“As we’re all journalists now, the marginal cost of producing journalism is zero. Hey look, I’m doing it right here, right now! How much did you all pay me? Exactly.”
A lot of technological innovation has followed the same pattern.
A given good or service starts its life as Home Production. This is what it sounds like: people making things for themselves, in their homes. This is how virtually all things were created prior to the industrial revolution. The blacksmith had a forge in his house, you went there if you needed a tool. The weaver’s cottage was the cottage they lived in. This is not a very efficient process. It takes tons and tons of time, and tons and tons of resources, but it requires virtually no upfront investment. When a new innovation is born, nobody really knows if it will be valuable, and nobody is willing to invest in it. Interested people engage in home production if they want it. Eventually, if enough people do this, a viable market is formed.
After the innovation grows out of home production, it transitions to Industrial Production. This is the industrial revolution. Mass production, replaceable parts, conveyor belts. Standardized products. The industrialist takes the various quirks from the various home producers, distills them down to a platonic ideal of what that thing is, and efficiently optimizes for producing that at scale. During the process, they learn a lot. What elements can be taken away without affecting the core of the product. What elements need to be added to make it work. Issues with production at scale. Bugs to work out. Everything.
Eventually, through a combination of market saturation and technological progress, the price of this good drops lower and lower and lower. A threshold is hit where it is cheap enough to produce customized goods at scale. The learnings from industrial production can be applied, learning which rules you can break to innovate, learning what fundamentals you need to keep to make it work. Empowered by these learnings, customized goods can be professionally produced for everyone. This is Modern Production.
The invention of bread is probably the best toy example of this. Five hundred years ago, most people baked their own bread, either at their home or via a community bakery. There was no quality control, no standardization. No two loaves were the same. They were expensive and labour intensive to manufacture.
Industrialization led to the invention of sliced bread. Industrial scale food production collected learnings from a large swath of independent bakers, and distilled bread down to it’s platonic ideal: uniformly shaped, sliced, white bread. We produced this at scale, and soon everyone was eating the exact same bread. It wasn’t great. But it was good enough.
Eventually we became so good at producing bread that it became cost-effective to professionally produce a large assortment of different breads. Now, bread lives in the modern production stage, and I can buy a dozen different kinds at Pirate Joe’s, for less than one hour’s minimum wage.
A while back I was listening to (I think) an episode of Planet Money, and they were talking about the history of journalism. They claimed that it arose out of privately funded market research.
In the age of sail, wealthy merchants had business dealings across all the major European capitals, and they made their fortunes on the stock market. Perhaps one businessman wished to stake his fortune on French crepes. As a responsible investor, he wanted to make sure he was making wise investments, so he did market research. This research was often ad hoc, done as it could be. He might pay a traveller headed to Paris to mail him when she got there, telling him the latest Parisian gossip about crepes. In this way, he learned about market trends and was able to make very profitable trades.
These travellers, it was argued, were the first journalists, and their journalism was home production. It was ad hoc, of relatively poor quality, inconsistent, and personal.
Eventually, as society became larger and richer, and more and more people held interest on far off places, these travellers professionalized into what we now know as journalists. They set up standards and practices for how to do journalism “right”. Reporting stopped being a purely regional thing, as large media empires were formed. It lasted this way up until recently, with well understood, precisely-controlled, standardized news delivered to us from the news factories. This was the age of industrial news production. Until the internet happened.
When Twitter, Facebook, and various other social networks popped up, the news industry changed dramatically. By far the biggest difference was a massive reduction in cost. As we’re all journalists now, the marginal cost of producing journalism is zero. Hey look, I’m doing it right here, right now! How much did you all pay me? Exactly.
This marked the transition of news into modern production. We have heard a lot about how print is dying, social media has turned journalism into a slave wage meat grinder, clickbait in service of ads is a necessity. But the flip side, as always: the falling cost of news production makes new doors open. A hundred years of official reporting processes and standards have been understood. We know what parts of news production are essential, what parts can be modified, and what can be thrown away. We know how to make foundations of news cheaply, so we can build all manner of customizations on top. We know how to privately produce customized, professional news.
A friend of mine grokked the implications of this, though he didn’t realize it at first. In the week after the US election, he pointed out something interesting. He said: so campaigns have their own private pollsters, as well as relying on the mainstream media. The mainstream media was disastrously wrong in their predictions. But, presumably, Trump’s pollsters knew what was really going on, since they leveraged it. We can never know this for sure, we can only guess. But consider the full implications of this: One guy, paying for his own private news source, was able to get more truthful, reliable, and actionable news information than the entire journalism industry combined. Modern production.
There are a lot of people who have strong interests in truthful, reliable, actionable news. Per the NPR (iirc) story, it was originally driven by direct economic pressures. As journalism industrialized, plenty of people looked to publications like the New York Times to inform them on very important social, political, and economic concerns. But what has happened now that everyone can commission their own private news?
There’s been a lot of talk about “fake news” recently. The extremely grim implications of the fact that the authorities were able to manufacture consent for severe censorship and propaganda programs over the span of a month, I’ll touch on some other time. Right now, I’m more interested in understanding this phenomenon.
I’ve spoken at length about things like this for years, ever since I found out that journalism is unethical. To me, this is no surprise, but consider why this has happened: people do not care if news is true.
This may seem strange, as everyone thinks they care about truth. The truth is, few do. In most circumstances, truth does not matter. I read a news article about a random pizzeria that won’t cater a gay wedding (I will use this example until I die), it does not matter to me whether that story is true. Why? Because I’ll never know. This story is completely inactionable to me, it’s set in a place I will never be. The only interaction between this story and my life will be when I read it. So if it’s effect on my life is unfalsifiable, is it even valid to call it true at all?
We used to enjoy true, accurate media, because some people relied on that media to inform high-stakes decisions. But if news is now in modern production, if it is viable for people to get individualized professional information on the things they need, then there is no more incentive for the mainstream media to be accurate. The people who care about those things get it elsewhere.
Take me for example. I stopped proactively reading the news about a year ago, checking out specific articles only when they were personally (not algorithmically, not via a share button) sent to me. And yet I am often more informed about current events than the people around me. Why? Twitter and police scanners. I have a police scanner app on my phone, configured to alert me when any scanner in North America sees a sudden spike in traffic. Whenever I get pinged, I know immediately that Something Newsworthy happened. Further, I have a primary source: police dialogue. This signals me to hop on to Twitter, where eyewitness accounts (complete with photos and video) are everywhere. By the time the mainstream news media even realizes there is an Event, I can already write the report.
So the question is: if I don’t need to rely on said media to give me a truthful reporting of the events, if I have better, faster, cheaper, more personalized sources, then why would they bother investing so much effort in true, reliable reporting? They won’t. They’ll give people what they want, and people want panem et circenses. News becomes entertainment, as the pressures for accuracy go elsewhere.
So this is my prediction for the future: “Fake news” is here to stay, and will only get worse. The prestigious mainstream media institutions are on a long, slow decline into irrelevance. Forevermore, news will become less and less relevant. But paradoxically, it will become easier and easier for individuals to get reliable, true, accurate, actionable information in ways that are cheap, easy, and plentiful. It just won’t be through the Cathedral.
I imagine a future where information sources specialize. Instead of going to The News to learn relevant information, I will contact a market research specialist for economic info. A political analyst for political news. A specialist for every source, available to all.
In other words: Wesearchr. It’s gonna be yuge.