This is a post about how we fail at news in 2016. But first a couple of stories about math and computer science.
I was a math major at Tulane University in New Orleans in the early 70s.
I remember once, a professor standing in front of a math class, probably differential equations or analysis, and he was angry.
"You're supposed to know when you have a proof," he said.
In other words, everyone in the class had turned in an assignment to prove something mathematical and we had all turned in proofs that didn't work.
Something similar happened a few years later when I was a computer science grad student at the UW-Madison. I was a teaching assistant, one of my jobs was to post example code for the students to use in their assignments. I had posted code that had a syntax error. It wouldn't make it through the C compiler. It would kick it back and say "fix this error and try again" or something like that.
A grad student who supervised my work got angry the same way the professor at Tulane had. "Check your work!" she said. I was embarrassed, and got the message. Ever since, before posting code, I run it through the system to make sure it does what I think it does. And of course a lot of errors get caught that way.
Okay, so how is this about news?
We don't have anything remotely like the answer to how news works in the age of the Internet. We're running around in circles, confused, ineffective, and all the while we need a good news system. Evidence: the way we're making political decisions. Also: we're going in reverse on race equity.
My math professor, standing in the front of the room in 1974 might say: "You're supposed to know when you've solved the problem!"
We haven't solved the problem.
Try an exercise.
You can't. All you get is sensation. Feelings. Pushes in this primal direction or another. Fear dominates. The people who do what we call news know how this works and they make fear. And that's a rush and it feels good, but what about when you really just want to know what's happening?
Facebook doesn't do that. Nor does Twitter. Facebook sounded like they were going to do something in this area, but they punted. And I think they're not ready for what happened in Minneapolis last week, when their Live service was used to broadcast the aftermath of a murder. They probably thought they'd get movies of cats, skateboarders, and people dumping ice buckets on each others' heads.
BTW, it's remarkable, to me, that Diamond Reynolds was aware of the Facebook Live service, knew how to use it, had the software on her phone, and thought in a moment of crisis (her life was at stake) to use it. Facebook Live is very new. Also incredibly impressed with how she kept her cool, while a cop was waving his gun at her and obviously freaking out because he had just shot the man next to her who was dying while she was broadcasting.
Seriously: She should win a Pulitzer.
While all this is going on in the world, here's a screen shot of the news that Facebook presented to me today.
The only story in that list that was interesting to me was the one about Mark Zuckerberg. This is a company that says it uses an algorithm to customize the news for me based on my interests and those of my friends. I've given them lots of data to work with. And this is what they came up with?
The list of stories barely changes through the day. They are off-target, have nothing to do with me, I don't even know what some of them mean. Who is Amanda Nunes and what is T-Mobile Arena? I can't imagine I care. Same with Chaka Khan or Chewbacca Mom. I heard about the inmates who helped save the life of a guard, and didn't click on it the first time. It's JUNK.
It doesn't matter if it makes anyone money, sorry -- but our world is being flushed down the toilet because all we're getting is emotion. Things that make us feel the world is a big family (it's not anything like a family). Bedtime stories. We bottle up what's real until it explodes on us. Then reality comes home.
Sorry, if you think Facebook has figured this out -- they haven't.
We need to fix this. We need to get moving whether or not the tech industry is ready.