A Watchdog For This Tech Revolution

Journalist Walt Mossberg has spent the past two decades chronicling and commenting on the devices that have altered the mediascape of the world. As perhaps the premier technology reviewer of the digital age, he feels fortunate to sit at the center of a democratizing shift in human existence.

“To have been able to record and judge the advance of this personal technology over this particular period has been a tremendously lucky break for me,” Mossberg says. “There are only so many moments in history when the world gets changed by something that happened in technology or business.”

Duplicating this experience, he says, would take him back to 1908 to report on Henry Ford as the Model T rolled off the assembly line in Detroit. Or further back to the first Industrial Revolution to talk with cotton workers about the “amazing new loom” that transformed the textile industry in early 19th-century England.

Mossberg’s work in the current tech upheaval has afforded him impressive access to changemakers like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Larry Ellison. He saw the iPod before it became public. He was an early and ardent proponent of the user-generated content favored by AOL.  

His fascination with technology began in the '80s, when he was a computer hobbyist, obsessed with the pure but esoteric potential of the PC. At the time, he was covering national and international affairs for The Wall Street Journal during the closing years of the Cold War.  But in 1991, when reporters still used typewriters and revised articles with scissors and jars of paste, Mossberg convinced the WSJ to let him write a “Personal Technology” column. It was the first of its kind.

The column focused on gadgets — PCs, digital cameras, cellular phones — that had started to attract and perplex the ranks of ordinary consumers who wanted these new technologies but didn’t necessarily understand them. Mossberg says his target audience from the start was “regular people.” 

“An information appliance should not require a technical degree to use it,” he says.

In his column, Mossberg described how devices could amplify or diminish the user’s connection to other devices, to people, and to the world. He contextualized gadgets within a technological ecosystem before anyone knew such a thing existed. 

His reviews have made tech stocks rise and fall. But they have also enabled tech companies, if they’re paying attention, to see the real effect their devices have on people. The product glitches Mossberg has found have often led to meaningful tweaks in technology.  

He has become a watchdog of the relationship between humanity and its tools.  

Writing reviews, Mossberg says, is like “explaining or being an advocate for people.” He is respectful of price but is not a bargain hunter. He unravels marketing ploys and tech jargon to help prospective buyers determine the “ease of use and quality” of a product. He has no patience for the “fan boy and fan girl culture around tech,” which he says is “corrosive and kind of dumb.”

He holds up common sense as a shield against the addictive hype of tech.  

Mossberg is committed to this angle of his work:  “I was always much more interested in helping the users of technology rather than the makers of technology.” At the same time, he adds, “I can’t help but be sympathetic to a small startup that has a great idea, but maybe doesn’t have it quite right.  I admire those people.”

Technology has now changed the way Mossberg delivers his message. This year, he moved out of legacy journalism altogether to start Re/code, an online technology journal he runs with his business partner, Kara Swisher.  

Re/code represents a style of reporting that embraces the sensibilities of the web to reach consumers where they live. For his part, Mossberg now comments on the broader picture of the tech industry, not just the gadgets. But two things have never changed for him as a journalist: “Writing in plain English and not talking down to people.”

In his typical nod to the readers who trust him, Mossberg  says he wants Re/code to be relevant and entertaining. “That’s not so easy, but we’re finding our way, and so far, we’re off to a great start.”