Morozov would say no—we don’t matter. In “The Taming of Tech Criticism,” he mourns his field’s inefficacy:
Radical technology critics face an unenviable choice: they can either stick with the empirical project of documenting various sides of American decay (e.g., revealing the power of telecom lobbyists or the data addiction of the NSA) or they can show how the rosy rhetoric of Silicon Valley does not match up with reality (thus continuing to debunk the New Economy bubble). Much of this is helpful, but the practice quickly encounters diminishing returns. After all, the decay is well known, and Silicon Valley’s bullshit empire is impervious to critique.
What’s missing, argues Morozov, is vision. Most critics are preoccupied with “design problems, and their usually easy solutions,” or attribute technological harms to builders’ “false consciousness” rather than economic structure. He continues: “Changing public attitudes toward technology—at a time when radical political projects that technology could abet are missing—is pointless.”
The job of the critic
Fields like art, food, music, and film also have a tenuous relationship with their critics. Pitchfork was known to make or break emerging musicians with a single “Best New Album” badge or 1.6 pan; in the fine arts, critics act as unwelcome guardians of a capitalist, old-school regime. The famous Ratatouille line goes: “In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment.”
But dismissing all critics as cowards feels like a pleasantly populist cop-out. Like there is good and bad art, there is good and bad criticism. And the useful, difficult work lies in differentiating the two. As Susan Sontag asked in Against Interpretation: “What would criticism look like that would serve the work of art, not usurp its place?”
Good art criticism does a service to its craft. It upholds discernment; it respects the discipline; it lends the same rigor to “subjective” cultural expression as the public affords to Olympic sprinting and scientific breakthroughs. Good criticism acknowledges how structural conditions impact creative work without reducing that work to a deterministic product of that environment. It helps us interrogate why some patterns go mainstream; it elevates those that aren’t, but should be. Furthermore, the critic can bring their love of craft to the novice consumer: to act as a tour guide, a translator, an educator, an expert. By applying a trained eye to popular works, critics help us become more discriminating about the things we consume and the effects that they have.
I can imagine Morozov scoffing at this comparison—ought we also review financial derivatives to appreciate their sophistication?
It’s true that the arts are not a perfect analogue for tech. Art criticism mainly performs a gatekeeping role—it helps buyers make decisions, or inspires artists to pursue acclaim—while in tech, that role is occupied by the mass market. Most consumers won’t read an essay before downloading a ridesharing app; conversely, centralizing network effects mean that most tech users don’t have much of a choice. And while artists’ work is certainly impacted by trends, the nature of art—a celebration of uniqueness, personal style, and provocation—lends them more flexibility than the product designer—who often optimizes for broad utility, palatability, and profit above all.
Yet we can’t neglect the power of culture in shaping technology—founders have long used their work as a scaled expression of their political and social beliefs. Note the continued importance of the open-source software ecosystem. Observe how organizational methodologies like “the lean startup” ripple across the industry based on books and blog posts. Consider the way that niche philosophies like effective altruism, the network state, or transhumanism have impacted building and funding priorities. I simply refuse to believe that Clubhouse or Elon Twitter or the hundreds of VC-backed note-taking apps reflect a rational allocation of resources under capitalism rather than the personal proclivities of Silicon Valley leaders. In my experience, tech culture is a lot more flexible (and mimetic) than the materialists might think.
Finally, even if most tech users don’t pay attention to criticism, activists, educators, and policymakers will. Reading “Crawling the City” has made me much more wary of relying on Yelp and Google Maps, prompting me to wonder if my travels would be improved by a more human-driven approach. On a broader scale, reams of research and critique about the relationship between phones, social media, radicalization, exploitation, and mental illness have inspired legislative advocacy to encourage safer defaults for under-18s.
This is where Morozov might say that tech critics don’t go far enough. But most people don’t wake up Marxists; rather, they’re activated through learning about the macro structures that shape their specific experiences—even if those experiences are as superficial as an ad-riddled screen. Good criticism isn’t only activism; the hard work of the critic is to draw the line from the particular to the general and back again.
A taxonomy of tech criticism
Ultimately, the challenge and exigency of tech criticism is that tech straddles the awkward ground between a creative practice, an ideological movement, and a money-printing epicenter of cultural and economic transformation. A publication like ours must be willing to explore these varied perspectives.
First, there’s criticism of technologies and tech products: pieces that analyze the origins, features, and effects of a specific technology. Writer and engineer Sheon Han makes a compelling argument in “The Case for Software Criticism,” describing how someone might use engineering, design, and sociological literacy to explain an app like Slack. He writes: “Software critics would help us answer this simple question that demands complex answers: ‘Why is this good?’ Or, often more entertainingly, ‘Why is this so bad?’” For example, I love sociologist and computer scientistTufekci's book Twitter and Tear Gas. She applies a UX designer’s meticulous eye to show how platform affordances shaped 21st century activism from Hong Kong to Gezi Park.
Second, there’s criticism of the tech industry: analysis of the systems (companies, cultures, policies, geographies, etc.) within which tech products emerge. The 1995 essay “The Californian Ideology” critiques the libertarianism of the new “virtual class”; on the opposite end, The Sovereign Individual calls to accelerate toward a world without borders, jobs, or politics itself. While most tech writing today focuses on big tech and startups, criticism can amplify alternative models too. In this camp, I’m inspired by “Zebras Fix What Unicorns Break”: a manifesto for business models that prioritize sustainable growth over high-risk returns. In Reboot, Saffron Huang’s “A Philosophy of Subtraction” breaks down the Ethereum Foundation’s delegated approach to protocol development, a unique philosophy that she hopes other organizations adopt.
In my opinion, the most successful works address both forces. As anyone who’s worked at a tech company knows, trends and profit motives guide product decisions as much as taste does. The best-in-class here is Jia Tolentino’s 2019 long-read on “How TikTok Holds Our Attention.” She writes with equal care and rigor about the dreamlike experience of scrolling and the state surveillance machine powering TikTok. On the positive side, Lucas Gelfond’s latest for Kernel Magazine, “Prison Phones and the Problem with Profits,” profiles the nonprofit Ameelio, which builds free calling and messaging tools for incarcerated people. Gelfond covers the funding model, social science, and low-cost tech stack that make Ameelio possible; offering aspiring founders a non-Zuckerberg role model for their startup ambitions.
The last category I’ll add is a bit out of left field. I’d argue that science fiction—which originated concepts from the metaverse to humanoid robots—is the form of critical technology writing with the greatest impact on tech development to date. First, it’s the form that technologists actually seem to read. The allure is in the entertainment, but also in the premise that technological innovation can transform the world. Yet good sci-fi doesn’t reproduce mere techno-determinism. Instead, it acts as a paracosm through which we can unravel the connections between new technologies and our values, relationships, and politics. Most essentially, sci-fi reinforces the idea that the future can always be different from the past.
In each of these examples, the critic moves fluidly between just-enough technical descriptions and systems-level analysis. They not only reflect, but anticipate the societal changes that emerging technologies herald, making them legible to tech outsiders and providing the shared context for imagination, preparation, and co-transformation.
To write in good faith contrasts tech critics to those in other disciplines:
If we think of all of the other sorts of critics, it seems reasonable to suppose that they are driven by a love for the objects and practices they criticize. The music critic loves music. The film critic loves film. The food critic loves food… But does the technology critic love technology? Some of the best critics of technology have seemed to love technology not at all.
Here, Sacasas highlights one of the most important criteria for what makes good tech criticism work: whether it’s driven by a spirit of love and optimism. I know that sounds naive. But one need not “love” the biggest players in the tech industry to “love” technology itself; or at minimum, to believe in humans’ ability to leverage tech for creativity, change, and impact. Most technologists are well-meaning people who want to be socially useful, provide for themselves, and happen to favor code as their tactic. “Good faith” criticism—which intends to build something better rather than snark at an entire industry—is far less likely to fall on deaf ears. In Michael Brooks’s words: “Be ruthless to systems; be kind to people.”
This is why many of the best critics are versed in creation as well as curation. I loved Signal founder Moxie Marlinspike’s blog post on what making NFTs taught him about the market’s tendency to centralize; as well as Ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin’s exchange with Nathan Schneider over the pros and cons of token-based governance. These writers’ technical chops and embeddedness not only make their critique more precise, but also more persuasive for fellow practitioners. They serve as living case studies of the marriage of theory and practice. After all, even if companies like Amazon are too entrenched to reform themselves, each successive generation of builders has the chance to try something new.
I’m not saying that tech criticism should be uniformly rosy. The job of the critic, after all, is to evaluate. Tech criticism ought to make technology users, consumers, and creators more attentive, intelligent, and discerning about the quality and impact of the products around them. It should inspire formal innovation and help technologists aspire toward creative greatness and human empowerment, not just wealth. It should give people concrete frameworks to judge “this app, not that; this org structure, not that”—to avoid settling for less than what is possible and to organize for more. It should move comfortably between the object-level (e.g. user experience, technical specifications) and the social, cultural, and political contexts that tech exists within. It should be accessible. If criticism’s role is to communicate and educate and evangelize, it cannot just live in the ivory tower. All this to say: Criticism should exist within the world, not above it.
What’s next for Reboot
Do you remember the first piece of writing to change the trajectory of your life?
For me, it was probably the Magic Tree House series. In the first grade, I scribbled letters to Mary Pope Osborne begging her to write more tales from Camelot. Or maybe those giant “Question and Answer” books filled with facts about planets and presidents and mummies and myths. Or how every year from ages 10 to 20, I reread Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. Sometimes, I fixated on the plight of the buggers; others, on young Peter and Valentine’s plot to blog their way to global rule.
On a visceral level, I will always believe that the ideas and knowledge and stories we ingest impact the paths we will take. Toys and jobs come and go; the real leverage is in rewiring hearts and minds. What do you value? What do you fear? What futures feel possible, and what role could you play in bringing them about? These are questions that can only be hashed out through reading, reflection, deliberation, and thought; that can only be answered within voluntary communities of learning, not hackathon halls.
In “Among the Believers,” critic A. O. Scott describes little magazines as making “room for the exploration of hunches, experiments, blind alleys and starry-eyed hopes.” Publications as R&D labs for ideas, not things. In the wake of the deaths of Real Life Mag, Gawker, Protocol, Input Mag, WaPo Games, and a16z Future (lol), I consider it absolutely urgent for someone else to fill their shoes. And as a collaborative project among technologists, advocates, and researchers—and one without a private equity firm or media conglomerate breathing down our backs—I see Reboot as uniquely positioned for the kind of “disciplinary anarchy” that good criticism demands.
People sometimes ask whether Reboot will start incubating products or startups to achieve our goals. After all, our community has the skills. Why not build the thing, instead of just theorizing about it? We’ve thought about doing so, and it’s not out of the question. But we also believe that “thinking” and “building” are complementary endeavors—and equally worthwhile ones. Criticism alone cannot change technology—but it serves as a guide for those who do. If we do our job right, the Reboot project will change tech’s trajectory far more than another ProductHunt launch.
So to revisit the introductory question: Should Reboot still exist?
We think so, and we’re holding ourselves to a higher standard to prove it. In the next year, Reboot plans to double down on our editorial work:
We aim to publish Kernel Magazine twice a year instead of annually. We’re currently gearing up for our third issue, SUSTAIN: Are We There Yet?, helmed by editor-in-chief and Reboot cofounder Jessica Dai. (To contribute, let her know here.)
We’ll branch out from our standard book talk format to host new kinds of events like debates and discussions, and hopefully, our first public in-person talks.
We’ll keep using the newsletter to share unique perspectives on how tech gets built and where it should go. We promise to post only as often as it’s worth hitting your inbox for.
Returning to A. O. Scott, quoting Dave Eggers’s memoir:
"And how will you do this?" she wants to know. "A political party? A march? A revolution? A coup?"
Very grateful to Jacob Kupperman, Daniel Wu, Nikhil Devraj, Brunella Tipismana, and Daniel Bashir for your thoughtful feedback; to Matthew Sun, Lucas Gelfond, Jake Gaughan, Emily Liu, Ivan Zhao, and Jessica Dai for the many insightful conversations on Reboot’s past, present, and future; and to the thousands of readers, community members, and funders who have supported us for the past three years.
💝 closing note
If this vision resonates, consider joining Kernel’s third issue, SUSTAIN: Are We There Yet? We’re looking for editors, illustrators, designers, developers, and marketers.
Fill out this interest form by April 24. If you have questions, please contact editor-in-chief Jessica Dai at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Toward writing criticism worth reading,
Jasmine & Reboot team