The joys and horrors of automation here at the Courier

A human and a robot in a tug of war over an office chair

From the Editor

For an editor and publisher, automation can be a wonderful thing. It saves time by performing repetitive tasks with minimal hands-on work and allows us to schedule the distribution of content, social media posts, and the newsletter with a great deal of precision.

But when things go wrong with it, even small things, I plunge into paranoia and wonder if humanity is headed to the dystopian worlds of the Matrix and Terminator.

Take the Cobb County Courier’s newsletter, for instance.

This morning I informed newsletter readers that we’re in a cold snap. Why would I do something that insane? Well, I didn’t, really. The Matrix did.

Here’s what I mean by that.

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to reduce the frequency of the newsletter from seven days per week to six. That was partly because news slows down beginning Friday afternoon and partly because I wanted to make my Saturday work schedule slightly less oppressive.

So I didn’t prepare a Saturday newsletter this morning.

This would have been fine if I’d also unchecked the box that automatically tells the system to send the newsletter out.

So let’s anthropomorphize the newsletter distribution software. In simpler words let’s pretend it’s human, and not a stupid bunch of zeros and ones stored in a computer program on a server somewhere.

The software knows that it’s supposed to wake up and email a bunch of people every morning. So it looks at the schedule and says, “Aha, the Saturday box is checked. Let’s see if there is anything for me to send!”

It opens the outbox, and yes, there’s an email there. It recognizes that there are words in a file that it needs to launch at a designated time, but it doesn’t know what any of those words mean.

In particular, it doesn’t check the headline and ask, “Wait a minute. This newsletter says we’re going to have subfreezing temperatures tonight, and right now, it’s 71 degrees outside!”

If I, or any other editor, had been sending out the newsletter manually, the error almost certainly would have been caught.

As it happens, the newsletter in the box was from the weekend prior to the brief cold snap we had.

Does this embarrassing snafu mean I will scrap the automation and go back to scheduling everything manually?

Not a chance. I value the productivity too much.

But it does show two things.

One is that human oversight is always necessary, whether it involves AI or just an old-fashioned primitive scheduling script.

The second is that mistakes are inevitable, but many embarrassing errors can be avoided with a checklist that states, “Doublecheck all the settings when you make changes in an automated system.”