"Journalism and Technology: The New Literacy"
The New York Times
Northwestern University "Literature of Fact" Lecture Series
February 21, 2000
It seems like everybody wants to be a technology writer, and there's a huge demand for good technology writers now, which I think is wonderful. But it gets to the question of, you know, did a kind of a writerly technology writing, was it ever given a chance to develop, the way sort of writerly science writing has evolved over the years. And, you know, I think very little of what has been written, and I'm talking now not so much about business technology writing, but really technical technology writing, has really been in any way all that daring or risque or literary by any stretch of the imagination. Actually, that's not quite true. Tom Wolfe, I don't know if anyone knows this story, but he wrote a very famous story, I think it was for, I'm going to get this wrong, I think it was for Esquire, on the history of the micro-processor. Which was just beautifully done. It was in the late 70's or early 80's, and it's one of these hidden treasures that you should try to find sometime. And a marvelous writer named Ron Rosenbaum wrote an incredible story. Again this was in 1972 in Esquire called "The Secrets of the Little Blue Box" which was extremely technical because it was about the blue boxes, as a lot of you I'm sure know, were the devices that were used to get free phone calls. Steve Jobs and Steve Wosniak, that's their sort of claim to fame. Any article written about the history of those guys talked about them trooping through the dormitories of Berkeley selling blue boxes. Anyway, Rosenbaum's story, so you can count these stories on one hand.
Steven Levy, who's now at Newsweek, wrote for Rolling Stone, he wrote in 1984 a marvelous piece about the Macintosh and the Macintosh team. And now, there are so many people doing it. We for instance at the Times, there used to be two or three people covering technology from a business perspective and not so much from the perspective of the technology itself. Sometimes, but not that often. And we now have teams of people, you know, and the Journal is the exact same way, which has 12 people in the bureau out there with all these beats and sub-beats. Everything's parsed. In a way, I think the danger there is it kind of can, if something is that diffused, it can take away from these bigger picture pieces that I think are so important. That tend, and this is sort of my theory and I'd be happy to hear if somebody thinks I'm wrong, but I think these bigger picture pieces tend these days not to get written so much. And part of the problem is there is so much that have to be written that no one really has the time. You'll see occasionally a Jim Fallows piece in the Atlantic. But as a rule, we cannot just stand back from technology and look at the bigger picture.
So, my favorite thing to do, or what I aspire to do when I write, is to write about the place where technology and people intersect. Which isn't to say that I try to avoid technical explanations. I think this is the hardest thing that a technology writer has to deal with, is the technical explanations, because just descriptions, it can really literally put you to sleep. It can be just so unlike science. I don't know why I keep coming back to science. That's why if you let someone like Tom Wolfe loose on the subject of microprocessors, the guy brought poetry to the subject. And I think why can't we do that more? And we simply can't not to. It's something I don't quite understand. But reports, talking about some of my work, which I'd like to later, I thought I'd read you some of my favorite examples of good technology writing. Now the first, actually, I'm sure everyone saw this piece about Amazon.com. It was in the New York Times Magazine maybe about a year ago, nine months ago. And it's about 5,000 words, a huge heave on the subject. But probably the most jaundiced of views of Amazon.com, and that's another huge problem with technology writing today. Is that it's all so positive. And when you see something that's even slightly skeptical, it makes you very happy. So this example, like the other's I'm going to read, isn't terribly technical, but they're all so well written that I want to read them to you. So here's just a little snippet from the bit about Amazon:
"To be exciting, a stock needs a good story. And the Internet and Amazon.com both growing faster than auto, the overfed goldfish, are good stories with the potential for only a few happy endings. But contributing to both the high valuations and the violent swings is the feverish activity of a growing group of inexperienced online investors called day traders, whose strategy consists of little more than buying a stock as it's going up and selling it as quickly as possible the instance it starts to go down. Buttressing this folly is the assumption that by vigilantly staring at their screens they will always be able to sell in time if things turn really ugly. No wonder Alan Greenspan has compared Internet investing to playing the lottery."
It's just a wonderful, and this is all about this very writerly approach to admittedly what isn't particularly all that technical. Now the next one is from the New Yorker and one of my very favorite writers these days is Malcolm Gladwell. I don't know, has he been here to speak at all? He's just great. And this one, again I had trouble when I was looking for examples, I had trouble finding any that are really technical. So this one is only about technology insofar as it's a very technical description of a neurosurgical procedure done by a superstar neurosurgeon named Charlie Wilson. Did anyone see this incredible piece in the New Yorker called the Physical Genius? Anyway, Gladwell employs some of the same methods for making something technical very acceptable and this is the key to what I try to do and others who write bigger stories about technology try to do. And he does it beautifully. It's what John McPhee? does with Geology. It's what Natalie Angier, who's this very famous science writer at the Times, does with biology. And when she won the Pulitzer in 1991, here's what she said: "What I try to do is humanize everything to give the reader the feeling they are right there in the middle of the scientific process." For example in a complicated story of the cell cycle, she likens the coupling of proteins to, get this, "the vitality of young lovers galvanizing in a cascade of changes in the cell that culminate in division." So here's the Gladwell piece and this is about this guy Charlie Wilson who's in surgery and it's so beautiful. And I think that technology writers are, on the whole, not able, somehow, we haven't yet mastered conjuring up these lovely metaphors that Gladwell's able to do here:
"Wilson sat by the patient in what looked like a barber's chair manipulating a surgical microscope with a foot pedal. In his left hand, he wielded a tiny suction tube which removed excess blood. In his right, he held a series of instruments in steady alternation. He worked quickly with no wasted motion. Through the microscope, the tumor looked like a piece of lobster flesh, white and fibrous. He removed the middle of it, exposing the pituitary underneath. Then he took a ringed curette, a long instrument with a circular scalpel perpendicular to the handle, and ran it lightly across the surface of the gland, peeling the tumor away as he did so. It was, he would say later, like letting a squeegee across the windshield. Except that in this case, the windshield was a surgical field one centimeter in diameter, flanked on either side by the carotid arteries, the principal sources of blood to the brain. If Wilson were to wander too far to the right or to the left and knick either artery, the patient might, in the neurosurgical shorthand, stroke. If he were to push too far to the rear, he might damage any number of critical nerves. If he were not to probe aggressively, though, he might miss a bit of tumor and defeat the purpose of the procedure entirely. It was a delicate operation which called for caution and confidence and the ability to distinguish between what was supposed to be there and what wasn't. Wilson never wavered. At one point, there was bleeding from the right side of the pituitary, which signaled to Wilson that a small piece of tumor was still just outside his field of vision. And so he gently slid the ringed curette over, feeling with the instrument as if by his fingertips, navigating around the carotid, lifting out the remaining bit of tumor. In the hands of an ordinary neurosurgeon, the operation, down to that last bit of blindfolded acrobatics, might have taken several hours. It took Charlie Wilson 25 minutes."
I just love that. And Gladwell has gone on. He's written about, he wrote a story recently called the Science of the Sleeper, which is about collaborative filtering. Does everyone know what collaborative filtering is? Anyone who doesn't? Because I'd love to try you out on this. He does a marvelous job of explaining what collaborative filtering is:
"John Riedel, a University of Minnesota computer scientist, he is one of the pioneers of this technology, has set up a website called Movie Lens, which is a very elegant example of collaborative filtering at work. Everyone who logs on, and tens of thousands of people have already done so, is asked to rate a series of movies on a scale of 1 to 5, where 5 means "must see" and 1 means "awful." For example, I rated "Rushmore" as a 5, which meant that I was put into the group of people who loved "Rushmore." I then rated "Summer of Sam" as a 1, which put me into a somewhat smaller and more select group that both loved 'Rushmore' and hated 'Summer of Sam.' Collaborative filtering systems don't work all that well at first because obviously in order to find someone's cultural counterparts, you need to know a lot more about them than how they felt about two movies. Even after I had given the system seven opinions, including 'Election,' 'Notting Hill,' 'The Sting' and 'Star Wars,' it was making mistakes. It thought I would love 'Titanic' and 'Zero Effect' and I disliked them both. But after I had plugged in about 15 opinions, which Riedel said is probably the minimum, I began to notice that the rating that Movie Lens predicted I would give a movie and the rating I actually gave it were nearly always, almost eerily, the same. The system had found a small group of people who feel exactly the same way I do about a wide range of popular movies.
And then he goes on and on. And says "It's easy to see how over time this could turn out to be a powerful tool." He does it beautifully. Gladwell doesn't usually bring himself into his stories, and I'm not a big proponent of bringing oneself into one's story, but he does because it illustrates something. If he had sat there and tried to explain the process of collaborative filtering, it would have been deadly dull. He's a great writer, but what he did from a technology writing perspective is actually relatively easy. Collaborative filtering is not rocket science.
When you're writing about really technical subjects, and this is where this whole idea of the new literacy in this subject comes up. I think that more and more we keep reading about technology, we hear about it pretty soon, we think we understand it. Whereas, we don't. How many times have you heard a technical term and then suddenly thought to yourself "I never did know exactly what that was and no one's ever really explained it to me." But you felt that it's too late to ask? We're all just supposed to know exactly how HTML works? And we really don't, but it's all like one big kind of goof? I think that technical writers should find a way to step back more often and more interestingly to explain technology. Unlike other subjects, and maybe I'm a little radical in my thinking here, technology intimidates as no other subject does. Science obviously has its place and its capable of really intimidating. But in much of this with technology is very generational.
And I found this when I was writing about hackers. I'm talking about hackers in the pejorative sense. I always like to distinguish between the good, old school hackers from MIT who wore hacking as a badge of honor versus the some of the more pejorative connotation that came along in 1983 with the movie "War Games" where Matthew Broderick triggers from a pay phone and nearly did. So when I was reporting this one book, Cyberpunks, about hackers, I found that the reason a lot of this happens is that the parents were scared of it. I don't think that's actually necessary. And yet we've built this construct so that we who are older, and I'm among those people, are by definition a bit intimidated by it. Even I think it's apparent that it's become easier to use. That the complexities hidden by the new kinds of interfaces, because now we have to understand it even less. But it's not the user's job to go out and understand it, it's the writer's job to explain it in ways that make it more acceptable and understandable. Even the writers don't understand it. And so the writers are bored are explaining it.
So I'm going to read you a piece that came out in the New York Times Magazine a good five years ago about the clipper chip. And this piece is all about cryptography. If ever there was a technical, turgid topic, it's cryptography. This is Steven Levy, the same guy I told you about, who wrote the Rolling Stone article. Are people familiar with his work? He's a wonderful, lively writer, and I just love the way he does this:
"On a sunny spring day in Mountain View, California, 50 angry activists are plotting against the United States government. They may not look subversive sitting around the conference table dressed in t-shirts and jeans, and eating burritos, but they are self-proclaimed saboteurs. They are the Cyberpunks, a loose confederation of computer hackers, hardware engineers and high-tech rabble rousers." That was his lead. A harmless, kind of vanilla lead. And here, he gets into the meat:
"The precise object of their rage is the clipper chip, officially known as the MYK78 and not much bigger than a tooth. Just another tiny square of plastic covering its silicon thickets. A computer chip on the outside indistinguishable from the thousands of others. It seems improbable that this black chiclet is the focal point of a battle that may determine the degree to which our civil liberties survive in the next century."
And he has a way of taking us in. And now, he goes into a description of public key and private key. The public key cryptography, this is a difficult concept for ordinary readers. He's talking about Whit Diffey, who's a famous cryptographer. "This led Diffey to think about a more general problem in cryptography. Key management. Even before Julius Caesar devised a simple cipher to encode his military messages, cryptography worked by means of keys. That is, an original message, what is now called plain text, was encrypted by the sender into seeming gibberish, known as ciphertext. The receiver, using the same key decrypted the message back into the original plain text. For instance, the Caesar key was the simple replacement of each letter by the letter three places down in the alphabet. If you knew the key, you could encrypt the word 'help' into the nonsense word 'khof.' The recipient of the message would decrypt the message back to help.
He goes on and on about public key. He explains of how he, in such lovely language, the English language. Everything that I've read to you. There are no acronyms in any of this. So often, we just rely on throwing acronyms out at the audience, out at the readers. We used to, when I started writing about technology, we always had that clause which explained what a modem was. But does anybody still really understand it? In fact, there's a story that I'm working on now that, if anybody has any good anecdotes I'd love it. I'm working on a story about folk understandings of technology. How people think technology works, which is really fun. Because people sort of make things up. Like when you put the paper in the fax machine, what's really happening in there? It seems like magic. Or a cell phone? I talked to one woman who just thought that the phones were calling each other.
So what I like to do like Natalie Angier, not that I'm in any way comparable to her, but is to humanize the subject I'm writing about. I always, without exception, look for the people behind the technology because, inevitably, there's a lively, human story lurking around somewhere. People of cryptography. Think of Alan Turing? And the wonderful story of Alan Turing? The British mathematician who was the one who broke the code, the German enigma machine back during the war. That's an incredible story because he was homosexual. And that turned into his demise. He ended up killing himself. You scratch any story and there's a marvelous human element to it.
So I thought I'd talk a little bit about the story that I did for Wired a few years ago about the well and the history of the well. What's interesting is, that the well is about technology. Essentially, the well is about computers in a room. That's all it is. It's like one computer in a room. But it's precisely what it isn't about because it's about the people in this community called the well. And yet without the computer in the room, the people couldn't have formed the community they had formed. And so I had to, in writing this story, explain what these computers did and how they worked and what is was that people saw when they logged in and how it was that that software came to be written. And I have to weave that around the story of the humans.
Now the problem with writing the history of the well is that it was like trying to write the history of a small city. Just like in every small town, there are thousands of parallel soap operas going on. With the well, everything was a soap opera. So I needed to find one prism that was both strong enough and interesting enough to serve as a microcosm for the whole story. Does everyone know what the well is? So I finally decided to focus on this one guy. I was reporting the story for half a year before I figured out that he was my ticket. And I knew that when I made that decision that I was going to take some heat for that. Not from my editors. But from the people on the well. I knew that the minute that story came out, that there was going to be an entire thread devoted to discussing the story, which in fact happened. This guy, Tom Mandel, had been kind of the well's resident curmudgeon and renegade and intellectual, and he was all over the place. He was everywhere on the well. And it helped that his story also contained a lot of romance and sex and a lot of great sadness too. So I used him to tell this story. And in doing so, I hoped that I managed to convey the larger story of the well. Although, the women on the well were highly offended that I had chosen Mandel as my organizing principle. But what are you going to do? So of course, when the piece came out, and the piece also looked at the broader subject of virtual versus physical communities. When I went into the piece, I was kind of a real skeptic of this idea of virtual communities. I had read in Howard Reingold's book on virtual communities. It kind of struck me as so much nonsense. I thought there's no way that a physical community could be supplanted by something online like that. And I walked out of that piece, two years later, completely convinced that what these people had was, not only was it a community, but in many ways it was far stronger than a lot of physical communities. With some caveats. One being that what brought them together were these monthly gatherings, so they would meet face to face. But much of what they did was online. A lot of them never even met each other.
Some of the stories will blow you away, about people who've never met each other. One of the people who was a well regular, his son was dying of Leukemia and it was the most moving thing I've ever read, was all of his postings about his son's own battle of Leukemia. And it went on for years and years and years. And it never let up. It would be part one, part two, part three, part four, and the momentum never really let up. And when Mandel, my main character in the piece, he was much loved and hated on the well. When he got diagnosed with lung cancer, it was like a bomb had hit the place. It starts out very calmly. The way the well works is, there are all these different topics, and he's just posted something to the health topic saying "Gee I can't shake this cough. I've got this really nasty cough." And people are going "Yeah, yeah, yeah." Well one, the resident doctor, he says "You better stop smoking, Tom." To which Mandel shot back "Stop going off topic." When eerily enough, that was the topic. It was the fact that he had been smoking two, three packs a day for who knows how many years that gave him the lung cancer. And then he says a couple days letter, "Well, you know, they found a couple spots on my x-ray" and your heart stops. You feel like you're experiencing this in real time. Even though I was looking at an archive of the discussion. And then the next day, he's got the diagnosis and posts it. In the story I said it was like living in a big house with a lot of people and something's happening in one room. And you have a sense that something urgent is happening in one room and everybody rushes into that room, and before you knew it, the news of Mandel's diagnosis had spread. And by the way, I never met him. I never so much as exchanged e-mail with him because he died before I started the piece. And trying to capture who this guy was one of these challenges.
But anyway, I tend to burn out on subjects because I go into them so deeply. Just as I burned out on hackers and really fled. I literally left the country. I stopped about thinking about virtual communities for about a year after that piece came out. And then my father was killed in a plane crash. After that happened, I flew back to the little town in Massachusetts where he had lived and it got me to thinking about this all over again. Because everyone in that little town had know him. He was a remarkable guy, I should add. Not only had they known him. He had someone with him. He was flying this little plane and he had a photographer with him, who was also killed in the crash. A very young man. Everyone knew both of them. At the library, this little beautiful stone library, this is a town near Amherst, Mass., called Williamsburg, the whole town put these flowers in Diana like proportions outside the library. And it was amazing. What's interesting is, I had grown up in that area, and hadn't ever thought I would want to live in a small, suffocating place. And yet, when this happened, I didn't want to leave. I live in California, so I had flown back there with my family and I just wanted to stay because I wanted the warmth of this community. And all the people who had known him and loved him. And I could swear to you I wouldn't have wanted to hang out on the well. I think, I can't attest to this.
Anyway, it got me to thinking about this subject all over again. This virtual versus physical is going to be much more of a topic in years to come. Howard Reingold is updating his book, which I think is interesting. And David suggested that I also speak to the subject of what it means to be technologically literate as a journalist. The new literacy that a journalist has to have. It's no more a matter of "Get me rewrite." You really have to know your way around computers in so many different ways and around the net. It's amazing, I don't know how many people are out there now working, but I never, ever called the research desk at the New York Times. When I was at Newsweek, I used to call all the time, but I saw that that started tapering off. And now, I do all of my research online. And it's amazing. It's absolutely amazing.
Here's an example I'm going to give you of a story that I think I couldn't have done without the net. The story just came out last week. It was about piano tuners, which is a completely esoteric, curious subject. My father was actually a physicist but a musician and a piano tuner, so it was a silent dedication to him. It was about these electronic tuning devices and how they are the fuel for reviving the debate for temperaments. A piano, it turns out, and I didn't even know this before I started the piece, they haven't always been tuned the same way. I thought you call the tuner, the tuner comes, tunes the piano, end of subject. But what has actually happened over the years is that pianos are tuned to something called equal temperament, which is actually something that has been universally adopted in the 20th century. But before that, there were all kinds of what they called historic temperaments, where Bach, for instance, wrote the same as well-tempered clavier. People get confused and think this was the first example of equal temperament which it really isn't. So there I was suddenly writing about this software. What I was writing about was a software program that helps piano tuners do their job. And what I ended up doing, was writing about this debate about temperaments and how this is fueling this debate. What I did on the web was go up and start looking at the listservs that the piano technician guilds, all these amazing arguments, you're sitting there reading about temperaments. And you're thinking "what an incredible world I've stumbled into." And I can tell you, if I had gone to the New York Times research department and said "Well, what can you give me about what's been written about temperaments" I never would have gotten the rich story that I ended up getting.
What I want to leave you with in ending this, is that my thesis here is that we have the ability, as never before, because of this new kind of literacy that's at our fingertips, to write stories that are richer than ever about technology and the kinds of things that technology is bringing to our lives. And because there's this incredible appetite and hunger for just the news about this exploding industry, we have the tendency not to write those stories. I'm very lucky to be at the Times and to have an editor who loves it when I come up with these offbeat ideas. The paper I work for which wants to broaden things out to the bigger picture, luckily, but I think it's done far too seldom. So that's the end of my prepared talk. If people have questions....
Q: Question inaudible.
A: This reminds me of the piano tuning story. I called the guy who writes the software. He puts me in touch with somebody else and I find a local tuner in Berkeley, which is where I live. I find this tuner, who wants me to go his house and see him use the software as he tunes. He wants me to actually try to tune it because tuning a piano is really hard to do. It takes years to learn to tune a piano correctly and well. So I did that and played with it, all very physical right? And then he wanted me to go visit a concert pianist who had his piano tuned in a certain temperament. I went to this guy's house and I saw his beautiful piano and, admittedly, I could have heard a recording on the net. But it wouldn't have been the same thing at all. To sit in this man's house and hear him play on his beautiful piano and then get into the discussion that I got into with him. You cannot rely in reporting these days on the net alone. Because that will bollix the whole thing up. It's a lovely and rich supplement. But so often, that's exactly what we do. We just go up on the net and see what's on the net. There's so much more to life than what's on the net.
Q: Question inaudible.
A: You can go on to any chat room and start chatting people up. But it takes a little bit of ingenuity and legwork.
Q: Use real name?
A: Sure, yeah, I don't care. I'm one of these total, I've gone 180 degrees on privacy. Mark Roeper?, I'm sure people know who he is, he's one of my best friends and he's still mad at me because I did a story recently about how people really don't care that much. The thesis of the story was that people were willing to give up a certain amount of privacy to get some things in return. I give my social security number out to anybody, all the time. I've written about hackers for years.
Q: Do people in chat rooms know you're a reporter from the New York Times?
A: Well, yeah, you have to identify yourself as a reporter. You can't just strike up a conversation and then quote them later that's not the way you report any story. But the question about the community. Part of the thing was that they gave people the computers and Internet access. You have to look at this over a long period of time. I'm as skeptical as the next person about what you can really get from an online community, but I believe strongly in some of the incredible benefits people get. I was telling David's class this morning about this story years ago about people with ALS, Lou Gehrig's disease. And how they're incredibly, geographically isolated. You don't get more isolated than these people, especially when they've lost all control of everything except their eyes. There's no way to underestimate the power of what this has done for these people. For years, I stayed in touch with one of them until he couldn't write to me anymore. And that was very upsetting.
Q: Question inaudible.
A: That's one story that is completely unfathomable. If anybody in this room can explain to me what is what St---- was doing, with this stuff on his computer, going out on AOL for God's sake. That's just crazy. I think that was the foibles of one man. That's my thinking about that. But this thing about the conspiracy theories, these denial of service attacks, and the conspiracy may even be JFK-assassin like. No, no, no. I think it's a well orchestrated effort on the part of some smart kids and I'm sure I'll be proven wrong, but that's my firm opinion at this point. I know these guys, I know what they do. These are people with time on their hands. Here we are, we have school to go to, we have kids, we have jobs, we're busy people. This kind of thing takes a lot of time to do.
Q: Question inaudible.
A: I'm influenced by a group of what I call technology skeptics. People like Ted Roszak?, who wrote "Making of the Counterculture." He's actually very skeptical about technology. A lot of them are academic philosophers. A guy named Joe Weisenbaum,who's famous for having written this program Elijah, but he's a huge skeptic. He was mostly skeptic of AI. These guys are unsung heroes in this because so often technology is so celebrated and it takes guys like this who want to know why and get us to stand back and think about do we really need and want all of this in our lives. Here I am, contradicting myself in the Stanford study, but that's two separate issues.