ANOTHER VIEW

Why the media fail in high-tech coverage

With Windows 95, the sheer dimension of the hype became a story in itself But no one dared ask the obvious question: what does it matter?

CHARLES GORDON September 18 1995
ANOTHER VIEW

Why the media fail in high-tech coverage

With Windows 95, the sheer dimension of the hype became a story in itself But no one dared ask the obvious question: what does it matter?

CHARLES GORDON September 18 1995

Why the media fail in high-tech coverage

ANOTHER VIEW

BY CHARLES GORDON

With Windows 95, the sheer dimension of the hype became a story in itself But no one dared ask the obvious question: what does it matter?

A predictable newspaper feature during the early days of the computer era was the “My trusty old Underwood” column. In it, a self-styled crusty newsperson would explain how none of this newfangled computer stuff was going to make him or her give up the battered old typewriter that had pounded out so many big stories over the years.

Another journalistic trademark of the period was the “Ohmigosh, I hope I don’t blow up the building” column, in which the writer, encountering the computer for the first time, recited the horrors of seeing the screen fill with weird and undecipherable messages at the touch of wrong keys.

This was followed, shortly thereafter, by the “My life has changed” column, the writer’s glorification of the computer (and by inference, the writer using it).

Most of us have written one or the other. But few of us write them any more and few of us have succumbed to glorifying our obsolete computers, as in the “My trusty old Kaypro 2X” column. An era of realism has settled in upon us. Most of us realize the computer is a tool, like a saw or a hammer or a pen, and some of us use it better than others. Many fiction writers and poets still use typewriters or longhand, but only mention it when asked.

Newspaper stories predicted revolutionary changes when computers began invading newspaper and other offices, but few of the people writing and editing those stories really understood them. In this, they were in touch with the rest of society. Technology always leaps ahead of society’s capacity to understand the implications of it.

In the end—or at least, the end to date— we found that the computer made good writing easier for some, but bad writing easier for others. So, one of the byproducts of the computer revolution is more bad writing. We also have something else that wasn’t predicted at the time: much more paper around us, thanks to faxes, high-speed printers and photocopiers. It is worth remembering that one of the effects of the computer revolution was to have been the virtual elimination of paper.

All of this has to be kept in mind while reading those breathless features about Windows 95 and the Internet and other of the latest marvels. Internet mania has been with us for a year or so now. Not everyone in the media has much understanding of what it means, but there is a strong feeling that it means something. Since the media hate to think of themselves as behind the times, newspaper pages and television hours are full of the Internet. The mere word is enough to guarantee space. Wedding invitations can be sent on the Internet, one story will reveal. White-water rafting on the Internet not yet possible, another will report.

Had the media been as widespread and allconsuming in the late 19th century, we can imagine similar coverage on the invention of the telephone. You can talk to the blacksmith on it, one story might have claimed; you can put it on the kitchen table, another might have reported; you can’t do white-water rafting on it yet, but Mr. Bell is working on it.

Since there is an incomplete understanding of the phenomenon, mistakes are made, most notable among them Time magazine’s shocking and incorrect exposé of pornography on the Net. The whole thing might be a passing fancy—for all we know, the Nineties version of CB radio.

And, of course, there will be Windows 96. Coverage of the Windows 95 phenomenon is quite startling, since what we are talking about is an operating system—not a computer, not a program—and the implications of it won’t be understood for years. But what seems to have happened here is that the sheer dimension of the hype has become a story in itself. Plus, it is, however dimly perceived, a story about technology and technology is important, whatever it is—or at least it might be, so we’d better not make the mistake of waiting until we know something about it before we cover it.

In the case at hand, there is the added spice of a link between Windows 95 and the Internet, the two concepts everybody thinks are important even if they are not sure exactly how. How will Windows 95 affect the Internet, stories ask. Or vice versa? And no one dares ask the obvious question: What does it matter?

It is puzzling why that doesn’t happen, why questions like that are not asked more often. The media are normally good at pointing out when the emperor has no clothes, even when the emperor does. Where’s the catch, the media always ask, particularly to government officials; how much does this thing cost anyway? For this, reporters and editors are accused of cynicism. Sometimes it is even deserved.

But where is the cynicism when it comes to technology? Why can’t you find a cynic when you really need one? So far, the only discouraging words heard have been from those who worry that Windows 95 will somehow adversely affect their access to the Internet. But how much does this thing cost, anyway? How many jobs, how many hospital beds, how many classrooms, how many irrigation ditches, how many units of vaccine, how many sacks of grain?

With each advance we can do more, and we can do it faster. But more of what? And is faster better?

Nowhere in recent history has media reporting been so divorced from the interests and concerns of readers and viewers. It is because we in the media are so afraid of missing the technological boat that we don’t bother to ask where the boat is going.

Meanwhile, the readers and viewers are thinking about their kids, and their safety, their jobs, their health and their schools. They may even be thinking about hungry people at home and abroad. Opening their morning newspaper, they see on the front page that somebody is operating Windows 95 on a laptop computer while hanging from the CN Tower. Leafing through all the sections, they attempt to find out what the emperor is wearing that day, but there is no news of it. Maybe there is something on the Internet.