Sidney Fussel on Working as a Technology Reporter

[Intro Music]

[Ryan Weber] Welcome to 10-Minute Tech Comm. This is Ryan Weber from the University of Alabama in Huntsville. Most of my listeners have the challenge of explaining technologies so that people can understand it and find it meaningful. Today’s guest takes on that challenge, from a slightly different direction.

[Sidney Fussell] So, I’m Sidney Fussell. I’m a reporter with The Atlantic, I’ve been here for about six months. Before that I was at Gizmodo. I write about surveillance data and race. I’m an Arkansas native, hence the accent.

[Weber] As a technology reporter for The Atlantic, Mr. Fussell writes about how recent technology trends and cutting-edge developments affect society and culture, especially marginalized groups and People of Color. Among his recent from stories from The Atlantic, are one about how San Francisco wants to ban government face recognition software, how students at Parkland are being surveilled, how Walgreens is employing facial detection to figure out who buys groceries, the ways that automation is remaking service work, and the future of data collection and data mining. I brought him in today to talk about his writing process, how he describes technology dearly and also how he interprets technology and how he brings in perspectives that are often left out by the dominant and promotional narratives offered by big tech companies.

[Begin Interview]

[Weber] Welcome to the podcast Sidney. I really appreciate you joining us and what I wanted to talk about was your work as a technology reporter and writer, and as I understand it what you do is you take new technology developments and trends and kind of interpret them for audiences. So, to start out, how do you decide kind of what technology trends you want to write about?

[Fussell] First off, I think that technology writing is difficult and a lot of it is dry so you have to really, really be interested in the things that you’re writing about in order to make it through because there are lots of research that has to be done and with technology specifically, you want to make sure that you’re explaining it correctly. In order to explain something correctly, you have to read it and read it and tell someone about it and read and read and tell someone about it. So, for me the first thing I, I say is, “Is this interesting to me? Does it fall within my key areas?” My key areas in technology writings are surveillance data, data privacy, and race. A couple of stories that I have been working on that were really interesting to me, let me think, one I did recently was about cashless stores. So, a lot of stores around the country are going fully cashless. They only take cards or will only take something like apple watch payments and so a few different cities across the country are banning that practice. They’re introducing legislation that will make it illegal for stores to do that. So, I was interested in you know the technological aspect of how do you remake the store? How does the store change when you switch from cash to cashless? But I was also interested in the un­ banked people. Those are going to be the people who don’t have access to cards, don’t have traditional economic power. Those who you know the homeless and disenfranchised people. So a story like that-and actually I saw a press release about, I think it was Sweet Grain, the salad chain that they’re going all cashless, and so what if you don’t have a debit card and so this is about looking at something and then being like, “How does it affect people or who can’t access it?” You know obviously press releases so that people are excited about. You know they don’t really talk about the people who can’t access it. So, for me that story was, “Well what if you can’t do this,” and so most unbanked people are also People of Color, they’re going to be Hispanic, they’re going to be African-American, they’re going to be immigrants. What side of the story-just about a new technology also comes a story about who can’t access technology and then poverty and race, “Why can’t they access it?” So, for me in order to identify a trend, it has to hit all those layers. There has to be some kind of technology to it, there has to be a group of people that are affected or impacted in some way, and then we can talk about why they’re affected or impacted in that way, and what we can do to change that.

[Weber] Well you’re hitting on something sort of at the beginning there when you mentioned you know technology reporting is often dry and difficult and that’s one of the many things I wanted to get at in this interview, is you know most of my listeners have a similar challenge with the different job, which is to explain technology to people in a way that’s interesting and useful. So, thinking about that element you were talking about, you know how do you describe technology in a way that’s not dry, in a way that’s interesting, and also accurate?

[Fussell] The first instance I don’t. My first draft I just write everything, every like over write, write everything, and then you know I have patient, incredible, wonderful editors at The Atlantic and then at my previous job at Gizmodo, and so we just go through it. And we say, “What’s useful? What is slowing people down?” We think about the reader as we move through the piece. Are they reading a great story with a great person and then they have four paragraphs with jargon, you know what I mean? So, it’s really what’s useful for the story I’m trying to tell and then what’s not useful. So, for example I just wrote a story about Walgreens. Walgreens is using smart coolers, these are coolers that have cameras that record the age and gender of people who get products from the cooler. So, open up and get a drink, it’ll scan your face and make a guess like, “Younger male picked up a Diet Pepsi. This many young men chose Pepsi, this many older women chose Mountain Dew,” whatever and so when I was writing that one I also wrote about face recognition, which is a different technology than face detection. And so, my editor went in and was like, “Okay keep the description on what the Walgreens cooler does but take out these two [para]graphs about face recognition which is a different but similar technology. So, really you want to give people context but you also want to keep the story moving and so I love all this stuff but just how I’m able to get through some of the dryer stuff but it’s-it’s about having the enthusiasm for wanting to read about it and read about it and research it, and be able to explain it simply, but also sort of paring that down. Okay that’s great but like an average person is not going to read four paragraphs about this, calm down a little bit, what’s actually useful?

[Weber] I’m curious, how many drafts do you write? You’re talking about you write this initial draft, you meet with your editors, how many drafts do you think you put together of a piece before it gets on the, the site or the magazine?

[Fussell] Probably between five and seven. So, first is just going to be an outline in the lucid sense of the word. Basically, a list of words and it goes from a list of words to a list of ideas, eventually we’ll get to sentences, and then we’ll look at some paragraph. So basically, I just take a page in google docs just like lucid associate blurbs, that’s just getting it out getting it on the page and then from there I’m interested in structure. How can I take these ideas and arrange them in a way that is the most readable that is focused on informing people? I think I have a lot of ideas about technology, about surveillance, about people, about how technology impacts people but all of that’s useless ifI can’t explain the tech and what it does. So always want to foreground what the tech is, what it does, you know so what is the news? It’s not just enough to say, “Oh someone is doing this weird thing with cameras,” it’s “How does this impact people?” And then taking my thoughts and idea, which I think area always and perfect and then my editors humbled me. Really multiple drafts but at the end of the day it’s just about trusting your editor and over writing is something that I’m not comfortable with. I used to be very precise and I made sure that the draft I turned in was you know to the word exactly what I wanted, but over writing and tearing it down with the editor is a much better process.

[Weber] Let’s get to the other part, you know because we’ve got the technology, describing the technology, but your other big part of your job that you’ve emphasized is, you know “How does this affect people, especially you know people who may have been left out of the technology, who may experience negative impacts to the technology. You know the cashless restaurants and stores is a really good example. How do you kind of identify that angle in your story? You know who’s impacted, maybe who’s left out, how do you find those elements of the story?

[Fussell] I think the impact angle is difficult because the impact angle is the most important part of any new technology that’s rolling out but the impact angle is usually pre-written. So, for example with the smart cooler piece, they already had a very lengthy section about, “This is how great it is for stores. This is how great it’ll be for Walgreens. This is how much more customers will enjoy.” The thinking is you’ll be able to tell what customers want in real time and you’ll be able to stock it for them. So, the impact angle is already pre-written by corporations, by big-tech, so usually it’s about just working from there. So, if they say that this will be great for the store and for customers, it’s like, “Well let’s think about that. Let’s work with that.” So really, it’s about I would say being critical, don’t be cynical because that’s useless and most cynical writing about technology is not useful. Another example I can think of is Facebook was actually sued by different civil rights groups because of the way that they were using ads, and say Facebook had an ad targeting platform where you could target people based on the things that they had liked, but you could also exclude people based on the thing that they like. So, what ended up happening was if someone was putting an ad about a new job, or about a new house, or apartments, or they wanted to-they wanted to say, “Hey we have a real estate showing going,” you could exclude people based on what they like. So, if someone liked for example English as a second language. If someone liked the ET, Entertainment Tdevision, if someone liked Telemundo, you know what I mean, you could make it so that they don’t see your ads. And so, what ended up happening of course is that Black and Hispanic people don’t see the ads, which is a violation of the Civil Rights Act, because that’s equal housing, equal opportunity of employment, etc., etc., and so that was not a secret. Facebook was very happy to tell advertisers, “Hey you can include and exclude people based on ads,” that idea of who it was impacting was pre-written. It was impacting sellers and vendors who had a very clear idea of who they wanted to target and who did not want to target. So again, it’s just taking this idea of, “Hey you can target whoever you want,” and think well, “Woah who gets left out of that?” You know, “Who gets left out of that and then why,” you know. Is it a demographic, is it a specific-is a protected demographic and so really you got to do a lot of analysis, sort of working backwards. That’s how I work, it’s just working backwards from the company sends, the impact is going to be or who they say it’s going to benefit, because often you’ll find, I’ve found, that the interest of these companies and the interest of you know marginalized people etc., etc., it can be-it can be at odds.

[Weber] So what you’re saying is you know the company releases some press release about how great the technology and sort of your process is, and I like your distinction between being critical and cynical right, but your process is, “Okay so who is not going to benefit from this or how might this affect, especially marginalized communities, in ways other than the way that the company’s advertising that it’s going to work?”

[Fussell] Absolutely. That-what I just described, the Facebook example, is a type of proxy advertisement where the thing that you like is used as a proxy for identity. And if I were to just to walk up to someone and say, “Hey I have a-sort of a proxy advertising and proxy discrimination,” they’d be like “What? What are you talking about?” But people already know what housing discrimination is. People already know what civil rights are, and so that sort of specifically there was such a clear parallel to something that already exists out in the world that people already understand, which made much easier and much more readable to understand. So, you know I could go into like how analytics work and how data process works, identify people’s demographics based on data, you could do all that. But the best stories have that very clear, there’s an overlay of all these different technological stuff, but it’s a very clear, “This is what’s impacted,” and you already have an understanding or parallel for, for what that is.

[Weber] I’m guessing you do a lot more research that ends up in the story, typically?

[Fussell] A lot of research does end up in the story and usually what’s left out is usually enough to make another story or something we’ll approach later, but yeah lots and lots of research that doesn’t go into the story. But also like I think that the reader can read discomfort. So, if I’m describing something that I’m not fully aware of how it works, I’m not really-I’m sort of cutting corners because I’m uncomfortable with how to describe it, I think the reader will pick up on that very quickly and so they’ll go get it from somewhere else, they’ll read someone else

[Weber] Yeah, so that research gives you some confidence that comes across in the page even if that specific information that you researched isn’t always there.

[Fussell] That’s a great way of putting it. Like I do think that the over doing the research really is just about confidence on my part, feeling like I, I have a good grip on it. And sometimes during the drafting process I can sort of tell when I’m like, “Oh I know what this is, I can handle it,” versus “Eh, I’m only about fifty percent. Let me read a few more things,” and so that’s where the thing about passion really comes in. Because like I just have to read a bunch of white papers, which are white papers are going to be very inside baseball, ‘tradey’ only inward facing. The thing that I was looking for how it works, it was in white papers so you’re going to have to read a lot of dry things that are meant to be read by people in the industry or you have to listen to a lot of videos where speakers are only talking to other people that are you know chiefly level execs within that industry. So, it’s worth it for the confidence booth and better writing, but yeah it’s dry. It’s very, very dry.

[Weber] Well there are members of my audience who’ll be thrilled that someone is reading white papers.

[Fussell] (chuckle) Thank you out there. Yeah.

[Weber] Alright, well hey thank you so much Sidney. I really enjoyed talking to you.

[Fussell] Thanks. I’m glad it went well.

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