The Lure of the One True System
Post-SRCCON thoughts on the tools we build to make our work work better
With SRCCON 2015 in the rearview mirror, Robinson Meyer is filing Work Week meditations on some of the high-level themes and threads that unspooled through its sessions and conversations.
Across many days at SRCCON, I heard many people express a common wish: a single piece of software that would unify every piece of knowledge in a newsroom. Reporters’s notes, interview transcripts, style guides, story drafts, published articles, and updated corrections: All of it would be eaten by this wonderful engine. It would store notes and publish stories and accumulate knowledge and even handle permissions.
The idea took many forms.
In Chris Amico’s session on using all the parts of a long-form investigation, someone submitted that foreign correspondents rarely file their notes until they leave the field. It would be wonderful, they said, if those reporters got into the habit of regularly filing their notes with a secure, online service—especially if that service also recorded their geocached location.
What if reporters shared more than their notes?, someone else asked. What if they regularly kept in touch with their editors by filing notes, interviews, research, whatever they had, along with context about where and how the reporting was conducted? What if all the reporters in an organization did that?
In David Yee and Blaine Cook’s session on adopting version-tracking software for prose, participants raised a similar idea. It wasn’t clear to some participants whether such a system—a kind of GitHub for writing—would be used internally, as a communication tool between writers and editors, or externally, as a way for readers to follow a story’s evolution. Over the hour-long session, I heard this ambiguity transform into a wish for an even larger, grander software solution: a single CMS that could follow a story from its broadest, earliest sketches.
Can one piece of software really serve all the needs of a newsroom?
I thought of Xanadu.
No Wait, Come Back
Xanadu is what we were supposed to have before we had the web. Imagined by the technologist Ted Nelson in the early 1960s, Xanadu was to be the perfect compendium of knowledge. It would be disaggregated, like the web; but with perfect document storage and retrieval, draft and version control, and links that were not permitted to break.
Merely the idea of Xanadu gave us the words “hypertext” and “virtuality.” And that’s a good thing, because the idea of Xanadu is really all we ever got: Xanadu, in the words of an infamous 1995 Wired article, is “the longest-running vaporware story in the history of the computer industry.” Open Xanadu, a working, installable implementation of Nelson’s ideas, was not released until 2014, nearly two decades after Wired made that proclamation.
Reading Nelson’s original 17 rules for a Xanadu implementation now, you can see features which the World Wide Web adopted:
Every document can be rapidly searched, stored and retrieved without user knowledge of where it is physically stored.
Every document can contain links of any type including virtual copies (“transclusions”) to any other document in the system accessible to its owner.
And you can see features whose absence we’re still struggling to deal with:
Every document can contain a royalty mechanism at any desired degree of granularity to ensure payment on any portion accessed, including virtual copies (“transclusions”) of all or part of the document.
Why did Project Xanadu fail? That profile by Gary Wolf leaves little doubt that Nelson’s distractibility and erratic leadership had something to do with it. His team developed a renegade, underdog complex that did not always help it ship code.
But Xanadu’s goal was also impossible. Despite Nelson’s aspirations, creating software that maintains an internal system of perfect knowledge is impossible. That’s because creating an internal system of perfect knowledge, period, is impossible. Everything that people know is constantly being edited, augmented, improved, iterated on, and folded into systems anew. Librarians and archivists may bring their collections asymptotically closer to an ideal organizational scheme, but the goal of perfect knowledge can never be accomplished through software alone. Perfect knowledge will not come about because imperfect knowledge is simply not permitted by the software.
And what about perfect software for a newsroom? What I heard many imagine was a system that would allow text, code, and graphics to be shared seamlessly between teams. It would always know which editors could be trusted with a certain reporter’s notes. It would seamlessly handle editing permissions, shuttling a document from reporter to editor to copy editor and resolving conflicts along the way. And it would serve as a single compendium for data and internal knowledge, letting journalists pass knowledge and sources from desk to desk.
Hearing all this, it seemed to me that I was hearing a lot of excitement over what has already happened. That is: I was hearing journalists imagine what it would be like to equip a newsroom with smartphones and laptops.
Both tools, after all, allow journalists to share stories, notes, and images. They let them anticipate who should see a story and when, let them maintain their own personal archive of notes, let them approve of graphics while reporting in the field. And all of those individual features can be improved just by buying or downloading software.
An Imperfect Swarm
It seems to me that what we were imagining, as we gawked at custom CMSes and envisioned shiny new news apps, was a mix of the already-accomplished, the forever-impossible, and the very useful.
I think this has more than academic repercussions. How and where should we spend our time, as designers, programmers, journalists, and people who care about the news? Perfect knowledge, after all, may never be made—but small, efficient tools can be.
So much can be improved in the modern newsroom. Version-tracking and collaboration software still need to be made understandable to non-coders. Communication encryption is incomprehensible to too many reporters. And sometimes it feels like you need to understand file systems to keep data, documents, and interview notes secure. But I think improvements to these things come by creating small, handy tools for reporters, writers, editors, designers, and publishers, and by better framing and explaining what we already do have. Xanadu sounds wonderful, but the World Wide Web shipped.
Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.