The case for software criticism

Here’s a quick one typology of technology journalism today: news coverage (“Amazon announces layoffs affecting 18,000 employees”), gadget reviews, profiles of companies and founders, opinion essays (Zeynep Tufecki et al.), investigative journalism (“The Uber Files”), summaries of the industry (TechCrunch), personal blogs, Substacks, and – if you’re being generous – commentary on Hacker News and GitHub issues. It’s an incomplete catalog, but you get the idea. But mapping this landscape reveals a curious gap: software critique, in which a piece of software is subjected to critical analysis.

Let’s be clear. Technology criticism is nothing new. Modern technology criticism, depending on who you ask, goes way back to Lewis Mumford, Herbert Marcuse, Martin Heidegger and Marshall McLuhan. I assume more recently you have heard of popular books such as The era of surveillance capitalism And The attention traders and perhaps even familiar with technology critics like Jaron Lanier, Evgeny Morozov, and Ellen Ullman. Or to name just a few from the academic side, Fred Turner, Gabriella Coleman and Sherry Turkle.

But software criticism is not the same as technology criticism. A work of software criticism is for Nicholas Carr’s “Is Google making us stupid?” what a New York Times book review is from Virginia Woolf’s ‘Modern Fiction’. The latter is a more synoptic assessment of the field, while the former is – in theory, if it existed – a focused interrogation of a single work.

So where are software critics? If novels emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries and the 1920s were reserved for jazz music, isn’t software a defining artifact of our time? How in Turing’s name did the culture of software criticism not emerge?

The idea that a rhapsodic exegesis of fermented grape juice could be a legitimate category of criticism, hadn’t emerged until the likes of Robert Parker—whose legacy, for the record, is rather messy—made the genre serious. Wine reviews had been published in trade journals (some with obvious conflicts of interest), but there was no “culture” of wine criticism. Now there are more wine columns than (unfortunately) poetry sections in major newspapers in the United States.

But you might think that wine is too different in form from software. Then here’s another example for you: autocriticism. In 2004, Dan Neil of The Los Angeles Times won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism for his “unique assessments of automobiles, combining technical expertise with offbeat humor and astute cultural observations.”

And here would be the case of architectural criticism, the bona fides of which are well established. We should agree on this at the outset: a piece of architecture can be just as complex as a piece of software. In fact, software engineering vocabulary has many parallels with architecture. (Those who make high-level design choices, for example, are called software architects.) Many concepts are also shared. Take the gap between interface and implementation in software. Likewise, all elevators share the same interface: the door opens when you press the button, you wait for it to arrive and enter, you press the button of the floor you want to go to, and so on, but their implementations are hydraulic, traction geared, machine roomless – vary. It is perhaps no coincidence that Mumford, an early technology critic, served as architecture critic for The New Yorkers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *