Not now, but soon, soon.

by John Holbo on December 4, 2013

Folks are linking to it. The Farhad Manjoo profile of Neetzan Zimmerman, the Gawker writer who picks the linkbait stories like no one else, apparently. I do like the idea that after AI’s are better than us at everything else, it might still take a human to figure out whether sloths are in this month.

Donald Barthelme wrote a story about this back in … – turns out it was 1980! “Pepperoni”!

Basically, he envisions a kind of Gawkerization of media. (But without the social media aspect, admittedly.)

A newspaper has found financial success by diversifying its operations. It owns timberlands, mines, pulp and paper operations, and a number of different media, and over-all return on invested capital increases at about 9% a year. But top management is saddened and discouraged, and middle management is drinking too much. Automation has lowered morale in the newsroom. Recently the paper ran the same stock tables every day for a week. No one noticed, no one complained. Some elements of the staff are not depressed. The real estate, food, clothing, and games columns of the paper are thriving. Nevertheless, the Editors’ Caucus has applied to middle management which has implored top management to alter its course. The paper’s editorials have been subcontracted to Texas Instruments and the obituaries to Nabisco. There was an especially lively front page on Tuesday. The No. 1 story was pepperoni – a useful and exhaustive guide. Top management has vowed to stop what it is doing – not now, but soon, soon. A chamber orchestra has been formed among the people in the newsroom, and we play Haydn until the sun comes up.

You can get it in Forty Stories [amazon]. Funny stuff! But the funny thing about the New Yorker summary is that you probably think you are getting a teaser. The first paragraph or something. But it’s actually a condensed version of the whole story. Only, of course, nothing really happens in a Donald Barthelme story. Executive summaries of postmodern literature are weird. I never really noticed that until just now.

UPDATE: Oooh, oooh. Now I’m rereading Forty Stories. From “Conversations With Goethe”:

Critics, Goethe said, are the cracked mirror in the grand ballroom of the creative spirit. No, I said, they were, rather, the extra baggage on the great cabriolet of conceptual progress. “Eckermann,” said Goethe, “shut up.

I forgot how funny this stuff is.



Teachable Mo' 12.04.13 at 1:51 pm

Daumier does love his chilidog.


Dingbat 12.04.13 at 3:06 pm

I just ordered a copy of Forty Stories for a friend. I read “Engineer-Privat Paul Klee Misplaces an Airplane …” when I was about 13 (IIRC) and it’s been one of those things that makes me chuckle and ponder every now and then ever since.


godoggo 12.04.13 at 4:05 pm

You really need to go watch the South Park movie again and pay close attention to how it affects your mouth. That’s what funny stuff does. This comment would be a good example of something that is not funny. See the difference?


nnyhav 12.04.13 at 4:23 pm

ntm Scott DeLong:

ViralNova isn’t so much the logical conclusion of this shareable social media era as much as a sign of its end.


Satan Mayo 12.04.13 at 6:01 pm

I started enjoying Barthelme’s pieces when I started thinking of him as the S.J. Perelman of his era.


Vance Maverick 12.04.13 at 6:24 pm

Satan Mayo @5 — does this work in reverse? I’ve been looking for a clue to Perelman.


Substance McGravitas 12.04.13 at 6:33 pm

Sixty Stories is 50% better.


Substance McGravitas 12.04.13 at 6:40 pm

I’ve been looking for a clue to Perelman.

Groucho with a thesaurus.


Jessica 12.04.13 at 7:09 pm

Really cool stories! I enjoy reading it……


Matt 12.04.13 at 11:33 pm

I am curious if AI is categorically inferior at detecting link bait, or if Neetzan Zimmerman’s job is safe for now only because of legal/financial complications in building automated aggregator blogs. I used to write recommendation software that was used on some large news sites including the WSJ. The software was better at determining popular content than me or anyone I worked with — though maybe not better than Zimmerman. In fact internally we could tell what the most popular stories of the day were across several client sites. If we’d wanted to run a news aggregation site on that data it would have been technically feasible but financially disastrous. You don’t need permission for a human blogger to read every story on a news site but you do need permission to scrape the news site’s content and feed it into a recommendations engine — and there’s little incentive to grant permission to a startup that might direct people to competitors’ stories.

Google gets away with it on Google News because they’re giant. Shooing Google away from your stories is just self-injury, and there’s no media organization big enough to dictate terms to Google. I don’t think everything that Google News shows me is must-click exciting, but it seems to perform at least as well as Yahoo News, which (I believe) still selects stories manually.

We’re back to one of the major questions of the 21st century, along with climate change and fossil fuel depletion: what do we do when most profitable activities are done better by machines than by humans? “Lump of labor fallacy” seems like a pretty hollow retort at this point.


Freddie deBoer 12.05.13 at 3:07 am

I deeply, deeply hate the “viral” turn, and I generally ignore Zimmerman’s stuff.

But Gawker is a valuable site, one which publishes a lot of genuinely insightful stuff. It’s got tons of great media criticism and a lot of pure, unapologetic class war form the bottom, which there’s so little of in American media. The reality is that awful, worthless clickbait is going to exist, and if its going to exist I’d rather it subsidize Adrian Chen and Caity Weaver and Tom Scocca than Business Insider or Buzzfeed or the scum at Upworthy.


JW Mason 12.05.13 at 3:13 am

Neetzan Zimmerman is the worst. But Freddie is right, Gawker publishes some great stuff you can’t get anywhere else. Their first hand accounts of work at Wal Mart were amazing. So yeah, if the clickbait subsidizes that stuff, bait on, I guess…


Greg Hays 12.05.13 at 3:22 am

“Conversations with Goethe” is brilliant. Second only to “How I Write My Songs.”


Belle Waring 12.05.13 at 7:37 am

Freddie is correct. I frequently point out that the only animating priniciple behind the Gawker/Jezebel/io9/Kotaku/Deadspin et al. stable of blogs is Nick Denton’s boundless desire to roll around, naked, on a pile of pound coins and starving orphans; nonetheless there are many worthy things to read there. Except never read the comments to a Kotaku article in which sexism is alluded to in any way or you will die of blood loss from an eyeball hemorrhage as acid gamer sexism eats your corneas.


Katherine 12.05.13 at 1:42 pm

“scum at Upworthy” Freddie? Do tell.


dsquared 12.05.13 at 9:53 pm

I would caution against attributing too many qualities of zeitgeist perception to Neetzan Zimmerman himself. Fundamental attribution error is a powerful force, and I have seen too many guys go from demigod status as head of trading at a big bank … to distinctly average also-rans when running their own hedge fund … to be anything other than very reluctant to say it’s the guy rather than the desk.


Bloix 12.05.13 at 10:13 pm

#10 – We’re back to one of the major questions of the 21st century, along with climate change and fossil fuel depletion: what do we do when most profitable activities are done better by machines than by humans?

What we should do, of course, is whatever we want: study Urdu in the morning, go boating in the afternoon, take in a performance of Mourning Becomes Electra or a football game in the evening, have wild sex until dawn, and then chow down on a wonderful brunch prepared by our automated kitchen with all our friends the next day.

What we’re likely to do is live in a cardboard box under a bridge.


William Timberman 12.05.13 at 10:19 pm

Bloix @ 17

Thank you. Still, after all these years, the fly in the Keynesian ointment.


JW Mason 12.05.13 at 10:25 pm

Still, after all these years, the fly in the Keynesian ointment.

In our own lifetimes … we may be able to perform all the operations of agriculture, mining, and manufacture with a quarter of the human effort to which we have been accustomed. For the moment the very rapidity of these changes is hurting us and bringing difficult problems… We are being afflicted with a new disease of which some readers may not yet have heard the name, but of which they will hear a great deal in the years to come—namely, technological unemployment. This means unemployment due to our discovery of means of economising the use of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour.

Keynes, 1930


clew 12.06.13 at 1:04 am

one of the major questions of the 21st century, along with climate change and fossil fuel depletion: what do we do when most profitable activities are done better by machines than by humans?

We tax GHG emissions, and the proceeds equivalent to emissions manageable at steady-state are returned in equal shares to all human persons. If we’re lucky, that will cover the GHG costs of warmth, nutrition and medicine. Urdu, sex, and local theater and football should fit in as extra-market amusements; sailing and rowing, possibly; automated kitchens, maybe not. Make friends with people who like to cook.


William Timberman 12.06.13 at 2:01 am

JW Mason @ 19

Yep. That’s the half of the problem that Keynes understood, as well, if not better than anyone before or since. What he didn’t understand is the half that even today, folks like Krugman and DeLong still don’t seem to understand, let alone know how to solve — the half that bids fair to end with most of us in those boxes under the bridge. To be fair, neither does anyone else. Some of them are better hopers than others, but that’s not enough, is it? Nor should anyone be too smug about knowing what has to happen if one can’t say how it will happen — which is pretty much everyone at this point.


William Timberman 12.06.13 at 2:23 am

On reflection, maybe I should be a bit more explicit. JW, I know that you know what happened between 1930 and 1945, and what’s happened since 1980, with special emphasis on the headless-chicken ruminations of all and sundry since 2007. I do read your blog, after all.

My point is simple enough. Current evidence suggests that the politics of the necessary social and economic transformations may be intractable; they’ll almost certainly be ugly — and Keynes, it seems to me, was too much of a gentleman to look too deeply into that abyss. In that he had a lot in common with our present generation of very smart economists.


JW Mason 12.06.13 at 7:06 pm

the politics of the necessary social and economic transformations may be intractable; they’ll almost certainly be ugly — and Keynes, it seems to me, was too much of a gentleman to look too deeply into that abyss.

True that. The rentiers would prefer not be euthanized.


roy belmont 12.08.13 at 2:07 am

I’ve been paying attention, in my way, and have yet to see anything deep and trustworthy delivering the timeline prospects of those cardboard dwellers.
There’s a sense from the distance of relative comfort that it’s a “place” people end up, but experience, and some exposure, says it’s fiercely transitory. Which yes life is ultimately, but I mean real short-lived transience.
With no statistics at hand I’d say very few of those who hit the lowest rung have the skills and means to stay there for long.
It’s that “we” in Keynes, and too many others. The assumption that when the gates click shut, they or theirs will be on the inside, watching those new world changes come.

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