Scout: The crossroads of a tech-enabled future, journalism and sci-fi

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It’s a fresh take on technology reporting which is due for a much-needed overhaul to keep in step with its growing impact on our lives, according to Berit Anderson, SCOUT CEO and co-founder.

‘In its current iteration, technology reporting doesn’t help people understand technology,’ explained Anderson. She cited two fundamental issues: Journalists tend to report on what has already happened, as they have been trained to do, and tech journalists aren’t equipped to report on the implications for society.

‘It’s just not enough to write about events that have taken place around an emerging technology,’ she added. Gone are the days where technology advances were represented by new software and evermore sophisticated video games. In an age of genetic augmentation, new discoveries are changing our bodies. We now consider space travel and resettlement on distant planets. Technology is increasingly shaping the human experience. 

 Anderson contends that to be effective, technology reporting requires an investigative approach to inform the public of how new technology may impact the world we live in, how it will shape our lives, our environment, our bodies and our future.

‘We have undergone a fundamental change in the technology industry that goes beyond changing how we work, but changing how our lives work,’ Anderson said. 

A view from the R&D desk merges with near-term fiction

The content model for SCOUT emerged on the heels of a role-playing event Anderson helped coordinate in Seattle in 2014, that explored scenarios for climate migration. Anderson recounted how 100+ attendees, representing diverse sectors—politicians, community leaders, architects, local journalists—came to unexpected alliances, conversations and insights. It was a founding moment for Anderson. Technology reporting wasn’t serving the public and it demands a forward-looking perspective. ‘What we need is a view from the R&D desk.’ 

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Looking back at the advent of ultrasound technology, could we have expected its unintended consequences in the developing world? The practice to emerge was the widespread use of ultrasound machines leading to sex-selective abortions among pregnant women in countries such as India and China. The resulting gender imbalance, approximately 120 boys for every 100 girls in China, has left millions of men without prospects for marriage, creating ‘bachelor villages’ and a deep footprint of associated societal issues.

It became increasingly apparent there was an audience hungry to explore the pipeline of discovery and where it might take us, according to Anderson, who until April 2015 was managing editor for Crosscut, an online, reader-supported media organization covering the Pacific Northwest. Together with her husband Brett Horvath, a serial entrepreneur, they founded SCOUT.  

The model for SCOUT emerged to shine a light on the ripple effect technology will have on the moral, ethical and legal landscape. This is where near-term science fiction will have a role. The first issue will be anchored by novelist Karl Schroeder, who also consults on future studies. Anderson acknowledged that while science-fiction can be alienating to readers—too masculine, focused on science and weak on the story—a heavy hitter such as Schroeder brings real-life expertise to accompany his powerful narrative skills.

Engage. engage. engage: an interactive business model for media 

Fast forward to January 2016: SCOUT will launch its inaugural issue focusing on artificial intelligence (AI). Events, conferences and reality games will be built into the editorial schedule, pushing SCOUT content beyond the confines of print and into the realm of interactive engagement. ‘We see our success in being able to respond to our audience,’ Anderson explained. ‘We hope to inspire as much fan fiction as possible.’ 

Will the alchemy of investigative reporting, near-term science fiction and fan fiction create a financially viable media outlet? Anderson hopes so. For rather than focus on ad sales, SCOUT is building out a paid membership base that is buying into experiences and engagement. 

‘If they aren’t willing to pay, we are doing something wrong, so we are getting creative with the experiences we are creating,’ she said. Events will be an important contributor to the revenue stream, building on a tiered membership model—a basic level of $5 per month—that got its boost through the Kickstarter campaign. 

The Kickstarter campaign made clear the team was doing something right, or at least that they were on to something. Aiming for $30,000 in 30 days and a project that was blessed as a Kickstarter staff pick, SCOUT hit its goal in eight days. Anderson and Horvach saw this as a clear sign of market validation. Not only did they discover there was a ready appetite for the SCOUT model, they also found a stable of influential allies. 

‘There are a lot of frighteningly smart people who want to partner with us in this,’ she said, referencing tech industry leaders such as Tesla, Craig’s List and Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Angel investors joined in from tech hubs like Washington and California. Interest in the SCOUT initiative hails from across industries, an asset SCOUT intends to put to use. ‘A big part is leveraging the intelligence across the SCOUT network.’  The leadership team now includes social entrepreneur Michael Kaemingk and designer, animator and developer Dave Chenell. 

Proactive Listening for Content Development

Consider points of tension in the tech-enabled future: technology, in and of itself, has a hand in the concentration of wealth and income inequity. What is the way forward for mobile encryption, the ‘back door’ and democracy? How does our understanding of what it is to be human shift if we are suddenly able to use AI to communicate with animals? And how would an editor taking a long-form approach prioritize concurrent and pressing technology questions?

This has prompted Anderson and Horvach to engage in listening tours. Reconnecting with SCOUT members in L.A. and San Francisco, they discovered fertile content ground. ‘In Silicon Valley, we discovered they are interested in universal basic income,’ a fear borne out of job loss. Self-driving cars, for example, are not a tech problem, per se, but they will shift the employment landscape when the truck driving industry merges with automation. 

‘This plays out in areas where the tech industry is buzzing and what I find fascinating is how tech will interplay with all of this,’ Anderson said. “We feel that our world could use a little more room in building a disciplined imagination…and our hope is that we can help people think through where tech is going.’ 

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