Robot journalism

I’d heard about automated articles written on very simple subjects – horse racing, stock markets, where the outcomes fall within a range of possible outcomes.

But this is a fascinating level up from that:


Redeployment by Phil Klay

Redeployment by Phil Klay is a remarkable book. It’s exceptionally good writing, and well worth a read.

I’m still thinking about authenticity, and what it means in writing. The stories feel authentic; and I think although they’re clearly fiction (they’re all told in different voices, from different perspectives), they also feel very authentic- they’re the kind of stories that feel like a realistic reflection of the experience, an accurate picture of what someone might have experienced there.

That, it turns out, is in part a reflection of Klay’s experience (a period in the Marines), but also a function of research – which Klay did quite a bit of.

Creating a world

I was reading an article on the New York Times about the Lego movie, and it talked about the level of detail that went into creating the blocks. I love the idea that creating authenticity, for a movie using lego blocks, involves this level of detail:

One key to giving the Lego bricks and figures authenticity — that is, to avoid having them seem digitally perfect — was to find ways to make them look as if they were played with. Research went into exploring how many digital smudges and thumbprints would go on the figures and even how much virtual dandruff should be in the shot.

“If you were animating this in real life, there would be all of these dust particles, and there is a bit of actual dandruff,” Mr. Miller said. “We did a little test of how much was too much. And once it became noticeable and it looked like Christmas snow, that seemed like it was too much.” Some characters were older and presumably had gotten a lot of wear, like the ‘80s Spaceman figure, whose helmet is cracked and whose spacesuit is slightly faded. The team also wanted to make sure that plenty of bricks were not pressed firmly together, to give the sense that they were put together by hand … 


The Book of Night Women

I recently finished reading The Book of Night Women. It was an exceptional piece of writing. Marlon James (you can hear him here discussing the book) does a remarkable job of telling a story that feels authentic and urgent and important.

I should say at this point, that I have no idea what it was like being a slave in Jamaica. My own experience has been much more privileged, and very different. But as readers, we’re inevitably looking for authenticity, I think – judging on authenticity.

I wanted to think about that for a little while. I think when we read, we’re looking for a few things. One is for a world that feels real; for something that is internally coherent, that doesn’t self contradict. For something that doesn’t entirely contradict our own experience of human nature and the world. We want books to redefine and reshape our understanding of the world – but where the premises or outcomes seem so implausible that we can’t take them seriously, then the story loses something; it becomes less clearly a meaningful message about the world, and more obviously a construct created by someone else.

But even as we evaluate the authenticity of narratives, there may be some that we have no meaningful way of testing in detail. Where they pass the basic tests of congruence with human nature and reality, it still seems plausible to me that there are myriad ways that they could be meaningfully, profoundly ‘wrong’ – about the sociology of a particular environment, about the impacts and meanings of particular events. I’m not sure where to go with that; I just think it’s an interesting, and important part of how we read. If you’ve got any thoughts, I’d love to hear them.