The Speakularity is Near

NPR’s Matt Thompson crops up at NiemanLab‘s “Predictions For Journalism 2011” with a suggestion that’ll make the volume of the Wikileaks cable-dump look like a drop in the ocean [via MetaFilter]. The nub of the theory is this: pretty soon, automatic speech transcription is going to be cheap and widespread… and that means absolute masses of journalistic material will become easily and cheaply available.

So much of the raw material of journalism consists of verbal exchanges — phone conversations, press conferences, meetings. One of journalism’s most significant production challenges, even for those who don’t work at a radio company, is translating these verbal exchanges into text to weave scripts and stories out of them.

After the Speakularity, much more of this raw material would become available. It would render audio recordings accessible to the blind and aid in translation of audio recordings into different languages. Obscure city meetings could be recorded and auto-transcribed; interviews could be published nearly instantly as Q&As; journalists covering events could focus their attention on analyzing rather than capturing the proceedings.

Because text is much more scannable than audio, recordings automatically indexed to a transcript would be much quicker to search through and edit. Jon Stewart’s crew for The Daily Show uses expensive technology to process and search through the hundreds of hours of video the various news programs air each week. Imagine if that capability were opened up to citizens — if every on-air utterance of every pundit, politician, or policy wonk were searchable on Google.

The very first thing I can imagine would be all the Googlephobes wailing about privacy and data monopolies… but Thompson makes a valid point here, which is the potential for a disconnection between the production of the raw materials of journalism – interviews, press conferences, Q&As, etc etc – from the analysis, comparison and synthesis of that material.

Obviously that’s going to mean further job losses in the journalism sector; that production work would be done by the folk at the bottom of the office hierarchy, or so I assume, so it’s not all kittens and roses. Heck, once the tech becomes cheap and ubiquitous enough, it’ll open up the field to independent journalists and small niche venues in a way that’s never been logistically or economically sustainable before (though whether there’ll be a good way to monetise those niche verticals is another question entirely); the privileged access and momentum of the big venues will be hard to maintain, and that may lead to a fall in quality… though that will depend on how one defines quality journalism, of course, which is another open question.

But the most important factor would be the widespread access to the raw materials – not just to journalists, but to the public. Storage is cheap, and text doesn’t eat much bandwidth; there’d be no reason not to upload the entire transcript of an interview for those who wanted to read it alongside the edited highlights and pull-quotes. Indeed, those venues that failed to make said materials available would start to look as if they had something to hide… after all, recent events suggest that transparency will become a big issue in the near future, wouldn’t you say?

6 thoughts on “The Speakularity is Near”

  1. The event horizon for this has yet to approach to a reasonable closeness. Do you use Google Voice? It’s transcription is kinda shitty. Although come to think of it, that may be connection-quality artifacts…

  2. High quality auto-transcription would facilitate journalism, yes. Every Batman underwear-wearing blogger and his follow list will be able to make recordings of the ponzi muni-bonds scheme going down at the capitol and root out the corrupt war profiteers festering in the Pentagon.

    Of course, none of them will ever be paid enough to take the time and energy and WoW logtime sacrifices necessary to develop the skills, networks, and do the hard detective work necessary to get within the hard-to-reach exclusive, meatspace and meattimes necessary to create these stories. Much easier to just alt-tab, Google up some hot news, change a few words, and post it as your own from the comfort of your hyperergonomic chair or bed. The click-through count doesn’t change; the return on investment for getting off your ass to do hard work and break a story everyone else will copy just doesn’t make the bottom line and we have no incentivization system to foster it. “Journalism” is evolving (or devolving) towards an economy not of news or investigative journalism but commentary and meta-commentary and chitchat and flamewarring over stories reported by the dying breed of actual journalists. That and pseudo-news organizations that are just the marketing and propaganda arms pushing the agendas of The Money such as Faux News and much of the “tech reporting” which often amounts to pushing gadget units for Big Tech. Speakularity will accelerate these phenomena as well any positives.

  3. The more information that becomes available, the more we’re going to need good journalists and other analysts to dissect it and point out the important parts. The record may be open, but someone still needs to not only look through it, but distinguish the wheat from the chaff. Good search engines will help, but I don’t think our tech is up to distinguishing nuance and context — that takes a person who understands the whole situation.
    Whether we’re going to pay well for that is a different question.

  4. Perhaps one out of ten journalists is intelligent, skilled, and honest enough to be worth reading. We should be able to expect at least that good from machines.

    One precondition for admission to J school is flunking an IQ test. Those whose IQ scores then drop during the course of J school are the ones qualified to graduate into modern journalism.

  5. Sweeping statements, much, Alyssa? 😉

    I mean, sure, be critical of journalism, but your criticisms will be taken a little more seriously if they’re… dare I say, thoroughly backed up by research and facts?

    Or, to put it another way: a rather tabloid riposte to a tabloid industry, no?

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