Want Not, Waste Not

by Mary Jackson (September 2010)

Conrad Moffat Black, AKA Baron Black of Crossharbour, is putting his bail to good use by expounding his ideas on the future of newspapers. He envisages a newspaper that will be tailor made – right down to the inside leg. From the New Criterion:

[D]esigner versions of the newspaper should be emailed to subscribers, to be printed out at pre-agreed times or as particular bulletins come in, in a format that more closely resembles a recognizable newspaper than a contemporary home printer can manage, so that it awaits the pleasure of the subscriber with that individual’s known news, comment, and entertainment preferences favored in the composition of the personalized edition.

In this scenario, a subscriber preoccupied with financial news, the fortunes of the Republican Party, New York City social gossip, and the progress of the Purdue University basketball team, as well as flattering photographs of glamorous news-making women, could be addressed appropriately. A photograph of the wife of the president of France, Mme. Bruni-Sarkozy, exiting her official car and revealing an expanse of well-toned thigh, could lead a front section focusing on important business developments…

I doubt the calorie-conscious Mme Bruni-Sarkozy would be too keen on the word “expanse”. And, pace Iran, her front section is her own business.

… a front section focusing on important business developments, polls in upcoming elections that figure prominently in Republican hopes; an interview with the coach of the Purdue basketball team (if necessary one conducted by telephone from the newsroom, if the number of interested subscribers justified it); and a list, with pictures and asides, of people seen in the boxes of the Metropolitan Opera House the night before.

Were it not for the po-faced earnestness of the rest of the piece, I would have thought this was tongue in cheek. But Baron Black – not to be confused with Black Baron – appears to believe what he writes.

Of course we all personalise our newspapers by picking out news and comment that interests us. And most of us choose a newspaper that partly chimes with our views; or, if it clashes, this again is a deliberate choice – I read The Guardian if my blood pressure is low or I am cold under the collar. But a newspaper that has analysed your “preferences” and gives you what it thinks you want? This would be like going to a restaurant that only served your favourite dish, or, worse still, constantly looking in the mirror.

Not everyone wants a daily dose of Carla Bruni between the covers, particularly if, like a musical birthday card, she comes with her trademark twanking. But everyone has bees in their bonnets, elephants in their rooms and other b?tes noires. It should be apparent to anyone who reads my blog posts that I look at the world through the eyes of Sellar and Yeatman – or rather through the blinkers of their one great and memorable book, 1066 And All That. A Jackson-tailored newspaper would have English Kings “dying of a surfeit in the usual way”, the French as a Bad Thing, and the rest of the world as quite “numb and vague”. On the other side of the paper – for I would ignore Sellar and Yeatman’s instructions to print on one side only – would be a series of Carry- On-Up-the Kyber-meets-Round-the-Horne puns about limp editions and firm sales. This would be a flop (ooooh, matron!) for it would have nothing to feed on but itself. The whole point of a 1066 And All That template is to apply it to real news, to contexts outside itself – the less appropriate the better – and the point of saucy puns is hard to make but good to find.

Even if a newspaper knows what you want, it may still give you an unwelcome surfeit. But does it know, and if so, how? Presumably, unless an army of publishers is reading your diary, your preferences will be selected by computer programme – an algorithm, no less –  that counts the frequency of words you use or sites visited.

Such programmes can get it badly wrong. For example, not long ago, The Times linked to a website I Write Like, which purports to, like, tell you who you, like, write like:

Every writer dreams of the day his or her book will be published and of the glowing reviews that will compare them to the greats: “an heir to Salinger” perhaps, or “like Tolstoy, only better”. Now, though, you don’t have to wait for that elusive publishing contract and the far-off praise of the critics. There’s a website that will place you, albeit hypothetically, in the literary canon with a click of your mouse.

The premise of the I Write Like (IWL)website is simple; you paste in a couple of sample chapters of your magnum opus and it tells you which famous author your work resembles. The fact that the use of the site has spread like wildfire – it has had more than five million hits and counting since it was a launched a few weeks ago – suggest that there are plenty of budding authors out there hoping either to have their suspected literary greatness confirmed, or to hit the commercial mother lode; to be told, for example, that they write like Dan Brown or Stephenie Meyer.

Naturally I couldn’t resist testing a few New English Review contributors. In particular, I was hoping that Hugh would turn out to write like Nabokov or like there’s no tomorrow, but no, he writes like David Foster Wallace. So does Artemis Gordon Glidden. Well, you never see the two of them, or the three of them, together. That joke will run and run. Apparently I write like Dan Brown, but I think that’s a big plot. New English Review reader Xanthippe noted a few more serious errors:

 [I]t thought Spenser’s “Faerie Queene” Book 1 was written by Shakespeare, too (a good authorship algorithm should be able to tell Shakespeare and Spenser apart), Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” was written by Nabokov, Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium” was written by James Joyce, and Wallace Stevens’s “Sunday Morning” was written by Mary Shelley.

If an algorithm can’t do rhythm – or allegory – can it do news? Does it know you well enough to deliver your news before you even know you want it? Or is it rather the case that a little learning in an algorithm is a dangerous thing. When surfing for information about Anne Frank, I was affronted and amused by an advert for loft insulation; clearly a tin-eared algorithm had latched onto the word “attic”. And think of those nubile Muslimahs that pop up offering marriage in the less than fertile ground of Front Page magazine. Has the algorithm clocked only the ”Islam” and ignored the “We don’t like …” that preceded it? Or is a Muslim Al Gorhithm – from the name of a Persian mathematician that Islam has claimed for itself –  indulging in a bit of flirty fishing? For that matter, a particularly stupid algorithm, or Police Community Support Officer, might conclude from my surfing patterns that I was a Jihadist – after all, the J-word keeps turning up on my screen.

“I don’t know much about art,” said, among others, Gelett Burgess, “But I know what I like.” That’s one up on me; I often don’t know what I like until I see it. The same goes for reading matter. A Jackson-tailored newspaper won’t do. Art, news or spinach – a little of what you don’t fancy does you good.

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Mary Jackson contributes regularly to The Iconoclast, our Community Blog. Click here to see all her contributions, on which comments are welcome.  


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