How do New York Times journalists use technology in their jobs and in their personal lives? David Streitfeld, a technology reporter in San Francisco, discussed the tech he’s using — and not using.
For a tech journalist, you don’t use a lot of tech.
One of the great victories of the tech industry was insisting that if you didn’t love its products, and by extension the companies themselves, you were not fit to cover it. I never understood how that edict gained traction. We don’t think that crooks make the best crime reporters.
I took my inspiration from writers I admired — Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. Le Guin, Don DeLillo, Barry Malzberg. They were all low-tech people. Le Guin didn’t drive. DeLillo doesn’t do email. Dick barely left his apartment. Malzberg lives in New Jersey. Yet they foresaw how technology would reshape society better than any of the geniuses in Silicon Valley.
“What technology can do becomes what we need it to do,” DeLillo said. Le Guin observed: “The internet just invites crap from people.” Those quotes sum up the last 20 years.
What tech do you actually use?
I still marvel at email.
That’s not enough? Another illusion promoted by Big Tech is that everyone is using it. After all, everyone in America is on Facebook, right? Everyone with an opinion is on Twitter. But most of the people I know aren’t on, either. They live in the real world.
I exaggerate, a bit. For all Twitter’s resemblance to the last chapters of “Lord of the Flies,” it’s a remarkably good way to find unusual stories and fresh viewpoints.
My method: I select someone who just posted a hot take, and then I read backward through his or her tweets while also reading the replies to them. If he or she is a prolific tweeter, you quickly end up in his or her brain — for better or worse. I generally do this after midnight, fortified by a glass of gin. I rarely tweet myself, because my only followers are Russian bots and my editor, who is contractually required to read everything I write.
You’ve written about Amazon since the beginning. Sometimes you give it up as a subject, and yet you’re always drawn back.
They want to take over the world, and they want to keep it all secret. What could possibly be more alluring for a reporter?
Amazon is the first 21st-century company, an attempt to become the interface between you and everything else, starting with your nearest and dearest. Just watch the rollout film for the Echo from 2014 — it’s all there. Amazon will mediate every one of your desires. Unless Google gets there. The Amazon-Google War will define our era.
What piece of book technology do you use every day?
ViaLibri.net is an excellent book search engine. It doesn’t sell you the book, but tells you, for free, who is selling a copy or, for really obscure stuff, the closest academic library with a copy. I use it the way other people use Google.
The volume of material out there still amazes me. Even leaving aside e-books, the internet has changed reading forever. You used to have to struggle to find books by, say, the baroque fantasist Avram Davidson or Harry Stephen Keeler, the early-20th-century novelist whose bizarre stories eventually alienated his audience completely. Now their entire works, and everyone else’s, can be painlessly found by anyone who wants them. Literary culture is fragmenting and deepening in front of our eyes.
What’s the No. 1 question you’re asked about buying books on the web?
“Is it possible to buy used books on the internet without buying from Amazon?”
It’s certainly not easy. People sometimes tell me they’ve given up Amazon for AbeBooks, a virtual storefront for a worldwide network of dealers. They don’t realize it is owned by Amazon, something Amazon certainly does not go out of its way to point out.
EBay gets a lot less attention than it used to, but it is still a good source of books unavailable elsewhere. There is a competitor to Abe called Biblio, which lists some of the same books and is still independent. Biblio’s best feature is an annual membership for $20, whose sole function is to provide a 10 percent discount. It pays for itself pretty quick.
Are there other book sites you like?
The Book Depository is a British bookseller that is in some ways the anti-Amazon. It has a clunky website that feels trapped in 2003. But the store has one great redeeming feature: It does not charge for postage, which is considerable across the ocean. A copy of Le Guin’s latest nonfiction collection — not published in America — would cost me $30 from Amazon.co.uk. From the Book Depository, it is $17.
They either have a sweet deal with the United States Postal Service, which delivers their packages, or they take a bath on every order. Did I mention that the Book Depository is owned by Amazon?
You and your wife raised your 8-year-old daughter in a largely tech-free household. How?
For the first couple of years, our girl never saw any tech at home more complicated than a blender. She did not see her first video until she was 4, on a holiday weekend when she was sick. Instead there were a lot of books around, and they got heavy use.
She turned out to be a great reader, confirming the old notion that kids become either just like their parents or like their nightmare opposite, which in my case would have meant a “declutterer” like Marie Kondo. She devoured the “Oz” books, even the ones by Ruth Plumly Thompson. We read aloud E. Nesbit’s hilarious “Treasure Seekers” series about a late-Victorian family of dim bulbs, and she brought in “Moby-Dick” for show and tell. For a while we were pretty smug parents.
What went wrong?
She picked up on the playground all sorts of information about Katy Perry and Taylor Swift, and now demands 10 minutes of YouTube songs a night that often mysteriously expands to half an hour.
Technology is creeping in on many fronts. On trips she listens to audiobooks that we get through Overdrive. She tunes her violin with an app and practices Hebrew via Duolingo. I am bracing myself for the teenage years. Her favorite phrase is “How dare you.” She’s a natural for Twitter.