Monthly Archives: April 2012

Narrative Science

In his novel Timequake, Kurt Vonnegut tells of an architect named Frank who encounters a software program named Palladio. The program promises to enable anyone, regardless of training, to design any kind of architectural structure, in any kind of style, simply by specifying a few basic project parameters. Frank doubts that the program could really replicate the skills and knowledge he has gained and honed over many years, so he decides to put it to the test. He tells Palladio to design a three-story parking garage in the style of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. To his amazement, the program doesn’t refuse or crash. Instead, it takes him through menu after menu of project parameters, explaining how local codes would alter this or that aspect of the structure. At the end, the program produces detailed building plans and cost estimates, and it even offers to generate alternative plans in the style of Michael Graves or I M Pei. In typical Vonnegut style, Frank is so shocked and filled with dispair that he immediate goes home and shoots himself.

Narrative Science LogoI was reminded of this scene in Vonnegut’s novel after reading an article about the company Narrative Science. They have produced a software program that can automatically write news stories, in human-like prose, about sporting events and routine financial reports. They are now branching out into other genres, like in-house managerial reports, restaurant guides, and summaries of gaming tournaments. Last year they generated 400,000 such stories, all without a single human journalist.

Well, not quite. Like all software programs, their program has to be trained, not only about the rules of a particular domain, but also how to write appropriate-sounding prose for the target audience. The former is done by statisticians and programmers, but the latter requires seasoned journalists, who provide templates and style guides. Theoretically, however, once those journalists train the program to sound like them, the program could generate millions of stories all on its own.

So far, this program has been used to generate stories about minor sporting events and routine financial reports that normally would not garner the attention of a real reporter. For example, parents can capture play-by-play data about their son’s little league baseball game, and submit that to Narrative Science. In a few minutes, the program can analyze the data and generate a story that highlights pivotal moments in the game as well as the final outcome, all written in that flamboyant style of a veteran sports reporter. By looking at the earlier games in the same or previous season, the program can also comment on how the team or individual players performed relative to other games and similar match-ups.

Similarly, most corporate earnings reports go unnoticed by journalists, but this program can quickly analyze the various numbers, compare them with other firms in the same industry, and generate a story for stock holders and other interested parties that highlights important changes in the company’s performance.

Narrative Science is proud of the fact that their program has not yet put any journalists out of work, and they believe that it will be used primarily to generate stories that would normally never have been written in the first place. But when asked how long they think it will take before one of their computer-generated stories would win a Pulitzer Prize, their CTO guessed that it would be within five years.

I’m a bit dubious about that last prediction, but I do find their system very interesting. Narrative Science has essentially picked the low-hanging fruit of professional writing: those routine, boring, and generally formulaic stories that might as well be written by a computer. In some senses, their program is similar to a simple machine tool that is able to construct some particular kind of part over and over again, but in another sense, they have gone far beyond that. By combining data mining techniques with prose generation, they have created a system that can not only find new insights in large datasets, but also communicate those with a wide audience in a style that the audience will recognize and trust.

But before we start worrying about whether their program will soon put all journalists out of work, we need to realize that this kind of program only works in data-rich domains, and the kinds of insights it can generate are limited to the quantity and quality of the data it receives. It can generate insights from complex data sets that a human might not notice, but it can’t really understand those irrational and mirky depths of human emotions, motivations, and desires. I have a hard time, for example, seeing how it could cover a complex public policy debate, or ask tough questions about how a certain dataset was collected, and whether it might be skewed or biased in some way.

Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, Player Piano, was written in 1952 after he saw an early machine tool quickly make a turbine part that used to require a skilled machinist much longer to accomplish. In the novel, he imagined a dystopian future where blue-collar workers had nothing left to do, and the entire society was run  by managerial technocrats. We now know that things didn’t quite turn out this way (see David Noble’s classic book Forces of Production). Similarly, I don’t think that newsroom management will ever be able to replace human reporters entirely. No doubt, some of the more routine and formulaic reporting will become automated, but the more idiosyncratic stories will still requite a reporter that understands the human condition.

Is Technological Determinism Making Us Stupid?

Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?In a recent interview I did with the Figure/Ground project, the interviewer asked me what I thought of Stephen Marche’s recent article in The Atlantic entitled “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” I had read the article when it first ran, so I replied that if you read it closely, this article doesn’t really argue for the position implied in the title and abstract. Although Marche starts with the assumption that Facebook is making people lonely, he ends up articulating a much more nuanced position by the end. After I explained what I meant by that, I concluded by saying, “the better question to ask is why are these kinds of articles so popular? Why are we seeing such a sudden rash of articles entitled ‘is pick-your-new-technology making us stupid/narcissistic/lonely/shallow/etc.?'”

Thankfully, the interviewer didn’t ask me to answer my own question. If he had, I’m not sure I could have given him a good answer at the time. These kinds of articles are, of course, nothing terribly new. I remember articles from my youth that asked if calculators were making us lazy, or if Sony Walkmans were making us socially isolated and possibly deaf. A trip through the newspaper archives would no doubt reveal similar articles surrounding the mass-adoption of just about any new technological device, especially those since the 1960s.

Instead of trying to engage the specific questions that these articles pose, I think it might be more interesting to ask, why are these authors framing their questions in this sort of yes/no, pro/con, good/bad way? And why does framing their questions in that way seem to attract a large number of readers and secondary commentary?

The economically-minded answer would probably note that these kinds of headlines are more attention-grabbing, and that the ultimate goal of any publication funded by advertising is to grab attention. I wouldn’t doubt that this is a contributing factor, and I’m happy that at least in the case of Marche’s article, he nevertheless finds a more nuanced position.

But I also wonder if technological determinism has seeped so far into the popular collective conscious that it is difficult for journalists and the public to think any other way about technology and society. This kind of framing tends to betray an underlying assumption that technology “impacts” society in a kind of one-way, deterministic relationship. Authors may debate whether those impacts are good or bad, but they tend to assume that those impacts will always be inevitable, deterministic, and irreversible.

In the introduction to the classic book Does Technology Drive History?, Merritt Roe Smith argues that Americans in particular have always been attracted to this way of thinking because our national identity has always been wrapped up with technology and the ideology of progress. Our greatest heroes have been inventors and industrialists, not artists or humanitarians, and we commonly attribute our current global hegemony to our technological prowess.

But Americans have also become more willing since the 1960s to question the supposed benefits of new innovations, and to enquire about the often undisclosed costs. Nevertheless, this seems to happen only after the innovation becomes mass-adopted. When Google first appeared on the scene, journalists praised it for its clean look, efficiency, and uncanny ability to find what it was you were really looking for. We rooted for them as the up-and-coming underdog, and we rejoiced in their algorithms’ abilities to bring some kind of order to the ever-growing morass of information on the web. But once it became so ubiquitous that it transmogrified into its own verb, we began to see articles like Nicholas Carr’s “Is Google Making Us Stupid?

Why do we frame the questions in these ways? And why do articles that use this kind of framing generate such interest and secondary commentary? Do they poke at some deep-seated anxieties that we have about technological change? Let me know what you think.

Update: I just found a fantastic blog post by a social media researcher named Zeynep Tufekci that offers three possible answers:

  1. We actually have become more isolated (in terms of strong ties) during the same period that social media has arisen, so we assume that the latter has caused the former, even though evidence to the contrary is legion.
  2. Online socialization really can’t entirely replace face-to-face interaction, so we also assume that increased use of social networking causes increased feelings of isolation, even though people who are social online are also social offline.
  3. “Just like we convert text (visual) into language in our head (which is all oral in the brain), we need to convert mediated-interaction to that visceral kind of sociality in our brain. And not everyone can do this equally well [a condition she calls 'cyberasociality']. And people who are cyberasocial are driving this discussion.”

See her post for more details, including links to primary research that backs up what she is saying.

Facebook Fast

Facebook LogoA few posts back, I mentioned that I was giving up Facebook for Lent this year. Now that Lent is over, and I’m back on Facebook, I thought I would reflect a bit on how this limited form of a “digital sabbath” worked out.

At the start, I was concerned that this little experiment of mine might prove to be too difficult, as I really felt that I had become a bit too addicted to Facebook of late. Most of my work right now consists of long-term research, writing, and conference planning projects, so I would often check Facebook whenever I was a little bored, distracted, or just wanting to avoid doing my work. I wondered if I would actually make it until Easter, or if I would just cave part way through.

I have to admit that for the first couple of days, I often found my mouse impulsively shooting up to where the bookmark used to be in my browser window, only to be reminded by its absence of my Lenten fast. This impulse subsided after a few days though, and abstaining from Facebook turned out to be much easier than I thought it would be. I did break the fast once, to self-promote a piece published on Bloomberg.com, but other than that, I stayed off until Easter.

So what did I do with all that extra time? Some productive things, but also some unproductive things. On the productive side, I managed to read a number of books and articles I’ve been meaning to read for quite some time, and because I knew that I couldn’t break away and check Facebook when I became distracted, I found that I was better able to follow longer and more complex arguments. I also spent more time going on walks, thinking through problems, praying, and seeking direction. And I even got my sorely-neglected saxophone out of its case and did some practicing, which felt really good.

But if I was to be honest, I also spent quite a lot of time doing things on the web that were simply pale substitutes for checking Facebook. Instead of checking to see who interacted with my latest status update, I routinely checked the page view stats on my blog, hoping to get that same feeling of acceptance and legitimation. Instead of reading and seeing what my friends were up to, I compulsively read news sites, hoping to feel more in touch with what was going on. And instead of sharing interesting articles I came across with my Facebook friends, I tried tweeting them, but I don’t think anyone was listening.

So does Facebook cause me to be more distracted, or is it just a convenient tool for fulfilling my own desire to be distracted? Is it making me shallow and narcissistic, or is it just one of many places where I can feed my existing insecurities?

The answer is probably a bit of both. As I’ve argued before, each of us needs to be aware not only of our own personal vulnerabilities, but also whether the ways in which we are using our technologies are connecting with those vulnerabilities. I could try to blame Facebook for my foibles, but it’s probably more accurate to say that affordances of Facebook are very well aligned with my some of my existing vulnerabilities. If Facebook didn’t exist, I would still have those vulnerabilities, but I also need to recognize that particular ways of using Facebook might also be making them worse.

Now that Lent is over and I’m back on Facebook, I’ve been much more conscious of the ways in which it can often hit my vulnerabilities. I’ve decided to limit my usage not just in terms of time, but also in terms of what I am trying to get from it. I’ll still post things that I think others will find interesting, but I’m trying not to care how many “likes” I get, or how many comments it might solicit. I still enjoy reading what my friends are doing, but I will try not to compare myself to them and feel inadequate when I don’t measure up. In other words, I don’t simply need to use Facebook less—I need to use it differently.

In a word, I’m domesticating Facebook, altering my usage of it so that it fits better into my life, and aligns better to my stated social values. Instead of knee-jerk reactions that decry how Facebook is ruining our youth, we need to be encouraging each other to do this hard work of self-examination, being honest with ourselves about our personal vulnerabilities and the ways in which the devices and systems we use might be exacerbating those. For some, Facebook might pose little problem, but for others, some changes are probably in order. Let’s get to it.