Back in 2009, Chris Jones, a seasoned staff writer for Esquire US, was given a life-changing assignment – an open-ended, reportage-driven magazine feature on the lives of paramedics. For an entire month, Jones, then in his mid-30s, hurtled around Ottawa, Ontario in a screaming ambulance with a team of first responders.
“There is your life before the truck and there is your life after the truck,” the piece begins. What he learned in that truck would later become a key insight in his latest book, The Eye Test: A Case for Human Creativity in the Age of Analytics. Jones found himself overwhelmed by the noise of the CB radio, which blared a constant stream of panic, one disaster scenario after another – car crashes, house fires, stabbings, seizures and domestic hellscapes.
“Inside the van, it felt like the world was ending,” Jones told me over Zoom from his home in Port Hope, “but then I’d look out the window and everything was perfectly calm. Normal. People were walking down the street oblivious.” As Jones struggled to reconcile these two realities he noticed the medics themselves were curiously unaffected. Sure, they listened to the shrieking radio and responded accordingly – responding to emergencies was, quite literally, their job – but the chaos in the truck didn’t freak them out. They were practical, easy-going and, Jones realised over time, astonishingly happy. Not happy in a manic or delirious, shell-shocked way, but calm and content. Slowly it dawned on him that the medics had a rare skill, one that most of us lack – a skill that was just as invaluable for their own mental health as their ability to perform an emergency tracheotomy or CPR was for their patients.
The skill was this: They knew what a real problem was.
“It really was that simple,” Jones recalls with a chuckle. “They’d have a bad day and go, ‘Well at least I don’t have a fencepost through my chest!’ I mean, people make jokes like that, but the difference was, these guys actually meant it.”
In the age of social media, Jones says, it’s as if we’ve all been thrown in the back of the truck with the CB radio blaring panic at full blast 24/7. Unlike the paramedics, we feel helpless in the truck. That’s because we have no plan or sense of purpose. The world is on fire and there’s nothing we can do about it except join the shrieking chorus. This, Jones explains, is how algorithms can suffocate human creativity. In order to deal with the chaos thrown at us by the CB radio of social media, many of us fall into binary thought traps. We sort people, events, issues and experiences into black or white files – good/evil, right/wrong, progressive/conservative – when in fact all these things are far more complicated. “It’s the easiest way to cope with the overload,” he explains. “But it leads to anger and division. People talk about ‘the internet’ as if it’s something bigger than us, rather than what it is, which is something outside us. It’s a machine we invented. It’s ours. We can fix it.” But how?
The answer Jones offers isn’t new or surprising, but nor is it easily accomplished. In essence, he wants us to reclaim our humanity – both on and offline. What he means by “humanity” is a return to nuanced thinking. The cultivation of our innate curiosity. A general sense of wonder and awe. The ability to withstand the discomfort of cognitive dissonance, to love and be loved and to make sense of the world through stories rather than a series of patterns and numbers. In other words, we relearn how to fully access the imperfect, spellbinding miracle of human consciousness itself. The central thesis of The Eye Test – that artificial intelligence governed by algorithms cannot begin to rival the capability and possibilities of human imagination – is on first glance head-smackingly obvious, a truth demonstrated by pretty much all of human history and culture up until the 1980s – . But the book also raises an important question, which is how did we get into our current digital predicament? If most of us agree that humans are better, smarter and more interesting than machines, how have we found ourselves inside a speeding ambulance with the CB radio turned on full blast feeling miserable and confused?
“I’m not suggesting we turn the internet off,” Jones explains. “What I am saying is that it’s not making us feel good any more and we ought to do something about it.”
Perhaps, I suggest, like the medics, we need to learn how to triage – develop better sorting systems to filter the relevant information from the noise so we recognise real problems and solve them practically and calmly.
Jones agrees with this, to a point. The other option, he says, is just to fix the stupid radio. “Think of it this way, if your coffee maker stopped making good coffee and instead started hurling a stream of abuse at you every morning, what would you do?”
“Read the manual?” I offer this uncertainly because, of course, the honest answer is that I’d probably just chuck it and order a new one on Amazon Prime. It’s hard to argue with free same-day delivery when it comes to caffeine.
I was meant to fly to Canada to meet Jones in person, but because of that non-impaling-fencepost problem known as pandemic travel quarantine rules, we are chatting about the evil internet on the evil internet. Jones is a burly guy with a big square head, a lumberjack beard and a laugh that could level a New York City block. Despite his good humour there’s also something wistful and self-effacing about him – a disarming Eeyore-ish quality. He started out as a baseball writer and ended up writing award-winning long features for Esquire about depression, postwar grief, cultural trauma as well as the wonder and havoc the digital revolution has wrought on all aspects of society.
He wears his heart on his sleeve and at times it’s been a big old broken mess. By Jones’s own admission, he cries a lot. He’s unusually open about his emotions in the macho, male-dominated, intellectual-ego-flexing world of American magazine journalism. It’s a stance that has, at times, rendered him thin-skinned and vulnerable to critics (both the real and anonymous trolling kind on social media). But Jones’s honesty – the brutality and vulnerability of his voice – is also what defines him as a writer.
After his month in the ambulance, Jones says he seriously contemplated quitting writing and retraining as a paramedic. The course took four years so ultimately he decided against it. A twinge of regret enters his voice as he tells me this, but it was a decision that benefited devoted readers of serious longform American journalism. Over the next decade he would go on to write some of his best work to date, including the exhaustively detailed, emotionally unsettling long feature, The Things That Carried Him, which chronicles the life, death, transport and burial of a single 30-year-old US soldier in the Iraq war for which he won a National Magazine Award.
The Eye Test works as a kind of travelogue of Jones’s adventures writing for Esquire wrapped around a central thesis. Like the author’s brain, it’s littered with funny, insightful anecdotes and the colourful characters who inspired them – or as he puts it, “a crazy collection of the weirdos I got to meet in my 14 years at Esquire”. He and the magazine parted ways in 2016 and he’s since written two books, one about astronauts, the other about boxing, as well as for television – he was a staff writer on the Netflix sci-fi series Away, starring Hilary Swank, which was loosely based on one of his articles.
In his new book we meet a series of digital charlatans and snake oil salesmen, counter-balanced by a gallery of overlooked proponents of old school gut-level decision-making. Chief among them is the irascible Jim Fregosi, former manager to the Toronto Blue Jays, who mentored Jones in the inexact science of baseball prior to the digital revolution when he was still a cub reporter.
I’ve never met Chris Jones in person, but we have a couple of things in common. He settled with his family in the town where I grew up and we both got our start in journalism in the late 90s, during the brief halcyon period of Canada’s so-called “newspaper war” – a hiring boom spurred by the launch of Conrad Black’s right-leaning National Post.
“They literally hauled me in off the street and gave me a notepad and a security pass,” he laughs. We are also both so-called “digital immigrants” – members of the cross-over generation who remember the analogue “before time”, prior to the rise of the internet. Perhaps because of this Jones is sensitive to the fact that his book may be interpreted as nostalgic or technophobic, but he insists nothing could be further from the truth. It isn’t that he’s against analytics or “anti-math” as he puts it – but rather that he’s critical of the way metrics can be misused and distorted.
We talk about the rise of metrics in journalism. I tell him about the first time an editor remarked that a story I’d written had “done well”. It was chilling that moment because I understood the editor meant it as a compliment, but it was very different to being told my story was “good”.
Jones recalls the era when Esquire installed monitors in the office so staff could watch the readership metrics in real time. “At first it was like, ‘Hey cool! Check it out!’” Pretty soon, though, staff began questioning their own instincts. Jones found himself tailoring pitches to what pulled online. Eventually, the monitors were taken down – just like the anonymous, free-for-all comment boards. Metrics, Jones points out, can often bring a host of problems of their own.
In 1998, Jones reviewed Moneyball, the second book by then-up-and-coming nonfiction writer Michael Lewis. He gave it a rave and like the rest of the world became fascinated by the revolutionary power of analytics in sport. But as Lewis’s predicted analytics revolution consumed not just baseball, but the world as he knew it, Jones, like the rest of us, began to grow disillusioned. He began to notice the collateral damage everywhere.
“I started to notice the stuff we were losing. Analytics were killing guys like Jim Fregosi,” he says of the man who inspired the so-called “Eye Test” – the old school subjective method Fregosi and other managers relied upon to spot talent before Moneyball changed everything. During his years as a sportswriter, Jones began to notice the way analytics were being misapplied, often irrationally, to the detriment of clubs throughout the global multi- billion-dollar industry of professional sport. Nowhere, he says, was this more obvious than in the world of European football.
“Analytics are great for baseball, because it’s a very confined system. There’s not much movement, it’s pretty mathematical and measurable. But with football, how do you quantify the value of a defensive midfielder? A lot of it can’t be quantified, there’s too much movement, too much luck is involved. Similarly, ‘possession’ has become a huge determining statistic in football, but in real terms it doesn’t mean that much. Statistically you can easily dominate a game of football, but still lose because you let in one goal. It happens all the time.”
You might be surprised to learn that Chris Jones is very active on Twitter – a voluble and engaging presence for his 76,000 followers, with whom he engages freely on a daily basis. He describes his Twitter experience these days as “relaxing – fun and pleasurable”. But it wasn’t always this way. Back in the beginning, Jones says, he didn’t believe in blocking people. When attacked he’d rise to the challenge and duke it out, then spend days stewing and smarting over the argument. A couple of times he suspended his account only to creep back for more. Like many high-profile journalists, Jones came to realise he’d developed a toxic love-hate relationship with his followers.
But a few years ago, he says, he had a “Come to Jesus moment” with social media. It came in the form of a calamitous divorce followed by a depression that at its lowest ebb left him suicidal. “I realised an angry tweet isn’t a problem. A family falling apart? Now that’s a fucking problem.”
Since then, Jones has become a kind of one-man social media paramedic. “I’m on a mission to fix Twitter,” he laughs. “People say it’s an angry place but, honestly, it doesn’t need to be. You just have to learn how to do it right. Twitter can be a place to learn and meaningfully connect and amplify beauty – it’s the same across the internet.”
Today he blocks liberally and does not engage in arguments or defend himself against trolls. His tweets are engaging, insightful and, after a few beers, either hilarious or sappy. While it’s clear from The Eye Test Jones sees plenty that’s wrong with the world, on Twitter he directs almost all of his criticism at himself. And he is generous – especially with other writers.
When he turned 48, Jones asked his followers to reach out to a writer they loved and thank them for their work and copy him on it. The response was overwhelming. “I spent most of my birthday scrolling through the exchanges and crying into my beer,” he remembers. “And you know what? It felt good. It felt fucking amazing.”
The Eye Test: A Case for Human Creativity in the Age of Analytics by Chris Jones is published by Twelve at £25