February 4, 2005

News Flash Futurism

by Nick Montfort · , 2:22 pm

It’s 2014. Do you know where your New York Times is?

If Suck.com were reanimated, had its sense of humor removed, and made a PBS-history-documentary style Flash animation about Googlezon taking on the New York Times in an ecstasy of customized, micropayment-based, indie-news-making frenzy, it would be this one.


Yes, yes, you probably saw this slick piece by Robin Sloan (co-written with Matt Thompson) back when it went online November – did it already look dated back then? – or when it hit Metafilter that month, or when it was Slashdotted. You might have even chased its meme. While it’s nice that you don’t have to go through PBS to make this kind of work widely available, and that Flash animations can present more nuanced political statements than this one does, the animation seems to me to miss being either insightful or funny. Perhaps you think it’s provocative – but then, why, pray tell, did it not provoke much interesting conversation on Metafilter or Slashdot?

Even in that hotbed of futurism, the MIT Media Lab, the perspective on how computing can enhance the news was more sophisticated a decade ago than this animation suggests that it will be in a decade in the future. Customized or collaboratively filtered news, suitable to the particular interests of an individual or clique of friends, has become the caricature of what information technology can do for news, but it’s hardly the limit. The Media Lab’s Walter Bender explained an alternative for future news in a 1999 speech:

In the mid-90’s, we built PLUM, the Peace, Love, and Understanding Machine. … we utilized local context in order to engage the reader in the content and facilitate its use. In this case we took the Reuter[s] wire and built an automated augmentation. Reuter[s] writes the news for everyone but each of us is an anyone. The facts are all there, but they are impenetrable. First we taught PLUM to distinguish between a hurricane in Miami and the Miami Hurricanes (the latter being a football club). Then we taught PLUM to identify the actors and actions being described in the article. Finally PLUM used its analysis to generate analogies. 250,000 acres of farmland, what ever that means, became AS IF everything inside of Route 128 was under water. The news became tangible.

So, yes, we can give you only news about the celebrities you care about, but that’s not much of a trick. One thing we can also do is to take news of national or global importance (250,000 acres of farmland are ruined) and contextualize it so that you have a better idea of what it means, given things that you already understand (for a Bostonian: the area within Route 128). Rather than filtering news based on some interests you’ve checked off, we could relate an arbitrary news story to you based on the things you already know, and how you tend to understand the world, so that you might be enlarged by what you read instead of just ratified by it.

Whether “Googlezon” or The New York Times will be the first to move in the direction of informing us as individuals in this way, I don’t know, but plenty of positive possibilities remain for the future of news.