Back to the Future

Update, Sept. 1, 2009: McCracken has written an answer post on Technologizer, “The Future–August 1999 Style!” Read it to see his take on how the reality of 2009 stacks up with these 1999 predictions.

Looking back at our news archives, we found an interesting piece titled “Future News: What will our jobs be like a few years from now?” published August 1999. The article was written by Harry McCracken, who was the secretary for the ASBPE Boston Chapter at the time. (He later became the editor-in-chief of PC World and is now editor of Technologizer.) McCracken came up with the response “The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s News in the Future project offers some answers.”

Here is the article he wrote in 1999. How “on target” was it?

Since 1985, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Laboratory has been at the forefront of research into electronic publishing, imaging, digital music, artificial intelligence, and other technologies.

Recently, members of the Boston chapter toured the Lab and listened to a thought-provoking talk by Professor Walter Bender, director of the Media Lab’s News in the Future (NiF) research consortium, a group devoted to exploring technology’s potential to make news media more efficient, relevant, convenient, and timely.

Media Lab Projects

Media Lab researchers demonstrated or discussed the following projects, among others, with members:

Electronic paper.

The Lab is developing an inexpensive, flexible material that looks and acts like paper, but can display information that can be changed electronically, without the use of consumable materials. Its inventors believe that this medium could eventually be used to produce a computer for about $10.

A notepad that listens.

The Lab has developed a reporter’s steno pad with a built-in digital audio recorder. As the user records an interview or other event and jots notes on it, the notes and audio are synchronized; later, the user can select any note on the page and listen immediately to the corresponding sound bite.

High-tech product placement.

Attendees saw a soap-opera video clip in which all of the items depicted — clothing, furniture, and more — had been electronically identified and cataloged. Using an electronic pointer, the viewer can pick any on-screen item and see its name, its price, and details on ordering it from J.C. Penney (which funded this project).

Web sites that turn senior citizens into journalists.

Silver Stringers is an NiF program that helps senior citizens report on news in their communities and publish it on the Web. Take a look at

The world’s smartest coffee machine.

Not a media-related innovation per se, but any java-loving journalist will envy the Lab’s own coffee machine. Stick your own mug (with a special chip on the bottom) under the dripper, and the coffee brews to your exact preferences — while a radio plays your favorite station.

How the Net Will Change News

The discussion with News in the Future director Walter Bender was wide-ranging, focusing as much on philosophical issues as technological ones.

Because almost anyone can publish information on the Internet, Bender believes that many consumers will become de facto journalists themselves — and therefore be increasingly demanding of the media. Of participants in the Silver Stringers Web-publishing project, Bender says that “their relationship with [newspapers] has changed — they’re more critical, more engaged. As people’s level of engagement rises, they’re not going to tolerate sloppy journalism.

“What people want are not answers but questions,” Bender told the event’s attendees. “They want things that will get them to think, that let them be part of the discourse. I’m after making news harder — if you’re going to be involved, you’ll actually have to think a bit.”

Members’ Questions

Among Bender’s answers to attendees’ questions:

What will happen to editors?

“Editors become more and more valuable — people are looking for judgment. The service an editor provides in print is transferable [to electronic media].”

Will old-media brands thrive online?

“CNN and USA Today have done a good job. On the other hand, it seems that you can create a new brand online, and it can happen pretty quickly. A lot of organizations have thrown away their opportunity — not that they can’t recover.”

Will consumers pay for online news?

“Most news is going to be free online — the economics will be such that the bottom line is that if you have eyeballs, you have a vehicle for deriving revenue. But if you don’t have something that people are interested in, it doesn’t matter.”

Will print media be crushed by electronic competition?

“Tell me a medium that’s ever gone away. They change in purpose, but they never die. Text is so damn efficient — I can read and skim in a way that I can’t do with audio or video.”

Please share this page with your friends and colleagues.