A heartfelt farewell from Dieter Bohn

A heartfelt farewell from Dieter Bohn

Ten years after we founded it, The Verge continues to be the best place to discover the import and impact of technology’s place in our culture — but after today, the team will be doing that without me. After 20 years in media, I’ve decided it’s time to do something new. If you’ve been a Vergecast listener, you know that disclosure is our brand, so here’s mine: I’m headed to Google to work on the Platforms & Ecosystems team. I am excited to help shape the future of software platforms like Android and Chrome — and continue to work at the nexus of technology and culture, just in a different way.

(An even fuller disclosure: even as you read these words, I am out of The Verge’s newsroom; I have not been involved in editorial decisions for some time.)

But before I go and before I say a woefully incomplete set of thank yous, I want to reflect on those 20 years for just a minute. We founded The Verge with some grand ideas about how to do technology journalism differently. We started with the thesis that technology — especially consumer technology — creates culture. It seemed like a very big idea at the time, but it has turned out to be bigger than even we could have imagined.

Now, a decade on, The Verge does a better job than anyone at looking at the ways technology shapes culture and is, in turn, shaped by culture. An insight that once felt revelatory is now almost universally accepted. Our coverage has expanded to policy, science, climate, transportation, creators, games, movies, and more — all of which are changing ever more quickly and evolving fractally under the influence of tech. That evolution has been electrifying and, increasingly often, terrifying.

To say technology has changed us in fundamental ways — not just the way we communicate but the way we think and what we are — feels both deeply radical and deeply, boringly obvious. I feel that dichotomy quite keenly because I was the person 25 years ago practically grabbing random people in the hallway and saying, Look At This, This Will Change You.

I distinctly remember pulling a professor aside and showing them my Handspring Visor PDA. It wasn’t just a planner, I said; it was also an entertainment device with music, a camera, a research device. I created a tiny app for tracking my studies and adding marginalia to digitally scanned quotes. That professor found it interesting but didn’t think it was important. And the thing is, they weren’t necessarily wrong. I couldn’t prove it would be important.

One thing that’s difficult to remember today is that being gadget-obsessed was once weird. It was a thing I had to defend or (more often) apologize for. I used to have to give a little speech defending the idea of fandom for gadgets or pop culture that now seems quaint at best. I would say, “If you’re not a nerd about something, you don’t care about anything.”

I was — and am — a nerd for gadgets and for consumer technology. I think it matters. Though a great majority of people rightly don’t care about the incremental improvements in smartphone technology year over year, those improvements aggregate into a major impact over time. I think our discourse about gadgets is still nascent even this far into the smartphone revolution.

Technology itself is culture, and a phone or a laptop or an algorithmic feed is in itself a cultural object just as worthy of analysis, critique, and serious attention as any piece of artwork or fashion trend. This is why I prefer the term “instrument” over “tool” as a metaphor for most technology. Both are useful metaphors, but “instrument” has connotations about creation and precision that “tool” lacks. And most importantly, it suggests that we have a relationship to the objects we use to create personal expression – to create culture.

This idea is so deeply embedded in the philosophy of reviews at The Verge that it’s difficult to see — and to a casual reader perhaps indistinguishable from a bare speeds-and-feeds kind of review. A simpler way to think of it is that we always take the things themselves seriously, living in the strange space between “just another phone” and “vital instrument our readers will never be more than a few feet away from and use hundreds of times a day to live their lives.” If that kind of object isn’t worth taking seriously, what is?

Even as I write this, I find it strange. These are insights that were once important because nobody knew what was coming. Now I think these insights are important because we’re living so completely within the world tech has wrought that it’s hard to see them. I’m a fish talking about the water.

A lot of my favorite moments at The Verge happened at CES, the bacchanalia of consumer tech and consumerism that used to matter much more than it does now. It’s long been standard for all the reporters who trekked to Las Vegas to point out that the best products don’t get announced there (Palm Pre excepted!), that it’s a depressing slog, and that all their claims about being the place where the future is first shown are bombast at best.

All true, and we never shied away from those realities in our coverage. But neither did we just dismiss it all as meaningless. We took — and still take — the impact of technology products seriously. One of the things I loved making in this vein seems jokey, but I meant it quite seriously: in the waning days of CES 2015, we shot a video recontextualization of a classic Walter Benjamin essay about how technology was changing art but set in the age of gadgets.

And obviously, CES was always a great moment to work in person with our growing team — and to see each other do great work under intense pressure in strange conditions. People would sometimes ask me how we managed to be first to a story or how we produced a great video, and I always had a hard time answering because the answer was so simple: we just combined planning and organization with a team that understood how to collaborate, worked at a very high level, and cared deeply about getting it right for our audience. Simple. Although it’s been a minute since I’ve directly managed anyone here, one thing I’m proud of is that culture of actually giving a shit while constantly trying to improve the ways the shit gets made.

There is a long-running joke from back when tech keynotes happened in person that I was always the very first journalist in line. I often was, and I took all the ribbing gladly because it didn’t matter as much as the real reason I always showed up so early. Was it because I always earnestly believed those events to be important? Sometimes, but mostly, it was that I wanted to make sure I was doing everything I could possibly do to not let our team nor our audience down.

I was in a privileged position to be in that line, in the room where the announcements were made and the gadgets first shown, in a spot where I might have a chance to talk to a passing executive. The products and software shown at those events would end up being part of the daily lived experience for thousands if not millions of people, so yes, I did my best to never be jaded about them and took the work of holding companies to their promises as a duty. I’d like to think that caring came through in my work. I know it comes through in the work The Verge does every day.

I’m not naively optimistic about tech in the way many of us once were when the networks and gadgets we use today were just getting started. Neither am I direly pessimistic — I think technology still can do great things for humanity, and besides, it’s not going away, so we should damn well do our best to make it so.

We are also getting better at talking about how technology affects marginalized communities — and even how it influences war. I personally haven’t done as much as I should have in these spaces, and we can all do better. Though I won’t take credit for the work, one of the things I’m proudest of is how The Verge has stood up for people in the face of digital harassment, bias, and many other problems big tech has brought on.

I do think we’re all getting better at deepening our discourse about tech beyond a reductive spectrum from good to bad. And on my way out the door, I am hoping to make a small contribution to that effort.

So here goes: technology is a method for making meaning.

Ha, of course the English major who studied semiotics (broadly, theories of how meaning is created through language) is bringing it around to his home turf. But hang with me because I don’t intend to count too many angels on this pinhead and build a whole damn system of thought. I just want to try to introduce a useful metaphor, not a definitive truth.

One of the things I took away from Derrida was that thinking about how writing relates to meaning yields more insight than thinking about speech. Rather than belabor the semiotics, I’ll just say that thinking about the relationship between writing and meaning instead of just speech and meaning forces us to contend with just how complicated and rich this business of using language to create meaning out of nearly nothing actually is.

It’s also true that writing changes how we think and how we relate to one another. It’s an entirely different mode of thought beyond just the logistics of communication. To steal the phrase, it makes us think different. (Shout out to the semiotics nerds who groaned at the mere thought that I was about to make a “think différance” joke.)

Writing reveals insights about what it means to be human and changes what it means to be human — both at the same time. Writing reveals that we need much more than a simple set of abstractions to explain how meaning arises out of language.

If you haven’t figured out the game here yet, I’ll just tell you: you can just replace the word “writing” with “technology.” Writing is a technology, after all (and so, I’d argue, is language itself, but that’s the English Major in me).

Thinking of technology as a kind of writing brings the idea of agency back to the foreground. The same methods of thought you (hopefully) learned to read critically and consider whether or not you agree with a piece of writing can be applied to tech. It becomes less monolithic and more clearly the result of the choices and abilities of human authors — choices that you can learn from, reject, or even build upon.

Think about the way your phone’s interface slices your experience into discrete little chunks of linear time while your desktop computer lets you arrange your experience spatially. Think about how the social media feeds and search results you see are the result of algorithms that were designed by people. Most of all, think about how so much of technology involves building a worldview, just like a piece of writing does, and that context matters just as much as the content.

I believe that revealing those contexts has always and will always be essential to The Verge’s work. And while I won’t be a part of this team anymore, I am incredibly excited to watch the people who will continue to make The Verge great find new ways to use technology to reveal how technology changes us. (Which is a tease of a website redesign coming later this year that’s much more than a fresh coat of paint.)

Have I been sublimating my emotions about my time at The Verge into some half-baked philosophy rather than expressing them directly? Obviously. And so, while I really do believe that technology is a powerful instrument for making meaning, I should just come out and say that reporting on it and reviewing it has been deeply meaningful to me.

I built a career here, but I also helped build this thing called The Verge, and I will be eternally proud of it and grateful for the chance to have done it. I have been at the forefront of watching how tech is changing us, and it’s been exhilarating and sometimes filled me with dread. It’s deepened my empathy and compassion for those around me and for humanity at large. I have been given so much and tried to give back as best I could. Mostly, I’m just thankful.

It’s impossible for me to sum up the past decade neatly in a post and even more difficult to name and thank everybody who deserves my boundless thanks. But I can’t go without praising Helen Havlak for steady leadership, Jim Bankoff for his faith and for building an incredible media company to work at, Dan Seifert for creating an amazing reviews program, Walt Mossberg for his guidance and kindness, Casey Newton for his wisdom, Nori Donovan for her ambitious video work, Vjeran Pavic for being my partner in video, Mariya Abdulkaf for her tireless work on Springboard, TC Sottek for his grounded common sense, Lauren Goode for her friendship, and, well, I could go down the entire past and present Verge masthead with effusive praise. Instead, I will sadly cut it short and thank everybody at The Verge for their dedication to their craft and to our journalistic mission.

And of course, most of all, thank you to my good and true friend Nilay Patel, a fearless and inspiring editor-in-chief whose least-appreciated asset is his incredibly deep well of empathy and respect for his colleagues and our audience.

One of the great joys of my 20 years in media has been in engaging with our readers, viewers, and fans. The Verge has always had a faith in our audience to be smart and to take even esoteric bits of technology seriously. That faith has been richly rewarded because our audience is smarter and cares even more than I could have guessed.

I’ve personally been lucky in that, instead of being on the receiving end of a merely parasocial relationship, I feel I’ve been able to have an actual relationship with so many of our readers, listeners, and viewers. You’ve let me take risks, crack jokes, and have taught me so much (and abided my puns, for which I am sorry / grateful).

All the nouns I’ve got to work with here — readers, listeners, viewers, fans, audience — are too passive. You’ve made it feel like I’m talking with kindred spirits, and I thank you for it. Please feel free to say hey anytime because it’s wonderful to hang with a kindred spirit. You may be hearing from me a bit less, but I will be thinking of you always.

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