Here’s a bone-chilling feature in Wired last week about the increasing number of articles being written by software. Narrative Science is a company that specializes in turning data into story. This works particularly well in sports stories, where it will be obvious to anyone who knows a few fundamentals of programming, how easy it is to weave narrative strings into statistical data.
There's no great art to instructing a computer to spew out the words “flawless game” with a no hitter. And adjectives can be easily associated with the score differentials of an inning, or a game. Software is becoming sophisticated enough that the voice can be tweaked to suit a narrative angle or arc. You can see how easily this can work in baseball, with comeback innings, and unlikely hits from slumping players. MLBs moneyball strategy is made for storytelling programs.
But where this trend starts getting a little scary is how quickly the software can be tweaked for financial, political and PR reporting. The kind of reporting that is meant to be somewhat robotic to begin with. It’s already starting with the blurby bread and butter travel guide and listings journalism. Will we really notice when bots get good enough to ape the automatized hype that hack, hungover travel writers have been writing for ages? It’s not at all inconceivable that within five years more and more basic communications copy will be pre-written, not by interns, or junior reporters, but by bots who will be tweaked by editors.
The problem is that, as any experienced journalist will tell you, it’s not writing the boring copy that makes you a good journalist; it’s the process of amassing the data. It’s what you learn during your legwork years that become the earth from which your more mature insights are formed. It would be hard to find a journalist who has never done any hack journalism. But that doesn’t mean that they stayed hacks.
You can’t become a virtuoso guitarist if you spend your early years just playing guitar hero. And it’s going to be harder to find competent journalists if fewer and fewer of them have ever done those basic data gathering jobs. The bots might get smarter as they do those jobs for us. But how are we going to get smarter? It’s the stories that the journalist aren’t allowed to tell during the years that they are being forced, or pretending to be writing robots, that later become the Pulitzer Prize winning articles.
And sure it’s nice that sports magazines can now send bots out to write about women’s softball games that previously went uncovered. But is this actually going to make women’s softball any more popular, or well financed?
Writing is more than just concatenating numbers and words strings. It’s a process through which the best and truest stories are born. First from the mundane craftwork, and later through the insights born from that work. It’s a process through which people create human networks. Of course corporate America would like its PR writers to be bots. Those bots won’t share what they learned off the record while they were interviewing some V.P for his puff piece.
That’s the kind of stuff that concerns me, more than the employment figures.