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Why the most important thing I learned as a tech journalist came from a Pixar movie

By Alvin Soon - on 24 Oct 2018, 3:27pm

Today I wrap up 12 years of being a technology journalist. There have been ups and downs along the way, but it’s been a blast to geek out with one of the best teams in town.

The job has brought me places and shown me things I would never have imagined, from attending the inaugural event at the Steve Jobs Theatre to winning an award for a travel photography feature to sitting down with Sir James Dyson in Dyson HQ.

Visiting these places all over the world impressed one thing upon me: making a product is a grand enterprise. It’s not easy to coral massive teams to bring a good thing to life.

Most people don’t set out to make a bad product, but life — whether it’s budget, politics, timelines, or otherwise — gets in the way. I don’t think that should be an excuse, but it should be recognized.

Putting faces behind products also makes it harder to critique them, especially when you know how much blood went into their making. Sometimes it would be easier to write scathing reviews. Caustic articles are easy to write, popular to read, but we’ve always strived to be fair, not mean, while helping people make good decisions with their money.

So the job has taught me humility. It’s easy to tear down, but not easy to build. But it is not the most important lesson I’ve learned. That, instead, came from a Pixar cartoon.

Food critic Anton Ego, from the movie Ratatouille. Image source: Pixar.

In the movie Ratatouille, France’s top restaurant critic Anton Ego cuts a terrorizing figure. His negative review of the restaurant Gusteau caused it one of its stars and also chef Auguste Gusteau’s death.

Yet his sourness seems to come from a love of food. As he says in the movie, “I don’t like food, I love it. If I don’t love it, I don’t swallow.”

When Ego finally tastes the lead character’s cooking, the dish reminds him of when he was a child, finding comfort in his mother’s home-cooked meals. Ego smiles for the first time in the movie and finishes dinner with delight.

But when Ego learns that chef Remy is a rat, he turns around and leaves without a word.

The next day, Ego writes a positive review for the newspaper, saying:

“In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations, the new needs friends.”

It sums up the work of a critic, whether for food or technology, perfectly. And it expresses the best lesson I’ve learned in this job. The other side of criticism lies in the support of something new, in lending my call to those with softer voices.

It is something I have tried to do these last 12 years, from interviewing local award-winning app designers to writing about the company that makes our fire trucks to start-ups doing creative things. These are not the big name companies that you’ll see in advertisements, but they are remarkable all the same. It has been the best use of my station, and a rewarding counterpoint to the job of delivering judgment.

Alvin Soon

Alvin Soon / Former Deputy Editor

I like coffee and cameras, but not together.