No-one loves bad ideas

Charles Arthur has an interesting piece of post-Guardian vented frustration on his blog. His argument about developers and journalists sitting together is part-bonkers opinion and partly correct. Coders and journalists are generally working on different timeframes and newsroom developers generally don’t focus enough on friction in the tools that they are creating for journalists.

Journalists however focus too much on the deadline and the frenzy of the news cycle. I often think newsroom developers are a lot like the street sweepers who clean up after a particularly exuberant street market. Everything has to be tidied up and put neatly away before the next day’s controlled riot takes place.

The piece of the article I found most interesting was something very personal though. The central assumption that runs through Arthur’s narrative is that it is valuable to let readers pre-order computer games via Amazon. One of the pieces of work I’ve done at the Guardian is to study the value of the Amazon links in the previous generation of the Guardian website. I can’t talk numbers but the outcome was that the expense of me looking at how much money was earned resulted in all the “profits” being eaten up by cost of my time. You open the box but the cat is always dead.

Similarly Arthur’s Quixotic quest meant that he spent more money in developer’s time than the project could ever possibly earn. Amazon referrals require huge volumes to be anything other than a supplement to an individual’s income.

His doomed attempt to get people to really engage with his idea really reflected the doomed nature of the idea. British journalism favours action and instinct and sometimes that combination generates results. Mostly however it just fails and regardless of whom is sitting next to whom, who can get inspired by a muddle-minded last-minute joyride on the Titanic except deadline-loving action junkies?


The Fifth Estate

Courtesy of a preview screening for Guardian staff I got to see the Fifth Estate last night. The biggest point of reference is The Social Network with the script focussing on the relationship between Julian Assange and Daniel Berg. However whereas the Social Network focusses on friendship, loneliness and betrayal this film focuses on ambition, idealism and inspiration.

The film depicts Berg as someone in search of a purpose who finds a leader and a cause in Assange. The rest of the script plays out the consequences of success and the interplay of loyalty, obedience and belief in a radical political organisation.

The film tritely suggests that Assange’s childhood experience of being part of a cult and later trial for hacking (where his fellow defendants testified against him) is mirrored in how he structures WikiLeaks with Assange as the undisputed leader of an organisation centred unquestioningly around him.

The better parts of the film do a more nuanced job of representing how the strength of personality required to change the world in a radical, political way also manifest in the personality flaws of paranoia and arrogance.

All radical political movements are charismatic, disruptive and unstable. The Fifth Estate tries to contrast political achievement with personal cost but it feels laboured with the visual metaphors bludgeoning and the dialogue clunking.

There is also a massive problem in that “computer stuff” is just visually difficult to portray, like theoretical physics or philosophy. It’s primarily the internal workings of thought.

Really the most enjoyable part of the film are the central performances of Benedict Cumberbach and Daniel Brühl. Some of the photography is pretty good as well.

The script uses some heavy-handed techniques for showing that the leaks were not “victimless” but actually affected real people in difficult situations. The disconnection between actions and consequences for cyber-activists was worth addressing.

As for the depiction of the Guardian. Well naturally anything you know about always seems to be travestied when outsiders write about it and this is no different. Most of the journalism stuff seems clichéd. The film doesn’t capture any of the real debate about the nature of “citizen journalism” within the Guardian or the wider world of commercial journalism.

More weirdly though the presence of the Guardian feels irrelevant to the central themes of the film and therefore tends to drag on the plot. However in the real world the involvement of profession organisations was actually vital for turning the raw data into some explicable to a wider audience. That aspect of the story is some what glossed over or under-explained.