When Editors Eat Robots

One way of looking at the political economy of publishing is to look at the labor economics and there’s a rather useful new study from everyone’s favorite consulting firm McKinsey on workplace automation (“The Four Fundamentals of Workplace Automation“) from which we might glean some useful perspective on the future of editing.

Capabilities such as creativity and sensing emotions are core to the human experience and also difficult to automate. The amount of time that workers spend on activities requiring these capabilities, though, appears to be surprisingly low. Just 4 percent of the work activities across the US economy require creativity at a median human level of performance. Similarly, only 29 percent of work activities require a median human level of performance in sensing emotion.


While these findings might be lamented as reflecting the impoverished nature of our work lives, they also suggest the potential to generate a greater amount of meaningful work. This could occur as automation replaces more routine or repetitive tasks, allowing employees to focus more on tasks that utilize creativity and emotion. Financial advisors, for example, might spend less time analyzing clients’ financial situations, and more time understanding their needs and explaining creative options. Interior designers could spend less time taking measurements, developing illustrations, and ordering materials, and more time developing innovative design concepts based on clients’ desires.

And, you know, editors might edit. Actually, though, no, I’m not going to go down the irritating “do-they, don’t-they” of whether editors these days edit or not. (I suspect the answer is, they edited less in the past than it is made out to be, and edit more in the present than is made out to be.) However it is true that many editors have been laid off in the past twenty years and shifted to freelance mode, and it may be that that was the most self-defeating move the industry made in the past twenty years. Because the least automatable bit of the entire publishing supply chain is the editor-as-shrink bit. You attend any self-publishing conference and you don’t hear any shit get talked about their editors, no, the shit-talking is reserved for the marketing and business side.

Further to this, you might enjoy Porter Anderson’s account of a talk I gave in 2014 in Stockholm. (Slides here. Quotes courtesy of Porter’s prodigious ability to live tweet a talk.)

“I changed my title five seconds ago from ‘Editors Beat Robots’ to ‘Editors Eat Robots,’ partially because I don’t believe in neat oppositions of editor versus robot, book versus transmedia, print versus digital. I believe in hybridization, which happens when things get combined. In a certain sense, I could say, ‘Editors Fuck Robots,’ and not in the aggressive sense but in the reproductive sense. What happens when editors combine themselves with robots?”

What is key though is that the business model would need to evolve, away from hit-picking, towards talent support.

“When you understand editing as a service, as opposed to a process of picking products that may or may not sell, your value is defined by how good you are rather than how lucky you are. Which suggests that editors, when they eat robots, when they use tools, when they use data, when they embrace a post-industrial mode, can be the entities that are attracting the value.”

Or, you might say, editors beat publishers.