How many times have you been glamping? I have only been once so far. It was over the August bank holiday weekend. I was eager to escape my comfort zone and joked with my glamper buddy Nadia that this outdoor adventure could be the start of even greater feats. Today, Pippingford Park. Tomorrow, the Himalayas. But we were not only there for the glamping.
The escape happily coincided with the Byline Festival of independent journalism, which brought together hundreds of campers to dance, discuss, laugh and change the world. As well as switching off, the festival was a wake-up call to the pervasiveness of technology in everyday life. But it was also a call-to-arms of the power of language over technology and of our fundamental role as human beings to question events and machines.
Before changing the world, however, we had to align our expectations more closely with reality. On arrival at the festival camping ground, our hopes of fully-equipped luxury tents overlooking fields of barley were soon quashed by soggy festival ground and clogged ablution facilities. It was not quite what we had in mind when we bought the tickets.
But once we finally accepted our new circumstances and settled in, we treated ourselves to a night outside with some live music. We arrived at the Media Circus tent just in time for Brighton-based indie choir the Jam Tarts, a quirky theatrical ensemble of about 50 singers. Their renditions of Tom Waits’ Telephone call from Istanbul and the Kaizer Chiefs’ Every Day I love you less and less were nothing short of genius. After a night of fun, wine and giggles we headed back to our tent and to sleeping bags that were woefully ill-suited to the cold weather.
The interrupted sleep made for a slow start to the next day. Thankfully coffee and a bacon sandwich managed to revive me just in time for a day of healthy debate about the peculiar state of the world. Against the backdrop of frenzied political and socio-economic affairs, views were shared and opinions expressed. But what struck me most was probably the simple realization that being uncomfortable with or reacting to other viewpoints, no matter how different they might seem to our own, can only divide us and stop us from moving forward as a society. Independent journalism has an important role here to be mindful of diverse opinions and reflecting all of them, instead of only ‘yes’ or ‘no’ camps of thought.
This mindfulness was illustrated in Kris de Meyer’s Truth for Elephants – or how to disagree workshop, which explored the emotional mind, or the elephant mind. Sometimes irrational and easily led, the elephant mind can be exploited by external forces, including the mass media. Take Brexit for example, where certain media brought various emotions to the surface and caused heated arguments and divisions among people. The monkey mind is an even more impulsive force that brings various fears and anxieties to the surface. The monkey leading the elephant can be chaotic.
However, when presented with all information and points of view in a mindful or balanced manner, our minds are better equipped to have healthier disagreements. Put simply it’s important we have control of both monkey and elephant mind. Mindful journalism has a role in expressing all views fairly and in doing so helps to sooth any conflict so that we can disagree and move on.
From monkey minds to monkey madness. After day of debate we let our minds go wild and enjoyed another night of live music, which fittingly included a set from The Blow Monkeys. The Eighties band stirred up childhood memories with their hit song You don’t own me from classic chick flick Dirty Dancing. We also danced to The Vapours, who played their hit Eighties Song Turning Japanese. Headlining the show were the famous balaclava-wearing Pussy Riot. The Russian feminist protest punk group amazed us with their high octane anti-capitalist musical rant.
The next day, everything hurt and it was raining. Luckily Nadia had managed to ignite the gas stove outside the tent to heat boiling water for coffee. We decided to give in and make this our last day of glamping. But before that, there was one workshop that caught my eye given my occupational interest in artificial intelligence and machine learning in financial services. In a world where we seem keen to take humans out of processes, this was a reminder that computers often make mistakes. In the Democratizing artificial intelligence with data journalism’ workshop, Meredith Broussard, an assistant professor of journalism at New York University, showed how it’s our job to crack the code and reflect reality.
There are many examples of how computers can get often things wrong. Take the model used to predict who survived the Titanic disaster, which is commonly used in several industries today. It’s a simple excel spreadsheet with columns for passenger class, survivors, name, size and the life boat that the first class passengers of the Titanic got into (second and third class passengers had to wait in the hold). In the Titanic model, passenger data is fed into the computer and the model predicts who survived based on the level of their wealth.
This model’s use in the travel insurance industry today only serves an unfair system. On the mechanical assumption from the data that the poorest travelers are less likely to survive a disaster they are charged higher premiums. Journalists can use their skills to understand what’s going on and challenge that the algorithm created, which is not based on the real world principles of fairness.
In addition to these inequalities there are other things computers can’t understand when it comes to the nuances of the real world. AI alone won’t address the fake news problem because computers cannot determine what is right and what is wrong. In needs human interaction or in this case human fact checkers to determine whether or not something is true.
Another example of why humans should be a key part of the computational system is when cloud-based voice assistants don’t understand the nuances of languages. Some of them even get completely stumped by the Scottish pronunciation of “ELEVEN”!
But let’s not forget that computers are a merely a function of mathematics. Language is a little bit better at taking us further than mathematics which is why journalism as a discipline is good at looking at the outer limits of what we can and cannot do with computers. Whilst we get excited about AI leading to the Terminator Judgement Day scenario, we are a long way off the reality.
Feeling inspired by these messages of human endeavor and purpose, we decided that it was time to head back to London. But first we looked for one final adventure to push ourselves a little bit further out of our comfort zones. Slightly away from the festival was a walking trail leading away from the Woodland Spa. We walked along the trail and deeper into the woods until we reach a thicket. Everything was quiet and peaceful. No technology, no news alerts and no music, just the sound of rain drops falling through the trees. We paused to catch our breath and feel the serenity of the moment. It was in these woods at Pippingford Park that we stood for a few minutes, keeping it real…not fake.