What I’ve learned from writing tech columns for 25 years

In 1994, I got a call from an editor I knew at a Seattle-area newsweekly. Computers for personal use—and the companies that made them possible—were getting a lot of attention due to this newly accessible Internet. I’d been a full-time journalist and now worked in tech. Would I be interested in writing a snappy regular column explaining computer industry developments to mere mortals?

Sure, I said. It needs a name, he said. I first suggested “Dispatches from the Digital Frontier.” And then I offhandedly added, “Or you could just call it ‘Byte Me.'”

He eventually stopped laughing. That set the tone for more than 200 weekly “Byte Me” columns that ran in Eastsideweek and later Seattle Weekly through 1998, starting with one titled, “The Internet as Goat Trail.” It bemoaned the difficulties of using this largely free and open so-called “information superhighway” while still noting it “sparks the imagination of what could be.”

After the Seattle Weekly column ended came a several-times-per-week on-camera tech analyst slot at KCPQ-TV Seattle with a column on its website, then columns or regular contributions for Puget Sound Business Journal, TechFlash, NPR/KQED’s MindShift and finally almost eight-year-long stints with both GeekWire and EdSurge.

My current work with GeekWire and EdSurge wrapped up earlier this year. That’s led me to reflect on two-and-a-half decades of a side career analyzing and writing about technology developments and the industry for a general audience (after reporting on the original personal computer boom when I was a full-time broadcast news reporter).

Yes, a lot has changed from a technology standpoint. What was nerdy fringe is now geeky mainstream. What was desk-bound and disconnected is now portable and persistently linked. What was an annoying buzzword…is still that.

Yet as the major technology hype has shifted from personal computing and the internet to mobile devices, I’ve discovered that three universal truths endure when it comes to explaining tech to a general audience.

Under-the-hood interest is limited—but it is there. People do want to understand why a new technology, product or service is useful. But they do not want to be buried in technical detail.

Sometimes stories about what’s new go so deep in the weeds of the tech underpinnings (I’m looking at you, blockchain) there is no clear tie back to the practical benefits.

That doesn’t mean a writer should stick to describing what’s cool on the surface. Cool doesn’t always mean useful. There are many examples of “cool” products and services that required such contortions in customer behavior that much of the benefit was lost. This goes way back, and includes everything from early Timex Datalink smart watches to the Radio Shack precursor of today’s laptop computers. I owned both.

So surface or weeds alone don’t serve the non-expert, tech-interested audience. There needs to be enough factual foundation for understanding and a clear connection as to how that tech makes it possible for the useful stuff to be delivered.

It’s easiest to focus on the giddy change-the-world surface. It is oddly also easy (for the nerdy) to give an expert tutorial on the tech. What is hard is figuring just how much of the latter is required to help people understand the former without going too far in either direction. For the good explainer/educator, it’s a constant challenge.

The lure of the bright-shiny is eternal. Similarly, people want to hear about what’s new and exciting in tech. But they don’t want to be served a diet of empty-calorie hype.

This is when context and comparison helps. Sure that foldable smartphone or virtual currency is really neat. But what will it replace, or will it simply be another service or gadget that requires care and feeding? What else is needed to make it work well? What behaviors (see above) will have to change for it to succeed?

Often, unfortunately, the cool overwhelms the useful in gushing coverage of new digital developments. Sometimes, the stories are only about the wonderful assumed benefits of new tech with zero explanation as to the how. While the companies may like that, it’s a disservice to anyone truly curious about what new tech may mean.

Writing forces understanding. Good tech writing helps two audiences: the reader and the writer. I’ve found this to be the personally most valuable part of what I’ve done as a columnist and contributor over the past two-and-a-half decades.

It’s very hard to accurately explain a development in part of the tech industry without understanding it first yourself. Of course I can write a concise tweet based on something I’ve quickly read, or pen a brief story on specific spot news. But to fully explain a development to others in a column or other analysis requires digging in, excavating the most important parts and then building a coherent narrative upon that foundation.

This kind of writing is a wonderful discipline. It also gives me permission to dive into topics that seem interesting but I’d also likely never explore unless I had to write about them.

Twenty-five years ago, people needed to be educated about digital technology before they were even interested in using it. Today, the interest is already there, but the need for education and explanation remain. And it may be that tech has so overtaken our lives that—from personal data collection to remote social interaction—it’s the tech itself that now has the explaining to do.