In 1993, novelist Michael Crichton riled the news business with a Wired magazine essay titled "Mediasaurus," in which he prophesied the death of the mass media—specifically the New York Times and the commercial networks. "Vanished, without a trace," he wrote.
The mediasaurs had about a decade to live, he wrote, before technological advances—"artificial intelligence agents roaming the databases, downloading stuff I am interested in, and assembling for me a front page"—swept them under. Shedding no tears, Crichton wrote that the shoddy mass media deserved its deadly fate.
"[T]he American media produce a product of very poor quality," he lectured. "Its information is not reliable, it 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."
Had Crichton's prediction been on track, by 2002 the New York Times should have been half-fossilized. But the newspaper's vital signs were so positive that its parent company commissioned a 1,046-foot Modernist tower, which now stands in Midtown Manhattan. Other trends predicted by Crichton in 1993 hadn't materialized in 2002, either. Customized news turned out to be harder to create than hypothesize; news consumers weren't switching to unfiltered sources such as C-SPAN; and the mainstream media weren't on anyone's endangered species list.
When I interviewed Crichton in 2002 about his failed predictions for Slate, he was anything but defensive.
"I assume that nobody can predict the future well. But in this particular case, I doubt I'm wrong; it's just too early," Crichton said via e-mail.
As we pass his prediction's 15-year anniversary, I've got to declare advantage Crichton. Rot afflicts the newspaper industry, which is shedding staff, circulation, and revenues. It's gotten so bad in newspaperville that some people want Google to buy the Times and run it as a charity! Evening news viewership continues to evaporate, and while the mass media aren't going extinct tomorrow, Crichton's original observations about the media future now ring more true than false. Ask any journalist.
So with white flag in hand, I approached Crichton to chat him up once more. Magnanimous in victory, he said he had often thought about our 2002 discussion and was happy to revisit it. (Read the uncut e-mail interview in this sidebar.)
Although Crichton still subscribes to the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, he dropped the Los Angeles Times a year ago—"with no discernable loss." He skims those two dailies but spends 95 percent of his "information-gathering time" on the Web.
He concedes with a shrug that the personalized infotopia he crystal-balled in 1993 has yet to arrive. When we talked in 2002, Crichton scoffed at the Web. Too slow. Its page metaphor, too limiting. Design, awful. Excessive hypertexting, too distracting. Noise-to-signal ratio, too high.
Today he's more positive about the medium. He notes with satisfaction that the Web has made it far easier for the inquisitive to find unmediated information, such as congressional hearings. It's much faster than it used to be, and more of its pages are professionally assembled. His general bitch is advertisements in the middle of stories, and he's irritated by animation and sounds in ads. "That, at least, can often be blocked by your browser," he says.
In 1993, Crichton predicted that future consumers would crave high-quality information instead of the junk they were being fed and that they'd be willing to pay for it. He's perplexed about that part of his prediction not panning out, but he has a few theories about why it hasn't.