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For years, technology has influenced every facet of modern life. But the coronavirus pandemic, which has forced many people to work, attend school and socialize through screens, has underscored just how entwined technology has become in our lives. A new daily newsletter, On Tech, examines our changing relationship to technology and the effect it is having on us.
Shira Ovide, who writes the newsletter, sees technology as a topic that encompasses everything from the gadgets we use to what we do on the internet to the decisions big tech companies make. That’s broad, but Ms. Ovide hopes to show the many ways technology relates to readers’ lives and livelihoods.
To help contextualize those issues for readers, Ms. Ovide speaks regularly with other Times journalists who cover technology as it relates to elections, the environment and privacy.
Recently, Ms. Ovide spoke on the phone about her goals for the newsletter and what readers can expect in the weeks ahead. These are edited excerpts.
Most of us Times employees are working remotely right now. Where are you working from these days?
I am working remotely from my one-bedroom apartment in New York. My dining table where I eat meals has now become my workstation. My laptop is right now parked on top of a shoe box because it positions the video camera in my line of sight for video meetings. And I’m sitting on a crappy desk chair that hurts my back. So I have a pillow. It’s all not ideal.
You’re just a couple of weeks into writing On Tech. How’s it going so far?
I think the answer to everything now is it’s going OK under the circumstances. In a way, this was not exactly the newsletter I expected to be writing. I thought that this would be a normal year for technology and we’d be writing a lot about powerful big tech companies and the role of technology in the presidential election. And like everything else, this has become an all-coronavirus affair.
How has the pandemic changed your vision for the newsletter?
The subject matter is different than I intended. But the vision really hasn’t changed. The idea that we started out with was: Technology is reshaping our lives and world in ways that are both obvious and not obvious. We were tasked with being this useful guide to people to help them understand how technology relates to everything they see in front of them: their jobs, the nature of work, their relationships with their friends and family members. You know, just all these big and small ways that technology is changing and influencing things. Right now, there’s only life mediated through technology. So in a way, it’s made it much more clear how much we rely on technology in ways that are both good and bad.
Technology is a huge topic. You have the consumer side of tech, the business side and the actual technology that makes those products and companies possible. How do you decide what to cover?
There’s both an opportunity and a challenge when technology is sort of this broad subject that means everything and nothing. To some people, technology is this narrow thing that just means computers, smartphones and other kinds of gadgets or the things that are happening on the internet. And obviously, we’re going to write about all of that. But part of the point here is to show that there is this broad world of what technology means.
How often do you talk to other tech reporters at The Times?
A lot [laughs]. This newsletter was intended to be a product of the entire newsroom at The Times, and also the Opinion section. All of our colleagues are writing about the role of technology in the world, way beyond the tech or business stuff. The people who write about West Africa are writing about technology and drone delivery of medicine. The politics reporters are writing about the role of technology in campaigns. Environmental reporters are writing about the environmental impact of various technologies or e-commerce. So the idea from the beginning was that this should show the breadth of the work that The Times does on technology and that it is intended to be a collegial newsletter.
Some of the previous On Tech newsletters have included interviews with colleagues, while others have had written sections. How are you thinking about the structure of the newsletter?
This is definitely going to evolve as we go on. I suspect the newsletter is going to look pretty different in a year than it does today. But I have tried to make this a mix of my voice on things, the expertise of my colleagues and outside experts through interview-style pieces. The great thing about The Times is that there are basically experts on every subject matter. And so, rather than me writing about digital privacy, why don’t I talk to Charlie Warzel or Jennifer Valentino-DeVries, a couple of our colleagues whose life’s work is basically writing about digital privacy issues.
What are you paying particular attention to right now?
The power of big technology companies: What does it mean for a handful of companies to have so much influence on the information people see, what products people buy and how we all interact with each other?
The other thing I try to talk about a lot is evaluating trade-offs. Any meaningful change is basically a set of drawbacks and benefits. For example, with facial recognition, how far are we willing to go to keep ourselves or others safe at the expense of privacy or the risk of people getting incorrectly identified as criminals? There’s also, I think, a fallacy that technology is somehow magic, that it always works and that it’s perfect. And I think that’s a little bit of a dangerous trap.
We forget that technology is made by humans. And humans are fallible.
A phrase that you will see me write a lot is, “technology is not magic.”
We forget about that all the time.
I think we’re seeing that now with the coronavirus, too. There’s been a lot of discussion about the ways that technology in our phones, for example, can help. If I come down with Covid-19, my phone can log all the people that I’ve come in contact with over the previous week and who may be at risk. I think there’s this feeling that either, “Oh, that’s super creepy,” or “Yes, do that. That sounds like a perfect solution.” And neither one is true.
How do you use technology in your own reporting?
I think I’m pretty old-school. I am staring at a reporter’s notebook that’s in front of me. I still use a lot of paper and pens. There are things I use to write and to pay attention to news: I’m on Twitter quite a lot, I’m on Slack quite a lot with my colleagues. But in terms of reporting, I still call a lot of people on the phone. I don’t think I’m a person who talks on the phone a lot in my personal life. But as a reporter, I am much better doing interviews over the phone than I am in person. And I think that I’ve become habituated to engaging with sources over the phone. That’s probably the majority of the conversations that I have. And so that is my reporter mode: on the telephone.
How do you use technology in your own life?
Twitter is my main habit. I tried really hard to limit my exposure to other kinds of social media, because I am one of those people who can become addicted to things. I said to a colleague today that I’m probably going to come out of this pandemic addicted to TikTok because it just feels like such an antidote to everything horrible in the world right now. TikTok feels like this place of creative joy. There is this virtual cycling app called Zwift. I can turn my bicycle into a fixed exercise bicycle, connect it to this app, and cycle in “Central Park” and ride with other virtual people at the same time. And I’ve been watching a ton of shows on Netflix.
What do you want readers to take away from On Tech?
I sometimes say that we’re basically showing people the matrix in the Keanu Reeves sense of the word. The idea is to show that tech is really everything and that it’s shaping our world in ways that we may not necessarily see. These changes in technology are influencing our behavior in ways that we may not necessarily be aware of. So the idea is to just make that matrix visible to people.
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