Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Are you thinking, or "quorum sensing?"

In the fall of 2005 I wrote one of my final science-beat articles on research into a biological phenomena called "quorum sensing." Specifically, quorum sensing represents a form of chemical communication between bacteria. That's vaguely interesting, but the exact moment at which quorum sensing transformed my understanding of the world took place when a microbiologist described bacterial behavior as being "kinda like a really bad corporate environment."

Because I realized it wasn't "kinda" like a bad corporate environment -- it was EXACTLY like a bad corporate environment.

To summarize: Bacteria send out chemical signals into their environment. As they wander about they encounter chemical signals sent out by other bacteria. At low levels of population density, this chemical signaling has zero effect on bacterial behavior, but as a population begins to expand, the background noise of chemical signaling passes a threshold. The result is like flipping a switch: Bacteria that acted one way below the threshold suddenly behave in radically different ways. And they do so like a light turned on by a switch rather than like a light turned on by a rheostat.

Hence: When an individual bacteria receives only a few chemical signals, it acts as an individual. But once it perceives that there are sufficient members of its species in the area, it cooperates in complex ways to create a colony. Once that colony is established, quorum-sensing bacteria will serve the colony even if that means committing suicide.

This is why having one or two e. coli on your hamburger won't make you sick. Individual e. coli are waiting for a signal to start acting aggressively. A few e. coli acting up would immediately be overwhelmed by your immune system; an army of e. coli, conducting a coordinated surprise attack, will put you right on your ass.

(Interestingly, this also takes place in the animal kingdom. Ever notice how fire ants tend to bite all at once? That's because they're using chemical signals. If the first fire ant to reach your ankle bit you right away, you'd kill it and brush off the rest. Instead, the ants wait for the signal that says a bunch of them are in position, and then they bite simultaneously. It's an evolved a form of communication that enables ants to inflict maximum damage on their enemies.)

And how do bacteria colonies compete for resources? Our classical, Western, market-based idea of competition holds that whichever competitor is the most productive wins. But quorum-sensing bacteria often win by cheating, secreting chemicals that poison or confuse their competitors.

Does the best bacteria colony win? Not usually. The most organized and established bacteria win.

And since our subject is media change, this point is significant, too: In a mature bacterial ecosystem, there is little actual competition. All the organisms in the ecosystem have evolved to exploit their own niches. What sets off bacterial war is anything that upsets that equilibrium. Competition -- often violent -- occurs whenever nature encounters a vacuum.

I believe it helps to think of mass-media as an ecosystem. Newspapers and TV stations competed for scoops, eyeballs and ad revenue, but TV didn't threaten to put newspapers out of business, and vice versa. That particular media ecosystem remained more or less stable from the early 1960s to the early 2000s. The World Wide Web began threatening it in 1994-95, but it took the mass distribution of broadband access and a series of subtle technological advancements to actually disrupt the equilibrium that pays journalists' salaries.

We practice journalism today in the transitional period between an old equilibrium that has ended and a new equilibrium that has yet to take shape. The outcome cannot yet be reliably predicted, and the notion that the best, most productive ideas will naturally rise to the top is far from proven.

As I look around, I see a lot of companies acting like bacteria colonies. They send out signals and try small initiatives, but few are moving in any bold, wise directions. Many executives are just sitting around, receiving signals from their environment, waiting for the signal that a "quorum" has coalesced around a new direction.

In other words, their actions will not be determined by an independent, forward-thinking assessment of individual ideas, but by their perceptions of where everyone else is going.

On the one hand, this isn't a bad approach. It's certainly traditional, and it certainly offers at least the illusion of safety. But this corporate quorum sensing has also been the cause of some amazingly foolish industry fads -- like the "pay-to-read-our-website" push and the "heavy registration" mandate. It's not like the experts didn't tell the executives these were bad ideas at the time -- it's just that everyone understood from the signals in their boardroom environments that the CEOs and shareholders were tired of websites that didn't make profits.

Journalists like to believe that we are -- as a profession -- a tribe of free-thinking individualists. It turns out we're not that different from other professions, with the same incentives toward group-think, quorum-sensing and anti-intellectualism.

It's also time to call bullshit on the newsroom tendency to imagine that all these conformist, bottom-line tendencies arise with the beancounters and are then forced upon our noble First Amendment enterprise. Newsrooms are, by their very nature, conservative institutions that abhor anything that disrupts the production cycle. We're actually hostile to innovation.

You'd think that an entity that produces something new every day would be adapted to rapid change. The opposite is true. A newspaper is a physical object that is printed and delivered at the same time, every day. Only what goes into it changes. and so long as what goes in doesn't upset the production process or change the physical object, content barely matters.

But try to change any of those variables -- deadlines, workflows, meeting schedules, the relationships between our print products and our electronic products -- and watch all hell break loose. A newspaper is a machine honed to perfection by time. It can't adapt easily to new things because it's become so efficient at doing the same thing, over and over.

Why bother to talk about this? Because as we discuss creating or improving quality in the digital environment, what we're really talking about is re-engineering the entire environment. Print journalists want to talk about saving newspapers, and that's the wrong topic. The real issue is how we'll change journalism to function with 21st century tools.

Why talk about this in the context of bacteria? Because print journalists by and large still discuss new-media journalism based not on experience or study, but on their quorum-sensing perception of their peers' attitudes. New media tools like database/map mashups represent wonderful new opportunities for advancing the original goals of journalism, yet print journalists still tend to frame their internal discussions of new media as a narrative about civilized people besieged by barbarians. These men and women are not thinking about the future, they are conforming to their perception of the present.

And if you are outside of that perceived consensus, you're likely to be very lonely.

A shorter version of this post might be: "Being right is less important than being normal." Because something about human psychology tells us that the more often we hear or see something in a non-threatening way, the more normal it becomes.

Two things will have to happen before we'll succeed in creating quality journalism for the new media ecosystem. Thing No. 1 is we'll need a functional business model; Thing No. 2 is we'll need to convince everyone in the business that our ideas fit within the mainstream.

For instance, I predicted two years ago that the future of news reporting will include geo-tags for every location we mention in stories. And the technology exists today to integrate this into the newswriting workflow. The costs of including this in our reporting are minimal, the benefits are significant, and you could make money by doing it.

So why aren't newspapers doing this?

Because it seems weird. Because it's new. Because the people who make these decisions can't quite imagine the new products that would make use of this data or the process that would create a geo-tagging interface for newswriters and editors.

But here's what will happen: As executives are exposed to more geo-data mashups, they'll begin to perceive that geo-tagging is OK. Geo-tagging will start to seem like a normal thing to do with bits of information. They'll start to see the profit potential in it, because companies like Google will be making money off of it.

And on that day, some newspaper executive will ask his assembled subordinates,"Why aren't we geo-tagging all our stories? Why are we behind the curve again!?"

In other words, seeing the future isn't enough. We have to communicate that future over and over, spreading our good ideas and winnowing out our bad ideas. We have to understand that our decision-makers will have to see our ideas crop up in many places before they'll see them as valid.

News veterans -- and I'm one of them -- are not generally enamored of the newest generation of entry-level reporters. We question your work ethic, your willingness to learn, your willingness to pay your dues. I think there are lots of things young journalists should learn from veterans -- but let's be frank: You're also in a position to help us advance new ideas about journalism and media.

You can help by leading, but you can also help by treating new ideas as normal evolutions of old values. You can become quorum-sensing transmitters of normalcy to anxious news executives. You can think about novel technologies without feeling threatened by them. You can see change as an opportunity rather than a threat, and you can communicate that with your attitudes.

Whatever the fate of your generation, you can play an important role in the current transformation from the old equilibrium to the new. It might even make some of you stars.

"Charlie, here comes the deuce. And when you speak of me, speak well." -- Crash Davis, Bull Durham (1988)