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Tech we're using: How a New York Times journalist untangles the Internet

John Herrman, a reporter who covers the internet, discusses the tech tools he's using on and outside of his job

By John Herrman
Published: Aug 3, 2019

Tech we're using: How a New York Times journalist untangles the InternetJohn Herrman, a New York Times reporter who covers the internet, inside the New York Times offices in New York, July 26, 2019. Herrman is using many of the same tech tools he did a decade ago, but the conversation around how we use them has change. (Brittainy Newman/The New York Times)

How do New York Times journalists use technology in their jobs and in their personal lives? John Herrman, a reporter for the Styles desk who covers the internet, discussed the tech he’s using.

Q: What are your most important tech tools for doing your work?
A: I’ve never really taken an inventory like this. It’s kind of depressing!

I’m looking back at a decade of doomed attempts to figure out a new workflow, to assemble just the right set of tools or to conjure some sort of productivity spirit out of the App Store, somehow — and not much stuck.

I’m right back where I was in 2009: typing on a few-years-old MacBook, stressed out listening to my iPhone buzz away on my desk, typing into Gmail and a work chat window, making any remotely important calls on landlines and recording people with a little voice recorder. I guess I use my smartphone more? I suppose this makes some sense. We expect to be able to borrow the tech industry’s latest tools to monitor and investigate the tech industry. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they’re not especially useful for this particular purpose!

There’s one tool I added that I haven’t given up on, although using it can feel a bit like giving up: Simplenote. It’s a notes app that is as close to a searchable pile of paper as you can get. You make a new note, type into it, and then you make another new note, and you type into that. You just do that forever until you have thousands of notes that you can sort in a few ways but that aren’t really organized in any meaningful sense of the word.

Q: As someone who lives and breathes this stuff, which tech trends do you love and which do you hate?
A: I’m trying and failing to “live and breathe this stuff” a bit less lately, and I don’t appreciate what seems to happen when I try.

Each time I step even an inch away from a service — let’s say not logging in to Facebook or Twitter for a while — I get this little reminder of what I actually mean to them. There’s a flood of messages, of fresh notifications, of humanoid emails with subject lines like “We miss you” or sort of unearned claims that my friends miss me or whatever. They almost instantly abuse whatever privileges you had given them to contact you, because why wouldn’t they?

This is new territory for companies that are used to always growing. It doesn’t bode so well for what might happen if or when any of them end up in real decline.

Q: So what about a tech trend that you think is good?
A: The best tech trend right now, broadly speaking, is public hearings about Big Tech.

On the surface, these are often vexing spectacles. I’ll grant that it’s frustrating to watch questioners seem to fumble with the details, or even basics, of tech issues, but it’s also good way to learn what lawmakers believe the underlying issues actually are. There are genuinely different approaches on display, and they hinge less on granular detail than on ideology. For example, some liberals tend to believe that platforms can ultimately be adjusted and fixed. Leftists may suggest they’re inherently problematic and should be reined in. Some on the right may think that a better Big Tech is simply a cowed Big Tech that has been made very aware of its particular grievances. Subject expertise can, and will, be adapted to these very different ends.

While it’s funny and galling that Congressman Morsecode accidentally called it “The Twitters,” can you really say you understand the first thing about what Twitter’s working definition of harassment is? What gets you barred there? Sometimes the dumbest-sounding questions actually are the best ones, particularly when you’re dealing with companies that need us to accept information asymmetry as a business model.

Q: You often write about issues that technology has wrought. What do you think are some of the biggest tech problems, and how do you deal with them personally?
A: There isn’t a single such issue that doesn’t implicate advertising in some way, and advertising is so deeply intertwined with the web and the rest of the consumer internet that it’s quite difficult, often by design, to conceive of a world in which it’s less important.

For example, I won’t tell everyone to block ads. It’s complicated, especially from these pages! But that’s what I do, in as many ways as possible. I exclude sites from my ad blockers as I deem necessary. This “white list” is pretty substantial and mostly includes other news organizations. It’s an imperfect solution. I just don’t think exposure to advertising is a healthy default for any environment where we spend a lot of time.

Q: Which tech platforms do you think wield the most power, and what should people do to ensure their data and overall lives are not beholden to Big Tech?
A: Amazon could really hold the world hostage on a moment’s notice, but I suppose Google could, too.

I don’t think there’s a data-hygienic way to use any of the ad-supported platforms. That’s part of the deal, and I think most suggestions otherwise are either mistaken or deliberate diversions and a waste of time.

Facebook isn’t free; loss of privacy is just one of the costs. Uber is convenient for riders because of what it asks of drivers, of cities and of public roads. It’s not so hard to understand the benefits and costs of older technologies this way — cars poison the air, newspapers pulp trees — and it only benefits any moment’s “big tech” to exempt it from such interpretations.

Q: Outside of work, what tech product are you currently obsessed with?
A: Mubi! It’s a streaming app that hosts 30 films at a time — a new one shows up every day, and the oldest one leaves. It’s like having a really good independent or repertory movie theater in your house, or on your phone. (You can also download movies for flights or for when you’re keeping your phone offline.) You’ll probably treat it as if it were a real-life small movie theater and not use it as much as you wish you would, but you’ll rarely regret it when you do. And it’s $11 a month.

Q: If you could tell people to do one thing today with their personal tech to improve their lives, what would it be?
A: Get a $20 shower radio, AM/FM. Ours looks like a fish, and I use it almost every day, usually for news, sometimes for music. If you’re a morning shower person, don’t check your phone before you check your fish. If evening, no phones after.

A fully loaded smartphone is a perfectly greedy device; it has no respect for your time. This radio worked for me to get away from that.

©2019 New York Times News Service

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