In digital tech, 25 years is more than just a generation. It is an epoch. In pre-iPhonic 1992, there was no graphical web browser, no Amazon or Google, and no dot-com bubble.
But there was one fool who thought he could forecast the future of how we’d get news and information. It was me, in a Seattle Times essay, published on Wednesday, Oct. 7, 1992. At the time, I had spent a dozen years as a broadcaster, written science fiction, and recently moved into tech, which gave me unique insight into the media industry and the massive change to come. Or so I thought.
After two-and-a-half decades of innovation and upheaval, I’ve been looking back at my predictions. As you read on, you’ll see what I wrote back then, and my thoughts today on what I got right and wrong. It’s a window (or, perhaps, a screen) into the incredible change we’ve all experienced.
1992 Prediction: Right now, the networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC) and the news wire services (Reuters, AP and UPI) are news “distributors.” They get news and distribute it to TV/radio stations and newspapers. But the dominance of these mammoths is fading.
2017 Take: I’ll take this as a strong start. Maybe it seems obvious in retrospect, but this was before the graphical web browser, which wasn’t introduced for another year. Now, 25 years later, the web, social media, smartphones, mobile connectivity and voice-enabled assistants have completely changed the way news is distributed, and by whom.
It’s worth noting that NPR and PBS were not nearly as prominent then. And Fox? It was a young, six-year-old entertainment network.
1992 Prediction: Consider: It’s possible, today, for anyone to buy an hour of audio satellite time for a mere $60. Cable systems have added lots of channels, such as “narrowcasters” CNN and MTV. Incredibly cheap and powerful personal computers speed print and graphics production.
At first, these technological changes simply made it easier and cheaper for the mammoths to gather and distribute information. But local stations and newspapers soon realized they could use the same techniques.
When a major earthquake hit Mexico City in 1985, a number of broadcast stations pooled resources, bought satellite time, and formed ad hoc “networks” to cover the disaster, sending back customized information to each station. These ad hoc networks have since sprung up for major stories ranging from the Berlin Wall dismantling to Operation Desert Storm.
2017 Take: I totally missed how the internet would become the new ad hoc network enabler and let almost anyone create a distribution network. These networks were fed by smaller and even more ‘personal’ computers, from laptops to tablets to smartphones. Plus WiFi, Bluetooth and 4G cellular data made it easier to be mobile. Yes, back then, the internet was mostly used by government, researchers and academia, and WiFi didn’t exist. But I still blew this one.
1992 Prediction: Even the average news consumer is bypassing the traditional news distribution channels. During the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, computer bulletin board systems like Prodigy and CompuServe became informal information clearing houses. Those inside the earthquake zone posted information about casualties and damage on these commercial information services, accessible by anyone with a PC and a modem. These and similar services let subscribers directly browse news from AP, UPI, Reuters and other traditional news sources every day, as well as trade information with each other.
This information revolution is so pervasive it’s ironically easy to overlook. Cellular telephones let anyone in a car be a radio traffic reporter. Video camcorders made it possible for a bystander to capture the police beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles.
And more is on the way. If the networks don’t like what cable has done to TV, wait until they see what Digital Audio Broadcast will do to radio. Later this decade, DAB will deliver CD-quality audio from a satellite or tower to your car or home. Thanks to its ability to have several “channels” of programming embedded in one stream of data, there will be few practical limits to the number of DAB stations.
2017 Take: Both a hit and a miss. DAB is used in 37 countries now, but never took off in the US — we got lame HD Radio, pricey Sirius XM satellite broadcasts, and lots of solid internet streams. Today that average consumer news gathering equipment is called a “smartphone.” But the informal information clearing house role has gone mainstream, as Facebook and Twitter have the reach Prodigy and CompuServe hoped for.
(I do get nostalgic for the sound of modems, though: Beeeep…chhhhhhhhhh…squeeeeeeee!)