ant's blog
posts notes music texts

Computational Journalism?

Friday, June 7th, a warm summer evening as innocuous as any other. A tenuous calm waned in the mind of one computer programmer; he was approaching middle age in an era of, if you took the majority of published news media as a trustworthy source (and he did), abject and incalculable, omnipresent and impending catastrophe. From an early age he yearned to help; anyone and everyone and everything that called to him, often with little thought to the consequences of haphazard volunteering to correct the incorrect, to right wrongs that were much older and wiser than he. Yet, after nearly a decade of working in the real world, he couldn’t shake the feeling that his talents (if there were any) were often wasted - writing muscles left to atrophy when the corporation demanded pixel-pushing, creativity made to starve because “we don’t want better, we want good enough now™ “, and a growing sense that generally, the interests of people who employ software engineers were often diametrically opposed to his own. Where he wanted impact, they wanted revenue. Where he wanted education, they wanted mindshare. And most of all, where he wanted a collaborative exchange of the beauty bestowed upon each individual member of society, he found a transactional paradigm in which only the shrewdest players advanced.

Everywhere he looked, he saw chaos. The world at once, seemingly without warning, was experiencing itself in full magnitude from every angle, a phenomenon he recognized from his own adolescence, though it appeared to be going much worse for the world. If the medium is the message, what is the lesson we are all imbibing with our mass addiction to hypermedia?

These thoughts were typical of our anxious protagonist on any given day at any given time, making a friendly chat about nothing at all quite elusive, a fact that annoyed many of his friends some of the time and himself all of the time.

However, something interjected this time - a nugget of gold glimmering brightly in the otherwise destitute mines of social media doomscrolling. A job posting? At ProPublica. Hmm. Surely this was just another false hope delivered with carelessness by the greatest purveyor of false hope in a decade: LinkedIn. After all, it had delivered no less than 100 fake opportunities earlier that week alone. While his ego was distracted, gummed up by the ruminative trap of “don’t get your hopes up”, he quietly consented with a runaway thumb to please learn more.

A computational journalist? What’s that? A lie. He knew what that was - or rather - what that could be. Certainly, there should be plenty more of those than he could account for currently in the news. Sure, there are those New York Times data-geeks that like to quantify everything conceivable, to plop a huge chunk of javascript and fancy graphs that no one is going to fumble around with in the 17th story about Donald Trump they skimmed that week. That approach, the “give them data and they will come” crowd who seem to think of data as an end in itself rather than a means to telling a compelling story, had always felt exclusionary and shortsighted to him. After all, he knew the composition of those magical little boxes embedded in the text: it was all just a hunk of likely unreproducible and poorly maintained javascript wrapped five times over in other layers of equally dubious javascript. The computational experiences dreamt up by siloed writers or scientists who dabble always seemed to lack the illustrative and captivating qualities of staring at a good painting or getting lost in a song you just heard for the first time. It wasn’t their fault, though; they were playing in a different arena with entirely different rules and could do lots that he couldn’t. He just happened to know of one enlightening bit of cosmic irony that gave him a relatively unique perspective, and, generously, an edge. Computer and information scientists of the last half-century worked tirelessly toward a future of hypermedia, like traditional forms of media but with superpowers. They succeeded beyond belief, only to be robbed of the era they were trying desperately to usher in - the era of infinite canvas - a grand linking of all the disciplines across the globe in every way that could matter - by soulless sycophants whose desire for absolute power made this whole business of publishing on the web so complex it has been relegated to the dark arts - unless of course you are willing to shell out quite a lot of money.

Yeah, computational journalism would be a good thing. We need more of those. He bargained with himself that since he doesn’t have any obvious portfolio of works that could fall under such a category, he was unlikely to be considered. That is, unless he was able to very rapidly put together some sort of something to show that he has potential. Just something very quick, less than say… two 8 hour days… something that could live inside an existing ProPublica article, that brought in data from external sources, and has an inherent usefulness as a supporting role in clarifying our complex world. Maybe that could work, he thought.

He tried to talk himself out of his favorite kind of endeavor (unstructured, fairly mentally arduous, and unlikely to succeed), but it just didn’t work. His last concern was something along the lines of “how would someone even communicate that sort of thing”.