Sunday, January 7, 2018

Ghost in the machine

Work pod, 1871 tech incubator at the Merchandise Mart

     I won't mourn the workplace. There's enough old people mourning stuff that's changing on Facebook. Having to show up a specific place at a set time, to work under the eye of supervisors ... it was a kind of tyranny. How much more freeing then, to know what you need to do, when you need to do it, and just do it, on your own schedule. Is that not being a professional?
      A kind of tyranny, or so I imagine. To be honest, being a reporter has always allowed one to range far afield. You're supposed to be out there, digging, not hanging around the office looking busy. I remember, I was living in Oak Park, so it had to be almost 30 years ago. It was my day off, in the evening. There was some kind of police action on Harlem Avenue. A chase. The paper phoned and I hurried over. Two things stick in mind: one, realizing I was between a group of cops, guns drawn, charging down the street and someone else fleeing in the opposite direction, and immediately flattening myself against a wall as they hurried past. And the next day, laughing on the telephone to a friend, saying, "Only at the Sun-Times can you be lying in bed, in your underwear, on your day off at 5 p.m. and still end up writing the front page story for the next day." 
      I can do my job anywhere. I can open my eyes in the morning and work through my column in my head, turning the writing of it into more of a transcription job, almost mere typing. I've written the column on airplanes, in ship staterooms. I once conducted an interview while getting a prostate exam. 
      Yet I still routinely make a point of going into the office. I'm not sure why. Nostalgia perhaps. To show I still value my job. An expression of the hope that unexpected encounters might occur, that ideas are exchanged, information shared in a non-virtual way. Things happen. Last Thursday was a good example. I was writing about the cold. I was flipping through books on weather history, and almost thought I should stay home to be close to my materials. It was as cold in Northbrook as in the city. But the most people were downtown,  so I bundled up and went. 
      As it turned out, when I went to work, there was a press conference on the deep freeze at the office of emergency management. So I went to it, and it added a bit to my story. I was glad I took the trouble.
      The online world discourages that. You flip open your laptop and you're there, both everywhere and nowhere. It's the playing field we all compete upon, more or less, more and more.
       Were I doing my job at peak efficiency, I would write column after column about Donald Trump, tweeting them with all my might. I certainly would never waste time going into the office, or traveling to places to talk to people who weren't the president or observe things that had nothing to do with politics. That's so antique—like dipping candles.
       I'm looking at my stats from yesterday's blog. At midnight, I posted a column on the gross anatomy lab at Loyola University's medical school. It was almost a decade old, but few of my readers would have read it. It was reported, from the room with the bodies, talking to the teachers, the students, ruminating on life and death, the grandeur of the human body and the requirements of respect and faith.
       Seven hours later, I woke up, read Donald Trump's jaw-dropping tweet about what a stable genius he, if nobody else, considers himself to be. Aghast, like everybody else, I fired off a cri du coeur reaction, like 100 other agonized cries of thinking liberals. That post quadrupled the traffic of the anatomy class post—four times as many readers.
       On one hand, you could say, "Why not?" The house is on fire, people want to know where the fire department is, not watch a travelogue to Myanmar. 
       On the other, the house is always burning, so people in the media need to perform a bit of mental gymnastics. Yes, clicks are important—the metric that dictates advertising, which pays everybody, or would, if only there were more of them. But if you focus only on clicks, you're cobbling together memes mocking Donald Trump's hair and glorying over kittens or whatever. And lot of people do that already, vast boiler rooms of them filled with youth chained to laptops, all around the world. 
       Is it wise to compete with that? Technology wins. I know that. And it's a tremendous resource. My co-author and I wrote our last book for four years, in Google Doc and over the telephone, and never met in person until the day before the book launch party. That worked. 
      But we did meet eventually. That was important, to me anyway. The human element is important and, I believe, will always be important. Michael Ferro's dream of some algorithm churning out stories and videos won't be able to bring to journalism what human creators bring to it. It'll always lack a certain something—the human touch, the ghost in the machine. You can fake it, and you can fool some people. But you won't fool everybody. That's my hope, anyway. My plan. It might not be much of a plan, but I'm sticking with it.
      Thus I go into the office, stiff-arming the suspicion that I'm doing so out of some mock heroic notion of work for a newspaper ... whoops, multi-platform storytelling dynamic bitchain synergicity system. 
          I like the picture above because you have the woman isolated in her pod, earbuds screwed in, laptop open. And through the wavy glass, there are people meeting. Not virtually, but physically. I really don't think it will go out of style. I keep thinking about Space Food sticks—we were going to take our nutrition through pills. A dream some nerds keep alive with their Solyent Meal Replacement drinks. But it isn't a trend, it's a quirk, because guess what? People like food. They like making food. They like eating food. Real food. Just because something is possible and convenient doesn't make it desirable. I love the Internet. I love having the choice of grinding out something at home and then reading on the sofa, or girding my loins and plunging out into the clangorous physical world. I'm glad that on most days I choose the latter rather than the former. I think it's the right choice. Err on the side of living.


  1. As someone who writes for a living and has the flexibility to go into an office, or not, I believe that writing is best done alone. Figuring out what to write, though, that takes interaction with others.

  2. Neil, I don't believe you'd last long in the business if you never left the house. You're the kind of writer who knows the value of seeing your subject up close, hearing the traffic, tasting the coffee, feeling the texture, breathing the air. If you holed up in the house for too long you might wind up writing half-crazed, out of touch manifestos, and there's quite enough of that in the world.

  3. As to your getting in between cops & gunman, many years ago, I was in my alley & I heard sirens. All of a sudden a police chase went through the alley & all I could do is hide behind a telephone pole to protect myself.

  4. You must continue to go out and about so we don't have to.


  5. Talk about being out of touch--the guy in the picture seems to be wearing a Bulls Joachim Noah T-shirt.


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