Big Tech has always implied that the world of journalism would be a better place without the “driver”, yet they’re doing a crappy job of replacing it
“So sentimental… Not sentimental, no!”
This isn’t a #10yearchallenge, but just as Phoenix’s Lisztomania, Uber will be 10 this year. It all began in March 2009 (under the alias UberCab), and today, despite some infamous setbacks, the company prepares to go public with an estimated $90 billion evaluation. Typically, a business this hefty always provides some amusing figures. The ones media outlets like the most: $7.5 billion revenue in 2017, 4 billion rides per year, 3 million drivers. The one I like the most (and Uber prefers not to advertise): $2 billion investment in the self-driving cars program.
There’s a juvenile naiveté in this behaviour: not only from Uber trying to hide this information, but also from the collective imagination trying to judge it. Simply because Uber’s not the one to blame. You name a sector, I can point out some companies with the same ambition. Even better, you pick a letter of the alphabet and I point out a company investing in self-driving technology: Amazon, Baidu, Cisco, Daimler, ElringKlinger, Ford, GM, Honda, Iveco, Jaguar, Keyence, Land Rover, Microsoft, Nissan, Paccar, Qualcomm, Renault, Samsung, Tesla, UMC Taiwan, Volvo, Waymo, Yandex, ZF…
“Let’s go slowly, discouraged…”
The thing about Uber is, it still needs the driver. The rest of the alphabet can boast about their accomplishments in that field all they want, but for Uber, that’s a tricky move — unless, of course, there’s a magic method of telling 3 million employees that you’ve already burned $2 billion to discard them in five years.
"…distant from other interests"
Uber’s endgame is not only about pocketing the middleman money, but let’s say it is. How cost-effective would this driverless chimera be? In the second quarter of 2018, for example, Uber drivers cashed out $8.2 billion, which means that from the gross bookings of $12 billion that quarter, 68% ended up in drivers’ paychecks. Your estimation is correct: by the end of a whole year, drivers will have cost around $33 billion.
It will take more than five years, but eventually we will live in a self-driving cars universe. To some extent, we already are. The institutional propaganda, though, has undergone a series of adjustments to prevent commotion: self-driving trucks, for instance, will help truck drivers, not banish them from the roads. Or “better” yet, self-driving technology is already delivering packages and food in a drolly and harmless way. Everything is carefully crafted in small doses that bear tech business’ famous saying: “let’s make the world a better place”.
"This love for gentlemen only"
Naturally, it’s not only about the drivers. Jobs lost to automation are part of a future that is not only foreseeable, but inevitable. In the next 10 years, as many as 800 million posts will disappear worldwide due to advances in AI and robotics. The point is that some sectors will meet more resistance than others, and some won’t even be noticed.
Journalism — random example — has all the ingredients to run without most of its “drivers” — and there is actually no need to sugarcoat the transition — , but it didn’t even reach the truck-drivers-acting part. In order to adequately grasp the reasons for this, one must understand that there are two kinds of “drivers” in this framework. Media companies consider the middleman to be the journalist, but tech companies consider the middleman to be legacy media itself.
The first case could be more valid if projects such as Washington Post’s or AP’s robots had been enhanced and bolstered, but that won’t happen any time soon, thanks to newsrooms’ willingness (the juvenile naiveté is a trait that also dwells inside every newsroom).
“That’s with the fortunate only”
I’m focusing on the second case, thankfully, because that one seems much more intriguing. In the last 10+ years, Google, Facebook and its peers were accused of trying to replace traditional media. Every now and then they throw a bone (usually a bag of bones) to allay media upheavals: last year Google wrote a $300 million check to fund journalism-related projects, and last week Facebook did the same. But $300 million is a bargain considering that the replacing-traditional-media accusation happened to be accurate — at least money-wise. So why have none of the Big Tech delivered a self-driving news routine, especially now that EU Copyright Directive is reigniting the old warfare between publishers and news aggregators?
I get it: as with Uber’s plight, tech firms still need legacy media as one of the “drivers”, but presumably they should rise above the digital cacophony, so why can’t they? There are two competing theories: 1) Poor journalism got so damaged that not even AI and automation can fix it. 2) Big Tech, despite all the indications that they’ve always wanted to get rid of the middleman, can’t forge a decent project to replace it.
"…gotta be someone else"
Since neither options is particularly charming, I’ll go with the second one, in part because each corporation has serious issues on the matter:
In September 2018, the new Mac operating system, Mojave, introduced the News app, which is the desktop version of the iOS feature that’s been around since 2015. It may be the best attempt so far, and the most defective one. The pros: Apple News aesthetic palette looks nice, it merges traditional media with niche outlets — which is one of the core issues in this whole thing — , and, surprisingly, it has human curation.
However, the app is only available in a few selected countries — and that’s a very short list — , the customization process is not intuitive nor detail-oriented, it still relies solely on traditional media topics, and it makes no use of the powerful podcast directory Apple itself holds. In the end, the product had the potential to truly upgrade the conversation, but turns out to be just another news aggregator that works clumsily.
I always have the impression that Twitter will forever be the one that could have been. First off, the company was the forerunner in weeding the “driver” out when politicians, musicians, actors and athletes started to use the platform to make public appearances. More than that, ten years ago, it became not only a reporting tool for breaking news, but the leading actor of citizen media in a way that journalistic outlets couldn’t match. Yet Twitter never surpassed expectations. It’s not that they haven’t been trying — they are — , the problem is, they have an awesome ability to miss the point every single time: it happened with Vine, Periscope, the Moments tab, and now with the Explore tab. And it doesn’t look like this pattern is about to change anytime soon.
"Think less but see it grow, like a riot"
Jeff Bezos’ conglomerate wouldn’t be on this list were it not for Alexa. Nonetheless, since it owns the most popular voice controlled system on the planet, Amazon could do more for journalism than just buying The Washington Post. Voice controlled devices have an underestimated potential to rule media market faster than you can say “Alexa, ask Uber to request a self-driving car”. But above all, it would be mission-critical to overhaul the messy ecosystem embedded in each platform. Today, smart assistants like Alexa, Google Assistant and Siri are just a mere distraction, compared to what they should be.
I’d love to say that Facebook has 99 problems, but 1) I‘ve already borrowed this Jay-Z reference here, and 2) it has more than 99. One of the most obvious is related to the inability to purge fake news from the site and to recreate an encouraging environment for “real news” publishers. Ok, let me rephrase that: I’m aware they don’t really consider news — fake or not — to be an issue, but they should.
Today, Facebook’s obsession is tinkering with its video service Watch, since it understands that a significant portion of digital ad money will fall into this category. As the company still doesn’t know how to fine-tune Watch — probably waiting for the next YouTube Premium tweaks — , Zuckerberg will put journalism on hold ($300 million may do the trick) one more time.
"Not easily offended"
Like Apple, Google also holds most of the tools to boost a self-driving news environment. But something or someone(s) is definitely off in Google’s headquarters when it comes to journalism. The core obstacle is their all-in bet on AI and automation, which may not be the best strategy. The Google News tab on desktop is almost as tedious as a print newspaper (maybe they’re trying to establish a bond with the past), and although the mobile version looks more appealing, most of the stories selected, courtesy of a not so intelligent AI, miss the target scandalously.
In addition, Google fails in basic premises, such as being able to combine its own extensive resources — podcasts from Google Podcasts or videos from YouTube — with regular news (at least, not in a way that make any sense). And as if that weren’t bad enough, the topics customization on Google News is a user experience disaster that if it had been done intentionally wouldn’t have turned out as wacky.
The funny thing about naivety is that it’s not exclusive to the unwary and the melancholic. It belongs to me as well. Yes, maybe there’s no make-the-world-a-better-place for lack of an adequate stimulus, like Uber’s $33 billion per year. But maybe the explanation is much simpler: there is no self-driving news initiative because nobody cares that much about the news or who is “driving” them. In that case, we can only hope that, at some point, new or traditional media can rise again…
“…from a mess to the masses”.