The Future Now of (Mass) Media & Journalism

Have we short-circuited our capacities to think critically?

As a technologist, I have an unbridled passion for how information applies to your life. How you use it, how you interact with it, how you share it. I’ve described this phenomenon as your relationship to information.

As a storyteller, I also know how broken that relationship is. We are not just dealing with an exaflood of advertising messages, op-ed pieces and pervasive narratives like ISIL, global warming and the like, but we are becoming disenfranchised from our own abilities to think critically about what these things actually mean, and what we can do about them.

If there is anything to take away from what we are witnessing in the Charlie Hebdo incident(s), it is this: we are reacting to things that we may profoundly not understand.

More specifically, has anyone had the time and attention to actually understand what has driven the shootings, or what these motives could possibly even mean in larger sociocultural or socioreligious contexts?

* What are people really reacting to?

* What are their notions of ‘terrorism’, ‘extremism’ and ‘radicalism’?

* How do various Islamic communities feel about this?

* What does this say about certain religious groups versus atheists or agnostics?

Not so ironically, I found this piece from Christopher Hitchens (written in 2006), to be the most salient in terms of a philosophical and epistemological exploration; while clearly an op-ed, it nonetheless references powerful subtexts and current events, and places the reader into deep existential as well as teleological, socioreligious and geopolitical quandaries.

Today (Thursday, January 8th) Nafeez Ahmed wrote this wonderfully insightful piece on the blowback in Paris. His is an abundant perspective, and more importantly, replete with investigative integrity.

So why doesn’t all journalism do this?

What ‘we’ can do about it.

Last year, I gave a talk at the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab on the state of media and journalism. Upon further reflection, I’ve been able to refine and synthesize some thoughts and directions on where journalism and information systems are headed, and what we can look for in our development of technologies that can enhance our critical thinking capabilities.

In short, and to emphasize: all the magic (i.e. ‘truth’) happens in our approach to information.

‘Big data’ is a classic example; pundits are now touting the advantages of being ‘small’ and ‘relevant’. The questions remain as to how and why, and perhaps more importantly, for what purpose.

If we are to immerse ourselves in what I like to call operating context, it is fundamentally apparent that we can’t just reduce things down to single equivalents, or expect answers right away from the inquiries we make in off- and online spaces. The reductionist approach is precisely why many journalism schools are struggling to teach their students how to develop stories that actually have a shelf life and sustainable value beyond a headline or a search query.

On the flip side of the proverbial coin is a media ecosystem — an economic system — that is still running on the fumes of impressions and ad inventory that do nothing ultimately but commodify the nature of information, as well as the people telling and developing the stories. We’ve known this for a while, except that now we are starting to cognitively and communally ‘feel the crush’ of the ‘no time/no meaning’ paradigm, whereby news stories in particular are just slabs of quick-hit, mostly thinly researched op-ed pieces that duck and weave from one sensationalist hook to the next. I’m all for creativity in presenting news stories… But what is the difference anymore — per a one Bill Moyers — between what is immediate and what is important?

Again, the approach to information is what can and will be our saving grace. Here are some of the main takeaways from my talk:

- Immediacy and importance with information leave us, as readers and media participants, grappling over the choice of information we want to consume or with which we want to interact;

- Data isn’t ‘big’ so much as it is curatorial and relevant given a particular context or set of contexts;

- Normative methods for measurement (clicks, views, page rank etc.) don’t represent true or scalable value, and actually commodify the media market, to include ‘content’ and the creators of it;

- Discovery and serendipity (not just filtering) are vital for critical thought processes;

- Stories are in actuality the predicates for markets and their growth; the question becomes how we look beyond the need to push content out into media environments and instead look at how storytelling is used to leverage cultural and business behaviors;

- We need to relearn how to think, and ask better questions, knowing that the ‘answers’ may not come to us right away or ever;

- Central or ‘meta’ narratives have been constructed over time to influence our perspectives of the world that often run in conflict with what we know to be true in our hearts; the choices we make (our freewill) can shift these perspectives and create new realities through personal and collective stories;

- Cognitive bias can be reframed to look at ‘truth’ and ‘circumstance’ as inferential; the idea is that information streams have phases or stages that provide pivots through which we can understand operating context — the thing that enables us to understand information and make better decisions.

The future of the media business as a whole hinges on three things: 1. emergence (allowing stories and ideas to flourish without media or advertising bias), 2. socialization (syndicating information streams as part of the storytelling process), 3. learning (adapting to what we discover, when we discover it).

Be vigilant in your pursuit of context. Think and act critically. Always consider your fellow (wo)man. Be kind, be generous, be unreasonable in protecting your civil rights, and those of others. Make great, inspiring media. Most of all, always be informed, and if you’re not afforded the opportunity, then trust your intuition… All fundamental truth resides in your heart. And with that, the stories you tell, the information you share, can only be, and will only be, magnificent.