Lunar Tunes

Of godmen who eclipse reason, how Wired has unplugged from free content and the non-promise of a promissory note

Written by Pratik Kanjilal | Published: February 3, 2018 2:14:08 am

First, the bad news this week, from a journalistic point of view. EmTech Asia at Singapore, the emerging technologies conference of the MIT Technology Review, has featured Dreamwriter, an artificial intelligence from Chinese technology giant Tencent. It is a nightmare product from an editor’s perspective but a human resource dream, which could replace the better part of a newspaper’s desk. HR would not have much time to dream, however, since it would be rapidly absorbed into the IT department. Here’s why:

Dreamwriter first made the headlines in 2015, when it turned out a flawless 916-word story on China’s consumer price index, complete with expert commentary. It assembled the story in 60 seconds, orders of magnitude faster than a human editor could. To intensify the existential anxiety of the press at EmTech, the Davos of the technology world, Sony also exhibited a rig by which a person can experience a situation through the senses of another — which is a rough description of the relationship between a reader and a reporter.

AIs are already reading the news. Someday, they could even read out the Budget speech, and spare the finance minister the trouble and anxiety. One would have been handy this year, when a bilingual speech was read to connect directly with the masses in north India. Finance minister Arun Jaitley had admitted that his Hindi reading skills were sub-par. Indeed, he stumbled on words like Ekalavya, but even in English, he said, “arable land remains hollow” (for fallow). It must be daunting to present a Budget that doesn’t seem to go anywhere special, and whose highest note, health insurance, turned out to be a promissory note. It may be redeemed in the future, through a rollout just before the general elections. For now, there is no allocation for the Rs 5 lakh cover for 10 crore poor families, and strictly speaking, the announcement did not even belong in the Budget.

Prime time on the days leading up to the Budget was taken up, like it is every year, with talking up the markets. This practice has a long tradition, though the Budget is for the people, not the punters. Budget morning was slightly surreal, with CNN News 18 asking: “Are achhe din here?” Precisely when thousands of retail investors were heaving a sigh of relief, having encashed their portfolios for fear of a meltdown. Precisely when every sector was talking about its grievances (Nasscom chief R Chandrashekhar was telling Times Now that growth had been decoupled from jobs in the IT sector). India Today’s panel had the broadest spectrum, and remained focused on MSMEs, the most self-reliant sector which receives the least credit. The other big issue, migration out of farms in search of jobs which no longer exist, also received attention. Indeed, migrants make the news these days not for their success stories, but for being attacked by insane natives.

There’s nothing like a lunar eclipse to bring out India’s innate looniness, and there’s the clan of godmen to help them get the plot. Recently Jaggi Vasudev’s website drew flak for explaining why food eaten during an eclipse goes to pot in the gut. A 2015 article on his website reads: “During solar eclipses, what would happen in 28 days over a full lunar cycle is happening in a subtle way over the course of two or three hours of the eclipse.” Which means, apparently, that the food you eat in that time attains the status of a cheese ripened in the sun for a month. Wisely, the site’s maintainers have not engaged with scientific-minded troublemakers who want to know why this happens only in India, and not in Bolivia, for instance. And they have declined to explain what a “subtle way” is.

This week, the signal from the digital news market is plain and clear: the era of free content is over. Wired has downed the portcullis and put up a paywall. It was created to report on the digital revolution which, its founders wrote in the first issue in 1993, was “whipping through our lives like a Bengali typhoon”. The analogy was curious but the energy palpable, and it identified Wired as a standard-bearer of the revolution. One would have expected it to cling longest to the right to access all content freely, which was a central tenet of the hacker culture of the ’90s. However, Wired has put up the barricades in the interest of fiscal prudence. It joins a host of US publications, from The New York Times to The New Yorker, which have gone the subscription route. It makes particularly good sense now, when Facebook has cut back on media in favour of user-generated content in its news feed. Having a direct commercial link with the reader or viewer is cleaner, and would probably produce better, more honest journalism than highlighting that editors think would fly on social media, and then tweaking them so they fly faster.

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