What's the future of personal news? To find out, we visited Walter Bender, director of the News in the Future research consortium at MIT's Media Lab. Bender has participated in much of the pioneering research in electronic publishing, including early prototypes of customized, interactive multimedia.
You've said that proponents of personalized news don't want news pushed on them — they want to pull news in. How can computerized search agents do a better job of retrieving news that fits the reader's interests?
We've been developing a tool called Doppelganger. It enables your computer to shadow you, get involved in all of the different things you do, and deliver that information to your personal newspaper. My Fishwrap (MIT's prototype electronic newspaper), knows about my e-mail, my calendar, what I've been doing on the Web. And it uses all that information to refine my user profile constantly. Say there's an entry in my computer calendar that shows I'm traveling to Finland. Using Doppelganger, Fishwrap will smell that out and add a little news section on Finland — local news, what's going on in Helsinki.
Doppelganger sounds really helpful. It also sounds vaguely Orwellian.
Well, American Express is making observations about you and using them to make inferences about you. I can see why people were alarmed by Microsoft's deal with Quicken, where an operating system could potentially know a lot more about you. My operating system knowing about me, for me, is a great idea. My operating system knowing about me for some third party, I don't like at all.
Still, it seems somewhat one-dimensional, because you're thinking about personalizing the news purely as a process of filtering news stories.
There is another dimension, and that's context. What's the context in which you're seeing news content? An example of a context-delivery system that we're developing is PLUM — parallel line with understanding mission. PLUM deals with natural disasters. Say there's a news story about a flood in China that's engulfed 250,000 acres of farmland. How much is 250,000 acres? I have no idea. But PLUM will draw a map of Boston and overlay it with a circle that encompasses 250,000 acres. PLUM helps you understand what you're reading about, and why it's relevant.
Coordinates: Walter Bender, firstname.lastname@example.org ; PLUM's Web site, http://mu.www.media.mit.edu/people/elo/plum.html
A version of this article appeared in the August/September 1996 issue of Fast Company magazine.