Passionate Ambivalence

January 2011

Earlier today, Kyle Baxter posted something interesting on Twitter:

The world’s information in your pocket makes the world a little less awe-inspiring and mysterious.

Kyle’s a great tech writer precisely because he’s capable of saying stuff like this. He might refer to the iPhone 4 as a “piece of art”, but he’s also capable of recognising that the iPhone might simultaneously work to make our lives, in several tiny ways, just that little bit worse. Kyle notices these contradictions. In fact, I think his writing is driven by the need to make sense of them.

Not all tech writers are like Kyle. Just take a gander at a site like Gizmodo, or Engadget, most computer magazines, or the tech pages of your city’s paper, and you begin to notice a pattern: technology journalism, for the most part, is myopic and lightweight. Most technology supplements read like shopping lists, and it seems like most tech writers see themselves as consumption advisors, their primary role being to pimp out the sleekest, shiniest new gadgetry. Instead of analysing a device with reference to any kind of wider socio-cultural context, gadget reviewers tend to focus on build quality and tech specs: arguably the least important stuff in a “big picture” sense.

When Zadie Smith’s critical article on Facebook came out last November, it spread like wildfire. The reason? Zadie wrote as neither technology zealot nor Luddite, and she took a step back, to see Facebook for what it is: not just a website, but the precipitant for our changing definition of self-hood. Instead of zooming in close on the latest features, or accepting the conventional “technology is either good or evil” dichotomy, Zadie simply did her best to understand. Zadie’s piece started a discussion because it offered no clear conclusion, and no easy answers. As such, it was impossible to disregard.

I’m convinced that the best writers need to be fundamentally, passionately ambivalent about their primary topic of interest. Writing from a position of ambivalence means a writer is still unsure about their position, and having no certain position means a writer is less concerned about argument than exploration.

I’m passionately ambivalent about technology. My excitement about where things are going is balanced equally by my anxiety. That might sound awfully unpleasant, but it’s a powerful feeling. The more I think about technology – the more I focus in on the contradictions – the more ambivalent I become. I’ve got no philosophy to sell, nothing to argue. I’m just here to think, and write, and dig deeper.