There is a case for software criticism

The Tech Landscape of the 21st Century: Technology Critique, News, Review, Blogs, GitHub Issues, and the Uber Files

Here’s a quick typology of tech journalism today: news reporting (“Amazon announces layoffs affecting 18,000 employees”), gadget reviews, company and founder profiles, opinion essays (Zeynep Tufecki et al.), investigative journalism (“The Uber Files”), industry digests (TechCrunch), personal blogs, Substacks, and—if you’re feeling generous—Hacker News comments and GitHub issues. It’s an incomplete catalog, but you get the idea. Surveying this landscape shows a curious lacuna: software criticism where 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 you know about popular books like The Age of surveillance Capitalism and The Attention Merchants, as well as technology critics like Jaron Lanier and Egony Morozov. Or to name a few from the academic flank, Fred Turner, Gabriella Coleman, and Sherry Turkle.

Wein versus Software: The Architecture-Initiation Divide in Software and Autonomous Vehicles (A Review of Neil’s Autonomy in Los Angeles Times 2004)

The genre of criticism about the rhapsodic exegesis of ferment grape juice was only recently considered serious after Robert Parker came to prominence. There had been wine reviews published in trade magazines (some with obvious conflicts of interest) but there was no “culture” of wine criticism. Now, there are more wine columns than (alas) poetry sections in major newspapers in the United States.

But you may think that wine is too different in form from software. This is an example of car criticism. In 2004, Dan Neil of The Los Angeles Times won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism for his “one-of-a-kind reviews of automobiles, blending technical expertise with offbeat humor and astute cultural observations.”

And here would be to present the case of architecture criticism, whose bona fides are well established. A piece of architecture can be as complicated as a piece of software, if we agree at the beginning. In fact, the vocabulary of software engineering has many parallels to architecture. (For example, those who make high-level design choices are called software architects.) Many concepts can be shared as well. Take the interface-implementation divide in software. All elevators have the same interface, with the door opening if you press the button, and you waiting for the elevator to enter, but their implementations are geared traction and machine-room-less. It’s possible that Mumford was the architecture critic for The New Yorker.

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