How We Think About Technology

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The Atlantic Tech's how-to guide for producing meaningful, in-depth stories in a resource-starved, time-crunched media age.

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One way to think about media, courtesy of the 1970s art/activist collective, Ant Farm (Alexis Madrigal).

Today, we released an anthology of this blog's best stories for a variety of ebook platforms. You can download it for free until the end of the year. We selected a few dozen stories that we think showcase what we're trying to do here out of the 1,500 posts we did in 2012. 

And let's be honest: we're psyched about this project. I think we've developed distinctive ways of looking at the world. We do a different kind of writing from most of what you see on Techmeme or Google News.  

A beautiful way to read our best stories. Plus, the book is free! Free Download

I wrote an introduction to the book that attempts to explain how we think about technology and thank (some of) the people to whom we owe intellectual debts. It's reprinted here.

Perhaps it is our personal how-to guide for producing meaningful, in-depth stories in a resource-starved, time-crunched media age. 

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Thank you for downloading The Atlantic's Technology Channel anthology for 2012. We're proud of the work in here and hope you find stories that you love. [Note: You should really go download this anthology now.]

But I have to admit that this project began selfishly.

I wanted to see what we'd done on a daily basis assembled into one (semi-)coherent whole; I wanted to see how, over the course of the year, we'd shared our obsessions with readers and continued to grope toward a new understanding of technology.

That process really began when I launched the Technology Channel at the The Atlantic in 2010. Back then, I knew that I wanted to build a different kind of tech site. I wanted to write things that would last. My friend Robin Sloan, who you see pop up on the site now and again, has a way of talking about this. He says that "stock and flow" is the "master metaphor" for media today. "Flow is the feed. It's the posts and the tweets. It's the stream of daily and sub-daily updates that remind people that you exist," he's written. "Stock is the durable stuff. It's the content you produce that's as interesting in two months (or two years) as it is today. It's what people discover via search. It's what spreads slowly but surely, building fans over time."

To my mind, even the best tech blogs focus on "flow" for both constitutional and corporate reasons. They're fast, fun, smart, argumentative, hyperactive. Some of them do flow very well. And I knew we were not going to beat them at that game. But stock, that was something else. Stock was our game.

Looking at The Atlantic as a brand or an organizing platform or a mission, I see a possibility that verges on a responsibility to do things that resound over time. Resound. Things that keep echoing in your head long after the  initial buzzing stops. Things that resonate beyond the news cycle. After all, we're old! Born in 1857 out of the fires of abolitionism, The Atlantic has survived because it's been willing to change just the right amount. It's responded to the demands of the market, but never let them fully hold sway. And in the best of cases, we changed the way our readers thought, challenged our own convictions, and laid down some of the essential reporting in American history. This may all sound like big talk, but we have to own this history, regardless of what the information marketplace looks like right now. Recognizing this history gives us a duty to provide journalism that stands up over time--no matter how it gets consumed.

But how to create stock in a blogging environment? It may sound crazy as a content strategy, but we developed a worldview: habits of mind, ways of researching, types of writing. Then, we used the news to challenge ourselves, to test what we thought we knew about how technology worked. Embedded in many stories in this volume, you can see us going back and forth with ourselves over the biggest issues in technology. How much can humans shape the tools they use? What is the relationship between our minds and the tools we think with, from spreadsheets to drones? What is the potential for manipulating biology? How do communications technologies structure the way ideas spread?

Delve into almost any technological system, and you'll see the complex networks of ideas, people, money, laws, and technical realities that come together to produce what we call Twitter or the cellphone or in vitro fertilization or the gun. This book is an attempt to document our forays into these networks, looking for the important nodes. This is a first-person enterprise, but we couldn't do it alone.

So, I'd like to thank the wide variety of people who have shaped the way we think. These are some of the ideas that we've been trying to synthesize, although obviously not the only ones.

To Jezebel's Lindy West, we owe thanks for this remarkable distillation of the technological condition: "Humanity isn't static--you can't just be okay with all development up until the invention of the sarong, and then declare all post-sarong technology to be 'unnatural,'" she wrote this year. "Sure, cavemen didn't have shoes. Until they invented fucking shoes!"

To Evgeny Morozov, we owe gratitude for the enumeration of the dangers of technocentrism. "Should [we] banish the Internet--and technology--from our account of how the world works?" he asked in October 2011. "Of course not. Material artifacts--and especially the products of their interplay with humans, ideas, and other artifacts--are rarely given the thoughtful attention that they deserve. But the mere presence of such technological artifacts in a given setting does not make that setting reducible to purely technological explanations." As Morozov prodded us consider, if Twitter was used in a revolution, is that a Twitter revolution? If Twitter was used in your most recent relationship, is that a Twitter relationship? Technology may be the problem or the solution, but that shouldn't and can't be our assumption. In fact, one of the most valuable kinds of technology reporting we can do is to show the precise ways that technology did or did not play the roles casually assigned to it.

We are indebted to the historian David Edgerton for providing proof, in The Shock of the Old, that technologies are intricately layered and mashed together. High and low technology mix. Old and new technology mix. The German army had 1.2 million horses in February of 1945. Fax machines are still popular in Japan. The QWERTY keyboard appears on the newest tablet computer. We need simple HVAC technology to make the most-advanced silicon devices. William Gibson's famous quote about the future, "The future is already here--it's just not very evenly distributed," should be seen as the Gibson Corollary to the Faulkner Principle, "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

To Stewart Brand and his buddies like J. Baldwin, we are thankful for cracking open outdated and industrial ways of thinking about technology, allowing themselves to imagine a "soft tech." They asked what it might mean to create technologies that were "alive, resilient, adaptive, maybe even loveable." They did not just say technology was bad, but tried to imagine how tech could be good. And in so doing, they opened up a narrow channel between technological and anti-technological excesses.

From the museum curator Suzanne Fischer and the philosopher Ivan Illich, we found ways of thinking about the importance of technology beyond market value. What if the point of tools is not to increase the efficiency of our world, but its, in Illich's phrase, conviviality? "Tools," he wrote, "foster conviviality to the extent to which they can be easily used, by anybody, as often or as seldom as desired, for the accomplishment of a purpose chosen by the user." Of course, these are ideals to aspire to. Ideals we may not even agree with or find too broad for our taste. But isn't it nice to have some ideals? We need measuring sticks not dominated in dollars.

We owe Matt Novak for his detailed dismantling of our nostalgic visions of the past. His work at Paleofuture lets us imagine decades' worth of solutions to today's still-pressing problems. His point is not that things are the same as they ever were. Because it's the details of these past visions that allow us to see how we've changed, not just technologically, but culturally.

What does all this add up to? A project to place people in the center of the story of technology. People as creators. People as users. People as pieces of cyborg systems. People as citizens. People make new technologies, and then people do novel things with them. But what happens then? That's what keeps us writing, and we hope what keeps you reading.

Thank you,

Alexis C. Madrigal
Oakland, California

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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