Episode 173 - Scouting The Future
Published May 26, 2015
SPECIAL GUEST: Brett Horvath (Scout). In episode 98, we talked a bit about crowdfunding and Kickstarter, including some of the projects we've contributed to. In this episode, we're joined by Brett Horvath of Scout. Scout is a new media site covering the intersection of technology, economics, and morality using near-term science fiction and investigative reporting. We're big fans of the Scout project. Join us and find out more about this exciting effort. Recorded 5/19/2015.
Mike & Matt's Recommended Reading:
Scout on Kickstarter
Scout on Twitter
Brett Horvath on Twitter
Berit Anderson on Twitter
Michael Kaemingk on Twitter
Episode 98 - Funded By The Crowd, where we discussed crowdfunding including several Kickstarter projects
Alpha: Welcome to another episode of Robot Overlordz, episode #173. On the show we take a look at how society is changing, everything from pop culture reviews to political commentary, technology trends to social norms, all in about thirty minutes or less, every Tuesday and Thursday.
Mike Johnston: Greetings cyborgs, robots, and natural humans. I’m Mike Johnston.
Matt Bolton: And I’m Matt Bolton.
MJ: And joining us on this episode is Brett Horvath. Brett, thanks for coming on the show.
Brett Horvath: Hey, thanks a lot for having me guys. I appreciate it.
MB: Brett, you’re starting a new venture called Scout. Can you start by telling us about Scout and what it is?
BH: Absolutely. So, my co-founder, who’s also my fiancée, we’ve been together for five years, we decided to launch this media company called Scout. Basically, we got together and we decided, “What if we could do all of our favorite things and try and have as much of a positive impact on the world as possible?” and we came up with this: Scout. It’s a community-driven media company that does a few things: it combines investigative reporting with near-term science fiction. The reason we’re doing that is we think there’s a lot of really important problems and questions that society is facing right now that you need to look at from a couple of different angles. So, by looking at both really deep-dive reporting and short stories and science fiction vignettes that take place one to seven years in the future, we think we can offer a whole new type of conversation around things like artificial intelligence, genetic augmentation, basic income and the automation revolution. So, that’s the format of what we’re going to do, and our goal is to cover the intersection of technology, economics, and morality. We think that those three intersecting topics are really important and don’t usually have the same kind of coverage that is needed for some of these issues. Morality sticks out for some people as maybe a dicey topic, or a sticky topic, but for us, we really wanted to make space for that. We’re not really going to be saying, “This one approach is right, this one approach is wrong.” It’s really creating space for moral consideration around technology and economics. For us, it’s the idea of promoting moral foresight. I think there’s a lot of problems that arise in technology and technology reporting because of a lack of moral foresight, the ability to see into the future and think how might this affect other people, and also how might morality help inform a more strategic view of technology.
MB: How is your new site going to differ from… Let’s say, if I just go to CNN, or MSNBC, or FOX News, they all have a technology section, a politics section. How are you guys going to be different from my visiting that part of a major news site?
BH: Well, there’s a couple of things: one is we’re going to focus on one big topic at a time and zero in on that for about two to three months. So, one of the problems with artificial intelligence, for example, is it feels like we’ve been having the same basic conversation around artificial intelligence the last 20 years. You get the justice league of people like Elon Musk and Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking saying, “Oh my gosh, this is an existential threat,” and then you get Marc Andreessen, who is basically trolling on Twitter, saying, “AI is all hype and Siri is dumb, therefore AI doesn’t matter.” Every time there’s one little new piece of the AI story that comes out, you get that same basic story format and then people move on. What we want to do is tackle one big topic and then dive deeper into it, and try to get to a new place of understanding. Each topic will start with a combination of near-term science fiction short stories, vignettes, infographics, and then investigative reporting on the topic. And then over the weeks and months that follow, we’ll do additional reporting. We’re going to actually organize video debates between technologists and sci-fi authors, where they don’t just show up and try to talk, but they prepare and get ready. And then eventually package that all into possibly ebooks or additional follow-on content to say, “This is what we learned from the conversation.” We don’t want to just cover and do some kind of a summary of that topic. We really want to move the conversation forward and try to get to a new understanding, new ways of thinking about the topic. When we approach a topic like genetic augmentation, we’ll come with an opening bid of what we think and what we’ve found, but our goal isn’t just to promote those ideas, it’s to come to a new understanding collectively with our community, with our readers, with the technologists, and the science fiction authors. So, that’s how we kind of want to differentiate from the 24-hour news cycle. The other aspect is most of our content, about 40% to 70% of it, will be available on the website, but we’re also going to have a membership model. So, that’s $5 per month per member is what we’re going with. The reason we’re doing that is because we want to get out of the advertising content mill that we think is eating up a lot of some of the best news sites out there. It’s been really tragic, actually: some of our favorite technology outlets, over the last couple of months, we’ve really seen they’ve had to put out more clickbait articles. We don’t begrudge them for it, because we understand the advertising economics—they just need to keep putting out content, whether it’s their parent company or their editors that are pushing them to do that. We want to avoid that. We want to say look, we want to focus on the high signal content, the stuff that matters, and so that’s why we’re taking that approach.
MB: So, you’re only going to have one story at a time going, is that correct?
BH: One topic at a time, and then that topic can have several stories and several pieces of investigative reporting around it.
MB: Now, how often do you foresee—let’s say you’re doing a story on AI, am I going to get a new piece of information every day? Is it once a week? Is it twice a week? Once a month?
BH: Yeah, so our target is to do one piece of original content—at least one piece—a week. Then in between that, we’ll also do curation, we’ll point to other great writing. But we really want to keep that one week cycle going. But we’re really going to be experimenting with that, depending on the flow, and the audience, and how the topic works. We might put out one piece a day if things are getting really hot and heavy and there’s a lot of conversation, a lot of interest around that particular topic. At least once a week.
MJ: Brett, you mentioned the clickbait-y nature of some other publications. Overall in the media space on the internet, do you think that there is an awful lot of that chasing clickbait, even among people that maybe are just starting out on blogs? I’ve gone to a number of meetups and things lately and have seen people that are trying to launch their own projects, and it seems like everybody is reading from the same SEO playbooks, and they’re all trying to A/B test. None of them particularly have anything that they’re committing to—maybe the basic idea in their project, but it seems like that’s becoming secondary to all of this SEO and A/B testing and clickbait. They’re all doing the same things that everybody else is doing. One of the things that really stuck out to me about Scout in looking at your Kickstarter was how it doesn’t seem to be chasing that same model, and that really appealed to me. I was wondering if you could dig more into your thought process around that.
BH: I would say one of the places you could say the singularity is beginning to come true is how all of our news and online conversation is already slave to the algorithms. We’re all looking at how do we get that SEO, how do we get that rank, how do we adapt to Facebook’s new newsfeed updates. It’s really tough to be in the content and media business because of that, because it changes day to day. So like I said, we don’t begrudge any other media outlet for doing that. Most of these people don’t want to be writing some of these articles. They feel like they have to because of the economics. So for us, our challenge, and our struggle, and the opportunity to say can we build a sustainable operation where we carve out this space for a community and say look, we want to have in-depth reporting, we want to have conversation that has substance, that tries to go to new places, and look at articles in a whole new way. Part of that comes from the editorial lens. There’s a problem with science and technology, that I’m sure you all have seen, where basically there’s one new piece of research that comes out of some study that was published, and it might be about genetics, it might be about a new machine learning algorithm. Someone in the media, in technology reporting, will take that one line, that one development, and they’ll feel the need to make a really hyperbolic headline to try and catch people’s attention so they get someone to care, and so they can have more attention and more traction around that. And that’s a problem. It leads to a mixing between speculation and fact. What I think the net effect of that has been over the last ten years is people kind of have this future fatigue. They’re like, “Alright, there’s another clone thing going on,” or “there’s another AI thing…” and they’ve just kind of heard it over and over again because people have been constantly hyping whatever technology advancement is happening. And so for us, having near-term science fiction and investigative reporting, we feel that—you know, let’s let our facts be our facts and our dreams be our dreams. Let’s do both the speculation and the power that discipline and imagination can bring to understand the implications, to see where it could go, but let’s also have a discipline around our facts and what they mean. So, it’s that editorial lens plus trying to make this economic model work that gets out of the advertising rat race, that we’re trying to carve out a better conversation.
MJ: Do you think some of this is the audience’s fault? I mean, I look at the people that I know, the people that Matt and I know, and a lot of people share the same memes, or cat photos, or dog photos, or whatever on Facebook, and they sometimes seem to get a little upset if you try to post… I mean, everybody gets tired of the political stuff, but I think one of the things that is behind people that want to share political stuff is they actually care about a given issue and it’s just the anger level has been dialed up. From my own standpoint, I like caring, and that’s really why Matt and I started Robot Overlordz, and I think we have a little bit of topic overlap with you guys. But that’s one of the reasons I found what you guys are doing so interesting.
BH: First off, we’re all culpable—you ask if that’s partly the audience’s fault—I read just as many of those same articles and post them as anyone else, so we definitely in no way say we’re above that type of content. I mean, you want to think you’re above the article that says, “Look at these videos of when we sent cats and dogs into space in the ‘60s,” but I’ll still click on that, or I’ll post it. So, it’s just human nature. Humans have always shared gossip, and things that are really entertaining, and cute animal pieces with media since we could. But the other thing is I think why a lot of people avoid political conversations or conversations with depth around ethics and morality and the harder implications of technology is it’s a really thin slice of life to have people that care about this stuff and can have a thoughtful and empathetic conversation. An example is I’m sure you’ve probably come across—whatever your political view is—that one or two people that you can regularly say, “You know, this person sees this issue differently than me, but I can still have a good conversation with them. “ And it can be new, it can be interesting. We can come at it from a standpoint of honest inquiry and dialogue and not just know that we’re going to be waiting to react to the other person. That thin slice of life is really what we want to go for in our coverage and our conversation, because otherwise the future, politics, morality—all this stuff gets really tiring if you don’t create that space for empathetic, honest inquiry. It’s very easy to say, and you hear a lot of people talk about “more civic dialogue” and “bringing reasonability and moderation back to American politics” or whatever it is. It’s not really about that; that’s kind of condescending. It’s really just hard to do that. It takes a willingness, it takes an openness to ideas. So, we’re going to really try and promote that and keep that going for our audience and our community.
MJ: Do you guys have a plan to handle some of the more heated, or angry, or just outright ugly elements of online culture that tend to develop in communities? Whether it’s trolling, or people that are griefers, or really any of that negativity that somewhat online culture now has almost become known for. Do you guys have a plan to handle that, or are you hoping that those people just won’t be attracted to the idea?
BH: Well, that’s part of our goal and our broader philosophy and mission, is we want to create a space where everyone is welcome to talk about what technology, science, and the future mean for all of us. So, first off, we’re going to expect it. We’re not going to be surprised by people that bring really toxic language and negativity. They’re going to come. But the others, we will have a zero tolerance policy amongst our community members, amongst commenters, amongst our authors. We want to create a safe space, and I think that’s one of the things that has been really tragic about science fiction as a genre and a community—I have personally experienced, whether it was my fiancée or my friends—people tend to think that science fiction gets branded as just white guys talking about the future. But there’s a really broad based community and there’s a lot of people that would be really interested in these conversations, but it’s just the lack of an open mind and open aesthetic and sense of inviting to other communities. So, we really want to defend that safe space for anyone that wants to come and have honest inquiry, whatever their gender orientation, their race, their political beliefs—anyone that wants that honest inquiry and imagination, we want to create a safe space for them.
MB: I know people who, as soon as you say sci-fi, they’re like, “Ah… That’s not my thing,” or whatever. But I think that they would be interested in the topics that you guys are covering. So, what I mean is people who are like, “Ah, I don’t really like Star Trek” or whatever, that kind of thing, but they do like the topics that you guys are going to be covering, how do you go about reaching out to those people? Does that make sense?
BH: Absolutely. That’s one of our big goals, is we think that even though there’s a bunch of big blockbuster science fiction movies, we think science fiction actually underperforms as a whole genre, and there’s a whole group of people that can be really excited and bought-in to science fiction that haven’t yet. There’s a lot of reasons for that, but I think a couple of them are a near-term focus, something where stories feel actionable, they feel like they’re possible or people can have an effect on them—I think that’s really empowering, where people feel, “Yeah, this isn’t just a vision 50 years into the future that I don’t have any relatability to,” where they’re less likely to engage. So, that one to seven year timeline for our stories and our editorial approach is part of that desire to get more people involved. The other is a focus on not just dystopian stories—we will have cautionary tales, we will have what happens when this technology goes wrong, but we really want to look for creative solutions and possible visions of a better future. That is more accessible and exciting to a broader group of people. There’s a woman who I met about a year ago, she started talking to me, had no interest in science fiction, and I told her what I was thinking about doing, and she said, “You know, I’m really tired of all this dystopian stuff. I want something that is exciting and presents a future that is realistic, that understands the problems we’re going through but presents a creative solution.” And so, I started recommending some books and some stories, and all of a sudden she’s a total science fiction head, and every week she texts me and is like, “Brett, I need another book recommendation.” I see that over, and over, and over again, and I think that there’s a real opportunity for people that care about the future and science fiction fans to get more people at the party. So, that’s one of our goals.
MJ: So Brett, you guys have a pretty good list it looks like already of science fiction authors. I mean, I notice some of my own favorites—I was a big fan of Ramez Naam, I just finished his book, Apex; and you guys have David Brin on your list. I actually used one of Greg Bear’s TED talks—I’m in a local TEDx group where we watch TED Talks, and I thought his thinking about the future was just phenomenal. What are some of the other authors that you guys have involved already? Are you guys looking to involve other authors as well?
BH: Yeah, well first off it’s been really heartwarming to have these conversations with these authors. Some of them were friends before we started, some of them we just called up out of the blue or got introductions to, and all of them said yes. They were really on board and excited from day one, and have been really helpful. Whether it was tweeting or showing up to our launch party, or talking to us about our editorial approach, all of the people involved have been really gracious and helpful, and that’s been really exciting to see that. We definitely want to reach out to more writers and get more people involved. We want the big names like Ramez, and Greg, and David, but we also want to get up and coming authors, younger authors that might not have had as much exposure but bring new perspectives, crazy ideas. So, we’re wide open. People that have not necessarily been published yet—we want to be having those folks at the conversation and bringing those ideas. Some of the other ones that have signed on: Madeline Ashby and Karl Schroeder, both of them are fantastic and they actually both are accomplished science fiction authors and futurists and strategic foresight experts. That’s a really great combination, because not only are they imagining these new worlds and these crazy futures, but they’re working with some of the biggest companies and governments and institutions on the planet, trying to map out what’s going to happen in the next 5, 10, 20 years. I think that’s a really cool place to play. I think that process—people don’t really know; I mean, you guys do—but a lot of people don’t know that the biggest companies and governments on the planet have consulted with science fiction authors for the last 70 years. Whether it’s informing their R&D budgets or helping them think through possible opportunities and liabilities, they call up the sci-fi authors and say, “Hey, come help us envision the future.” There are a set of tools of strategic foresight and creative visioning where it’s really a thinking tool and it’s something that anyone can use for their business, for their life, for their family, whatever it is, and we want to democratize that way of thinking. And so, that’s one of the things we’re most excited and passionate about. But yeah, these authors are fantastic, and one of the best parts about launching this is I’ve already got to meet more science fiction authors. It gives me an excuse to read more science fiction, which is fantastic. It’s kind of the dream to be able to have people say, “Hey, I’ve got this short story” and be able to carve out time in my day to read it and have conversations with them. So, that’s really exciting. But yeah, any authors out there, and if anyone knows of anyone that we should be reading or who should be read more, we’re wide open.
MJ: I’m a big fan, actually, of Madeline Ashby. I just read her vN and iD, and I was looking forward to the third one in that series. And then I think Karl Schroeder, I want to say he had a story, the anthology, Hieroglyph.
BH: Yeah! His Hieroglyph—I love Madeline—and Karl, I just reread his Hieroglyph story, which is fantastic. It looks out how there could be this battle between resources and first nations in Canada, and there’s augmented reality, there’s cryptocurrency, and it plays out the future of what democracy and governance could look like, and it’s just awesome. So many layers that could be a mess but he weaves it together in a way that works, and it’s just fantastic.
MJ: Have you guys thought about connecting to a project like, say, Hieroglyph, or I think there’s another one out there—because you mentioned earlier that you were looking to move beyond just dystopian science fiction—I think the other project that I’m familiar with that’s trying to do that… I know Hieroglyph did, but also Twelve Tomorrows, I think.
BH: Yeah, I’m not familiar with Twelve Tomorrows, but I’d love to check it out. Hieroglyph is fantastic, and I’ve loved the project from the beginning. We actually had a couple of conversations with Ed Finn, who runs the ASU Center for Science and Imagination and was the lead editor and person that organized Hieroglyph. He’s fantastic and we’re really looking forward for ways to collaborate with them and figure out all sorts of fun and interesting partnerships. Because yeah, they come from a lot of the same instincts as we do, as far as what are new ways of approaching science fiction, the media, and the way the information is presented, how can we envision creative solutions, and then lead them to prototypes. One of the things I love that they do—they’re based in a research institution, so they have these stories and they connect them with researchers, and grant makers, and try and bring them to reality. So, we’re very much on that same line of instinct. It’s kind of a cheesy line amongst ourselves at Scout: what animates us is we want to accelerate the creation of a better future through stories, conversations, and prototypes. We really see that as a process. Start at a story, have really animated, vigorous conversation, then see if you can realize a prototype that can bring it into reality. So yeah, there’s all sorts of projects out there. It’s fun, one of our team members, we’ve been looking and seeing, and it’s been really fun to connect to what I call the “Nerd Net” and reconnect and see all these different things I hadn’t even been aware of. But there’s just a lot of room to play and collaborate, and we’re looking forward to partnering with all of these organizations.
MJ: So Brett, how is the Kickstarter so far?
BH: The Kickstarter has been going very well. We’ve been really excited. We’re basically at about 88% of our goal, and we’re only a week in. So, our goal is $30,000 and we have raised just about $26,000. So, that’s fantastic, and we’ve done that without any press so far, any media attention. Our friends and family, thank goodness, showed up. But one of the things that’s been really exciting is finding people who don’t know, who have never met us before—it’s a friend of a friend or some post on Twitter—and they supported us and are excited, and they’re sending us messages with new science fiction short stories from people we should talk to. But we had a lead designer from NASA’s JPL lab contact us and say, “We love this. We would love to talk to you and do an interview.” I woke up one morning, Berit, my co-founder, said right as I was waking up, “Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist, backed us.” We had no connection to him, but he found us on Twitter and backed us. Tim O’Reilly, of O’Reilly Media, tweeted us out and got all sorts of attention for it. So, it’s been going really well and it’s been so cool seeing people come out of the woodwork and say, “Yeah, I’ve always wanted something that really brings science fiction into the forefront of news.” So, things have been going well. We’re still kind of at this fragile phase, where we’re going into week two and three of the campaign, and so support really makes a big difference and we’re hoping to get to that goal as soon as we can. But it’s been really exciting seeing the reaction so far.
MJ: Yeah, well, and I suppose—confession here—I am actually a backer. So, I contributed at the Super Scout level, I think. Selfish question here: What exactly is the editorial advisory board?
BH: Absolutely. Well, first off, thank you so much for not only inviting me onto the podcast but becoming a member. That was great on our launch day. I was like, you know, I’ve been emailing with you guys and then I saw that backer come in from you and I was like, “Yes, this is great!” So, yeah, the Scout Advisory Board, basically what we want to do—when we say community-driven media organization, we mean it. So, we’re going to have basically a story and science committee—these are some of our authors and technologists who we’ll have some conversations with of what stories should we cover, and then we’ll go to the editorial advisory board and say, “Hey, what topics, or how should we approach these ideas? What are we missing? Are there short stories, are there elements of genetic augmentation or automation that we should be thinking about?” So, we really want to have a conversation with the community before we publish, and really have that kind of dialogue, that back and forth, with our members all throughout the process so it’s not just us being like, “Hey, now we’ve delivered to you your content.” We want to have that perspective and that input before we even get started.
MJ: Okay, fantastic. That sounds great to me. I’m definitely on board. [laughs]
MB: Do you have your first story topic lined up yet, or is that a secret, or have you not thought that far ahead?
BH: Well, it’s pseudo-secret, but I’ll tell you this much: One of the things we’re really interested in is climate risk, and the intersection of climate risk and technology. We think that there hasn’t been as much coverage and attention to that topic as there could be, and we’ve got some really great insider technologists, people doing work at the highest levels in that area, and some people that come from a really good science fiction angle on it as well. So, we’ll definitely give you guys a heads up as we get ready to get the issue locked and loaded. Mike sits here on the Scout Editorial Advisory Board, you’ll definitely get an early look and we can get some feedback on it. But yeah, the intersection of climate risk and technology is going to be kind of the general area of the first topic.
MJ: Brett, in looking at the next, say, five to seven years, what technology is looking like it’s on the horizon that kind of excites you? Or what kind of topic of what you guys are thinking about looking at is one you just can’t wait to get here?
BH: Yeah, there are two that I would say that are really exciting to me. I’ve done a bunch of work in political organizing and in governance. I actually helped work with a friend of mine who ran for mayor of Seattle, and was mayor for four years, Michael McGinn, and led something called the Government 2.0 Taskforce. Through that, I’ve gotten to work with a lot of smart people basically trying to reinvent government or evolve it in a way that takes advantage of new technology. There’s been some good things happening in open data and Government 2.0 in the last six to seven years, but there’s another whole series of technology, specifically around block chaining, around distributed decision making, that I think is going to open up a whole new era around what’s possible with representative democracy and self-governance. So, there’s a bunch of things in distributed democracy that I think are really exciting, and anything we can do to help accelerate that future is great, especially given the state of Congress in the United States. So, that’s one. The other, which I think is kind of a sleeper and something that I hope we’ll cover sooner rather than later, is animal communication. This is something that we’ve had little hints of over the last 30 or 40 years, but it’s really accelerating, especially thanks to machine learning technology, where we’re able to pick up on a whole new level of communication and cognition that’s happening all over the animal kingdom. I think that people don’t fully appreciate what that means when we can actually listen to the conversation, the communities amongst different species, and what that means for how we relate to different animals.
MB: One last thing: plug your Kickstarter and where people can go to learn more about Scout.
BH: Yeah, so if you’re interested in what we’re doing, the best place to go is go to Kickstarter.com and just look up “Scout.” I think we’ve been the most popular project in the journalism category. Then the other is you can go to our website, JoinScout.com. It’s really simple, you can sign up to get email updates and then that links through to the Kickstarter. But if you’re curious about what we’re doing, now would be a great time to get involved and help us out, and we’d really appreciate.
MJ: Well Brett, thanks so much for joining us then.
BH: Thank you so much for having me guys, and we’d love to keep chatting with you any time about the future, and I’m a big fan of your show. So, this is great.
A: That’s all for this episode of Robot Overlordz. Are you interested in the future and how society is changing? We’d love to have you join our community. Visit our website to learn more and to connect with others that share that interest. You can find us at RobotOverlordz.FM. The site includes all of the show’s old episodes along with complete transcripts, links to more information about the topics and guests in each episode, and our mailing list and forums. We’d also love to hear what you think about the show. You can review us on iTunes or email us.
A: We hope to see you again in the future…
MJ: Thanks everyone for listening.