The Mediasaurus lives!

Media criticism.
Feb. 5 2002 6:27 PM

Who You Calling Mediasaurus?

The New York Times dodges Michael Crichton's death sentence.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

"To my mind, it is likely that what we now understand as the mass media will be gone within ten years," novelist-filmmaker Michael Crichton wrote in a widely quoted Wired magazine piece, "Mediasaurus," which he adapted from an April 1993 speech before the National Press Club. "Vanished, without a trace."

"Who will be the GM or IBM of the '90s?" he asked. "The next great American institution to find itself obsolete and outdated, while obstinately refusing to change? I suspect one answer would be the New York Times and the commercial networks."

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Crichton's speech ripped the American media industry for manufacturing a product—"information"—that "has too much chrome and glitz, its doors rattle, it breaks down almost immediately, and it's sold without warranty. It's flashy but it's basically junk. So people have begun to stop buying it."

Replacing the established media within a decade, Crichton predicted, would be an Infotopia in which "artificial intelligence agents" would roam "the databases, downloading stuff I am interested in, and assembling for me a front page, or a nightly news show, that addresses my interests." CNN and C-SPAN were steps in the right direction, giving viewers direct access to events as they happen. But Crichton imagined a future in which he and other gourmet consumers would pay top ticket for reliable news and information. And instead of waiting for Dan Rather to read them the evening news, the gourmets would dial in the news for themselves. "I'll have the twelve top stories that I want, I'll have short summaries available, and I'll be able to double-click for more detail," Crichton wrote. "How will Peter Jennings or MacNeil-Lehrer or a newspaper compete with that?"

But just 14 months before its predicted extinction, the Times still publishes daily. Blood—somewhat clotted, I'll grant you—continues to course through the veins of Jennings and Lehrer.

Where did Crichton go wrong? (Where did I go wrong?) Fables of the near future have a way of never materializing, whether they be fevered dreams of nuclear energy too cheap to meter or fossil fuels too expensive to burn. To be fair, Crichton wasn't the only one to get puking drunk on the new media moonshine. Many of us spent a lost weekend—sometimes months—in a stupor after reading early issues of Wired. But instead of blotting out conventional media, the emerging Infotopia seems only to have made the conventional media more ubiquitous.

Via e-mail, Crichton good-naturedly acknowledges his limitations as a seer. "I don't have a lot invested in whether my predictions are right or wrong; I assume that nobody can predict the future well. But in this particular case, I doubt I'm wrong, it's just too early."

In other words, the future is still coming. But it's been delayed. And prediction being an imprecise science, Crichton recruits a few alibis.

One trend Crichton wishes he had forseen "was the effect of big media conglomerates combined with the universal decision to make news into entertainment. It's all headlines and chat now. Factual content is way down, accuracy has vanished (it's not even a goal any longer), and public confidence in media is at an astonishing low. Not surprisingly, audiences are shrinking."

But this argument doesn't scan. If the media stank so bad in '93 that extinction was a sure bet by 2003 and then got much worse—losing audience in the process—surely that should have accelerated the advent of Infotopia, not prevented it. Crichton can't have it both ways. But nobody said it was an easy job predicting the future.

Who lost Infotopia? Crichton's e-mail finds firmer ground when it blames the deficiencies of broadband (Not fast enough! he says), the limitations of the Web page metaphor, and the general awfulness of Web design. He also decries the high ratio of noise to signal that one finds on the Web.

I watch my teenager try and get information from the net; the school is pushing it, but as an information source even for relatively simple stuff (who's who in Congress) it frankly sucks. And I think it is turning out that hypertext is a nightmare of its own. You keep jumping from institutional sources to what are essentially press releases, or blatant propaganda. And a tremendous amount of information is out of date, sometimes years out of date.

Still, Crichton fails to appreciate how adaptative Mediasaurus Rex has been, evolving along the lines of IBM rather of sinking into the muck like GM. Who would have predicted in 1993 that America's great dailies (minus the Wall Street Journal) and the news networks would dodge both extinction and irrelevance by erecting Web sites overnight and giving their content away? That they would use their Web sites to keep us informed 24-hours-a-day in a way that we take for granted today but that would have astonished us nine years ago? In just the last few years the media have handled complex, fast-moving stories such as Monicagate, the 2000 presidential election, the Terror War, and now Enron with speed and skill. Not with Infotopian perfection, mind you. But who would trade today's media environment for 1993's?

As the wise man once said, if you're going to make predictions, make a lot of them. Folks will forget your misses and remember your hits. In that spirit, Crichton writes, "Sooner or later 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."

To my ears, though, that still sounds like the New York Times.

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.