A history of the future of news: What 1767 tells us about 2100

(Eric Newton, senior adviser to the president at Knight Foundation, presented an adapted version of this text to students and faculty at Arizona State University on Nov. 14 as a Hearst Visiting Professional. A slide show accompanies this talk, and an asterisk appears when slides change.)

"A History of the Future of News: What 1767 tells us about 2100":

 

Eric Newton

Eric Newton

Students of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication:

Do you know how lucky you are?

You’re at one of the nation’s hottest journalism schools. Reporting from all points. Winning awards. Showing with News 21 how top students and faculty can produce tough stories in new ways.

This is the only journalism school in American that is a two-time winner of the Knight News Challenge for media innovation. And you have a dean here, thank you Chris Callahan, who appears to have super powers. So be proud. Give yourselves a hand.

Now, don’t blow it!

Tonight I’d like to try something different. Using a new theory of media history, let’s test out a possible future of news.

Some points to keep in mind:

  1. We’re in a profoundly new age of human communication, the digital age. No one really knows how it will come out.
  2. Science fiction seems to do a better job of bridging history and prophecy than the experts.
  3. There are undiscovered patterns in journalism history. Here’s one: Every American generation grows up with a different media form in ascendance.
  4. Another pattern: People in their 20s play key roles in inventing news media. Always have.

A reminder: whenever we’re talking about media tonight that includes, especially, its use for quality journalism.

Journalism excellence is the fair, accurate, contextual search for truth providing citizens with the independent news and information they need to run their communities and their lives.

It is desperately needed now. It will be even more needed in the future.

Are you ready for some time travel?

*Point one. The digital age is a new age. Here are the others: The visual age, the age of language and the age of mass media. That’s it. Just four great phases of communication.

In the beginning, before language, protohumans wandered the earth. We don’t know when the first news story was. But we can guess it went something like this: “Aaaaaaaa!” And then you point a finger at whatever is about to eat your family. And repeat the headline: “Aaaaaaaa!”

After a very long time, language evolved. This was a breakthough. Once you can talk, you can figure out how to write.

It was a while before the next big change in news came along, the creation of mass media, which I’d say started with movable metal type and printed books. Newspapers, radio and TV -- all the forms of mass media that came after -- had the same one-way, assembly-line qualities. Journalist, story, medium, audience. Today we call all those forms legacy media.

The World Wide Web went on line in 1991. To me this marks the start of the digital age. Today, mass media does not flow only from one-way assembly lines. The electrons of news make up a global network, everywhere, moving in all directions at once. One to one, one to some, one to many and the reverse. It’s like an organic ecosystem. Five billion humans with cell phones who can be instant journalists. The sum total of human knowledge is ever more available, and it doubles and doubles.

Truly a new age.

*A million years of visual news and then, suddenly, language and everything else. This graph looks like the kind of exponential adoption curve we might see when looking at the growth of the internet.

*You’d think with all this information we’d be good at predicting the future. Not so.

Here’s a drawing from Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World on Dec. 31, 1899. It predicts life 100 years later, in 1999. There are giant buildings, ships and airships. But look closer. They’re stone buildings, steamships and dirigibles. No glass towers. No jet planes. No nuclear subs.

What went wrong? We tend to use what we know to guess at what’s next. All they did in 1899 was predict that the stone buildings, steam ships and balloons at hand would be much larger in the future. This is the linear march of time, very popular in the industrial era.

*But time, it turns out, is more complex than that. Here’s a graphic my son William – a senior at the University of Florida -- created to explain the evolution of an idea.

To me it also shows the flow of the sum total of ideas, the flow of history. It’s a kind of cyclone, with cycles but also forward movement, unleashing tremendous forces.

We get the future wrong because we don’t see the cyclone of things happening all at once around us.

Point two.

Science fiction writers are dreaming their way to futures the rest of us can’t seem to calculate.

*Here’s Jules Verne, saying 100 years before it happened that the rocket projectile will leave Florida, go to the moon and splash down in the ocean.

*Geostationary satellites make the digital age possible. Their orbits are called Clarke Orbits. Why? Because sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke conjured geostationary satellites in a 1945 magazine article.

Later he would say he invented the most commercially viable communication idea of the 20th century and was paid the usual freelance fee of $35.

*Or how about Skype, from the TV cartoon, the Jetsons?

*Or the cell phone, from the TV series Star Trek? The fellow who actually invented the cellular phone said this gave him the idea. No kidding.

*And there’s the iPad, in the movie 2001, a Space Odyssey.

The average Americans think this is amusing, entertaining, and a bit crazy.

So, the first principle when predicting the future is to think crazy. Not out of the box crazy, off the planet crazy.

Since one must be unconventional to be even close to being right, here’s what I did. I found two unconventional best-selling books that take opposite views of time, then mashed them up with everything I’d learned in creating the content for the original Newseum.

The books are “The Fourth Turning,” by William Strauss and Neil Howe, describing human cycles of history and “The Singularity is Near,” by Ray Kurzweil, predicting humans will transcend biology.

I immediately noticed something.

Point three.

Every American generation has grown up with a different form of media in ascendance.

We talk today about how new it is that we’re in a time of continuous change. Not so.

Every American generation has come of age with a different form of media on the rise.

*Strauss and Howe list 12 generations of Americans born since the revolution. This is where we get 1767 from in the title of this talk. It’s the first birth year for what was called the Compromise generation, the one born during the revolution.

And what media form on the rise? The pamphlet. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, a runaway best seller. There were colonial newspapers. But the pamphlet was peaking. An estimated 120,000 copies of Common Sense were printed.

It wasn’t until the next generation that the weekly papers really exploded. Why? A new country, a First Amendment, postal roads, post offices, government subsidized delivery of news.

And then the next generation, a new form of media rose up: Populist daily newspapers, not just for elites, for everyone. After that, immediate news for all those papers from the Associated Press, thanks to the telegraph. 

There are many complex reasons why each of these media forms popped when it did. Nevertheless, it’s a pattern: New generation. New media form rising. Constant change.

Imagine folks sitting around more than a century ago, one saying to the other: You know, our child never knew a world without a daily newspaper. He is a daily newspaper native. He never knew how long we used to wait for news to come from the other side of the country. No wonder he has no patience. No attention span. Sound familiar?

*The book “The Fourth Turning” had a very big pattern of its own to reveal. Get this: About every 80 years – every four generations – there’s a crisis. And about every 80 years – the length of human lifespan, there’s a great awakening.

Straus and Howe trace this back to the Renaissance. They say it’s a social cycle humans have created because of the interplay of generational archetypes going all the way back to our evolution as a species dependent upon the four seasons.

Maybe. No matter the reason, the pattern is there throughout American history. A crisis: The Civil War, four score and seven years after the American revolution. And then World War Two, about 80 years after the Civil War.

So now we can combine new media forms for each generation with once-in-a-lifetime patterns. Here we see illustrated magazines, once a killer print app; major metropolitan newspapers, huge, as we know, and then mass circulated photographs, radio and newsreels.

By the end of these four generations you could read, see, hear and watch the news.

*Will these patterns continue? It seems so, even as we move into Ray Kurzweil’s exponential explosion of information technologies in the digital age.

Have you ever seen anything like this is your history books here at Arizona State? Does it sound crazy? I hope so.

It's almost as though there’s a basic human need to know -- and tell. Many voices struggling to be heard. My wife wrote a line like that and we used it in the Newseum.

In this grid we see the Baby Boomers. That includes me. We grew up when TV was young. When we came of age, so did TV.  By 1964 it was the most popular mass news medium in America. And we Boomers became lifelong consumers and shapers of TV news.

It’s important not to look at when things are invented but when they come of age. When a medium pops, when it becomes ubiquitous, that’s when it shapes us and we shape it.

So it’s not surprising to see the role of the Gen X ers in shaping the web, and of you Millennials in shaping the emergence of Mobile and Social Media. Those will be you’re media forms and you digital natives will always have a special affinity toward them.

In this grid in the 1960s, we see a consciousness expansion that comes about 80 years after what was called the Third Great Awakening. And the crisis cycle continues with 9-11 and the global recession and World War 3.0 coming 80 years after World War Two.

What’s World War 3.0? It’s the war in cyberspace, the war of the digital age, one that already may have begun. Last year our government declared that cyberspace is an official arena of war. An estimated 100 countries have cyber armies. Every day there are an undisclosed number of cyber-attacks.

So if cycle of crisis holds, we will get World War 3.0, the first invisible war of the digital age. And it will remake the world.

My two sons, like many of you Millennials, will be the ones who rise up as heroes of WW3.0. I know war is frightening. But this might not be all bad. This country does tend to win wars. A global crisis can be a time to create unity and new institutions. Society could emerge stronger than before.

Are we getting crazy yet?

*What’s next for news technology? Pew research says that in the near term news media is becoming more personal, portable and participatory. That sounds right. But there’s more. How about wearable media? Why carry a phone when soon it can all be in your watch. Dick Tracy will be hip again.

*Once we combine generational media, historical cycles and exploding technology, we’re ready to look at the coming century. Remember, we do not want super-sized brick buildings, steamships and dirigibles.

First comes intelligent media, during your lifetimes.

This means the end of the printed, home-delivered, paid circulation daily newspaper. Print won’t die but that particular animal in the ecosystem will.

Household penetration rates have declined in a straight line for 70 years. Extrapolate that and we’ll see the end in April, 2040.

All newspapers will not die. But there won’t be printed, home-delivered paid circulation daily newspapers. Sunday papers, free papers, yes. But not the ones we know today.

By then all media will be smart. You’ll carry on normal conversations with computers, in any language, ask them questions, have them do your research. News bots, news drones, robot scribes – you get the idea.

In time you’ll be able to experience any event anywhere on the planet as though you were there, so long as a newsbot is there. A 360-degree newsbot that can be in a place and stream you thousands of feeds simultaneously. You’ll be able to sit in a virtual room or wear goggles and look up, down, left and right – and it will be just like being there. Maybe even feel and smell it. So if you wanted to see a state of the union address, or a Super Bowl, you will have a great seat.

After WW3.0, we’ll be done fooling around, and all free governments will have universal data transparency. Every piece of public information will be public from the moment it enters a government computer. You’ll be able to send a research bot out to look for city managers earning $800,000 a year for running small towns like Bell, California.

Everything will be available to you all the time, no matter where you are. The words now describing legacy media will disappear – and so will a lot of those media. They’ll morph into new forms. News will not go away. There always will be people who try to manipulate information, to abuse power, so there always will be people who try to straighten out information, to check abuses of power.

*How do we know these things will happen? Here are the historical documents: Robotics, bionics, artificial intelligence, from the Terminator and Star Trek, The Next Generation.

*Next, we have the era of Bio Media. Implants and augmented reality for everyone. No matter where you go, you can call upon anything you would want to know about that place. There will be an awful lot of people who appear to be talking to themselves. They’ll be talking to their media implants.

We will become more and more indistinguishable from machines. Why? Because we will want nanotechnology to eliminate our genetic flaws, seamless bionics to have fully functional replacement limbs, implants to correct brain damage. That’s Kurzweil’s theory.

You’ll be able to save your entire life experience to the cloud: how you thought, what you did, things you saw and heard and watched, what you made of it all. You will be able to pass this life experience along to your children, or to everyone. They’ll be able to ask you questions after you are dead. Your digital memory will answer.

*And then it happens. Machines become self-aware, just like the movie iRobot, or Data in Star Trek. It’s been 80 years since the 1960s. Time for another good awakening.

*The Singularity is a kind of point of no return. That’s what Kurzweil sees in the middle of the 21st century. The unbelievable result of the current quite believable exponential increases in computing power.

*If that happens, that’s when things really get interesting.  It’s an era of Hyper Media. Machines keep creating more intelligent machines at an exponential rate. Things that seem impossible start getting solved.

The code is cracked and your brain can accept machine downloads. Like Neo in the Matrix, you can learn Kung Fu, or anything else, in about 10 seconds. Like the movie Avatar, the whole environment begins to come alive and you can communicate with it in basic ways.

News then is whatever we imagine we want to know at any given moment. There is a quantum leap in our ability to solve problems. (Or create them).

*And finally, by the end of this century, we have the era of Omni Media. We are the gods we always have imagined. We know everything, can do anything: We can read thoughts, project commands to objects, move them, teleport them, change them.

Just like science fiction.

*But in the end, at least in this mash-up, we still are human enough to follow the pattern of crisis every 80 years. And this last crisis is the one over our own survival. World War 4.0: Humans against a non-human foe. Maybe it’s the machines, or the nanobots, or the earth itself.

It’s scary enough to want to be gone when it comes.

Which of course, I probably will be.

But maybe not you.

You will watch the young people/machines of the future either prevail and rebuild, or see the end.

No matter how it comes out, you have to admit, it’s a great story to cover.

There you are – 1767 to 2100.

Can we all agree we’ve crossed over the line?

Even though there are about seven billion reasons why this may not happen, or happen this fast, you have to admit, it’s crazy.

And if it’s crazy, it just might happen.

If you take away one thing tonight, I hope it’s this: We are just scratching the surface of the digital age.

When I count to three, you will be back in 2011 at Arizona State University at a Monday night lecture…

What does this have to do with you? Well, you get to shape this future. Too much for a 20-something to handle?

*Here’s a photo of Steve Jobs. He was in his 20s when he helped develop the personal computer. When he died someone tweeted: Born to unwed parents, put up for adoption, dropped out of school and changed the world … What’s your excuse?

* Some of your elders won’t understand you. That’s happened before. This is a popular image circulating around cyberspace. The early Microsoft team in their scruffy 20s. Hardly anyone invested heavily in this early motley Microsoft crew. Hardly anyone got to be billionaires.

*Here are some other news pioneers who invented new media forms when they were young, from Ben Franklin to Horace Greely, Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, Lord Northcliffe (inventor of the tabloid), Ida B. Wells, David Sarnoff of radio and Philo T. Farnsworth, who got the idea of TV when he was plowing a field as a teenager.

They embraced the new media technologies of their age and used them to strengthen journalism. Some of their greatest inventing they did when they were just your age. But the statue in the next room of old Philo does not show him as a teenager. It’s hard to find photos of these folks when they were thinking of their greatest ideas. They were too young.

* So… there’s plenty to think about. And plenty to do. There are certainly plenty of jobs for a journalism/mass communications major to do. Those include:

  • Learning truthful storytelling in all media

  • Mastering computer assisted reporting/design.

  • Watching a lot more science fiction!

  • Fooling around every day with new digital tools. 

  • Rewriting codes of ethics, since new tools make new rules.

  • Using the steady flow of  new technology to invent news applications.

  • Learning about media law (which is being rewritten for the digital age) as are the business models.

  • Developing new engagement techniques for the people who used to be passive media audiences and are now active media communities.

  • Teaching digital media fluency to everyone.

  • Finding some good sources so you can cover World War 3.0, just in case.

Last year, I was stunned to see a survey of journalism and mass communication students in America and about half of them didn’t think much had changed in their field in the last five years.

Who is teaching these students?

I hope you are not among the folks who think nothing’s changing.

Rather, I hope you are on the side of Isaac Newton. Here’s what he said about all of his famous physics discoveries:

“I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay undiscovered before me.”

Somewhere in the ocean of truth is the future of news.

Happy sailing!

Thank you.

About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Knight Foundation supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts. We believe that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. For more, visit www.knightfoundation.org.