“The selection and placement of stories on this page were determined automatically by a computer program,” proudly states the Google News homepage. For years, technology companies have shirked their social and moral responsibilities by hiding behind ‘anonymous’ and ‘objective’ computer programs and algorithms.
Partly, it’s philosophical. There’s a deeply held view within technology culture that people are the problem that technology is going to fix. Partly, it’s financial. The very business case for a technology stock is that it replaces expensive people with cheap and scalable code.
The algorithms may well end up taking over the world, but they are still quite crude and stupid in many ways. There are lots of clever humans out there who for bad and good reasons know how to manipulate the algorithms.
Fake news is nothing new. It’s just that social media industrializes and globalizes it. The social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter once promised to truly democratize communication. The tech industry, in general, promises a better world through constant innovation.
Lots of people still believe in and trust the technology industry. Which is strange. Globally, the technology industry is sucking wealth out of local economies and transferring it to some paradise tax haven where it pays minus 10% tax. This allows their investors to build diamond-encrusted bunkers in New Zealand so that they will have a nice little hideaway when it all blows up.
Some cracks are beginning to appear, as social media facilitates communication between peers. According to the recent Edelman Trust Barometer, trust in “a person like me” dropped from 60% in 2017 to 54% in 2018. Trust in journalism rose from 54% in 2017 to 59% in 2018, whereas trust in social media platforms dropped from 53% in 2017 to 50% in 2018.
The algorithms are not going to deliver us quality content on their own. If you want to make technology work, you have to invest in people. I have been involved in the content management industry since the mid-Nineties. The essential pitch of the industry is: fire the editors, hire the algorithms. Why organize content when you can buy our search engine? Buy our software and you won’t even have to think. Who cares about quality. Feel the quantity.
Unfortunately, it still takes quality people to write quality content. Giving a half-day training to the junior admin on the content management system so that they can be a channel for the ego of senior managers doesn’t cut it—never did.
Yes, content does need to be managed. It needs to be well structured and organized. It needs to be tested and optimized. It needs to be regularly reviewed and,where appropriate, deleted or archived. Technology can help but without quality people, technology just helps you fill the garbage dump faster.
It’s 2018. It’s extraordinary to have to still need to say these most basic of things. But senior management still has such a love affair with technology as a cost-cutting, staff-firing, productivity-enhancing wonderkid.
We still need people to make things work. Far more people than the algorithm sales people predict—and far better trained. The world doesn’t run on information and content. It runs on quality information and content. It will run aground on poor quality information and content.