The comedic future, 4.3 light years, never read the comments

A Letter

Here is a perplexing statement about Facebook: “Quartz confirmed from multiple sources that Facebook has laid off the entire editorial staff on the Trending team—15-18 workers contracted through a third party. The Trending team will now be staffed entirely by engineers, who will work to check that topics and articles surfaced by the algorithms are newsworthy.” What’s perplexing is that, whether your staff is made up of people who call themselves editors, or people who call themselves engineers, if the work they are doing involves vetting editorial material, they are, by definition, editorial staff. It may be that this new editorial staff has a different set of tools at its disposal—i.e., algorithms—but editing by algorithm and editing by other means is still editing. It would not at all surprise me if, in the near future, the ability to author content algorithms appears on lists of editorial job descriptions, much as data analysis has recently become another crucial journalism skill. Regardless of the tools, there are core editorial practices that inform that work, and those who are aware of them and conscious of what it is they are doing are going to have a leg up over those who are oblivious.

John Herrman digs into the rise of the native Facebook publisher and it isn’t pretty. Many of these outlets read like Tim Ferris-fueled fever dreams of men who aspire to sit by the beach while their army of Amazon Turks labors away to bring in the money. One group spends $30,000 a month to bring in $60,000 worth of revenue—not a bad margin if you don’t mind building your house on a fault line. Several promote pro-Trump messages, but the proprietors aren’t big Trump fans; they just know what brings in traffic. (They are, of course, appalled by the vitriol of their followers.) Reading this, I couldn’t help but think back to Adrian Chen’s fascinating investigation into a Russian “troll farm” responsible for an array of pro-Kremlin propaganda and seemingly unrelated hoaxes that played across social media. Chen’s trolls and these Facebook pages use very similar tactics; at first glance, the trolls are more professional.

Meanwhile, NPR made a decision to disable comments, joining many other news organizations who have determined that comments just aren’t worth the trouble. Included in their announcement is an analysis that only .06% of their users left comments, and that that cohort was overwhelmingly male (commenters were 83% male while NPR’s overall demographic is only 52% male). On Twitter, Gene Demby talked about the decision, noting the exhaustion felt by those responsible for moderating. Of note, Demby describes a comment section made up of mostly white men upset that NPR content wasn’t “for” them. I take two things away from this: that the problem of comments is bigger than just comments, and stems at least in part from populations of people angered by the fact that their long-held privilege is beginning to slip away; and that comments themselves may be unsalvageable. Hosting smart conversations about news is a worthy and achievable goal but we may need to invent new formats to accomplish it.

Alex Steffen—a futurist known for authoring Worldchanging among other sustainability work—is launching a documentary series called The Heroic Future. On the one hand, I am entirely on board with any exercise to imagine different futures, especially given the current paucity of positive scenarios that climate change presents us with. On the other hand, the language here gives me a great deal of pause. I don’t think anything resembling heroism is going to solve our problems or lead us into a new, sustainable future. If anything, we need healers not heroes, people who can adapt and evolve, who can assist others in need. Heroism is far too tainted by toxic masculinity and hubris to be of use to us now. If we’re going to imagine a better future, we’re going to have to start by imagining better models than the tragic hero.

Among the books I turn to again and again is The Comedy of Survival in which Joseph Meeker presents two modes for being in the world: the tragic mode, in which our hero tries to change the world in his (and it’s always his) own image, and the comic mode, in which a motley crew of men and women adapt to their environment, never quite succeeding in getting exactly what they want, but managing to get by nonetheless. Tragedies always end with the hero’s head carted off the stage; comedies end in weddings. Let’s imagine a comedic future instead of a heroic one.

Nate Parker responds to the furor over allegations of rape against him and his co-writer on The Birth of a Nation with a remarkably candid interview with Britni Danielle in Ebony. Parker’s admission that, until recently, he hadn’t given much thought to either consent or gender is both unsurprising and unforgivable; but I was impressed by his willingness to confront that gap as well as his vow to close it: “Listen to me when I say I’m understanding that I’m dealing with a problem, like an addiction. Just like you can be addicted to White Supremacy and all of the benefits, you can be addicted to male privilege and all of the benefits that comes from it. It’s like someone pointing at you and you have a stain on your shirt and you don’t even know it.” That said, Parker’s assertion that he will become a leader on gender is ill-advised. Sometimes—often times—it’s your job to listen, not lead.

A team from the Center for Integration and Improvement of Journalism has produced an excellent and ambitious diversity style guide, “a resource to help journalists and other media professionals cover a complex, multicultural world with accuracy, authority and sensitivity.” The guide covers terminology related to race, immigration, disability, gender, sexuality, and more, with smart, concise advice about how and when to use a term (and when and why to avoid it). I’d love to see this expanded to cover more than just terminology; there are endless situations beyond terms where many writers are evidently in need of guidance. E.g., when it is and isn’t appropriate to refer to a transgender person’s former name; why opening an article about a prominent woman scientist with a reference to her casserole recipe is sexist; the ought-to-be-obvious racism of reporting on the shooting of an unarmed black man by running a mug shot from an unrelated crime. The best way to avert situations like these is to hire sensitive editors with diverse backgrounds, but documentation can serve both to back those editors up and to fill in the gaps of their own knowledge and experience. Bravo to this first release, however; I’m excited to make use of it and to see where it goes.

David Roberts looks into the state of wind power in the States and finds really good news. Wind power is getting cheaper, wind turbines are getting better, and capacity is way up, driven in part by the renewal of a tax credit that has subsidized wind installations. Perhaps most encouraging is the political culture around wind power: in addition to employing some 88,000 Americans (and growing), wind power is also extremely popular. Roberts writes: “Around 90 percent of Americans believe the government should encourage wind energy—and that includes 80 percent of Republicans (some of the top wind states are run by Republicans). Always worth remembering: Climate change is a controversial issue, divided along partisan lines, but clean energy is not. Everyone loves clean energy.”

Franck Marchis explains what we know about Proxima B, an exoplanet discovered this week that could be the right temperature and size to have liquid water—and, therefore, life. It may be years before we know more about its composition, but the discovery is astonishing nonetheless: “Ultimately, this discovery is a significant step on the road to mapping our galaxy. And it has given us a new world to explore, and one that is not too far away. We may not go there any time soon, but it will motivate us (and our funding agencies!) to design and build instruments to image and characterize this planet. What could possibly be more exciting than, in the not-too-distant future, to get a picture of a terrestrial planet whose atmosphere we can see and on which we could possibly detect signatures of life? That monumental moment may come in the next decade, and will definitely happen faster now that we know where to point our telescopes.”

Alan Burdick notes that while Proxima B is a mere 4.3 light years away—practically next door in astronomical terms—it would take us more than eighty thousand years to get there. And, because it’s moving along with the rest of the universe, by the time we had traversed that distance, it would be another two light years further away. Humans are never, ever going to make it to Proxima B. But if we’re persistent and clever, we may just get a better picture of it—and who knows, if there’s life, maybe one day we could communicate with it, albeit with an eight year delay between texts. (Four years for the message to reach the planet’s inhabitants, four years to receive their response; plus who knows how much time spent deciding what to say.)

I was struck by the many responses to the announcement that joked about Proxima B being a potential escape from Earth—or from this interminable election cycle. And, look, I get it—stories about traveling to other worlds have captivated me since childhood, and there are many ways, both reasonable and otherwise, to imagine humans eventually leaving Earth. But some fantasies are just that. Burdick writes: “We seem just a little too eager to escape our history and envisage our species out among the stars, with a red sun rising above icy peaks or river-carved canyons. As if our one planet were not enough and its man-made troubles too much for our ingenuity. But we’re looking for salvation in exactly the wrong place. The cosmos is a hall of mirrors. There is no future out there, only an ancient and unfathomable past, its horizon receding ever faster.”

It’s back to school week for people of all ages. Here’s James Baldwin in “A Talk to Teachers”: “If, for example, one managed to change the curriculum in all the schools so that Negroes learned more about themselves and their real contributions to this culture, you would be liberating not only Negroes, you’d be liberating white people who know nothing about their own history. And the reason is that if you are compelled to lie about one aspect of anybody’s history, you must lie about it all. If you have to lie about my real role here, if you have to pretend that I hoed all that cotton just because I loved you, then you have done something to yourself. You are mad.”

Related books

The Comedy of Survival

Joseph Meeker

Meeker argues that the destructive aspects of western civilization are founded on the tragic mode, while the comic mode offers a path for redemption.