Turning inner space into outer space

November 4, 2012

The future that journalism has earned for us

Paolo Bacigalupi is a pessimistic science fiction writer. When he extrapolates from the present into a fictional future, it’s the bad things in our society that are amplified — although he does offer glimmers of hope.

In a short story called The Gambler, which he wrote for, the fate of journalism is bad news indeed. Publishers are consumed with the minute-by-minute ratings of their stories and reporters are given cash rewards for pageviews and clickthroughs. In this world, celebrity obsessions drown out “boring” stories about the environment.

In an interview at, Bacigalupi says this is the future we have earned. Science fiction writers, he says, should only write about a positive future if we are doing things today that would bring about this type of future.

As a journalist, I have to take that personally. Is my profession currently acting in a manner that will inevitably bring about its decline into irrelevancy? It depends on how you look at it. There are certainly some elements that would sell their grandmothers for good ratings — but are they the exception or the rule?

As the Internet becomes more popular as a news source, competition has grown fiercer than ever. In a world where anyone can publish, there is a near-infinite number of news-related publications. How does one — especially a startup with no brand history — stand out from the rest? One way would be to track what people are interested in and give it to them. Of course, this isn’t a particularly novel idea, so if that’s your business model you’ll find yourself swimming with the sharks.

Another way to go is with a niche product. In the pre-Internet days it would have been tough to make a go of it with a publication specializing in, say, knitting. But with the Internet’s world-wide audience, it becomes viable.

The same could be said about environmentalism. This is no shortage of green websites, so somebody must be reading them. The groups behind them have succeeded in many ways in making environmentalism mainstream. Municipal curbside recycling programs, for example, are now considered as normal as garbage pickup once was.

But I can see where Bacigalupi becomes pessimistic. Climate change — perhaps the biggest threat to humans — often gets swept under the rug in the cacophony of news. People are tired of hearing about it. They don’t see evidence of it, so they’re prone to believe those who say it’s a hoax. These are disturbing trends.

But the problem may lie not so much in a failure of journalism, but a facet of human nature itself. When a problem is first brought to our attention we become concerned and look for a solution. That’s the way we do things in our own lives — have a problem, find a solution. But problems like climate change or violence in the Middle East or drought in parts of Africa seem to drag on forever. The challenge of journalists is to continue to present these problems in ways that remind us of their existence without making their resolution seem hopeless. The good ones rise to this challenge — and indeed this is the glimmer of hope raised in The Gambler.

Even so, when it comes to environmentalism we have made great strides: habitats and species have been protected, air and water pollution have been drastically reduced, chemicals and additives in our foods are taken seriously. We can thank journalists in large part for bringing these subjects to our attention and helping to bring about changes. In many ways they have earned a positive future from science fiction writers.

It just depends on how you look at it.