Issue 18 / Pivot

December 21, 2022
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Tell No Lies, Claim No Easy Victories

Logic has published a total of eighteen issues, including this one, since we launched our first issue in early 2017. That’s hundreds of thousands of words. The majority of those words have been edited by Ben Tarnoff and Alex Blasdel, and many of the pieces in the early issues were commissioned by Moira Weigel, who is the primary author of the editorial notes that open each issue. Logic has also benefited from the editorial efforts of several others: Max Read, J. Khadijah Abdurahman, Aliyah Blackmore, Sarah Burke, and Jen Kagan all made significant contributions. And the rest of the Logic core team has always been involved in commissioning pieces and conducting interviews, not to mention shaping the general outlook of the magazine.

But Ben, Alex, and Moira have probably done the most to shape the words that have appeared in Logic over the years. So, as we bring Logic’s first chapter to an end, we wanted to reflect on how the magazine has been edited thus far by putting them in conversation with Jim Fingal and Xiaowei Wang, two members of the Logic team who specialize in the publishing and the creative side of the magazine, respectively. Good editing hides itself; in this conversation, we wheel Logic’s editorial machinery out from its hidden abode and try to explain how it all fits together.

Jim Fingal (JF): For most people, their experience of editing is self-editing: you write a draft of an essay for school and then you spend some time moving the words around until you’re done. But it seems like the process of working with a magazine editor to develop a piece is a much more structured, multiphase, complex activity. I’d be curious to hear more about what that process looks like—and what’s special about how we’ve done it at Logic?

Ben Tarnoff (BT): A large part of the purpose of the Logic project has been to bring different constituencies together: to connect tech workers with organizers with academics. But, in order to do so, you need to create connective tissue. And one of the ways to create connective tissue is by developing an editorial process that will make these different groups comprehensible to one another.

Logic, at its best, is a magazine for people who don’t usually read, written by people who don’t usually write. That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but a useful one. We’re not based in New York. We don’t inhabit a clearly defined literary or intellectual scene. Our readership, at least our imagined readership, is composed largely of tech workers (defined in the broadest sense) and organizers, activists, people doing different kinds of political work. This isn’t the typical little magazine audience. And our contributors are mostly specialists of one kind or another—academics or technologists—which means they don’t usually have much experience writing for a general audience, or sometimes even writing at all.

As a result, our editorial process is particularly labor-intensive. That’s not to say that experienced writers don’t need editing, too. They do, but they’re familiar with the conventions, with the rhythms of an editorial relationship. When you’re working with someone who hasn’t really been edited before, you’re teaching them how to be edited in addition to editing them.

JF: One way to make different groups of people comprehensible to one another is to homogenize them—to make them all sound alike. I don’t think that’s what our project is, though. We’re not trying to make an academic sound like a tech worker or vice-versa, but we do want to bring the conversation together into a common register. How do we do that?

BT: We don’t want to homogenize, but we do want to find a consistent tone for the magazine. That’s a struggle, because our contributors come from a range of backgrounds and a range of intellectual traditions. And while we aspire to make our prose as approachable as possible, some pieces are inevitably going to be a bit more advanced than others. There are tech workers who are only beginning to ask the very first questions about the kind of work they do and how their workplaces are organized. Conversely, there are those who have spent years working to develop a sophisticated analysis of those issues. You have to find a way to create a magazine that will be inviting and engaging to those different kinds of readers. That’s hard to do, and I’m not sure we always succeed.

Moira Weigel (MW): Bringing together these different kinds of expertise doesn’t necessarily imply a hierarchy of expertise. I often fall back on the metaphor of the party, of convening people in space. You want to create an atmosphere that’s coherent but not all the same.

JF: There are fascinating things to be gleaned from people who come from different domains and with different levels of experience with writing. But I imagine that means there are different approaches that the editorial team has to take, depending on the background of the contributor and where they are in their journeys as writers. What are those different approaches? How do you adapt your style of editing to the individual writer?

Alex Blasdel (AB): Regardless of the writer, I tend to lean on the genre conventions of the sort of magazine writing that I’ve been trained in. Those conventions exist for good reason.

JF: What are those conventions?

AB: Maybe the most important one is that the opening section of a piece should do three things. The first is to draw readers in—maybe the opening has some of the piece’s most interesting material or it’s the scene that opens a narrative or it illustrates in miniature the problem that the rest of the piece is going to address. There are infinite ways of pulling readers in. One of our pieces began with an evocative description of the course of the Colorado River. But you need to find a way to dramatize the stakes right off the bat.

The second thing the opening section needs to do is to situate the piece within a broader context and make the stakes explicit. You’ve tried to draw readers in, now you need to tell them why they should go beyond being interested to really care about the subject of the piece. I thought Brian Justie did an excellent job on this in his piece from Issue 13: “Distribution,” by arguing for the significance of the struggles between labor and automation at the US Postal Service, which employs half a million workers and has the third-largest information technology infrastructure in the world.

Then the third thing an opening section should do is to make some sort of claim for the significance of the piece itself—yes, the topic is important, but why should people read this particular article about it? What is our piece going to offer in the way of insight that other articles can’t? Often, it tells the reader, “I’m going to help you think about this topic in a new and worthwhile way.” Veena Dubal’s piece on the history of gig work in Issue 10: Security is a masterclass in how to do this.

Once you’ve done those three things—sparked a reader’s interest, established the stakes of the topic, and made an argument for why the piece itself is worth reading—the rest of the piece basically writes itself. (Not really, lol.)

JF: Ben, you have often talked about “the stakes” as a critical consideration for which pieces to commission in the first place. So it’s not just something you try to develop in the editing, but also has to be present in some form in the pitch.

BT: Yes, defining the stakes is crucial because it’s a way to define what we mean by writing that is addressed to a non-specialist. If you’re a specialist, you are used to addressing an audience that shares your interest in a subject. You cannot, in the pages of our magazine, assume that your reader shares your interest in a subject. You have to tell the reader why they should care. And that is a convention of the type of magazine writing that Alex is describing.

I want to underscore something else that was implicit in what Alex said, which is the importance of structure. He and I share the belief that structure is the alpha and omega of writing, and it’s the one thing that nearly all writers need help with, even very experienced writers.

Thinking is not linear. We don’t think in a straight line. But writing is linear. It’s a sequence of words, a sequence of sentences, a sequence of paragraphs, a sequence of pages. So you have to find a way to wrangle a non-linear thought process into the linear sequences of text. That’s a difficult process, and it’s probably what we spend most of our time working on with our contributors.

MW: As an academic who struggles with structure, I think it’s partly because we’re trained to think of our work as adding our little flower to the field that is our area of expertise. Whereas with Logic pieces, the point is to hold your reader’s hand and run across the field.

When you’re writing for a non-specialist audience, and you can’t presume either knowledge of or investment in your topic, you need to create the momentum to take someone on a journey with you. The stakes don’t have to be life or death. But you have to create movement, flow. And that is ultimately an effect of the structure.

Coach, Cheerleader, Psychiatrist

Xiaowei Wang (XW): Part of our audience is tech folks. And one of the genres of computer science paper that they might be used to reading is, “Here’s the problem, and here’s the answer that’s going to solve the problem.” As you’ve been putting together the editorial tone of Logic, how do you react to the idea that every piece has to present a solution to a problem?

BT: I remember having a conversation with Meredith Whittaker some years ago in which she pointed out this tendency among tech people to demand that any diagnosis of a problem be accompanied by a solution. So she’d raise concerns about the social effects of a particular ML system and they’d say, “Well, what’s the solution?” And that was a way of shutting down the conversation. Because the solution they wanted was a straightforward technical one—a tweak to the algorithm, not some kind of complicated political project.

We’ve published a range of pieces, and some do point toward possible solutions. But, as editors, I hope we’ve discouraged our writers from claiming any easy victories. If you’re going to propose a solution, we want it to feel earned. We want it to feel specified.

AB: The solution is often the least interesting part. One of the maxims that I use is that you have to start where your readers are. And our readers don’t even necessarily know what the problem is. Why are the genealogies of machine learning datasets a problem, for example? What are the dimensions of the problem? Why have other solutions fallen short? We want as fine-grained a mapping of the terrain as possible.

JF: I know we’ve sometimes discussed the tendency of certain pieces to seek a solution where there isn’t an easy one, a piece that can be really illuminating in its analysis of a problem, before ending with a paragraph that basically concludes: “The solution is that we have to fundamentally overhaul everything about our society, economics, and culture.” It’s like: sure, maybe that is a solution, but it’s an unsatisfying way to end a piece.

MW: It’s true, as Ben says, that we don’t occupy a traditional literary scene. But we do have a certain literary streak to us, and that’s expressed in our shared desire to create a space for writing about technology that doesn’t demand simple solutions, whether it’s swapping algorithm A for algorithm B or, you know, full communism.

I’m thinking of Alyssa Battistoni’s piece for us on Biosphere 2, or Miriam Posner’s piece for us on supply chain software. Those pieces have a normative and critical dimension, but they’re mostly trying to describe how a system works.

AB: There’s always an argument you’re making implicitly along the way, just by virtue of the facts that you marshal and the way that you organize them. All of those choices are motivated. And you want to be in charge, as a writer and an editor, of the effects those choices have on the reader. Even a piece that, on the surface, may seem purely descriptive can make a very serious argument about the way the world is ordered. Every piece is an opinion piece to a certain extent.

JF: As editors, how do you motivate writers to make that journey? I sometimes feel like you have to play the role of coach, cheerleader, and psychiatrist all at the same time. I know that you spent a lot of time having conversations with people even before they had something to pitch—just to hear about what they were working on, and plant the seeds for future pieces.

MW: Especially at the beginning, you just have to get people excited about an idea. I often feel like a therapist. I’ll tell people, “Just talk to me.” And then after twenty or thirty minutes, I’ll reflect back to them the themes that I’ve heard. Then I might ask them to write a paragraph that captures the idea, and captures what excites them about the idea. That paragraph serves as a touchstone they can come back to later on, to help them understand why they wanted to write the piece.

Especially early on, when we were willing Logic into existence, we would have meetings as a team to figure out the topics we thought were interesting or important, and go through our mental databases of people who were working on those topics. Then we would reach out to them to see if they’d be interested in writing.

And that was a whole process. Because you’d go to Person X and say, “You wrote about this thing, we’re interested in that thing.” And they’d say, “Oh, I don’t want to write exactly about that. But there’s this other adjacent thing.” So you’d talk about that. And you’d get into a collaboration. For me, that was always the most exciting part of the magazine.

BT: The editorial relationship is a collaborative one in the sense that you are helping to guide someone’s writing process and engaging in varying degrees of co-writing with them. But it’s also a managerial relationship. You’re kind of like the person’s boss.

Now, that dynamic is somewhat diminished in our case because we frankly can’t pay people enough for it to be that important for their livelihood. Nevertheless, there is a power dynamic present: you’re giving them deadlines, you’re giving them direction. And you’re asking them to do a lot of work without much in the way of monetary reward. Which means you need to find a way to motivate them.

We’ve been talking about the importance of stakes. But you don’t just have to define the stakes of a piece for the reader. You also have to define the stakes for a writer. Why is the writer writing this piece? What is the source of their commitment? It’s our responsibility as editors to help them answer that question, and then to use that answer to propel them through what is often a fairly laborious writing and editing process.

AB: I don’t think I have the best bedside manner as an editor. And having three children has made it even worse. My ability to tolerate situations in which people don’t do what I ask them to do has really gone downhill.

Because of the dynamics that Ben is talking about, I try to be very upfront about how much work it’s going to be. I try to explain that writing is not just something the writer does, but an act of co-creation between the writer and the editor. We’re working together to make the piece as good as possible and together we own the finished product. The writer owns it. The editor owns it. The magazine owns it.

But, you know, neither the writer nor the editor knows in advance what the finished product will look like. It’s only through the difficult process of writing and editing that you figure out what the piece is supposed to be about. It might not be until the third or fourth draft that you’re like, “Oh, I see it.”

Scar Tissue

JF: What’s different about what we publish in Logic from other magazines? What makes a piece of writing feel like it’s Logic-y?

AB: When deciding upon pieces we try to ask ourselves certain questions. Where’s our contribution as a magazine and what’s most interesting for our readers? Where is the new thinking? I think a good Logic piece also revels in the technical details. I loved pushing writers to really explain how the technologies that we’re surrounded by actually work to shape the world. Rodrigo Ochigame’s piece “The Informatics of the Oppressed,” which Ben edited, was a wonderful example of this.

MW: I think we wanted to see a certain commitment to precision and specificity, along with some ethical and political orientation, but not in a dogmatic or party-line sort of way.

AB: I’d be interested to have a longer conversation sometime about the politics of the magazine. What were the politics of the magazine, and how were they expressed in the pieces?

XW: Ben and I had a conversation with some folks from Reboot, and he summarized Logic’s politics as, “We’re creating a big tent, with generally leftist politics under the tent.”

MW: We were trying to capture a piece of the world. I always think of our anonymous interview with an Amazon engineer. All these people on Twitter were like, “This guy’s a jerk. He’s just mouthing off.” And I was like, “Yeah, obviously he’s mouthing off! That’s the point.”

Our anonymous interviews exemplified a central goal of Logic, which was to capture very specific and textured voices from the world of technology, and not necessarily in the service of an argument.

AB: Of course, the best writing has always been the editorial notes in the front of the book.

MW: That’s not true.

AB: It always blows me away that you’re able to come up with these beautiful and moving introductions to the issue within the space of forty-eight hours.

MW: I do think the editorial note that has to go down in history is the one I wrote on my phone with Ben’s help for Issue 9: “Nature” before getting my C-section with our first kid. I was lying there in the paper dress, and Ben and I were like, “Shit, we better finish this before this baby arrives.”

AB: Something else I want to touch on is the question of what made this whole endeavor worthwhile for me personally. I respect the magazine and love the work, but a big part of what made it enjoyable was discussing pieces with Ben. We had a lot of fun working together.

XW: Alex, how do you think your experience with Logic will stick with you? How will it shape your future editing?

AB: Oh, to be honest, I’m never going to edit anyone ever again.

XW: Oh my God, did we scar you that badly?

AB: No, it’s just—time now feels very short, for lots of reasons, mostly having to do with kids and being lazy. I just want to focus on my own writing, for what it’s worth.

As Ben pointed out in his postscript to the editorial note in Issue 15: “Beacons,” there wasn’t anything like Logic when you guys started it. And now there’s a lot more valuable tech critique out there. So I’m excited about handing over this project to you and Khadijah, so you can renew and reshape it. Not everyone gets to walk away from a magazine and have it take on a wonderful new life.

Ben Tarnoff is a tech worker, writer, and a cofounder of Logic.

Alex Blasdel is a writer based in San Francisco and the former managing editor of Logic.

Moira Weigel is an assistant professor of media and technology studies Northeastern University, and a cofounder of Logic.

Jim Fingal is a cofounder and the publishing director of Logic.

Xiaowei R. Wang is a cofounder and the Creative Director of Logic.

This piece appears in Logic's issue 18, "Pivot". To order the issue, head on over to our store. To receive future issues, subscribe.