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In David Brin’s ‘Existence,’ a sci-fi journalist relies on credible smart mobs and ubiquitous connection

By Steve Outing

If you want to have an idea of what the future (or various futures) might look like, I hope you’re a fan of science fiction. The best sci-fi novelists, including author/futurist/scientist David Brin, are adept at extrapolating possible futures based on emerging technologies, scientific discoveries, and societal trends that are just beginning to exhibit themselves today. Brin, in fact, in his compelling 2012 novel “Existence,” incorporates the future technologies and reporting techniques used by a journalist decades from now into a complex, multi-layered story.

The journalist is but one character and the future of journalism is but one Big Idea among many considered and melded in this high-minded novel. Fortunately, Brin’s long tome is entertaining and thought-provoking, even if you start reading, as I did, because you want a taste of a top futurist/scientist’s forecasts of the future of journalism and media.

Existence cover“Existence” is, as one reviewer wrote, “hard science fiction, imagining a future that is a realistic extrapolation based on what we now think are genuine possibilities and genuine constraints.” The plot is a common sci-fi one — humankind’s “first contact” with other inhabited worlds — but don’t worry, this is serious modern literature, not fluff, yet entertaining enough to tickle the pleasure cells in the reader’s brain. For me, it was one of those “I can’t put it down” books and I highly recommend it.

But this is not a book review, so look elsewhere for reviews or (better yet) pick up a copy of “Existence” to see what the fuss is about. I’m going to focus on the novel’s vision of news media in a few decades, when the book’s events take place.

No ‘Lone Ranger’ reporters in this future

One of the novel’s principal characters, who we catch up with every few chapters, is Tor, a young, (female) rising news star in a future giant media conglomerate. Yes, in Brin’s future there are still major media players that sink lots of money into covering the news, and MediaCorp, Tor’s employer, seems to be the globally dominant brand.

But much has changed in the news world compared to today. For one, recently anointed “star” reporter Tor is in constant contact and regularly reporting and investigating with the help of “smart mobs” — i.e., sometimes large crowds of her followers who she can summon and communicate with at any time and from anywhere to seek ideas, answer questions, sample the group’s desire for what story she should cover next, or assign tasks to in order to help Tor finish an investigation. Oh yes, she could also seek help from the editors who pay her salary.

Of course, the paragraph above will lead you to questions.

The supercomputer resting on your nose

Tor smart glasses
Character “Tor,” a young journalist,
wears her smart glasses

First, communication with the crowd, with experts, with her editors, etc. is possible via “tru-view glasses” which many people wear in order to communicate with the world at any time, seek answers in real-time, pull up real-time news streams, view ubiquitous layers of “augmented reality” digital information, and more. Tor can even live-stream a point-of-view video from her glasses to the world, unfiltered — as she does when she finds herself in the middle of a big and dangerous story, thwarting a terrorist attack while the world watches the action through her eyes. She, and other characters, also possesses an artificial-intelligence assistant (an “AI”) which can anticipate her information needs and communicate via the glasses’ visual screen and/or their ability to “speak” to her, since the glasses have auditory capability, also.

In essence, tru-view glasses put a computer more powerful than any in existence today onto your face, as a pleasingly attractive eyewear piece.

It’s pretty obvious that today’s Google Glass is the infant version of Brin’s decades-later “tru-view” glasses. Even today, with a pair of Google Glass specs and some extra gadgets, a journalist can live-stream video from his or her point of view; but it will take a tech team and planning to pull it off. This capability becomes incredibly useful for journalists in the future when turning on a live-stream is accomplished with a blink or a hand gesture, and instantly your Big Breaking Disaster Story is being shown live across multiple media forms. (Imagine a team of reporters all wearing tru-views covering a major story from different locations, and editors sharing the video streams of multiple journalists — and eyewitnesses, if they consent — to provide incredibly rich coverage of a news event.)

Tru-views also allow private communication to occur, whether a voice conversation (without need to fully vocalize your message, for privacy), text messages back and forth and written with your thoughts, or sharing data and information (such as a video, or a colleague connecting you to a live video feed of a press conference far away, or giving you access to search an online database). This (and there’s more in the book, of course) extrapolates the potential for today’s immature “smart glasses” technology. If you pooh-pooh Google Glass as a silly technology, perhaps reading Brin will open your mind to how useful smart glasses will be in time.

Can “mobs” be “smart”?

Another important Brin journalistic vision in the novel is the idea that journalists are not alone. With everyone “plugged in” to the “Mesh” (a successor to previous Internets which apparently were destroyed by some past awfulness), plus advancements in artificial intelligence, reporters like Tor who have built up a following can tap into the collective intelligence and contact networks of hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people. All this communication and collaboration is made via the magical tru-view glasses.

But as we all know today, online “mobs” of people usually are dumb, not smart. That is, within a mob following and interacting with a journalist, there will be trolls, loud-mouths, ideologues, and other unpleasant types to muck up the usefulness of the mob. The smart voices can get drowned out, or driven away, by the unsavory elements of the mob.

Brin’s answer to this conundrum is something much talked about today, but not in existence in any valuable form: rated Credibility of everyone participating in the online interaction. If everyone who wants to interact with Tor as she covers a story has vetted credibility ratings, then the technology in her tru-view specs can filter out the bozos and bring to her attention the information and/or opinions of those with high credibility — especially high credibility on a specific topic that she’s researching. Or assemble a “posse” of volunteers for a task requiring multiple capable and knowledgeable assistants.

Further, she can take the pulse of the smart mob, asking for advice on what path to take next. She receives aggregate results from what everyone in the mob is answering, but with higher-credibility participants’ responses weighted heavily, and the mass of words and data interpreted and visualized by her AI assistant.

This is a compelling vision of leveraging the “wisdom of the crowd.” It started with technology journalist Dan Gillmor’s (then-)surprising statement early in the Internet era that “my readers know more than I do.” Journalists should not and cannot shrink back from interacting with and seeking help from “the audience,” but in 2013 we do not yet possess the technology and techniques to quickly and accurately extract the wisdom from an online crowd amid the copious dreck. Brin apparently thinks we’ll get there eventually.

Alas, credibility is a tricky measurement to apply to any individual or group or institution. The deceivers must be identified and discounted. Multiple credibility scores will need to be assigned to a single person; the Harvard professor with a Ph.D. in cyber-terrorism will have top credibility on that and related topics, but a credibility rating of near zero on alternative energy, for instance. The lowly undergraduate who just happens to be a genius needs to be recognized with a high credibility score based on the quality of what she has shared and published, and the value of her interactions with others online.

And then, the big question: Who or what entity will be tasked with assigning credibility scores to those who participate in the online world? Credibility ratings probably will become a big business in the years to come, with multiple ratings agencies competing to define and refine the best algorithms. Today, just as Google Glass is a pale stab at creating “tru-view” glasses, credibility services like Klout, PeerIndex, and Kred are crude early attempts at identifying the credibility of individuals. At least we’ve started on the path toward Brin’s vision.

A final journalistic observation

Let me close with one other notable characteristic of Brin’s vision of journalism in the decades ahead. The media landscape in “Existence” does allow for media brands to be important, and to employ experienced and talented journalists. But equally, and perhaps more, important is that future journalists hold valuable personal brands. Because a talented reporter like Tor has had some success and gathered a large audience and community around her, it’s Tor the person who interacts with them and has the relationship with them. MediaCorp is of secondary importance, although it was the entity that initially crowned Tor with a decent degree of credibility simply by employing her. Brin’s depiction of a future where individual journalists and their online mobs or communities are the stars, more so than the media brands, is akin to today’s accelerating trend of journalists who have been successful at building strong personal brands leaving mighty news institutions: David Pogue and Nate Silver leaving the New York Times; Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg departing Dow Jones to go it alone; etc. That’s a likely scenario of which I agree with Brin will play out.

As I said early on, “Existence” is full of Big Ideas, journalism’s future just one. So go read the novel; I’ve ignored so much of its value in opening your mind to new ideas about our world’s future.

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!