Thinking the Unthinkable Parable of the Future of News

Most of us humans profoundly exaggerate the powers of our imagination. Indeed, I submit that we’re out-and-out horrible at imagining possible worlds even modestly different from our own.

Ask yourself, “Seriously, what would the world be like had John McCain been elected president of the United States?” If you’re American, your answer is not at all easy to come by. You’ve got a whole host of possibilities and their possible ramifications to think about.

In some ways, the country would be a very different place. For one, many of those who were thrilled at Obama’s election would be depressed, while many of the rest would be elated. All kinds of conversations between friends and colleagues would be dramatically different—and not only those about politics. Of course, all manner of domestic policy would be different, as would international politics.

But in other ways, the country would be nearly identical. We’d still have an credit crisis generally. We’d still drive on the right-hand side of the road. We’d very likely still have fifty states. We would still be Christians, Jews, Quakers, Muslims, and atheists in roughly the same number.

We’d still have a mostly temperate climate, with cities, towns, and rural communities scattered throughout. We’d still have a basically functional economy, with poor, middling, wealthy, and super-wealthy folks for whom it works unevenly. Our taxes might be somewhat higher or lower, but we’d still have a populace that generally believes in paying its taxes. I’m risking a good flaming, but I submit that, in our hypothetical John McCain America, the rule of law would basically still prevail.

Up would still be up, and down would still be down. We’d still have hipsters. Red would still be a different color from blue. Time would still march forward, not backward. It would still make no sense to hear your pal assert, “It is the case that A and not-A.” And so on. Some things never change. Or they seem not to, anyway.

*    *    *

It’s kind of like DNA. We humans are radically different from one another. We’re tall and short, weak and strong, bright and dull. We’re creative and analytic, fast and slow. I’m quite I certain I can do little justice to the bewildering diversity among us.

And yet we share some overwhelming percentage of DNA. We all, generally, have brains, lungs, and bones. We eat and sleep. Even the dullards among us laugh from time to time, privately. We all, generally, recoil at morbidity and fear pain. Exceptions tend to prove the rule here, to the extent that we consider someone who never laughs alien and someone who doesn’t flinch at the prospect of death superhuman.

Now consider yourself: you. Changing around your DNA within the tiny fraction that makes you unique—i.e., that you don’t share with other humans—is akin to America electing John McCain. You’d pretty much be a different country—maybe better, maybe worse, depending on your views and whether they’re wrong—but at least you’re still here on earth. At least you’d still have a circulatory system and a central nervous system. You’ve got a home. You have friends, if you’re nice, though they’re probably different friends. You still have or had parents. If you were born here, you speak some dialect of English, though you may say “pop” instead of “soda.” You might not be as attractive or witty, but you know what beauty is and you have some grasp on the levity of brevity. If you’re the right age and able-bodied, you’ve got a job. In short, your hypothetical life is very different, but it’s still roughly normal. Because these changes are relatively modest, they’re said to the stuff of close possible worlds.

Mucking around with the rest of the DNA that you do share with others is like imagining the Soviets won the Cold War or like imagining cold fusion were perfected years ago. It might be good or bad—utopian, dystopian, something odd in between, or something wildly outlandish—but, most importantly, it’s very likely simply radically different. It’s tough to imagine possible worlds like this. Not only would you pretty much be a different country, as above, but it’s not even clear that you would still be on earth—or on an earth in a form anything like what actually prevails today.

Your whole biological nature could be different—no blood, bones, no brain. You might not be carbon-based. You might be part of hive-mind. All manner of good and bad science fictional possibilities abound. Because these changes are severe, they’re said to the stuff of distant possible worlds.

* * *

Since it’s very hard to imagine such far-out possible worlds, good storytellers have developed rhetorical devices to help us broaden our view. They put us in the mood, push us toward an open mind, offer us the widest frame.

We need the widest frame in order to think about the future of news. Recently, @cshirky and @jayrosen_nyu have offered us just that.

Shirky asks us, more than mildly paradoxically, to consider an unthinkable scenario. At first, he puts his scenario on offer as a hypothetical possible world, someone else’s nightmare, suggesting just that we peer into its void as they do, vicariously.

“As these ideas were articulated, there was intense debate about the merits of various scenarios. … In all this conversation, there was one scenario that was widely regarded as unthinkable, a scenario that didn’t get much discussion in the nation’s newsrooms, for the obvious reason.”

Oh, and what might that nightmare look like to them? What possibilities do they see? Well—still in the mind’s eye of newspaper executives—it “unfolded something like this….”

Then Shirky warns us about being closed-minded. “Revolutions create a curious inversion of perception,” he writes. When Soviets win the Cold War or when you wake up in the Matrix, the world is sharply different, and concocting explanations about how it’s actually the same doesn’t work. “When reality is labeled unthinkable, it creates a kind of sickness in an industry.”

Only then, after hundreds of words of set-up, do we get the punch: “One of the effects on the newspapers is that many of their most passionate defenders are unable, even now, to plan for a world in which the industry they knew is visibly going away.” Your world is going away.

Shirky takes a stroll through some history, pointing out a previous occasion when the future broke from the past, and comes back with devastation. “When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution. … They are demanding to be lied to.”

Then, ultimately, we get the distinction here. These newspaper folks know something’s got to give, but they’re still only willing to imagine close possible worlds. They can handle John McCain. They can handle being taller or shorter, leaner or fatter.

From the perspective of industrial newspapering—in which “the core problem publishing solves” is “the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of making something available to the public”—the internet might as well be Jupiter. It is a distant possible world.

“Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. “

* * *

Imagine a world, if you feel sufficiently creative, without newspapers. And imagine a world without newspaper companies—or with companies whose DNA used to be newspapers but is now seriously different. Still, though, imagine that world needs journalism nevertheless.

In other words, imagine a world that is distant but not so very, very distant that we don’t need journalism. That makes our creative job easier. In fact, Jay Rosen reminds us that not all is lost. He intends to give us a head start in imagining exactly this possible world—in which newspapers are out but journalism is still very, very in.

Whereas Shirky jerks and drags our imaginations to think the unthinkable, Rosen encourages us to look inward, contemplatively, offering simple parable of a fishing village. He does it with @davewiner in a podcast the two have come lately to recording on Sunday, and it’s worth taking in as a whole:

I like to try to understand things at their origins. When I think about news and the collection of news, I try to go back and imagine the conditions in human affairs and human settlements that cause people to need news that is collected by somebody, as an occupation.

If you think about a small fishing village, with several hundred people, around a harbor, there’s news every day. But it is communicated naturally, as it were. That is, people going about their day will find out when a new ship is in, and at the end of the day, they’ll know what’s happened in that town. There doesn’t have to be an articulated social function of news gatherer because people do it themselves.

If you imagine that town expanding in its social scale so that it’s not just a fishing village anymore, but a big metropolis, you realize that, at a certain point, the only way you can have news about your own environment—not a distant land, but your own environment—is if somebody actually collects it. The need for news is intimately related to the scale on which we live. As we live on a bigger and bigger scale—not just metropolitan but a national and global scale—our needs for news grow because we are not self-informing.

But, if tools of awareness grow, like we had when we were a fishing village, then the idea of the self-informing public, which was operable at a certain scale, is perhaps operable again. And so if you understand news not as an industrial product or the handiwork of a profession, but as intimately related to human settlement and the social scale people live on, we’ll be able to navigate better in the future of news.

When they gave birth to the United States, a huge experiment in scale, they imagined that part of the reason that you could have a voted-in government over a territory stretching from New England to Georgia was the press, which gave us ways of connecting. So when we try to reboot news, don’t think about rebooting the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Go back to the origins of why people need news in the first place and your own experience with news hunger.

Yes, go back to your own personal news hunger. Skirky admirably yanks our imaginations out of their slumber. That’s the real merit of his piece. Now, however, think not of the more or less terrifying abyss Shirky points at, yelling, “Wake up!” Instead, for now, consider yourself and your community. Consider that we are just groups of people, overlapping social circles composing different human settlements, conducting our own affairs. Consider that we always live on some scale. Sometimes it’s big, as now. Other times it’s small, as it was long ago, and as it is in Rosen’s parable.

And remember that the scale on which we live matters relative to our everyday “tools of awareness.” Better tools mean a self-informing public at larger scale.

* * *

Consider that sources, authors, and readers are all people. Consider that the internet gives us tools so that one person might be all three. When Winer says, “Sources go direct,” he’s pointing out that one person can be both the source and the author of a story. But we’re readers and authors simultaneously too.

Consider that people are busy, that our time is scarce. We make decisions about allocating our attention on the margin. In a fishing village, we’d love it if all our friends could find a central place to gather in order to swap stories at the same time, efficiently. All our friends, yes, but probably not all our fellow villagers, some of whom we don’t like or don’t trust. In other words, we like to aggregate our news, but mostly among our friends and trusted experts.

Consider that people like hearing the news from their friends or from experts whose judgment they trust on particular matters. We like to trust the news and want to be engaged with their storyteller to cultivate that trust. To the extent that we can only get a piece of news from a fellow villager we dislike, we appreciate it when a trusted friend verifies the facts or shores up the analysis. So, too, do our friends appreciate it when we return the favor.

Consider that social relationships are sometimes one-way. We often have less time for others than they have for us. This is especially the case for widely trusted experts on particular matters. This is the general asymmetrical social stuff of celebrity, which is surely an archaic notion, inherent in even the simplest of villages. As society scales, moreover, consider the natural—or, potentially, the morally optimal—distribution of those asymmetries of attention.

Consider that people like the news new. We want to hear what’s happening now, not what happened last week or yesterday or an hour ago. But we also want our facts to be true and our analysis to be sound, so we’re willing to wait for real verification and for wise interpretation. We’re imperfect, though, so sometimes excess haste or caution will blind us to better priorities.

Consider that we mostly don’t really care whether we get our news as a written note or as a verbalized recounting. We care about the topics and events the story discusses. We care about the people, businesses, and other organizations it mentions&mdas;the “newsmakers,” as it were. Politics exists even in modest fishing villages, and we care about the political persuasions of our storytellers. That knowledge helps us bring the appropriate level of trust to our use of their story.

Consider that people are social. We like to gossip about trite matters, and we like to debate serious affairs. We like to consume the news, sure, but we also like to spread it around and add our own perspective. We also like to use the news as a medium for our wills—as a kind of substratum for own meaning. We like to be heard, respected, admired, and loved. We also like to be paid.

Consider all of this and more. Consider how distant the relevant possible worlds may be, and then consider all of them in that sphere. Consider the Cluetrain too. Consider that people, governments, and corporations will always be able to profit from secrecy. Even if we come to demand, and even very naturally expect, transparency as a broad ethical matter, powerful operators will have an incentive to fake it. That seems true even of modest fishing villages, in which a tribal or quasi-political elder may benefit from offering false reasons for important decisions. Consider that people spreading the news about powerful operators make friends with them in so doing. There’s potentially less baked-in profit motive.

Consider that information is an experience good. Consider that it’s a public good. Consider (again) that news is non-durable. Consider that one person’s report of a story has very close substitutes in others’ reports on the same story or nearly equally interesting stories.

Some things change. And some things stay the same the more everything else changes around them. So, most of all, consider dropping the fabulist notion that the future will look very much like the past. The time has gone when we can offer arguments aimed at the future but grounded in the present and the part. Aside from what we share with distant worlds—including my considerations above—the tastes, habits, patterns of readers, journalists, and newspaper companies are moot. Your world is departing, and a fishing village is arriving.

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5 Responses to “Thinking the Unthinkable Parable of the Future of News”


  1. 1 Julie poplawski 2009 April 7 at 4:07 am

    Fishing village news feels a lot more fulfilling to me – let’s do it!

  2. 2 Sherry Reson 2009 April 7 at 7:28 pm

    Another challenge is to make sense of all the information we now have access too – the drinking from the firehose phenom. Among the various web-based tools I’ve looked at in the last two years, Folio and Insight – created at http://www.rhizalabs.com/ – strike me as the most promising.

  3. 3 Josh Young 2009 April 8 at 4:00 pm

    It occurs to me that the cult favorite line, “If the news is that important, it will find me,” is relevant here. Is it what we mean when we talk about “self-informing”? It’s certainly close, I think.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/27/us/politics/27voters.html


  1. 1 Stilgherrian · Links for 05 April 2009 through 07 April 2009 Trackback on 2009 April 7 at 5:27 am
  2. 2 Thinking the thinkable « The Academic Wannabe Trackback on 2009 April 20 at 11:53 am

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