From Papyrus to the Internet. Is News any better now?
News distribution has a long story behind it, and it has undergone many key moments of change, all of which have ultimately led to the methods we use today and to their various up and down sides. I just wanted to kick around a few thoughts on that on this post, but first let’s just give ourselves a quick reminder of how we got to today, because doing so may put a little perspective on today’s practices. It’s a perspective we sometimes tend to forget, and I honestly don’t think we should.
First, there were images in static form like cave drawings, then more sophisticated forms of communication evolved, using heiroglypes and other symbols and various forms of vocabularic writing. They were also static at first, and news didn’t really exist as such, because it couldn’t be ‘moved’.
Papyrus was invented in around 3500 BC, and it made possible the (extremely) limited dissemination of commercial information and laws a little easier. I don’t have figures here, but let’s just say for argument’s sake that it was a couple of dozen sheets by town, at first. News took months, even years, to get around a country, but that was how it was then. The use of tissue, notably silk by the Chinese, helped to increase the volume of transportable news a little more.
Then the Chinese and Indians began using paper as we know it on a larger scale, although various prototypes existed beforehand. Its use spread, and it got to Europe in the 12th century. The Chinese (them again!) had begun using mobile clay type before that, and thus printing was gradually seeing the light of day in Asia, although its use was very limited. News got around v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y.
Things changed considerably of course with the Gutenberg printing press, available in a more or less complete version in 1440, using metal or wood letters. It led to the first large-scale revolution in book publishing, as well as the to the quicker and more dense availability of news as it was conceived at that time. Other benefits included the increased availability of printed documents in general. That led to a rapid increase in developement in arts and sciences. But it sure wasn’t the internet, because it still took major news weeks to get around a place like, say, Europe.
The first major breakthroughs in the transmission of information and news became possible with the First Industrial Revolution, begun in Britain in the 1700’s. The impact of this period cannot be overestimated. It changed the entire world, and journalism with it. It led to morse code and the telegraph, (the first ever telegraphic message – “What hath god wrought” has now been shown to be profoundly prophetic..), and radio. It also permitted the almost limitless availability and distribution of news, in the form of mass-produced newspapers printed on mass-produced printing machines, as well as mechanised transport to transport the beforementioned news around the country. All this happened in less than 100 years. Things were looking up for newshounds, eager to sell copy! News Junkies were getting high in days now, not weeks or months, like in times gone by. Heady stuff huh?
The Second Industrial Revolution, in the second half of the 1800’s, ushered in a dream machine for journalism and confirmed the domination of what is considered by many to be the first model of modern capitalism, the production of mass-produced goods, and, of course , modern conceps of news diffusion. No, it was not god, but the next best thing.
This dream machine was, and still is, called the Radio. Its invention was so capital that jealous debate still rages over who invented it, most bets being placed on Tesla or Marconi, but Marconi did finally broadcast, over a half-a-mile radius, in London in 1895. Its developement then became extremely rapid due to the obvious commercial, diplomatic and military advantages to be gained by being a country that utilised it extensively.
So let’s have a quick recap. Here we are, it’s the eve of the Twentieth Century, and we are already seeing the semi-instantaneous transmission of data over long distances, countries, continents, oceans. Conflict management, political decision-taking and trade issues are being conducted and concluded in a few days max. The lumpen masses haven’t gotten their hands on it yet because it is still only available to the privileged few, but at least it allows the press to get news from far away, print it on paper, and send it all over modernised countries even more quickly than before. Filmed news is also beginning to be watched in cinemas, with its enticing and fascinating images of far away places, wars, concepts and skin colours.
But it’s not over yet. Next up is, of course, is the machine no adult will admit to watching, except for news freaks and bored couples who don’t know what a sofa was invented for. It’s a bit like Macdonalds. No-one eats them because “they’re disgusting” but hundreds of millions of them get sold every year. Go figure. Anyway, I digress.
The dreaded Television set first hit the streets in the thirties in the USA. Its use quickly crossed the Atlantic and it was to be found in many homes in the USA by the mid-1950’s, with Europe catching up, late as usual. This transformed everything, because it completed a circle. The combination of now readily available radio and same-day news images for everyone in the sixties meant that everyone in the Western world knew everything in 24 hours, and this phenomena spread all over the world at lightning speed. Politicians and the world’s movers and shakers were able to, and were asked to, comment major events only hours after they occured. This meant that thought processes had to speed up accordingly, and, in my view, from that moment, cracks were already beginning to show in what human beings could assimilate usefully in terms of information.
Because events were beginning to overtake their actors…….and would have serious future consequences. Journalists though, as usual, thought heaven had come down to earth. It couldn’t get better than that, could it?
Well it did (or didn’t).
Hello Mister Gates! He personifies more than anyone or anything the now total and global and instantaneous availability of information on any subject in the world. The internet has now placed us in a situation where journalists can get news on any major event, anywhere, sometimes seconds after it happens, or even in realtime, and diffuse it worldwide. Cellular telephones and live broadcast high-quality portable video is helping this phenomena. We are now living in a world where news is more democratically available than at any time in history, although a few gaps have yet to be filled.
But very serious problems are simultaneously coming to light.
Computer technology, in the case of the stock markets, for example, now means that not only is money news getting around in realtime, but it is actually creating the news!! Computer software now evaluates whole markets and countries in seconds, puts up its findings and recommendations in milliseconds, and, lo and behold, everyone follows! No-one tries to rationalise the rationalisation of the machine. Split-second delays in decision taking can cost hundreds of billions of dollars. All that the politicians and analysts can do is run after events and their consequences, in the vain hope of catching up. There has been little proaction in moments of heavy money and market activity during the recent financial crisis. It’s all been about putting out fires with overstretched resources.
And, at the same time as the news hits the screens, the press wants reactions, prognostics, palliatives, from the powers that be, and they want them now, before the other press outlets put them online first, and before reasoned analysis of the data has been done. Any hesitation is often challenged as being procrastination by the questioning journalist and this is often relayed when the item goes online. Saying “No comment” is out of the question, if not political suicide, except for the most steely-nerved and honest of politicians. This in turn results in hasty decisions made on incomplete information that will become redundant before the news is even on the net and in the press. This creates more shifting sand and new news in minutes. And on and on it goes. That is insane.
This phenomena is also to be seen in the area of armed conflict. How about 9/11. Politicians worldwide were instantly being asked for reactions to the flying of jetliners full of passengers into skyscrapers in almost real time. No human being at the time should reasonably have been expected to give a reasoned, measured, considered reaction to that kind of news in those conditions, and why should it be different for world leaders. They were quite simply as shocked to the core as we all were. Expecting more of them is unreasonable.
Hey, even hard-bitten New York hacks and TV journalists on the scene at the WTC can still be seen and heard on the internet to this day saying stuff like “I..I just don’t believe I’m watching this”. Why should politicians, many of whom only manage their countries’ affairs for only a few years, be somehow magically expected to be any stronger?
Spontaneous reaction and opinion led, moreover, to some catastrophic and irreversible political decision-taking in the days after the attacks, which were watched ad repetita for weeks aftewards by worldwide TV audiences waiting with baited breath for the next sound-bite.
Many major news networks broadcast live footage containing statements by journalists that proved to be manifestly untrue just minutes after their diffusion. The networks competed for scoops. This led to many statements made by totally shocked civilians, who had never before heard or seen or otherwise experienced explosions and the other events of that day, in their lives. They claimed things on live TV that were proved to be false afterwards. It wasn’t their fault, it’s just that people cannot be asked to be objective faced with the immediacy of major events. But it was all broadcasted or put online in realtime.
Even the printed press fell into the trap. Many next-day articles and opinions had obviously been written under conditions of great stress and extreme emotions. And that showed. Again, it was not the journalists’ fault. It is my opinion that news coverage of that event was not as factual or balanced as it would have been had that event happened thirty years ago.
The scramble for news, headlines and deadlines and the frenetic interviews of wired and exhausted people by wired and exhausted journalistic staff inevitably took its toll on veracity, sacrificed on the altar of getting news out as quickly as possible. The same has been seen in other events, such as the Tsunami, early reporting on Rwanda, and, of course, the already-infamously precipitative reporting and analysis of certain events during the recent fighting in Gaza.
So, we are finally here. News, now, for everyone. Phew! It’s taken us thousands of years to get here. It’s what the human race has always wanted. There is, of course, no turning back the clock now. Instant news is a permanent future reality. I for one am pleased that news can travel fast, particularly news by non-embedded sources or independant contributions from the net, like NP and others.
But I also think we should all be asking ourselves serious questions about how we may better organise the parameters of reporting news in these fast-changing and challenging circumstances. The quantity and availability of news has augmented dramatically over the last twenty years. That’s the good news. But the idea of improving journalism also includes improving reliability, and the picture is less rosy in that respect.
What with over-hasty reporting, deliberate and mass-diffused subtle and unverified content that may or may not be disinformation, outright mass-diffused propaganda and other recent phenomena, we are not yet able to say that the quality of available news has improved as much as might have been expected, particularly if we compare the tools we have now with those we had before.
Moreover, we should be extremely careful concerning the future. Upcoming technology is going to put people and events under even more pressure if we don’t handle things right, and the uncontrolled precipitation of events due to technology that we do not yet control, but must learn to channel correctly, is going to be a crucial issue for the future of journalism as we know it.
Let’s face it. We are all suffering from information overload. The actors, the journalists and the public alike. And if we don’t start realising that soon, all we’ll have left to inspire our dreams for change shall be the immuable stars in the sky, and dreams.....because there shall be nothing true left to contemplate down here....
“What hath god wrought”. The first-ever telegraphic message, broadcast on May 24 1844 by Samuel F. B. Morse, the man who invented Morse, still relevant today.