Computers Go Too Far

Hey—that’s MY job you’re automating!

Google, the popular Internet search engine, now offers a page called Google News, a summary of what’s going on in the world produced entirely by computers. Well, I say “entirely,” but Google’s computers don’t actually gather the news. What they do is scan thousands of other Web pages and, using a secret formula, decide what the top stories are. Then they cleverly lift headlines and other material from different news sources, add links to these and other sites, and come up with what appears to be the Web site of an extremely cosmopolitan newspaper.

It’s slightly a bluff. Who knows why the computers chose to feature a New Zealand news site the other day as a way of covering the Miss World imbroglio in Nigeria? But you have to suspect that the explanation lies in the crudeness of the computer’s judgment, not its sophistication. Google concedes that its choices of stories and news sources are “occasionally unusual and contradictory” but insists with uncharacteristic pomposity, “it is exactly this variety that makes Google News a valuable source of information on the important issues of the day.”

Which is humbug. People still do it better. But not by much. The day is clearly approaching when editors can be replaced by computers. This requires some urgent rethinking.

Throughout the revolution of technology and globalization that has been going on for two decades, responsible mainstream commentators, pundits, analysts, and miscellaneous gasbags (including this one) have taken the view that progress is a good thing. Some people are unfortunately caught in the gears of change, but society as a whole benefits. It’s not very complicated if you know a bit of economics. You’ve got your “invisible hand” (that’s free markets), you’ve got your “comparative advantage” (that’s free trade), you’ve got your “perennial gale of creative destruction” (that’s competition and new technology), you’ve got your “can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs” (that’s attributed to Joseph Stalin, but never mind). The losers in this process deserve sympathy and help, but special pleading must not be allowed to thwart or slow this process.

We must distinguish, however, between special pleading and legitimate alarm about deeply troubling developments. It is one thing to sacrifice textile workers and auto workers on the altar of progress. It is quite another to start throwing journalists into the flames. And the difference is? Well, it’s very different. Completely different. Couldn’t be more different, quite frankly, my good madam, because … because … well, it occurs to me that I’m a journalist. This puts the whole situation in a new perspective.

You see, journalists are responsible for reporting and analyzing the “important issues of the day,” as the Googlies so eloquently put it. In the prestige ranking of important issues, a key factor is how much an issue actually touches anyone’s daily life. The more abstract an issue is from real life, the more prestigious it is. A journalistic career that began covering tornadoes in Iowa and ended writing editorials about the expansion of membership in NATO would be considered a success. One that took the opposite path would not.

We all agree—do we not?—that globalization and technological change remain vitally important issues. In order to assure their continued vitality, therefore, it is essential to guarantee that journalists not be impacted in any way. Abstraction from reality is not just a tradition among journalists: It is an ethical imperative. If an issue actually affects a journalist directly, you see, it becomes a “conflict of interest,” which must be avoided. So, you see why we cannot allow technological progress to start displacing journalists. The entire subject would become a conflict of interest.

And what about the computers’ conflict of interest? Sure, they’re playing it pretty straight now, as the Google folks note. But what happens when all the human editors have been eliminated? We know the answer from the movie 2001: We will wake up one day to find that all the news is about the parochial concerns of computers (“White House Hard Drives Not Backed Up, Sources Say”) while important human developments involving the War on Terrorism and/or Leonardo DiCaprio get ignored.

Until just days ago, it might have been impossible to do anything about this impending crisis due to impediments such as the First and Fifth Amendments. Fortunately, however, we now have the Department of Homeland Security, which must make it an early priority to impose regulations forbidding the use of a computer to perform any functions traditionally performed by human journalists.

Indeed, the regulation should be extended to protect all jobs for which Olympian detachment from reality is an essential requirement. This includes fellows of policy think tanks, heads of nonprofit organizations, and anyone who has been quoted once by the New York Times or been a guest on a cable-TV talk show more than twice in the previous quarter.

No doubt there are writers and policy analysts and consultants of all sorts who think today, “They’re going after editors, but I can never be replaced by a machine.” Ladies and gentlemen, that’s what the editors thought.