Internet News: The Perils of Automation
For a number of years, I’ve been trying to get home delivery of the New York Times. Bodega Bay is a long way from most things. Every time I tried to order a subscription, I was told they didn’t deliver out here.
I love living here at the edge of the world but, it’s got its price. It takes most of a day to do anything that involves a trek to civilization. Groceries are a project. There’s no local coffee shop.
Generally, that’s a small price to pay for life at the beach.
I have good friends who are hummingbirds. Bobcats hunt in the fields across the street, overlooking the ocean. Our last batch of house guests got to watch a Great Blue Heron hunt, catch and eat a gopher. The night air is full of the noises of harbor seals and sea lions. People are pretty scarce.
It’s foggy 200 or so days of the year. The fog limits visibility to 10 feet at times. There are weeks when it doesn’t burn off. Beautiful in itself, the fog wraps everything colorful and makes it gray. We’ve got a couple of those intense blue lights that are the antidote to Seasonal Affective Disorder.
But, the beach is usually empty. I can watch the ebb and flow of life, death and the seasons as the fishing fleets change and birds migrate in and out. I usually have the beach to myself when I walk it.
It also means that I am stuck with the news I can get on my computer. For all of the years that I’ve pined for an actual readable physical newspaper, I’ve been tweaking my Google News account. Several times a day, I click over to catch the news courtesy of the Mountain View folks who run most everything else on my desktop.
What I get is a very personalized flow of news, targeted at me, featuring the most popular articles in the niches I’ve asked for. What I don’t get is the opportunity to discover something outside of my little bubble. There is a Vanilla sameness to the information flow that reminds me of the fog.
You might imagine that the problem is magnified by the emptiness of the local terrain.
Somehow, the Sunday New York Times arrived in the driveway today. It was wrapped in layers of blue plastic to keep the dampness away .I didn’t believe it at first. I guess there’s another attempt to civilize these backwaters.
I opened the paper on the dining room table. News, Opinion, Business, Arts, a Magazine, Sports, in Depth Reporting. Some news and some of that other deeper stuff. It covered the table with possibility and opportunity. I scanned and grazed, overwhelmed by the bulk.
Even with steady diet of 27 inches of pure MacIntosh goodness in a brightly lit display, I was unprepared for stories piled ten pages deep across the entire table. I’d almost forgotten how to read the thing.
You read a newspaper by opening it up and deciding which of the stories on a given spread (that’s two full pages opened together) to read. Look, sample move forward, go back. Consume a bit, let it ferment and then go back and consume some more. It was not a very internet like experience.
On the web, I get lots of direct answers with none of the fun of wandering around on the way to finding them. It’s not that I don’t wander, it’s that I can’t ever find my way back. If I want to retrace my steps, it’s a mind wrenching pain in the butt. Where the internet takes me down infinite rabbit holes that lead to other rabbit holes, the physical newspaper restricts me to a repeatable piece of geography.
The physical constraints of an actual newspaper limit my choices. In doing so, they increase the likelihood that I’ll consume information that is not directly related to my stated interests. Today, I learned about the election in a way that doesn’t seem possible online. I found out that debt collectors are signing deals with local DAs to use the DA letterhead for collections. I learned about the five major trends in Chinese governance. I got more sides to the past week’s foreign policy bugaboos.
I feel like I learned something in the process of consuming the news. It was more than a thread of direct answers to my direct questions.
There’s a point here.
Automation strips the fuzzy stuff out of relationships to turn them into transactions. In that process, things get much more efficient. It’s less clear that we understand what we’re leaving behind.
We’re entering the time when the fundamentals of HR are all automated. How are we going to talk about the stuff that doesn’t fit a software workflow? How are we going to find the things we used to trip over in our inefficiency?
The rapid pace of technological change is making it possible for us to have some really interesting conversations. But, it looks a lot like the internet news right now. If it isn’t precisely germane to the task at hand, it’s not covered.
That’s how myopia begins.