Flashback: The state of digital culture in 1993

In the spring of 1993 I attended a conference on journalism and technology at Columbia University. It was a time when the digital culture that was to emerge was right on the brink: the Internet was not nearly as much of a force in the lives of ordinary people as were commercial services like Prodigy, and Mosaic, the first graphical Web browser, had just been released. With The Boston Globe just having run an image of the story I wrote for The Boston Phoenix after that conference, I thought I’d reproduce it here in full.

Future Watch: Lost in space

Why the electronic village may be a very lonely place

Copyright © 1993 by the Phoenix Media/Communications Group. All rights reserved.

May 7, 1993: From 500-channel interactive TV to portable electronic newspapers, an unprecedented explosion of information technology awaits us in the next several years. These services, media analysts say, will allow you to tailor news programming to your own interests, do your banking and shopping at home, and make restaurant reservations with a hand-held computer while you’re sitting at a bus stop.

Certainly the speakers were bullish at this past week’s conference on “Newsroom Technology: The Next Generation,” sponsored by the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center, at Columbia University, in New York. Expert after expert talked in rapturous tones about the “information highway,” fiber optics, coaxial cable, digital compression, and the like.

But there’s a dark side to the emerging electronic village, acknowledged almost as an afterthought amid the glowing financial projections and the futuristic technobabble. And that dark side is this: as information becomes increasingly decentralized, there’s a danger that consumers of that information — all of us, in other words — will become more and more isolated from society and from each other.

What’s being lost is the sense of shared cultural experience — the nationwide community that gathered to watch, say, the Vietnam War, in the 1960s, or the Watergate hearings, in the 1970s. Media analyst Les Brown, a former television reporter for the New York Times, believes that for all their “insufferable arrogance” during that era, the Big Three networks “served the needs of democracy very well.” With 500 channels, he fears, users will choose news programming that suits their political biases — if they choose any news programming at all.

“Whatever happened to everybody talking to each other?” he asked during the Freedom Forum gathering. “What happened to this big tent we used to have? As the media become more democratized, they may serve the needs of democracy less well.”

Then there’s the widespread distrust and contempt in which the media are held. Increasingly, technology is making it possible for people to get their information unfiltered, with no interference by rude, pushy journalists or powerful, unseen editors. It’s called “new news,” and it includes everything from C-SPAN to talk radio, from Ross Perot’s infomercials to computer bulletin-board systems (BBSs).

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The bulletin boards, in particular, have been attracting attention recently. Jon Katz, the Rolling Stone reporter who helped coin the phrase “new news,” recently wrote a paean to these boards, calling them “the purest journalistic medium since smoke signals” and praising their ability to “shape values and public opinion without help from the gatekeepers — those who have always told us what information was important and what we should think about it.”

Well, yes. But even though the people who take part in these on-line discussions are sometimes called a “virtual community,” cyberspace can be a lonely place. Embark upon an electronic cruise, and you find a lot of alienated people, sitting at home in darkened rooms before glowing screens, pouring out their frustrations and their prejudices without ever having to face the victims of their wrath.

Take Prodigy, the most commercial of the on-line services, with some two million subscribers. Its users were among the first to buy into the politics of alienation that Perot so successfully exploited. In the early days of the Perot candidacy, when the eccentric billionaire was scoring 30 percent in the polls, Prodigy users were giving him double that. And just this past week, 20,500 users answered an on-line survey on taxes — with an astonishing 71 percent saying they’re already too high, and that they can be cut at the same time the deficit is reduced and the health-care system revamped.

No one likes a higher tax bill. But the Prodigy findings are totally at variance with national polls, which show substantial (if mixed) support for the rather modest tax hikes Bill Clinton pushed through Congress earlier this year. Of course, you won’t find potential victims of government cutbacks in cyberspace. Perhaps the Prodigy respondents’ opinions were distorted by the users’ having spent too much time in virtual reality and not enough in our reality.

Then there’s the “gatekeeper” role Katz so disparages. John Carey, a media consultant who’s the director of Greystone Communications, told the Freedom Forum gathering that the new environment will not eliminate the need for “an editor and a filter.” As Les Brown put it, “One of the functions of a newspaper is to provide you with editorial guidance as to what is important. Page one of the New York Times is news in and of itself.”

What happens when the gatekeeper is relieved of duty? Look at the Internet — the vast, unmapped, worldwide super-network that connects thousands of smaller networks serving as many as 10 million to 20 million computer users.

If users’ (frequently censored) comments on Prodigy are freewheeling, the messages posted on the Internet are positively unhinged. Some of it’s valuable — so-called wire services provided by environmental, peace, and gay-and-lesbian organizations, the complete text of White House speeches and policies, the views of radical social critic Noam Chomsky. Some of it is legitimate citizen activism — a call to boycott Kansas because of Bob Dole’s filibuster of Clinton’s economic-stimulus bill; a proposal for a constitutional amendment to include electronic speech under the First Amendment (currently a gray area).

But some of it can only be described as hate speech, and it’s frightening. Anti-Semitic messages are a regular feature. The Institute for Historical Review, a notorious neo-Nazi group based in Costa Mesa, California, has posted messages on several Internet boards denying that the Holocaust has occurred. Even when an outraged user responds, the impression left with anyone who doesn’t know better is that of an argument, with both combatants having an equally valid case.

And consider what will happen a few years down the road. It is already possible — but impractical, for reasons of cost and speed — to convert a full-sound, full-motion video to digital format and upload that video to a BBS. In a few years, that practice will become commonplace — and because of increasingly sophisticated “desktop video” techniques, Mary Frost, a top executive with Capital Cities/ABC, told the conference, “it becomes even more difficult to tell fact from fiction.”

The most important journalistic decision of the past several years was to air the amateur videotape of Rodney King getting beaten up by a group of LA cops. That decision led to a deadly riot, two painful trials, and a re-examination of race relations across the country. Now, what if, in 1998, when the existing technical obstacles will likely have been overcome, an amateur videographer simply uploads onto the Internet a similarly shocking tape?

Says Frost: “What is the source? How do you verify the accuracy of these pictures? The visual impact of TV carries with it incredible responsibility.”

***

This hardly means that it’s all over for traditional journalism. Rather, journalism is going to have to adapt to the new technology. In so doing, it may find that the information highway — that overused metaphor for the cables, phone lines, and satellites that will soon carry phenomenal volumes of data into homes and institutions — is a two-way street. And that just may give the media a chance to repair their rift with the public.

It’s already happening on a small scale on Prodigy, where users can mix it up with syndicated columnists Jack Germond and Robert Novak. And on the Internet recently, when a user posted a message praising C-SPAN as an antidote to “the paranoid Left” and “generations of US media apologists,” a self-described journalist engaged him in debate, writing that C-SPAN does “no more than attend open meetings and relay the declarations that emanate from them to an uninformed public.” Unlike C-SPAN, he wrote, journalists have the “skepticism” to press public officials for the truth.

This kind of one-on-one exchange could become more prevalent. Walter Isaacson, assistant managing editor of Time magazine, told the Freedom Forum group that he foresees a day when Time will be available on-line, accompanied by discussion areas allowing readers to communicate directly with writers and editors, “so that the wall between the media and the consumer breaks down a bit.”

Time has already had some experience in that area. Philip Elmer-DeWitt, the associate editor who wrote the magazine’s much-talked-about cover story on cyberpunk culture last February, exchanged messages about the story with users of the Well — the San Francisco-based BBS on which he did much of his research — both before and after it was published.

“They were really pissed,” he said, although he added that much of the anger changed to support once the article came out. “It was a nice example of how the boundary between the mainstream, establishment press, and this culture can be breached. Later, in a brief interview with the Phoenix, he agreed that “there is real hostility toward the media,” and that much of that hostility is displayed on-line. But he’s found that with the exception of “conspiracy theorists” and “gun nuts,” he’s been able to conduct rational discussions.

“It’s not unlike talk radio in that every Joe can get on the phones and spout his opinion,” Elmer-DeWitt said. But rather than relying exclusively on BBSs for their information, he thinks, most people who cruise cyberspace use the mainstream media to verify what they find on-line. “I think the two can co-exist,” he says. “I think they feed off each other to some extent.”

Other trends, though, make it difficult to share Elmer-DeWitt’s optimism. In Montreal, the cable-TV system is trying to wind back news viewers by offering five minutes of headlines, followed by a menu of choices of more-in-depth reports; if you punch in “1” for Bosnia, you won’t know what’s happening in, say, education or health, unless you go back and select them later. In the US, those 500 channels will allow you to pre-select a customized menu offering information only on those topics that interest you.

The phrase the pros use to describe such targeted choices is “narrowcasting” — and they love it, because it makes a more efficient buy for advertisers. And narrow is indeed the word for it. Because the danger is that people will travel the information highway with blinders on, reinforcing their prejudices, closed to new ideas.

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