Podcast of the Year: Function

Congratulations to Function with Anil Dash for being named podcast of the year! In a media landscape absolutely littered with sound-alike tech podcasts rehashing the same tedious iPhone rumors or parroting Facebook's latest defense of abusing your data, Function has stood out as the rare tech podcast that demonstrates a fluency, and even a comfort in discussing culture, race, policy, and numerous other areas that are too often glossed over in discussions of technology.

Last year, the first year of Function was a credible, but fairly staid, look at the intersection of technology and culture. In the year since, there have probably been a dozen major tech podcasts that have launched purporting to cover the same ground, to varying degrees of success. So it's refreshing, then, that Function (and its producers, Bridget Armstrong and Keisha "TK" Dutes) has chosen to push far deeper into its more unique, and even controversial, perspective on tech.

We don't often hear the CEO of a hot tech startup discuss their own struggles with mental health. But the opening episode of this season of Function features exactly that, with host Anil Dash being strikingly candid about his own experiences, as an entry point to a deeply critical and nuanced exploration of the impact that technology can have on our mental health — both for better and for worse. It's also worth flagging that this is one of many episodes that benefit from the team's diligence in providing full text transcripts for every episode; content that's potentially upsetting or that might require more time to process or digest is well-suited to having text to augment the audio.

The complexity of that first episode typifies the show's attitude toward technology. There's none of the often-exhausting tech cheerleading that plagues so many other popular tech podcasts, nor the vacuousness of the "branded podcasts" that many companies put out as prestige projects. At the same time, there isn't a reflexive Luddite impulse here, either. This is, after all a show coproduced by a tech startup, Glitch, that is all about helping people make the web and write code, and an unusually sincere love for technology and an unabashed geekiness run through even the most tech-critical episodes of the season.

Where No Other Show Goes

When this season of Function hit its stride with an episode about how systematic racism gets baked into software like that used for making bail decisions in the criminal justice system, it was evident there's simply no other show that tells the story with a combination of genuine interest in vital civic issues, along with a deep fluency in the technology that often shapes them. There's no other podcast where you can listen to an interview about artificial intelligence impacting the justice system and get a sense that everyone in the conversation actually understands how machine learning works. And the even bigger surprise of that episode is hearing the host of a tech podcast actually learning from guests and reaching a conclusion that wasn't predetermined before they even started taping.

No show is perfect, of course. There's a little indulgence in dedicating two full episodes of the show's short season to the host's fixation on the musician Prince, though it's a plus that those shows have a tech angle that's not contrived. However, whether it's being willing to take on the idea of GIFs as digital blackface, or a surprisingly insightful look at design bias through the lens of tech accessibility for the disabled community, this entire season of Function has shown a willingness to dig into tech with a passion and perspective that no other show can.

Perhaps the best example was the final, two-part episode of the season, a look at how to save the 2020 election from the dangers of technology's influence. Just as season one of Function had a prescient look at the vulnerability of election technology, season two goes deep into the ways journalism needs to evolve, and even to the direct impact of activism in forcing the major tech platforms to be accountable.

It's that specific, tech-fluent, focus that makes Function unique. Every tech show can say "Facebook bad!" but almost none have the chops to talk about what to do about it when the big tech companies are having negative impacts on the world. It's a bit absurd that these solutions are coming from a show that's co-produced by Glitch, a startup, and Vox Media, which has an entire stable of tech podcasts of its own. But ultimately, Function provides a unique and much-needed voice in the world of technology podcasts, and so it is our easy choice for Podcast of the Year.