Why the hype?
But what, exactly, will the cyberjournalism junkies of tomorrow be reading? Crichton's
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
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.
Though Bush envisioned a system built around microfiche, his predictions of strengths
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,
This hypertext, quasi-intelligent mass of information comprises the centerpiece of what
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
It appears that "Way New Journalism" means becoming less of an information filter
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
(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
and provocative text. It simply is a more comprehensive medium than a newspaper will ever
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
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
Some pie in the sky but a nice article. Sadly, the links are just frustrating—the majority
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
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
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?
"The missing link"
Copyright 2002 Alison Stuebe
Alison's Wonderland / http://www.stuebegreen.com/wonderland/ firstname.lastname@example.org