Jewish World Review March 5, 2001 / 21 Adar 5762

Clarence Page

Clarence Page
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Consumer Reports

Revenge of the 'mediasaurus' -- SCI-FI author Michael Crichton grandly predicted that the mass media as we knew them would be gone "within 10 years." That was nine years ago.

Guess again, Mike. The mass media are still around pretty much as we knew them, only bigger.

Let that be a sober warning to those who are making overblown predictions of grand utopia or certain doom if the Senate passes the telecommunications bill that passed the House 273-157 last week. As Yogi Berra said, it's hard to make predictions, especially about the future.

I was sitting a few seats away from Crichton back in April, 1993, at the National Press Club as Crichton, the author of "Jurassic Park," "Rising Sun" and numerous other best-sellers, blew taps for the old-media scriveners and broadcasters who sat around him.

"It is likely that what we now understand as the mass media will be gone within 10 years. Vanished, without a trace," he said. (A longer version of his speech can be found at his Web site and at Wired magazine's site.)

Instead of the media-edited versions of big events and major debates, viewers would be watching actual events unfold on C-SPAN or CNN, he said.

Replacing our "mediasaurus," he foresaw an info-utopia in which "artificial intelligence agents" would search databases, "downloading stuff I am interested in, and assembling for me a front page, or a nightly news show, that addresses my interests." The information produced by the media industry is "flashy, but it's basically junk," he said. "So people have begun to stop buying it."

So, what happened? New media have grown, all right, but so have the old media. Old media like newspapers and TV news networks operate some of the best, most reliable sites. The blow-dried network anchors are still around, a little grayer and joined by new all-news cable networks like Fox and MSNBC.

Instead of putting the old-school newsies out of business, the Web has enhanced their business, forcing many to be more creative and innovative. Consumers, bless your hearts, have been the winners.

"I doubt I'm wrong, it's just too early," Crichton recently told Jack Shafer, deputy editor, in an interview.

Crichton says he hadn't counted on the often-frustrating slowness of Internet downloading, even with costly high-speed "broadband" connections. And look at all the garbage users have to wade through to find information that's sometimes years out of date.

"Sooner or later," Crichton told Shafer, "a lot of people are going to say, 'You know what? An editor is worth the money. Because time is money, and my time is wasted combing through this junk. I'll pay someone to do it.' And it'll happen."

Great idea. You can have it now. It is called a newspaper.

Or check out the Web sites run by your favorite newspaper, magazine, talk show host or other old mediasaur. They may not be as thorough as C-SPAN but, when you don't feel like sitting through farm subsidy hearings, the edited media are still there waiting.

So far, only 10 percent of America's Internet users have broadband, which can cost $40 or $50 a month. Someday competition may reduce broadband costs the way it reduced airfares and long-distance telephone rates in the past two decades. But, what kind of competition?

That's the central issue over the House-passed telecommunications bill sponsored by Reps. W. J. "Billy" Tauzin, R-La., and John D. Dingell, D-Mich. It would free the regional Bells to offer broadband services over long-distance lines without having to share their high-speed data wires with rivals. That sharing was required by the 1996 Telecommunications Act in order to encourage competition.

Backers of Tauzin-Dingell say freeing the Baby Bells to offer high-speed lines without forcing them to open up their local service monopolies will stimulate technological and economic growth.

The bill's critics say it will simply award a monopoly to the Bells, freeze out competition and reduce the choices that benefit consumers. That sounds about right to me, as one who has suffered through the arrogance of cable TV companies when they knew I had nowhere else to turn.

Either way, demand for broadband is stifled not only by cost but also by a lack of need. Telephone modems are fast enough for the e-mail and text research for which most people use the Web. The larger promise of music, movies, books and other copyrighted material over the Internet has been slowed in part by copyright holders who fear an explosion of Napster-style piracy.

Many questions remain about the future of cyberspace. Answering them will take time. In the meantime, old mediasaurus keeps lumbering along.

Comment on JWR contributor Clarence Page's column by clicking here.


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