One November day long ago, I undertook a new writing project that I assumed might last a year or two, with effort and some luck. But somehow, this weekly opinion column about technology has ended up as my assignment of a lifetime.
And, 25 years later to the month, here I still am. After producing over a thousand columns, I thought I might (for a change) explain a little about how this particular sausage gets made.
I wrote earlier this year about how the column was never a grand idea based on a carefully thought-out concept. On the contrary, it was a last-minute proposal which arose out of a push from a colleague, the late Fiachra Ó Marcaigh, who was the co-editor of the weekly technology page in The Irish Times, Computimes. I got a little freelance income writing its side column of tech news shorts.
Fiachra suggested I propose a regular column for an expansion of the paper’s business coverage, which was to include several pages of technology news. I nearly argued myself out of it but, in the end, I went ahead and submitted an idea for something called Net Results. It got the green light, which I found alarming, as now I would have to actually write it.
Initially, it was advice or perspectives on utilising the internet as a business tool but, before long, Net Results focused on issues, opinion, tech history and broader industry developments. I figured it out as I went along and, thankfully, editors never axed it.
That malleability is often the case with individual columns, too. Through the process of writing, I begin to understand what I want to say. Sure, I generally start with a clear idea of a subject and view. But as my long-suffering editors will attest, the column I send to their inbox is not always quite what I promised. Sometimes it’s on an entirely different subject because something happened in the intervening days or even hours. Or the original idea isn’t going anywhere and I jump tracks.
Finding a topic can be a challenge, but less of one than you might think. It’s certainly the question I get most: how does someone come up with a subject every single week? Much less for 25 years of weeks?
But in this ever-changing industry, with all the enormous macro to micro impacts it has on our lives, often the greater problem is winnowing down several options to one, and then narrowing that multifaceted subject into approximately 800 words. I’ve lived my professional life in 800 words.
I’ve become a better writer for having to be a vicious self-editor, cutting back words or phrases that aren’t earning their keep, or entire paragraphs or directions in an argument. Often you must guillotine what you love.
It’s strange to be older now than many of the eminence grise tech chief executives and internet pioneers I wrote about back when I began this gig. I’m older than Steve Jobs was when he died, a poignant personal reminder of how relatively young that was.
T-shirts and oblivion
Over 25 years, I’ve watched some of yesterday’s tiny start-ups become huge companies – Amazon, Google, Facebook, PayPal, YouTube. To my surprise, Apple went from surely-about-to-collapse to one of the most valuable companies ever. Others that once reigned are gone. Companies that made headlines, like Digital and Netscape, Alta Vista, Napster, GeoCities, Friends Reunited, Iomega and Compaq. Not to mention the drama that was Boo.com.
One of my little regrets is not having carefully saved all the company T-shirts I’d be given at conferences and events. Instead, I generally wore them for dirty chores, like painting the house, and they were tossed into oblivion. I still have one paint-stained Digital shirt, but sure wish I still had the Be.com one (look it up).
If I were to offer a takeaway from covering technology for a quarter century, let it be that T-shirt memento mori: today’s seemingly invincible tech titan (Google, Microsoft, Facebook, ahem, Twitter) could become tomorrow’s historical footnote. Tech life comes at you fast.
The other is to always remain suspicious and sceptical. With hindsight, so many companies, large and small, that seemed lighthearted, “cool”, groundbreaking and in the business of offering “innovation” (I’ve learned to be beware of any company blabbing about “innovation”) have turned out to be shameless global burdens – furtive, law-skimming, greedy exploiters of their “users”, people and society.
Governments, regulators, industry and all of us can be so easily taken in by tech baubles, too passive – even unwilling – to recognise and tackle the problems they can obscure. It’s sometimes depressing to look back at columns I wrote 10 or 20 years ago and see the exact same unresolved issues around data privacy, copyright, regulation, control, surveillance, digital access and equality, just to list a few topics.
Nonetheless, despite – no actually because of – the wild ride, it’s been an honour and a pleasure to write for you about an industry that dazzles and depresses, inspires and exasperates, and constantly, for better or worse, changes our world.