Will journalists feed the tech backlash — or help explain it?

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

Towards the end of last year, WIRED published a piece about the arrogance of tech startups that was utterly unimaginable even 18 months ago:

As headlines have exposed the troubling inner workings of company after company, startup culture no longer feels like fodder for gentle parodies about ping pong and hoodies. It feels ugly and rotten. Facebook, the greatest startup success story of this era, isn’t a merry band of hackers building cutesy tools that allow you to digitally Poke your friends. It’s a powerful and potentially sinister collector of personal data, a propaganda partner to government censors, and an enabler of discriminatory advertising.

The piece’s core argument is that largely positive stories — puff pieces, in effect — about startups are over, because they’re unacceptable to the general public now. The tech world can’t accept that, because it’s still locked into a narrative that tech is good, and that any problems created by tech can be solved by more tech:

On the ground, the startup kings haven’t changed their behavior. They’re still pitching me their companies with the same all-out exuberance. They’re continuing their quest to move fast and break things—regardless of what broken objects are left in their wake.

And yes, that’s a problem. But I see a different problem.

Journalism has a terrible habit of swinging from one extreme to another in its coverage of tech. If you look at the exuberance of the coverage of the dot.com boom back in the late 90s, you can see the same path of over-positive reporting leading to a backlash, as the market crashed catastrophically. (I was guilty of this — back in the very late 90s I commissioned a very positive piece about the infamous boo.com for a commercial real estate magazine.) Through the early- to mid-2000s, the press were largely sceptical and cynical about the new wave of tech companies, especially those in the Web 2.0 and, later, social media spaces.

Then, the world switched around, and we started writing breathlessly about the new tech startup world.

Could we possibly, just possibly, respond to the latest wave of mistakes not with a massive over-reaction, and a swing to endlessly negative stories, but with the sort of balanced and thoughtful analysis we should have been doing in the first place?

That’s far more likely to allow us to both catch and spot the next big wave in tech as it arrives, without making ourselves look foolish by denigrating it, but also lead the way in raising problems and criticisms in a helpful, thoughtful way that might allow us to avoid the next set of problems.

Balance in journalism isn’t just about getting both views in the story in place — it’s about trying to look at the story from as many angles as possible, and just positive or negative takes is not in any sense balanced.

unsplash-logoAlex Kotliarskyi

Journalismtech journalismtechpanic

Adam Tinworth Twitter

Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.