Journalism Today: How well did we see this coming?

Photo (cc) 2013 by Martin Voltri

It’s an interesting idea, this issue of foresight, particularly as our industry tries to imagine what news will look like in the near future. In my digital journalism class, we recently watched a series of dated, yet relevant videos from the last few decades that talk about journalism in the age of modern technology. I’ve linked to them throughout this post, and I highly recommend everyone watch them, because they really do add insight into the evolution of the relationship between technology and news media. Plus, like most things from the 80’s and 90’s, they’re pretty funny.

The most interesting video to me, which was from 1994, was “The Tablet Newspaper: A Vision of the Future.” Roger Fidler and his team were off in many ways. They overstated the importance of the tablet computer, which is really still behind laptops and smartphones in 2016, and that’s only after Apple made them cool less than a decade ago. The insertable chips and kiosk prediction sounds more like a Nintendo 64 game console than a news transmission system, and I think they overestimated of how much hand-holding technology users need. If people can navigate something like Drudge Report, I don’t think there’s necessarily a need to make news look like a traditional paper.

However, the thing that really impressed me about the vision expressed in the segment was the prediction of the importance of mobile.

In 1994, a computer was a boxy desktop and most cell phones were laughable (by today’s standards), with visible antennas and tiny screens that were no good for reading anything. There was actually a smartphone that came out in 1994, but it’s not very impressive once you’ve seen an iPhone 7.

At the time, technology was relatively sedentary and had always been attached more or less to physical locations, or, in the cases of portable devices, to large, clunky objects. Considering how far 1994 was from anything that resembled an iPhone being mainstream, I believe that their prediction that, someday, lightweight, on-the-go mobile devices would become an overwhelmingly crucial part of news consumption and people’s daily lives was a inspired bit of foresight. I had no idea people had this level of technological understanding at the time. I didn’t even know tablets were on the radar yet!

This understanding of the importance of mobile is echoed in the video EPIC 2015, although that’s somewhat less impressive since it’s the most recent of the videos. The predicted Wifipod never existed under that name, but it’s a pretty spot on description of what the Nano and Touch would become. The creators did, however, miss the now-vital telephone component of mobile technology, the all-in-one nature of our current devices. In a similar way, they didn’t understand the nature of what Facebook would be, and they were certainly off in predicting Microsoft would be running it, but they got close to the news sharing and trending elements of Facebook and other social media with Newsbotster.

The earliest of the videos, 1981’s Kron report, despite being the oldest, is perhaps the most spot-on with its opening description

“Imagine if you will, sitting down to your morning coffee, turning on your home computer to read the day’s newspaper,” said the anchor at the opening of the piece. This is a relatively simplistic prediction of our future; that is, it doesn’t get into specifics like the role of mobile or social media. However, since this was made so early into the age of computers and modern technology, that’s forgivable. Computer technology was a comparative baby at this time, and yet the people in this video still understood quite accurately how it would change news consumption.

They also, probably without realizing it, make possibly the most morbid, yet grounded, advanced prediction of the three videos.

“We’re not in it to make money. We’re probably not going to lose a lot, but we aren’t going to make much either,” said David Cole, S.F. Examiner employee and journalism harbinger.



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