Ideas

December 1994

Beyond the Hype: Notes on the Future of Cyberjournalism--Part II

Why the hype?

But what, exactly, will the cyberjournalism junkies of tomorrow be reading? Crichton's vision of a double-click-for-more universe rests in hypertext, a concept first proposed nearly five decades ago by scientist and visionary Vannevar Bush, whose ground-breaking essay, "As-We-May-Think," proposed the memex. Vannevar's system, a desk-sized table with levers and microfiche, predated the UNIX workstation and the Macintosh by almost half a century. His proposed machine would house an enormous database of information, stored on microfiche, that could be "linked," one page to another, to allow the user to store a trail of information for future reference. Bush identified the machine as an "augmentation of human memory," a mechanism that would allow a human user to program in associations between chunks of information. Writes Bush in 1945:

One cannot hope thus to equal the speed and flexibility with which the mind follows an associative trail, but it should be possible to beat the mind decisively in regard to the permanence and clarity of the items resurrected from storage.
(Bush 1945)

Though Bush envisioned a system built around microfiche, his predictions of strengths and limitations remain accurate for the modern computer. Although some artificial intelligence research is bucking the trend, the typical modern computer is great with chunks of information but a clunky piece of plastic when it comes to associative trails. Writes Michael Gruber in Wired Magazine, "digital computers of any conceivable power will have difficulty accomplishing seemingly simple tasks. A big machine capable of running a space mission fails completely when asked to pick a face from a crowd or to drive a robot across a room full of obstacles." (Wired 2.10) Such tasks require a kind of associative thinking and ability to perceive abstract concepts (there is something in front of me--I better not try to walk there.) that cannot be programmed into digital code. For the bit of cyberjournalism I stumbles across on screen, this means I can't ask a computer to recommend some other good articles on the same topic. Certainly, a computer can search by key word for the thousand best matches to the word "macintosh," but it cannot distinguish between trade reports from apple orchards and reviews of new software applications. It takes a human brain to distinguish the difference. As a result, successful hypertext rests on a melding of human brain and computer muscle to create dense networks of integrated chunks. Echoing Bush's original vision for hypermedia, researcher Francis Heylighen discusses the differences between human and computer memory in an article in the International Journal of Man-Machine Studies (199). Human long-term memory, Heylighen points out, specializes in associations between similar but not identical ideas and experiences. Computers, by contrast, can recall an almost unlimited number of "chunks" of discrete information, but they cannot see relationships between "chunks," except through laborious searches through every single piece of stored information. A successful interface, Heylighen argues, should take advantage of human associative capabilities and computer "chunk" storage to synthesize an intelligent system.

Though both predate the on-line world of the Web, Bush and Heylighen's ideas are highly relevant to newspapers moving into the on-line world. Newspapers are by nature "chunk" media, distributing relatively small lumps of information, speckled with references to previous events that writers assume human memory will be able to place in context. In many ways, the off-line journalist faces an impossible problem of trying to put chunks "in context" without any easy associative mechanism. We write side-bars and run time lines to try to explain, and the placement of a story or the size of a headline attempts to convey how a piece of reporting fits into the real world. But most of the time, the reader is left with chunks far more suited to computer memory than human association.

The web, of course, is in a position to change all that. Don't understand the roots of the Bosnian conflict? Click here for a comprehensive history of the Balkan peninsula. The Lomperis case has you confused? Read all about it--click here for the whole story. The natural advantage of newspapers going on-line is that they have zillions of "chunks" at their disposal, just waiting for someone to put in the links to create a free-associating, quasi-intelligent system.

This hypertext, quasi-intelligent mass of information comprises the centerpiece of what most envision as the cybernewspaper of the future. Melded with the speed of fiber-optic communication, the on-line publication becomes a primer on every issue as well as a source of instant updates on anything from abortion to Zimbabwe. Writes Dan Hontz in a HotWired post:

It appears that "Way New Journalism" means becoming less of an information filter and more of an information pointer. Instead of just summing up what was said at a trial, the journalist could point to the transcripts posted somewhere, for example. The reader could even customize the story to his or her political leanings, given enough links on either side. If you like Bill Clinton, click to his spin on an issue. If you hate him, click to Rush Limbaugh's stand, and ignore the Clinton link.
(Dan Hontz, (hontzd) on Sun, 30 Oct 94 13:15 PST)

The proliferation of links to story sources will also require cyberjournalists to do a more careful job. In the netpaper of the future, if I read that a senator said the president better bring a body guard if he visits a North Carolina military base, I could potentially listen to the interview myself, read a transcript, and decide, for myself, whether or not Jesse Helms was kidding. Taking a quote out of context becomes far less likely, if not impossible, because the reader can check the context for herself. Comment Brian Behlendorf in a HotWired post:

It won't be the end of misstatements. It won't mean everything publishable is truthful simply because it can be backed up with more info somewhere. But those who know this medium best will shine in their ability to combine completeness and accuracy with conciseness and flow.
(Brian Behlendorf, Tue, 25 Oct 94 23:56 PST)

Intelligent Agent, a section of HotWired, is an early experiment with this kind of hyper-reporting, but so far, little has been done to tie conventional reporting efforts to what's out there on the net. College netpapers, which have the luxury of large quantities of institutional information already on-line for them to link to, have done virtually nothing to tie their reporting to further on-line information. Exceptions are occasional sports schedules and team rosters, but very little of the kind of cyberjournalism that Crichton and others envision appears on the net so far.

Such limited options contrast with the Utopian vision of the cybernewspaper resonates through entrepreneurial efforts net-wide. Writes Peter Adams, editor of the Trincoll Journal, a hypermedia 'Zine at Trinity College in Connecticut:

Multimedia represents the best of both worlds - selective video imagery as well as insightful and provocative text. It simply is a more comprehensive medium than a newspaper will ever be. Which would you rather read? A boring newspaper with a coupon section or a full motion multimedia magazine with links to information services on the global internet? I think if the quality of Journalism remains the same, the answer is obvious.

Adams is only one of thousands of nascent cyberjournalists proclaiming the bright future of on-line journalism. I share his enthusiasm, but an afternoon of netsurfing suggests that right now, there's not much there.

Journalists have been particularly silent on how their hypertext utopias play out on screen. How much is the right amount for the first layer of a story? Where do the links go best? What is useful to link and what is irrelevant? HotWired's early attempt at such hyperjournalism illustrates both the pitfalls and praises such journalism can encounter. Writes Lindsay Marshall in response to a HotWired "Intelligent Agent" article on "The Way New Journalism:"

Some pie in the sky but a nice article. Sadly, the links are just frustrating—the majority of them are down or just too slow to follow them when you have other things to do with your day. I am on a fast connection too, so what it must be like for someone using a modem I shudder to think.
(Lindsay Marshall (lindsaym) on Fri, 4 Nov 94 01:23 PST)

Marshall's critique seems gentle alongside a damning post from Timothy Burke:

The actual examples of hypertext I've seen don't live up to the sales pitch offered in the article. We're told that following each successive link will take one deeper and deeper into the story, into more and more detail. In fact, most hypertext I've seen is basically a layering of equally shallow "McNuggets" of information on top of each other...you don't get more information, or more detail...you just open up the shallowness of the whole story like you're opening up a series of Russian dolls. In fact, maybe the "Way New" journalism isn't new at all. Maybe it's just USA Today and local news broadcasts that are better at concealing the sign of their own manufacture by projecting it onto an audience that "chooses" its own information.

Burke's and Marshall's critiques are samples from a wide array of constructive criticisms of early hypertext experiments in cyberjournalism. Some are technical (links are too slow...) but others are more profound. Just what links are there to follow? Do they flow logically from the story? And what's at the end of the link? Continue:
"The missing link"

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