Tech Criticism is Critical to Understanding Digital Asia

There has never been a greater need for critical discussion of technology and society in Asia. Everything from ethics in artificial intelligence, to consolidating social platform dynamics, to smart cities development and mobile penetration, to local start up innovation and global governance and policy issues—these trends all pose opportunities and challenges to the way we live today.

To grasp these changes and their effects, we need grounded coverage and thoughtful—sometimes even skeptical—consideration of where these ideas come from and with what assumptions, and who they benefit and empower. Unfortunately, “technology criticism” carries baggage because of negative associations with conservative luddite positioning. It’s hard to find space for skeptical, considered discussion when technology is positioned by many as the solution and a vision toward progress. And some of the most widely recognized technology critics thrive by offering sensationalized counter-narrative critiques. This kind of work pits stakeholders against each other, rather than bring together voices in common dialogue with shared language and a remit to imagine alternative possibilities.

Speaking to writers, journalists, academics, and technologists all contributing to the popular conversation about technology, my research suggests that technology criticism can move beyond reductive utopia versus dystopian narratives to offer a more nuanced critical approach that contextualizes, historicizes, and seeks to understand the social and political motivations and implications of technology in society. Criticism can address the most foundational questions behind the rhetoric and ideology of technology, especially where grand technocratic visions obscure more subtle complexities on the ground and in practice. I’m hoping to offer a more useful vision of what criticism can do, and to recognize the wide range of contributors to this popular critical discourse about technology, beyond those who are recognized as “Critics.”

I explore these and other questions in the report, published in the Columbia Journalism Review. It is also available for download in various ebook formats. The event launching the research featured a panel discussion among contributors to the report, John Herrman, Rose Eveleth, and Virginia Heffernan the video recording is archived here. Published alongside the report, I put together references and resources as a Style Guide to inspire better writing about technology, and an Annotated Syllabus that pairs interdisciplinary academic approaches to technology questions with tech coverage in practice.

While this report, written for the Tow Center for Digital Journalism with funding and support from the Knight Foundation is scoped to address a US media audience and students of journalism, the findings are especially pertinent to the Asian context. How can technology coverage account for differences in cultures, uses, histories, and even technology development across geographies, especially as many technological systems seek to reach global scale?

As Writer in Residence at Digital Asia Hub, I look forward to applying lessons from this criticism research to the most important technology questions facing society here in Asia and across the globe.I’ll be highlighting Digital Asia Hub friends and contributors, interviewing them about their concerns and questions and featuring a closer look at their work.

I’m based in Singapore, but have also lived in China—back when VPN circumvention still worked! There is so much exciting innovation and pilots happening here, making these emerging questions all the more salient. I look forward to exploring them with you and with the wider Digital Asia Hub network.

This feature was written exclusively for Digital Asia Hub. For permission to republish or for interviews with the author please contact Dev Lewis.

Sara M. Watson

Sara M. Watson

Technology critic and a Research Fellow at Tow Center for Digital Journalism
Sara M. Watson is a technology critic and a Research Fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. She is also an affiliate with the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University and Writer-in-Residence at Digital Asia Hub. Her work explores how we are learning to live with, understand, and interpret our personal data and the algorithms that shape our experiences. She investigates the ways that corporations, governments, and individuals use data from wearable sensors, the internet of things, and other digitally processed systems
Sara M. Watson