There’s a new storyteller on the horizon of human discourse. In May’s Wired, The Rise of Robot Reporters, Steven Levy chronicles the first tentative steps of a Chicago-based start-up called Narrative Science to dis-intermediate a news media in decline. Narrative Science, says board member and former Doubleclick CEO David Rosenblatt, is a “company that turns numbers into words.” What it does with that contrivance is the news room equivalent for turning the post Gutenberg belief in movable typefaces into delusions of pure wish-fulfillment — and profit.
Why Narrative Science?
It’s cheaper to manufacture stories by tweaking algorithms. How does Levy rationalize that “Ninety percent of a news” will be baked in huge software ovens by 2027? Intelligence engines like those of Narrative Science will expand the sense-making machinery of the market — not displace the last journalists standing. But what happens when the robonews creates press accounts of events now off the official storytelling radar? Will we cast ourselves as the protagonists in stories of our own making? In a customized news product will we even feign an interest in outcomes that don’t include us or the generic abstractions that fill up the media calendars of today? Think consumers, voters, fans, parishioners, and the faceless legions that don’t really “get us.”
And when our self-interested leaders and blowhard media step over the line, they lump us into these groups and we get defensive. Sometimes we even tune out at not-so-subtle recent suggestions that bad news made a personal appearance in places and people we know and love.
So we sequester ourselves in experiences we control. And in a market of one we prefer to curate our own media pages from a source that will remain blameless: It earns our trust by presenting our own acceptable truths within worlds of our choosing. And if Narrative Science releases an insemination product we are no longer mere readers, listeners, or viewers but receivers to signals we were born to host. We can we can select spheres of our influencing too. That’s something no self-respecting journalist could deliver without compromising personal dignity and the professional reputation needed to stay employed: their power to persuade.
Why the News Media?
They can only shrink to a former glory profile that cuts a running hum of temporal impressions. What does persuasion look like to the reporter in the street today? It’s a sharp elbow above our personal radars and into the realm of foreground noise. But do we really need the paparazzi in camouflage for celebrity safari? Do we care that news organizations are in the business of embedding their checkbooks into an improvised explosive called the corporate news exclusive? When the competition for attention shifts to sports, who’d really pine for the locker-slamming platitudes of the post game show? Do the players long to justify their mistakes to sensation-seeking error-prone reporters? The fantasy league stats can speak for themselves.
It’s not that we can’t handle the truth. And it’s not that we turn away from bad news. It’s that we prefer not to face someone else’s truth — especially the kind that means bad news for us. How is this behavior written into code? Levy writes about a strict adherence to data patterns as a perceived bug in the program:
“[N]ot long after the contract began, a slight problem emerged: The stories tended to focus on the victors. When a Big Ten team got whipped by an out-of-conference rival, the resulting write-ups could be downright humiliating. Conference officials asked Narrative Science to find a way for the stories to praise the performance of the Big Ten players, even when they lost.”
In other words the new black media box couldn’t read the social cues. It couldn’t weight the institutional pecking order of big amateur athletics: that the elites lost to the lesser-thans. Other rewrites don’t address hierarchies but the airbrushed portraits of our personal histories:
“Likewise, when the company began covering Little League games, it quickly understood that parents didn’t want to read about their kids’ errors.”
The Serialization of Personal Reality
So how does artificial news tune out the necessary realities? According to Levy all it takes is for a battery of meta-writers to “educate the system.” Meta-writers are the human-based interpreters who devise the templates for pre-assembling the scripts that the algorithms follow to spawn these production bylines:
- From the blatantly transactional: What are the best restaurants in X city?
- To the slightly obtuse: What are the best private tutors for my kid needing help in Y so she can get into $?
- To the downright conceptual: Do I let Z medication run its course or elect to do the surgery?
Having addressed human events the real growth in the twenties will hinge on accounts of events without direct human intervention. Think about a camera crew assigned to your fantasy league. Imagine a press junket angling to photo-op their way into the gamifications of your choosing? What may have passed for myopic in a lapsed media age will set the standard for the new authenticity. What could be more sincere than to place our own creations on news platforms staged by the likes of Narrative Science?
Authenticity needs to act in cahoots with a disinterest and elevated credibility in order to be taken seriously outside our own orbits. That’s where our flights of fancy are grounded in a fact base, no matter how self-selecting those data sets:
“They put a box core and play-by-play into the program, and in something close to 12 seconds it drew examples from 40 years of major league history, wrote a game account, located the best picture, and wrote a caption.”
Headless hedders. Scoops without digging. Instant analytical gratification. Sounds like these alternative realities are being packaged to go. And no one’s going to miss the classifieds.
Artificial News, Real Growth
The market potential for artificial news manufacture is limited less by 20th Century conventions like the public interest or journalism ethics than by legalities — specifically the likelihood of fraud that manifests in our unwillingness to think for ourselves. Here are three hypotheticals:
1) Synthetic People. Narrative Sciences can juice the Klout scores of skin deep fabrications. That means the marketers don’t have to pony up actual perks for the drones who tweet their praises.
The temptation to generate celebrity mannequins could falsify outcomes as much as personal appearances. Hammond foresees an appetite to flesh out the statistical accounts with off-the-field developments like player injuries or legal problems.” That’s right. The very thing purged from the news cycles of the little league press becomes fair game once the merchandise becomes eligible for demotions, endorsements, and all forms of a professional sport referred to by the Roberts Court as “free speech.” Factoring in these frailties may create a better system: (1) for not only detailing but (2) analyzing our games, and conversely (3), gaming these very same systems by tossing a single grenade-like insinuation into the contagions of tomorrow.
2) Markets of One. The self-selecting machinery will reference a breadth of experience so shallow and constrained as to make our present day cable news echo chamber sounds as “fair and balanced” as the carnival barkers would have us believe:
“[T]he low cost of transforming data into stories makes it practical to write even for an audience of one.”
In today’s media climate all the pandering and hubris and alarmist jive in those opposition camps has been reduced to background noise. But there is no house divided in an audience of one. There are no deals to strike. There are no hard feelings to patch up. There is no further filtering or curatorship required. Our Google glasses have already filtered out all aspects of reality that hold no claims on us. And our narrative headsets bleed into our ears and bake a reaffirming acceptance into our tuning sections.
3) Disconnects. It’s one thing to draw from forty years of big major league data records to depict or simulate an event. It’s quite another to outsource its meaning — how it connects to us. To Hammond that’s the highest potential growth area — not recaps of little league games but packaging management reports or handicapping empty prophesies like this blog post for example.
Then again if we lose our independent streak, could we also lose some of our misplaced anxieties about a world too big to fathom, let alone shape? This may be just what the national health plan doctor ordered, whether through our own initiative or underwritten by our bankrupt Nanny State.
The real story behind Narrative Science isn’t about health care politics. It isn’t that robonews will replace journalists but that it will sell us on the worlds we don’t need to be sold on — the ones of our own design — until we can no longer detect where the authoring ends and our imaginings begin. No longer alerted, confused, entertained, or merely informed, we will be entranced. And it will take narcotics stronger than tomorrow’s news to distract us from the stories we’re told.