Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The RoboJourno

A short news story published by Forbes rattled The Guardian:

Screencapture from Forbes website. Click for a larger image.

I can't blame them.

The apparently surprised reaction, however, is not due to The New York Times Company's finances, but rather because the author of the note (Narrative Science) is not a human being, but a software agent that turns "data into stories of a type which will not be winning many Pulitzers but which certainly pass the Turing test of making one unsure whether they were written by a person or machine". (See here)

As the story, reproduced by The Sydney Morning Herald, put it:
"The irony of the rather poor first-quarter earnings of the New York Times being reported into the Forbes database by a series of algorithms should not be lost on anyone, not least the NYT itself." (See here)
And, according to some, in at least some simple cases, this software is already doing a better job than a human writer would. So it may be too soon for the never-Pulitzer remark.

A previous post deals with a related development, its relationship with inequality and how it is seen by right-wing ideologues.

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Thirty, perhaps even twenty years ago, few would have put their reputation at risk by saying that something like this would happen. Perhaps the more technologically savvy would have readily admitted that this is possible in an assembly line, where repetitive manual operations are performed in a mechanical way; but in a job requiring analysis and synthesis of information?

Don't get me wrong, perhaps it's unfair to demand this from any expert, including big-shot economists.

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For one, Karl Marx did not do this. Working over a century ago, he did a much simpler thing: he observed that the bourgeoisie, in its eternal effort to make a buck, went to great lengths to reduce costs. But there's only so much "cost cutting" to be done on materials: no matter how much you tweak your production line, a hotdog is always a sausage inside a bun.

If after your production tweaking you can't force your workforce to take on lower wages (and that's not always possible, although downsizing, offshoring, outsourcing and labour market liberalization are powerful strategies), you are left with one course of action:
  1. invest in newer equipment, requiring less workers or using less skilled workers; 
  2. invest in larger plants to exploit economies of scale; 
  3. create vertically integrated industrial complexes to exploit "synergies"; and finally, 
  4. become a monopolist/monopsonist, so that you can "make" the prices you sell and buy on.
Marx saw much of this and the evidence is in his writings.

Aided by Friedrich Engels and writing for a working class readership, this is how Marx expressed some of this in The Communist Manifesto:
"Owing to the extensive use of machinery, and to the division of labour, the work of the proletarians has lost all individual character, and, consequently, all charm for the workman. He becomes an appendage of the machine, and it is only the most simple, most monotonous, and most easily acquired knack, that is required of him. Hence, the cost of production of a workman is restricted, almost entirely, to the means of subsistence that he requires for maintenance, and for the propagation of his race. (...)
"The lower strata of the middle class - the small tradespeople, shopkeepers, and retired tradesmen generally, the handicraftsmen and peasants - all these sink gradually into the proletariat (...) Thus the proletariat is recruited from all classes of the population." (K. Marx and F. Engels. Manifesto of the Communist Party, chapter 1)

Replace "workman" and "proletarians" with "journalist" and "journalists" and you have an explanation/prediction of what's going on and what could happen next. If you are a small businessperson, look at yourself in the mirror of "small tradespeople, shopkeepers...".

Not bad for a refugee and exile, without formal economics training, working without professorial tenure, computers, Internet, video/phone conferences, electronic media, research assistants, grad students, over one hundred years ago, while enduring terrible misery and political persecution for most of his adult life.

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You should read the Manifesto; unlike most of Marx, it's an easy read. There are worse ways of spending your time.

Think about this: how many among the crowds of dime-a-dozen big-shot economists populating academe, media, think-tanks, business and government, can boast of similar achievement? And one still reads them.

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