A journalist is not a gadget

My second installment discussing Jaron Lanier’s You are not a gadget.

In the future, writing might not be something anymore that is entirely done by humans, and that surely needs to be debated.

Mercedes Bunz

The future is crashing in on the present and we are confronted by a world in which it might be ‘OK’ for robots to replace human reporters (Allen, 2010; Bunz, 2010a). Researchers in the Systems Informatics Lab, at Tokyo University, have built a machine that can ‘autonomously explore its environment and report what it finds’. Using an on-board camera to interview people and a Google search to ‘round out its understanding’, the newsbot ‘will even write a short article and publish it to the web’ (Dawson, 2010). At Northwestern University, in the Intelligent Information Lab, scientists are developing a ‘fully automated’ system for creating broadcast news by aggregating material from online sources to ‘drive a set of animated characters who reside in a virtual “news world”’ (InfoLab, 2010).

I don’t know about you, but I am not ready for this brave ‘news world’. Neither it seems is former cyber-guru turned tocsin Jaron Lanier.

Jaron Lanier’s You are not a gadget warns against the dehumanizing effects of ubiquitous computing and of relying too heavily on algorithms. His argument is simple: in order to believe that machines are smarter than us we have to dumb-down our own cognitive and reasoning abilities. He argues that the hive mind is the wrong kind of collective thinking and has coined the term ‘digital Maoists’ to describe the evangelists for a disembodied digital ‘brain’ that haunts the Internet.

Lanier believes the digital Maoists are ‘cybernetic totalists’ whose enthusiasm for algorithms and the ‘digital cloud’ betrays an ‘antihuman rhetoric’. He argues that if we are ‘locked in’ to this way of thinking—a form of technological determinism—we will turn into digital peasants: collectivized into stupidity, enthralled and entrapped by meta-data, algorithms and the aggregation of aggregators.

You are not a gadget is a call to action before it’s too late to stop the dehumanizing effects of too much computing. Lanier rejects the fervid ‘religious belief’ in machine-intelligence evident among the cybernetic totalists. He also believes that ‘aesthetics and emotions’ must compete with ‘rational argument’ in order to extend our humanity. I am drawn to Lanier’s unorthodox approaches and to his critique of the ‘techno-political-cultural orthodoxy’ that expanding computational capacity will somehow solve the world’s problems.

I’m all in favour of improving our lives through the intelligent application of technology, but I am reluctant to put my trust entirely in machines when it comes to news and journalism. We must be alert to the dangers of relinquishing control to impenetrable algorithms. To fail is to risk ceding all decision-making power to the digital Maoists: then it might be too late.

Allen, R. (2010, 23 March). Automated Sports Content: The future of sports journalism. StatSheet Retrieved 3 September, 2010, from http://statsheet.com/blog/automated-sports-content-the-future-of-sports-journalism

Bunz, M. (2010a, 30 March). In the US, algorithms are already reporting the news. PDA: The digital content blog Retrieved 1 September, 2010, from http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/pda/2010/mar/30/digital-media-algorithms-reporting-journalism

Dawson, R. (2010, 15 April). The rise of robot journalists. Trends in the Living Networks Retrieved 3 September, 2010, from http://rossdawsonblog.com/weblog/archives/2010/04/the_rise_of_rob.html

InfoLab. (2010, n.d.). News at Seven.   Retrieved 3 september, 2010, from http://infolab.northwestern.edu/projects/news-at-seven/

Lanier, J. (2010). You are not a gadget: A manifesto. Melbourne: Penguin.

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