Maybe our addiction to story is what's blocking the next era of journalism - challenged more deeply by neuroscience and AI

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We’re hanging out with our Danish brothers and sisters at the Altenativet national annual conference, in Odense. And every other conversation is about the media - what they decide to focus on, how they are happiest uncovering - or exaggerating - splits and divisions and scandals.

At A/UK, we don’t hold our contemporary news media on these islands in very high regard. The power of the right-leaning tabloids to make immigrants folk-devils, to invoke ethnic nationalisms, to ridicule climate protestors, has been a toxic mix of profit-seeking and ideology. It’s an understandable response just to turn away to “alternative” media, or select a flow of facts and opinions from your peers.

But some journalists are trying to respond (see our category on ‘A Better Media’), with some brilliance, to the deepest levels of the crisis of news media… Which is how it measures up against the latest science of how we understand our world; what we regard as an adequate picture of reality.

Jeff Jarvis is professor and director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism, at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism, and someone who, for years, has grappled with what the internet and collapsing business models will do to the classic functions of journalism.

But his new essay, `’A Coming Crisis of Cognition: Storytelling and the Ebb of Explanation (an open version on his blog), Jarvis uses neuroscience and AI to ask whether journalism should still be about “the story” - given how addicted and pleasure-seeking our brains are for good, compelling stories:

My greatest heresy to date …  is to doubt the primacy of the story as journalistic form and to warn of the risk of valuing drama, character, and control over chaotic reality. Now I’ll dive deeper into my heretical hole and ask: What if the story as a form, by its nature, is often wrong? What if we cannot explain nearly as much as we think we can? 

What if our basis for understanding our world and the motives and behaviors of people in it is illusory? What would that mean for journalism and its role in society? I believe we need to fundamentally and radically reconsider our conceptions of journalism.

Jarvis dives into two books to explore these questions. The first is Alex Rosenberg’s How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of Our Addiction to Stories. Rosenberg’s basic claim is that we have evolved a love of story because we needed to be able to understand the motivations of others in our social group. We need to know that people have a past, which may help explain their present responses, and help us guess what they’re going to do next (we have a “theory of their mind”, in other words).

But Rosenberg asks: what if our addiction to these close-up stories, about people we need to immediately deal with by standing in their shoes, are extended into bigger stories - about nation, race, tradition, law, culture? This might be an attractive way to join up the dots in a confusing society, but “seeking the story in everything” fundamentally misleads us about what might be causing the confusion.

Jarvis asked Rosenberg what consquences this had for journalists, ever seeking the hottest story. The professor replied:

Journalists keep asking the question ‘how did you feel about…’ that invites the interviewee to roll out the beliefs and desires that drove their actions. Your business model drives you to attract large audiences in the face of the public’s demands for a good story…

So what should you turn to instead of the story? My message isn’t that journalists have to work harder to dig out the real motives behind the actions they report. It’s that they need to change their target and their approach to it.

Stop trying to explain what people do as actions driven by motives. Start taking on major social trends and figure out how the structure of cultural variation and selection imposes outcomes.

The last line seems to come from a rather pitiless vision of neuroscience. Like Newton for physics and Darwin for nature, it robs us of any sense that the universe has any purpose - but particularly that we, inside ourselves, can full intend our goals. “Our decisions could be determined by patterns in memory — experience or instinct — or rewards”, says Rosenberg. “As in all the rest of the biological domain, there are no purposes, just a convincing illusion of purpose. Neuroscience is completing the scientific revolution by banishing purpose from the last domain where it’s still invoked to explain and predict.”

What this implies for journalism, says Jarvis, is that it focusses on issues and trends over personalities and predictions. “The report, the discussion, and the investigation are more reliable units of journalism than the story and our skill is more verification than storytelling”.

There’s another challenge to the veracity of the “story” as a form of news - and that comes from AI and machine learning, as explained by another new book, David Weinberger’s Everyday Chaos. Weinberger looks at the power of machine learning - already able to make amazing predictions in medicine, law, engineering - and asks what it means for story-seeking animals like us:

Deep learning’s algorithms work because they capture better than any human can the complexity, fluidity, and even beauty of a universe in which everything affects everything else, all at once.

As we will see, machine learning is just one of many tools and strategies that have been increasingly bringing us face to face with the incomprehensible intricacy of our everyday world. But this benefit comes at a price: we need to give up our insistence on always understanding our world and how things happen in it.

Yes, machine learning may enable us to better predict cancer or market movements or traffic accidents, saving time, money, even lives.

Our new engines of prediction are able to make more accurate predictions and to make predictions in domains that we used to think were impervious to them because this new technology can handle far more data, constrained by fewer human expectations about how that data fits together, with more complex rules, more complex interdependencies, and more sensitivity to starting points.

Concludes Jarvis: “With that benefit, we need to give up on our belief in stories and the theory of mind, not to mention our reliance on always being able to uncover knowable laws. We need to give up on our expectation of explanation for why things happen — even for why we do things.” He quotes again from Weinberger:

Why have we so insisted on turning complex histories into simple stories? Marshall McLuhan was right: the medium is the message. We shrank our ideas to fit on pages sewn in a sequence that we then glued between cardboard stops. 

Books are good at telling stories and bad at guiding us through knowledge that bursts out in every conceivable direction, as all knowledge does when we let it.

But now the medium of our daily experiences — the internet — has the capacity, the connections, and the engine needed to express the richly chaotic nature of the world.

Chaos is what journalism promises to tame. But journalism fails. It always has. The world is less explainable than we would like to admit.

So in the light of these challenges, where would a new journalism start? Jarvis lays out the challenges:

Journalism requires a different starting point: not getting and writing stories to fill a Gutenberg-era product called a publication, not convincing ourselves and our public that we can summarize and explain their world in the neat confines of text, not merely saying what happened today or will tomorrow.

Instead, I want to imagine a journalism that begins with the problems we see and reaches across disciplines to seek solutions… Thus a reimagined journalism would not act as gatekeeper but as bridge.

As an example, Jarvis imagines a story on an authoritarian regime beginning by look at the neuroscience of in-and-out-group behaviour. How can journalism contribute to the necessary process of “making strangers less strange”? It could mean, suggests Jervis:

  • enabling the outsiders to tell their stories

  • educating one group about another’s circumstances.

  • bringing strangers together to model peaceful behavior.

  • trying to get people to like each other more than our stories.

  • Using oxytocin levels as a metric to replace page views

Maybe journalists should draw from anthropology, also. As defined by Tim Ingold, its aim is “not to interpret or explain the ways of others; not to put them in their place or consign them to the ‘already understood’. It is rather to share in their presence, to learn from their experiments in living, and to bring this experience to bear on our own imaginings of what human life could be like, its future conditions and possibilities.”

A journalism influenced by anthropology might, suggests Jarvis, “ask factions of society to reflect on their own behavior or to give those excluded from power the opportunity to reflect themselves. For this, we have disciplines devoted to African-American, Latinx, women’s, and LGBTQ studies to help”.

What would a news be like that knew, deeply, our human suscepitibility to fake news? If it read the science, how would it change its practice? And if science told us that it was white males older than 65 that most distributed fake stories, seven times more than young people, “then we might decide that what we really need is not stories about political fights but instead massive group therapy: journalism as couch”.

Jarvis promises that he’s just “scratching the surface” - but it’s a fascinating new view on the function of journalism, challenged by neuroscience and AI. One wonders what kinds of organisations might take this forward…