Stop the presses!

A decade ago, before iOS vs. Android, there was one of the bloodiest wars of attrition of the early web: online music stores. Microsoft, Real and myriad others tried to dethrone Apple’s iTunes through bare-knuckle competition, press battles, lawsuits and hacking…all in vain.

As we enter the streaming media era, the last of these battles, and undoubtedly the most inane, has ended with a unanimous rejection by a jury in just three hours on Dec 16. The trial had long become a circus act, as have many of the cases involving Apple, notably in the court rooms of Judges Lucy Koh, Denise Cote and Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers. Indeed, this ended up being a 10-year old class-action case without a single plaintiff! As one law professor put it:

Frankly, I find that flabbergasting, that in a universe of eight million potential plaintiffs, the two that were selected were disqualified. That really tells you a lot about this trial.

About a dozen days prior to this inevitable conclusion, the lawyers for the plaintiffs argued that Apple had deliberately and secretly deleted competitors’ songs from users’ iPods. That’s what the lawyers who couldn’t find two qualified plaintiffs out of eight million prospects said. Here’s what the media reported the next day as fact:

pressclips

There were dozens and dozens of versions of this ‘fact’ syndicated in a zillion outlets: “Apple had deliberately and secretly deleted competitors’ songs from users’ iPods”.

Of course, it takes exactly two words to rise above click-bait headline framing:

Here’s how Apple’s lead lawyer reacted to it in his closing statement:

There’s not one piece of evidence of a single individual who lost a single song, not even a complaint about it. This is all made up at this point.

This is clearly a simple example, and yet this is how it happens: one story at a time, thousands of times a day, every day. Yes, journalism isn’t exact science, but from epidemiology to space exploration, from technology reporting to business coverage, the sheer amount of fact-free, opinion-framing ‘news’ is now exceeding our collective ability to notice, care or correct. Yes, journalism has always been messy, but the speed with which it’s generated, aggregated and distributed may now be overwhelming us. Yes, we have ever growing access to filtering software to shape our own sphere of coverage, and yet tens of millions of people read, and likely most believed, that Apple had deliberately and secretly deleted competitors’ songs from users’ iPods, an impression which may never be sufficiently corrected. Yes, we’re getting better tools to find and check facts, and yet the incentives to not deceive readers through disingenuous headlining and packaging are clearly not in place. How many headline corrections have you seen in this case?

Paradoxically, in the age of oncoming vertically integrated digital-media companies it may become easier, and certainly faster, to ignore the facts.

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“Give monopolists a chance”

dcohen

Following last week’s Obfuscation by disclosure: a lawyerly design pattern, just a few more points on the Comcast acquisition of Time Warner from WSJ:

  1. “[Comcast Chief Executive Brian Roberts] sits on a presidential jobs council, has hosted President Barack Obama and top presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett at his Martha’s Vineyard home and has also golfed with the president.”
  2. “Mr. Roberts and his wife, Aileen, have donated $417,290 to Democrats over the past 25 years, compared with $116,150 for Republicans”
  3. “[Comcast] one of the most visible players in Washington…spent $18 million on lobbying in 2013, making it the seventh-highest spender overall”
  4. “Comcast employees made a total of $6.5 million in campaign contributions during the 2012 election cycle, including $466,000 to the Democratic National Committee and $305,000 to the president’s campaign for re-election”
  5. “Comcast Executive Vice President David Cohen is a major bundler of contributions for the Democrats, and has hosted a number of prominent fundraisers featuring the president at his home and other venues. Of the almost $870,000 Mr. Cohen and his wife, Rhonda, have donated to campaigns, 79% has gone to Democrats, while just 9% has gone to Republicans.”
  6. “Comcast’s lobbying and regulatory team includes Meredith Attwell Baker, a former Republican FCC commissioner who voted in favor of the Comcast-NBC Universal acquisition four months before she joined Comcast.”
  7. “One firm representing Comcast is Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP, which last year hired former top antitrust official Jon Leibowitz, who served as Mr. Obama’s first chairman of the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC shares antitrust authority with the Justice Department.”
  8. David Cohen: “we’re not afraid of the government review process. We know it will be stringent. We believe it will be fair and open. All we’re asking for is an opportunity to make our case.”

But what an opportunity! The parties are so sure that this deal will pass through the regulatory charade that Time Warner did not even bother asking for a breakup fee from Comcast should it fail, as is customary in such M&A activity.

Since cable/telecom markets are practically rigged, wouldn’t it be a test of faith to put Comcast’s contention that this deal is “pro-consumer, pro-competitive and strongly in the public interest” to a national referendum? It won’t happen obviously, but a useful mental exercise to remember why big business so loves regulated markets and regulators.

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Obfuscation by disclosure: a lawyerly design pattern

This is not earth shattering news. Not even news per se. It’s what you get if you were to slow down the insane rush of ‘news’ just a split second to see how the sausage is made. In this instance, how the news (Comcast acquisition of TimeWarner) is packaged, from a quick, high-level design point of view.

What we have here is a legal document dressed as a press release masquerading as a blog post presented at a corporate website in a section called “ComcastVoices: A Place For Conversations With Comcast”. In other words, it’s lobbying collateral raised to the level of public conversation.

(tl;dr: According to Comcast, the merger is “pro-sumer” if you “get past some of the hysteria,” it’s “approvable” by the regulators and won’t “reduce consumer choice at all”. Will it raise prices? “not promising that they will go down or even that they will increase less rapidly.” Given the historical record of the industry, it’s Comedy Central material.)

comcast banner

Unless you’re in this industry, you’ll likely never read it: it’s 2,480 words. If you’re a civilian and do read it, you won’t understand most of it. It’s not meant for you. How do you know that? If you look at the large introductory banner (above) you get your first design clue: “public interest benefits and undertakings”. It highlights the good stuff: “public,” “interest” and “benefits”. All good. How about “undertakings”? Well, as a promise of potential future positive actions, it sure beats “anti-trust concerns”. Since “public interest benefits and undertakings” is the only part highlighted in color in what’s otherwise an ocean of gray type, you can read this framing statement and be done with it. It perfectly encapsulates the rest: This merger is good for you. Any questions you may have will be taken care of. Thanks for stopping by.

Of course, if you’re really careful, you’ll also notice that it’s bylined by David L. Cohen not just as Executive Vice President (which is what he uses pretty much everywhere else and most notably at the official Comcast Executive Biographies org-chart) but also as Chief Diversity Officer. Yes, “Diversity”. Now you know you’ve really hit on the corporate heavy-gun of choice against discrimination, anti-trust and class warfare charges.

It would be very tempting, at this point, to go into the sausage factory and do a point-by-point walkthrough dealing with the creation of a media/internet/communications colossus that’ll dominate a third of the nation and all the anti-competitive network effects of such consolidation, but that too would be old news. Also, I promised this would be quick, high-level and design oriented.

If you read a lot of contracts or are involved in writing corporate legalese, you already know that it’s important to segregate the good parts from the bad and the mundane, even in those droning tomes set in monospaced fonts like the ubiquitous Times Roman or Courier. Type size, line length, leading, margins, bullets, lists and boldface can subtly lead the reader to pay unequal attention to selected parts. Of course, it’s best when this is done with a delicate touch for maximum surreptitious effect. Like so:

pro

It’s all pro, it’s all good. “Benefits” repeated 4X? Check. Segmented and bulleted? Check. Boldfaced talking points? Check. Inviting? Check. But what about the cons?

cons

Well, we already lost the boldface emphasis and the sound-bite friendly talking points. First comes “certain competitive concerns might be raised.” (“Might be” as if this M&A deal will sail through without any competition/anti-trust questions?) Then comes the yes-but mental priming before we get to deal with “certain competitive concerns”. (Not as memorable as the pro section above, is it?)

But if you really want to lose your audience, you’d best bring out the biggest gun of all: the text-soup with no paragraphs, no segmentation, no bullets, no highlights, no boldface, no nothin’. And dare your readers to read it…forget understanding or recalling any of it.

app1

app2

“Important Information” and “Cautionary Statement”. So “important” and so “cautionary” as to be served as text-soup. Unfortunately, they are not for the “benefit” of the corporation, so glance-and-forget-it.

Am I being naive here? After all, this is a corporation putting its best foot forward, isn’t it? I know. (In another life, I’ve done this for some of the largest corporations in the world.) My point is actually as obvious as it’s depressing: perversely, there is good news in all this. Design works, however evil it may be.

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Can robots write sports previews?

Considered a creative skill, writing has long been seen as mostly immune to automation and commoditization — the seemingly inevitable end-state of anything touched by the Internet. Perhaps no longer.

What’s the score?

One of the more ubiquitous writing genres is sports reporting. Countless publications, portals, aggregators and distributors in print, radio, TV and Internet cover team rosters, game previews, schedules, results and all manner of short notices from Little League to college games to professional sports. An army of writers are routinely tasked to generate the base content for this wide spectrum of sports coverage.

Here’s a recent example. Despite having been promoted as championship contenders this year but currently being at the very bottom of the NBA standings, Brooklyn Nets and NY Knicks recently met. The day before the game, as is customary, a “preview” of the upcoming game for general syndication had to be written. Something with a lede like this:

Lede1

Now remember, there are games in all sports. At all levels. Across the entire world. Every single day. There are also daily and and hourly developments to be covered in finance, weather, healthcare, marketing, real estate, politics, entertainment, transportation, technology and myriad other fields. There’s always been an insatiable demand for expository writing across the board. While domains are very different, to an analytical eye all such data-driven writing share two important traits: they’re very structured and highly automatable. Everything in the game preview above is simple prose, wrapped around stored data, shown in blue here:

Lede2

It turns out one NBA game preview is pretty much the same as any other similar game. We could structurally separate parts that can be substituted for different data about the other 28 teams and roughly the same compositional logic:

Lede3

If we can now plug in team-specific names, places and data wherever there’s one of those blue-bracketed placeholders above, we could customize a game preview so specifically to a given event that I’m confident 95% of the reading public couldn’t tell if those sentences were composed by a human writer or an algorithm, like the one I pseudo-reverse-engineered and highly simplified below:

Lede4

Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on your perspective and profession, such algorithmic-writing is not some hovering, hyperlooping fantasy. Here’s the actual preview that ran across many sites on the Internet and elsewhere before the game:

Full Preview

And syndicated in one of the biggest such venues, Yahoo Sports:

Human Version

Who’s your daddy?

See the non-human byline below the headline, Automated Insights? That’s one of the new generation of companies involved in algorithmic writing. There are, and will be, others. For the initiated, the technology is quite straight forward. Often structured data is the gating factor, not compositional technology. Parsing and conditional templating technology is well understood by now. It’s tedious but low-scale pieces could be done with procedural programming, larger ones with rules engines and truly scalable and flexible ones with semantic coupling of the domain specific data.

In fact, many aspects of the writing itself is amenable to conditional embellishment of the parts of speech. For example, in the piece above, we could have pre-programmed a list of synonyms for “struggled” and picked a substitute randomly or one specific to geography, audience or sports. Lexical stylization can indeed get very sophisticated through contextual or randomized algorithms. Management of such conditional logic and metadata at scale has been possible for a couple of decades. When composing a personalized investment report or answering a question on your iPhone, your broker and Siri (though using different technologies underneath) already do something similar.

The advantage

In our example, the day before the game there was another “Knicks-Nets Preview” written by a human, Associated Press basketball writer Brian Mahoney, also syndicated in Yahoo Sports. The two pieces clearly serve different purposes. Mahoney’s article is much longer, as well as being significantly more detailed, colorful and analytical. Automated Insights’s preview is all about brevity, information, timeliness and, ultimately, volume, coverage and cost-effectiveness. In one millionth of the time it takes Mahoney to write one of his NBA previews, Automated Insights can generate previews for all the games not just in NBA but in all sports, anywhere on the planet, as long as there’s underlying data. And in a domain like sports, there’s plenty of data.

The differentiating cost of algorithmic writing is nearly all front-loaded on template and conditional logic programming. When done properly, this can obviate post-production fact checking and proof reading. Once set up, these pieces can be auto-produced when underlying data changes or when schedules are triggered. Thus the marginal cost of iterative articles approaches zero.

The day has arrived

Clearly, programmed robots can in fact write sports previews. And many other types of writing suitable for algorithmic automation. As is the case with the Internet, this will displace a lot of writers and also create concomitant technology jobs elsewhere.

It would be easy to dismiss this as procedural, utilitarian writing that doesn’t share much with literary prose. Granted. But such competition is not the focus of algorithmic writing. Not yet, anyway. Given enough nouns, verbs and associations in a specific knowledge domain, you’d be surprised how close you can come in compositional “believability” even today. Tomorrow, don’t be surprised if your next textbook or travel guide or cookbook is written mostly by domain-specific algorithms. And welcome to the [“brave” | “splendid” | “efficient” | “fearful” | “faceless” | “decimating”] new world of algorithms…eating yet another profession!

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