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MIT Technology Review’s new design—and new mission

Tech journalism shouldn’t just explain technology, but seek to make it more of a force for good.

Almost exactly 20 years ago, what was then called just Technology Review was relaunched with a fresh design and the tagline “MIT’s Magazine of Innovation.” The dot-com boom was nearing its peak, and hip young journals like Wired, Fast Company, and Red Herring were selling their readers a swaggering vision of a future in which, if you were only tech-savvy enough, you would be richer and sexier, live longer, and have cooler friends. The 99-year-old, somewhat stuffy Technology Review decided it could go after a wider audience and, in the words of its editor, John Benditt, “initiate a national dialogue on technology and innovation.”

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Since then, countless new publications have emerged to try to tap into the promise of technology. But the swagger has faltered. Online trolling, fake news, social-media echo chambers, election hacking, cybercrime, immensely powerful tech firms, privacy breaches, job automation … perhaps not since the invention of nuclear power or pesticides has it been so starkly clear that technology cuts both ways.

Melvin Kranzberg, a historian at Georgia Tech, summed up that fact in 1985 as “technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.” By this he meant that a technology can have both good and bad effects, which aren’t inherent to it but depend on how and where it is used. Obvious though that seems, it appears to be routinely forgotten both by those who build new technologies without planning for their potential impacts and by those who want to halt them outright.

To take Kranzberg seriously, however, is to accept an equally obvious-seeming corollary: technology is not a force majeure that we must either oppose or submit to, but a product of human actions and decisions. We can choose to build and use it in ways that maximize the good and minimize the harm. “You can’t stop progress!”—sure. But you can direct its course.

Unfortunately, those who build technology, those who use and are affected by it, and those who create its legal, regulatory, and financial frameworks—its makers, users, and framers, to coin a shorthand—often aren’t choosing well. Makers are usually too focused on financial success; users cannot see how their lives are gradually but fundamentally changing; and framers rarely understand the inventions for which they are writing laws, rules, or checks. This leads to ill-informed decisions by all three groups.

That’s why, along with the redesigned print edition of MIT Technology Review, we're also launching a new mission statement: “to bring about better informed and more conscious decisions about technology through authoritative, influential, and trustworthy journalism.” We think it’s no longer enough for tech journalism to merely explain technology and its ramifications. Rather, it should explicitly strive to make technology more of a force for good, by helping its makers, users, and framers reach better decisions.

We’ll do that in a number of ways, including writing more about tech ethics and policy. But we’re also changing the notion of what a printed magazine is for.

For years the web was just a place for magazines and newspapers to republish their printed stories. Today, in the digital-first era, it’s the other way around; a print edition is typically a “best of” collection of stories that first appeared online (minus the interactive bits). But our approach assumes that since people use print and digital media differently, they should serve different purposes.

Online, we’ll continue to cover a wide swath of emerging technologies, in stories ranging from short news items to in-depth reports of the kind the magazine has always published. In print, though, each issue is now more like a book, examining a single technology or theme from a wide range of angles in an attempt to get at some of the deeper questions about how it affects our world and how decisions about it get made. Our July/August issue is all about the economy—what the confluence of AI, big data, and powerful tech firms means for the future of how we work and where prosperity will come from. 

I’ve already heard from several readers who dislike the shift to themed issues, regardless of what we do online. I’m convinced, though, that the move will help us play a bigger part in what’s becoming a crucial global conversation about how to ensure that technology makes life better for everyone, not just those lucky enough to be the winners.

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