New York Times tech reporter Nellie Bowles is one of few journalists taking a critical look at Silicon Valley startups. Bowles, who spoke with Mara Zepeda at Willamette Week's Techfest NW in April, says her coverage lies at a unique intersection of culture and technology.
In 2010, as a post-college intern at the San Francisco Chronicle, Bowles was assigned to cover nightlife—which she says placed her in the epicenter of a burgeoning startup world.
"I ended up covering a lot of startup parties and just getting into the scene," Bowles says. "I found it weird and shit and interesting and disturbing."
"I saw the beginning of something that was going to be enormously powerful," Bowles adds of her fascination with the tech world. "I saw really smart people flooding in, and I saw hubris and this idea that anyone with no experience could change everything. It was like nothing I'd ever seen before…The startup world is intoxicating in its weirdness and absurdity."
Within the last year, Bowles has observed what she says is a "crisis of the soul" in the tech world, where "people who are building these products genuinely are very nervous about what they are building."
"People are starting," she says, "very slowly, and probably a decade late, to realize that the products they are building have an impact…I think it's been hard for people to start realizing that their work is having a cultural impact, and maybe even a negative cultural impact."
Bowles adds that coverage of tech startups fail when they are approached like business stories, because tech has to be place in context culturally.
That's not always easy. Bowles says she's received criticism for covering controversial figures like James Damore "in a straight way."
"I'm a lesbian from San Francisco. I'm not a men's rights activist," Bowles says, adding that "people got really really mad that I would give them a platform."
While there are plenty of issues to address in the tech world, Bowles says her role is not one of activism but of honest reporting.
"Race in tech is an appalling situation right now. I would love if that changed, but I don't see myself as an activist," she says. "I show things as they are, and that might disturb people enough to make change happen. "
Watch Nellie Bowles' full TFNW talk here.