Back to the Future of Communication

Rewind to the ninetiesFor me, a big part of the fun of the Web is watching it grow. I don’t mean the relative size in terms of connections; I get a kick out of the new uses for it, and the people who drive those new uses. When I think about the early days of personal computing, I remember a lot of excitement, along with some frustration. I couldn't fathom the desire to use a fax machine—or worse yet, the postal service—when electronic mail was available, nor the refusal to use the Internet for worldwide communication. To me, it seemed a lot like rejecting the telephone simply because the telegraph is already familiar. I wasn’t alone in my frustration, of course. Reading Steve Outing's Online-News: Have We Come Far Enough? column at Editor & Publisher brought back some memories from the early nineties, when being online wasn't the familiar concept it is today. Although the context of his article is—big surprise—journalism and publishing, the problems that arise from conformist thinking aren't limited to those fields. It seems Steve was running a discussion list at that time, where forward-looking professionals in the field could exchange ideas.

I left the print journalism world for good at the end of 1993 and switched my career to online media. One of the first things I did back then was start an Internet e-mail discussion list for the then still small group of media people who were starting to work -- or were at least interested in -- this new thing called the Internet and the then-prevalent proprietary online services. The list was (and still is) called Online-News, and it grew to be the primary place for online news junkies to talk to each other, bounce ideas off colleagues, and gripe about how most other people in their organizations failed to understand the importance of the online world.

Clearly, failure to understand the importance of the online world isn't limited to the spheres of publishing and journalism, although it certainly continues to be a key issue in those fields. But there's something extraordinarily odd about the idea that a profession so defined by communication—especially written communication—wouldn't benefit from a transport medium like the Internet, combined with the social and economic advantages of the Web. And yet, so many who control traditional media concerns have only recently begun to listen to the voices of reason. Or maybe they're the voices of their accountants, now that revenues are sliding.

My own frustration in the early nineties wasn't due to media bosses, but it had similar roots. In 1992, I wrote an article for Home Office Computing magazine, and for the first time, I wasn't forced to use primitive methods to do it. The whole thing took place within my computer; there was no paper involved, and therefore no fax machines or mailed documents. The article went back and forth a few times between my editor's computer and mine, but e-mail made the process rapid, and painless. While this method may seem obvious, it had everything to do with that magazine's focus on the benefits of technology; it certainly wasn't obvious to everyone at the time. In fact, although that assignment was a breath of fresh air, it wasn't the last time I, like many involved in written communication, would have to deal with the myopic vision of others. Progressive thinking wasn't—and evidently still isn't—a hallmark of the industry in general.


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