In 2006, Brandon Koerner edited the first The Best of Technology Writing, and I’ve been hooked on the series ever since. With this book, Koerner set out to prove that technology writing (or tech journalism as it is often called) could be fun, interesting, well-written, and relevant to those of us who don’t possess an advanced degree in computer science or engineering. Consider his thoughts from the introduction of The Best of Technology Writing 2006:
Had tech journalism existed a century ago, for example, we might have better foreseen the eventual consequences of the automobile: geopolitical squabbling over oil, environmental degradation, and the evisceration of cities. At the very least, an astute reporter might have lobbied for preserving the trolleys in my native Los Angeles that were ripped out to make way for freeways and that now double as parking lots most rush hours.
Not only did Koerner show that technology writing could be enjoyable and accessible, he also set the standard for future editions of The Best of Technology Writing. I enjoyed the 2007, 2008, and 2009 editions, but none were quite as good as the 2006 version. Koerner’s intro is fabulous, and the first essay in the book, “La Vida Robot”, remains one of my favorite essays.
I opened the 2010 book, edited by Julian Dibbell, contributing editor at Wired and author of several books including My Tiny Life: Crime and Passion in a Virtual World, and expected much of the same: a satisfying read but one not quite as good as the original. However, I was surprised, and pleasantly so, as Dibbell has created a Best of Technology book that is as impressive as the original.
From the introduction where Dibbell talks about writing as an invention to the Tweet from outer space, The Best Technology Writing 2010 is a thought-provoking smorgasbord of technological delights.
Containing 23 essays and one Tweet (even I can’t, at least with a straight face, refer to a Tweet as an essay), the book explores subjects related to the Internet, Facebook, pharmaceuticals, the publishing industry, handwriting, the environment, video games, and breastfeeding. It includes works previously published in Time, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and published on Wired.com, shirky.com and Twitter. Diversity, obviously, is one of this edition’s strengths.
All the essays are good, but several stand out, and stand out for various reasons. Jill Lepore’s essay “Baby Food” explores a subject not all might immediately link with technology. It examines the history of breastfeeding and the technological advances in the breast pump industry. Lepore also discusses certain legal and ethical quandaries, such as can more than three ounces of breast milk be carried onto an airplane and should corporations provide “‘non-bathroom’ lactation rooms”.
Kevin Kelly’s essay, “Technophilia”, also stands out—not so much because of the subject matter, which is simply technology, but because of the stance Kelly has on his subject matter. Just consider a couple of his points. First, Kelly maintains “technology does not want to remain utilitarian. It wants to become art, to be beautiful, and ‘useless’”. Next, he notes that people are “eager to love technology” and it will be easier to love technology in the future because “machines will win our hearts with every step they take in evolution”. Finally, Kelly concludes: “And this is how it should be because technology wants to be loved”. Technology wants to be loved?!? Interesting thought.
Most writers should be interested in David Carr’s essay “The Rise and Fall of Media”. Almost all discussions related to the Internet and the publishing world suggest that the Internet is killing, has killed, or will kill print and therefore is ending the publishing world as we know it. Carr’s slant, however, is that the publishing world, and particularly New York City’s publishing industry, is not dead and that “cabals of bright young things are watching the disruption with more than an academic interest. Their tiny netbooks and iPhones…contain more informational firepower than entire newsrooms possessed two decades ago. And they are ginning content from their audiences in the form of social media or finding ways of making ambient information more useful… For them, New York is not an island sinking, but one that is rising on a fresh ferocious wave”. It’s a nice happy thought.
Clay Shirkey’s take on the newspaper industry isn’t quite as happy, but his article “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable” is a hard-hitting fast-paced essay that makes a most astute point: “Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism.”
“Hearth Surgery” by Burkhard Bilger is another favorite. Just consider its tagline: “The quest for a stove that can save the world”. In addition to an unusual subject, this story (and it really is a story) includes great characters (for example, Peter Scott, the “rock star” of stove makers), timely issues such as global warming and deforestation, and a lot of good writing that gives a strong sense of place: “The entrance to Stove Camp was marked by a piece of weathered plywood, hung on a rusty railroad trestle, with the words ‘Fred’s Island’ spray-painted on it.”
This piece, like most of the pieces in this book, certainly is an example of good technology writing, but perhaps more importantly, it is really just good writing. Even the Tweet from Space is rather catchy: “From orbit: Listening to Sting on my ipod watching the world go by—literally.”
More importantly, consider Dibbell’s justification for including the Tweet—“This lone tweet sent from the International Space Station by astronaut Mike Massimino leaps from the most intimate of our digital tools (the iPod, Twitter itself) to the most epic of our technological achievements (the domestication of outer space)… And by the time it’s done it proves that even a technology as old and familiar as writing can still take us altogether by surprise.”
The Best of Technology Writing 2010 is a great read—and anyone from a technology geek to a Luddite should find something to enjoy in this book. I don’t know if The Best of Technology Writing 2011 will top the 2010 edition, but I know I’m already looking forward to reading it.