Nieman Foundation at Harvard
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Dec. 1, 2011, 10 a.m.

The newsonomics of tomorrow

What seemed not long ago like science fiction is closer to becoming science fact. How will that change the ways in which we report, distribute, and consume the news?

Feeling a little stressed about tomorrow? Given the stress of company budgeting, the stress of wider economies turned upside down, the stress of stress itself (Time helpfully chirped in this week with an “Anxiety: Why It’s Good for You” cover this week), many media tomorrows have turned out to be less fun than the days preceding them. Tomorrow just seems to offer a tougher challenge than today. If reality seems a little hard to take, let’s take a little tour of “augmented reality,” a terrain in which those who practice the business of news will soon operate.

Let me cite just a few samples of tomorrow that have filtered recently into my mid-20th-century-minted brain:

  • Soon, information will be delivered to us via contact lenses or glasses. Courtesy of Michio Kaku’s latest book, Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100, and his NPR rounds, we’re hearing a lot about new ways to deliver information. One that makes the tablet seem like very old news very quickly is the contact lens. The idea: Take the tiny chips already in creation and put them in interesting places, like our eyeballs. Why waste time with a middleman device, when you can implant the web onto our eyeball. Sounds bizarre and sci-fi, but apparently it’s been done in the labs — and, of course, our military is playing with it to wargame out future conflict. “Everything will be annotated. Everything will be footnoted, and we’ll love it,” Kaku told Fresh Air’s Terry Gross this week. At one point in their adventurous conversation, where Kaku sounds a bit like a brilliant, mad scientist seeing all upside, Terry puts down the stirrups on the galloping-into-the-future horse, with a “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Back up a minute.”
  • Our world ends not in fire or ice, but apparently mice. Our close cousins (with 95-percent-plus of our DNA) are making news with two different tomorrows. First, the end of aging (wouldn’t that be good news for newspaper publishers and PBS NewsHour!), with mice-tweaking scientists able to reverse aging. Second, the implant of memory into mice, or should we say discrete memories into mice. “The researchers, having recorded the appropriate signal from CA1 [tissue], simply replayed it, like a melody on a player piano — and the animals remembered,” reported The New York Times. “The implant acted as if it were CA1, at least for this one task. ‘Turn the switch on, the animal has the memory; turn it off and they don’t: that’s exactly how it worked.'” (And you thought Claire Danes’ Carrie Anderson was a significant upgrade on Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer; think again.)
  • We are learning machines, and we are now learning at warp speed. Duke professor Cathy Davidson, author of Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn, talked recently with BioTech Nation’s Moira Gunn. One conclusion of her work: Those who multitask learn better and get more done, contrary to some recent reactionary folk wisdom. It’s how we organize our time, our workspaces and our learning environments, she says.
  • Intel is now planning our 2019 content experience. West of Portland, Intel futurist Brian David Johnson is now finishing his spec — his user requirements — for Intel’s 2019 chips. 2019? While he’s a futurist, drilled in engineering, robotics and artificial intelligence, he’s in the hardware business, and it takes a long time to work through the manufacturing process. We both spoke at a recent European conference, and I was able to spend some time talking through his work, and start thinking about its impact on the news world. Johnson is an engineer, but possesses a sociologist’s curiosity. His team of 100, including an interesting mix of anthropologists, ethnographers, and engineers, tries to figure out how consumers will be consuming digital info and communicating by the end of the decade. “It’s not about prediction. It’s developing an actionable vision for the future that we can build.” A lot of what Johnson has been focusing on is captured in his recent book, Screen Futures: The Future of Entertainment, Computing and the Devices We Love, which projects scenarios into 2015 and came out in paperback this summer. It builds on the iPad/iPhone phenomenon, laying out a connected world of TVs, phones, cars, and computers. Screens, both commercial and informational, are the main way we’ll move through our lives, say Johnson. His — and Intel’s — business goal: “To create a landscape that allows people to connect.” His Tomorrow Project offers next-step ruminations, some sci-fi-inflected, on our common future.

So, what does this begin to tell us about the news, and newsonomics of tomorrow?

First, it should remind us that tomorrow won’t be just an extension of today. We are taking, almost literally, quantum leaps in our ability to corral knowledge, distribute it, and consume it, in ways almost unthinkable five years ago.

Second, technology is the main driver of what’s going to be possible in the news and media businesses. That’s been true, to an extent, in the build-up to today. Tomorrow, though, poses consumers amped up at first on ubiquity — all those screens — and able sooner than later to consume more, know more, and interact more, with electronics extensions added on to them. By chance, this week, I had a talk with Raju Narisetti, Washington Post managing editor and one of the savviest editors in the business. I was checking in on the Post’s once-controversial re-integration, now about two years old.

Narisetti says that that integration, largely done, isn’t what worries him. What worries him, he said, is the coming-together of the content produced by the newsroom (of 650) and of technology. “We must offer a great experience and we need technology to do it,” he said. In a world where many publishers cover similar topics, “technology is a differentiator.” He wasn’t thinking chip implants or web contacts, but today’s technology (developed, maybe 5-10 years ago) that aid the process of storytelling, whether by blog, by video, by audio, by map, or something else. For the Post, he says, one next big challenge is mastering the technology curve, largely within the resources (although maybe purposed differently) that it has today.

In part, that may include just great, problem-solving software, as the Lab’s Andrew Phelps highlighted in his well-tweeted “truth goggles” post last week.

Third, it means stretching some news company vision, Intel-like, well beyond next year’s Excel and Powerpoint. If indeed consumers quickly adopt multi-screen access and are willing to find news in non-traditional places — don’t you love the stat offered by the Guardian yesterday that “Over half (56.7%) of [Guardian Facebook app] users are 24 and under, and 16.7% are 17 and under” — how do news companies themselves have to rapidly change? News companies don’t quite have to forsake the web browser for the genome browser — but their own 2015 product planning might lead them to different investments of time and treasure in 2012.

Fourth, pay some journalists to learn about this new developing world, this odd nexus of technology, learning and humanity, which, not to put too fine a point on it, is changing what it means to be human. I have little doubt that 50 years from now, our descendants will think of us as somewhere-up-from-Neanderthals, but in the shorter term, there is good and necessary journalism to be done about these profound changes before us. This isn’t the next generation of Red Bull we’re talking about; it’s about addition of electronics to the human body, making us different, if not better, people. Imagine, for a moment, the profound ethical, social, political and legal questions those raise. A smart journalism should be in the middle of framing those questions.

POSTED     Dec. 1, 2011, 10 a.m.
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