Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Rumors of the Future and the Digital Circus

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Rumors of the Future and the Digital Circus

Article excerpt

"Surrounding every technology are institutions whose organization... reflects the world view promoted by the technology. Therefore, when an old technology is assaulted by a new one, institutions are threatened." Neil Postman, Technopoly

IN THIS FINAL decade of the 20th century, about the only thing in the world that remains constant is change. The newspaper industry is changing. It is not, as some would claim, dying. True, it is a mature industry and to survive, mature industries must change. But newspapers are now inextricably woven into the fabric of American daily life, with the acceptance and the resources -- and therefore the ability -- to continue an evolution that began with the printing press. The industry is still powerful, vital and viable.

But it's changing.

Indeed all communications, and especially telecommunications, are in a period of flux and transition. The other technologies that have interconnected and shaped our current culture -- the telephone, television, cable, computers, fax, cellular telephone and so forth -- are threatening to merge into some as yet undefined supermedium, and the age of the integrated services digital network, in which geographically disparate communicants are linked into "virtual communities" based entirely on information flow, seems imminent. And yet, for all the uproar, this heralded multimedia technorevolution is still only prediction. Most telephone wires are still copper instead of fiber-optic cable, interactive TV is still experimental and cable television still offers "only" a hundred or so channels instead of the five hundred touted for the future. The information superhighway is still just talk. But it's coming.

This evolution is being driven by imaginative and inventive thinkers who reason that if communication is desirable, then more and faster communication is wonderful. If communication can be instant, why shouldn't it be instant? If it can contain massive amounts of information, then why shouldn't it contain massive amounts of information? After all, communication and information are the defining elements of the modern world and our concept of the future.

To point this out has become cliche. In fact, we are so aware of this sense of hurtling into a vague and wonderful, yet frightening and depersonalized future containing perfect access to information, that an entire subculture has sprung up to codify and support it.

Although undoubtedly sincere, much of this frenzied activity, this impulse to improve the digital ways in which information is disseminated, carries a hint of smoke and mirrors reminiscent of a sleight-of-hand demonstration or a circus of many rings. In fact, the whole electronic spectacle might well be called the Digital Circus. Like all circuses, it contains wizards and magicians, acrobats and high fliers, charlatans and clowns. As from time immemorial, it's not easy to tell the difference.

There is always tremendous bustle and rush in the Digital Circus, with much coming and going and confusion. Lately, the center ring has been dominated by a small troupe of the technical avant garde, conceptual jugglers who have their own vision of the effects of the coming multimedia on popular culture. To them, this vision is so extraordinarily clear that they think of themselves as nothing less than oracles foretelling a sure and certain future. A few are true seers, but the majority perceive only the flash and gleam of the shiny new technologies and are astonished by the failure of others to share their vision. Alarmed, they become boosters of technology, heirs to the potential inaccuracies and overstatements of boosterism. They are often well-meaning and entirely convinced, but their ability to foresee the future is obscured by the narrowness of their vision.

The Boosters

Boosters feel a sense of mission and tend to become highly visible by participating eagerly in the events, conferences, expositions, literature, companies, mergers, alliances and other rituals of the Digital Circus. …

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