Evan Selinger Discusses How Journalists and Academics Hold Tech Accountable

By TAP Staff Blogger

Posted on March 31, 2021


When [Clive] Thompson and I first discussed the differences between tech reporting and humanities theorizing about technology, he made a compelling case that the two outlooks should mutually inform one another. Academic insights into matters like technological affordances should illuminate good reporting. And good academic analysis shouldn’t be so theoretical that it’s narcissistically enamored with concepts and ideas that sound impressive to specialized groups but are out of touch with lived experience. - Evan Selinger, “How Journalists and Academics Hold Tech Accountable” (Medium’s Open Dialog)


In the initial article for “Open Dialog,” a new conversation series hosted on Medium’s OneZero, philosophy professor Evan Selinger, Rochester Institute of Technology, talks with Clive Thompson about how the media covers responsible uses of technology. Mr. Thompson is a journalist who writes about technology and science for the New York Times Magazine, Wired, Smithsonian, and others. He is the author of Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World, (Penguin Press, March 2019).


Below are a few excerpts from “How Journalists and Academics Hold Tech Accountable,” Evan Selinger in conversation with Clive Thompson.


Selinger: Overall, do you think the current wave of tech coverage is rising to meet the big challenges of the day?


Thompson: Many journalists are writing about the impact technology has on society, including social media having this catalytic power on the warp and woof of our everyday thought, and they’re knocking it out of the park! To put their contributions in perspective, here’s a comparison. Feminism went from being a niche topic that was only occasionally reported on to a way of looking at social relationships that informs lots of reporting. Similarly, tech coverage evolved from an obsession with covering the latest capacity of consumer products to widespread, ethically, and politically informed reflections on a range of impacts. I’m not saying things are perfect. There’s still plenty of misogyny. And not all tech reporting is great. Sometimes it’s just rewritten industry press releases.


Selinger: In the moment, it can be hard to know when a warning about future dangers is prescient. After all, so many technological predictions are flawed. But what about the younger generation of reporters? Given their formative experiences, should they have been more attuned?


Thompson: They got played. Reporters covering memes didn’t realize how politically dangerous irony can be — that it’s not just a laughing matter. They also didn’t recognize that writing these stories meant they were doing precisely what hate groups wanted: giving mainstream media attention to propaganda. These groups were looking to game the system — to find a way to expand their messages beyond dark places like 4chan and normalize offensive content. Whitney Philips’ report, “The Oxygen of Amplification: Better Practices for Reporting on Extremists, Antagonists, and Manipulators” brilliantly captures the situation.


Read the full article and transcript of Professor Selinger’s interview with Clive Thompson: “How Journalists and Academics Hold Tech Accountable” (Open Dialog, Medium, March 31, 2021).


This conversation is the first of a series being launched by Medium’s OneZero. Future conversations between Professor Selinger and leading academics, journalists, activists, tech workers, and scientists will cover topics such as designing social robots, Big Tech and ethics, using AI responsibly in medicine, controversies surrounding emotion-recognition technology, and the argument to ban AI proctoring software. Upcoming conversations can be found at Open Dialogue.


Evan Selinger is a Professor of Philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology and an Affiliate Scholar at Northeastern University’s Center for Law, Innovation, and Creativity. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Future of Privacy Forum. Professor Selinger’s research primarily addresses ethical issues concerning technology, including artificial intelligence, science, and the law.