Tag Archives: The Associated Press

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The Impermanence of Our Best Efforts

We are going to need some novel words in English to express the empty feeling of seeing our careful efforts depart for wherever pixels go to die.

Slate writer Julie Lee recently wrote a piece with the useful but troubling reminder that, in her words, “our digital lives are too fragile.”  Like all of us, she has noticed that digital platforms are slippery. They constantly change and expect that we will adapt. Lee arrived at this conclusion after a free-access internet site that she used to save her work suddenly put up a full paywall. That meant that she would need to pay to have her pieces held in Evernote’s archive. Lee saw the implications, wondering if it was within her rights to retrieve her work using the site’s prior terms.

On a more prosaic level, I set up a new mobile phone several months ago, only to have it malfunction recently, requiring the service provider to force a complete restart, wiping it clean of all the apps, contacts, and settings I had arranged. These experiences are not unlike discovering that a frequently used organization has suddenly experienced a kind of brain freeze, with the surprising result that they can find no record of any prior contact. If  log-ons fail, a person’s account may go into a limbo made worse because organizations typically reject any effort to set up a new account because “someone else” has your name. If we needed reminders—and we don’t—the capricious digital world can change the terms of service at any time.

We have extended ourselves into this electronic ether perhaps forgetting that organizations eventually want to monetize our use of them. The idea of paying for media access is hardly new. Our grandparents duly paid to receive a morning paper or the most recent issue of Time Magazine. But our implicit contract with a given platform is usually less stable. Platforms in the informational world often start with the tempting bait of free access, usually in exchange for exposure to a modest number of advertisements. But these same sources can easily devolve into a “pay to play” policy, as Lee found out. Even the vital news source of the Associated Press is now asking for donations to support their website, which remains pleasantly packed with accessible content. Will that change in the future if they move stories behind their own paywall?

Capture digital sample

Lee’s concerns extend further to creative work that we release into the world in outlets curated by others, and subject to terms of service that may include the withdrawal of access to material that we thought was ours. As digital journalists who have seen their companies vanish can tell us, nothing that enters our world using pixels is necessarily permanent. As I have noted in earlier essays, Apple software usually does not give users or other tech companies anything close to full access.

If the idea was not already with us, we would have had to invent the concept of a library that can function as a long-term repository for ideas and images. There is some comfort in knowing that a hardcopy book launched into the world will have a small chance at permanence on a bookshelf. Libraries eagerly purging their paper documents should think again.

Everybody is Now I.T. Person.  And Most of Us Aren’t Very Good at it.

Those of us who live extensively in the digital realm can be impressively productive. But it is also the case that the amount of time we must take to simply maintain access can be excessive. My gloomy effort at phone recovery took a half day, not unlike the previous day’s similarly futile effort to convince Adobe that I should be able to make a minor change on a homegrown PDF file. It turns out that I needed to pay more for that basic editing privilege.

Notwithstanding the library model, perhaps we are evolving to a new norm of cultural impermanence, where most current content or personal data will be lost or unavailable.  A.I. probably makes this shift more likely, where only the ill-fitting skeletons of borrowed tropes will be thrown into “new” messages to live another day.

Even so, we are going to need some new and novel words to express the empty feeling of seeing our careful efforts depart for wherever pixels go to die. For my part, in this new year I vow to not allow the digital demons to devour hours that could be used more productively.

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It Started With A Wire And A Key

David Sarnoff, young telegrapher in 1908. The Sarnoff Collection, TCNJ.
David Sarnoff,  Marconi telegrapher and future President of RCA, in 1908.                The Sarnoff Collection, TCNJ.

Give those early innovators their due. It all started with a single wire carrying words coded in simple on-off pulses, hardly more than a long-distance doorbell.

When did we pass over the threshold into what has become the consequential change in the human condition known as the “Information Age?”  Many would perhaps place this monumental transition around the 1920s, with the popularity of radio and the early attempts to make “smart machines.”  But the real beginnings of our obsession with electronic media began much earlier, with a simpler but demonically influential breakthrough.

The telegraph began as a system of wires and keys that could send text-coded electric pulses over extended distances. Wires on poles spread rapidly throughout the eastern United States in the 1850s. And with this growing network, information began to move at the speed of light rather than the pace of a horse or locomotive.  By the civil war era Boston could “talk” to New York or Washington D.C. in real time.

We had entered the age of harnessing electrons for communication, making distance insignificant. The process of shrinking the world had begun.  Gradually news came as easily from 300 miles away as from down the street.

Sterling Colorado Railroad Station, 1880s
          Sterling Colorado Railroad Station, 1880s

The change is easy to visualize with two iconic forms of communication usually built side by side.  Old images of railroads stretching across mountains and prairies usually include telegraph poles marching along the line. The single wire literally ran through each station along the route, and through the dispatcher’s desk key before exiting the other side of the building.  Telegraphy not only made train travel safer, but the thin metal wire also began to carry news from one location to the next at far greater speed. These included accounts of local happenings that were reported in the 19th Century equivalent of a “breaking” story.

We had entered the age of harnessing electrons to make distance immaterial; the process of shrinking the world had begun.

Learn-Morse-Code-2015.05.02- Lincoln became addicted to telegraphy. Throughout the civil war he spent ours across the street from the White House at the War Office, waiting to hear from his generals in various battle locations which had been wired by the military.

News of Lincoln’s assassination in Ford’s Theater spread in the east within hours. But it would take up to ten days for word of the tragedy to reach portions of the country west of the Pony Express origination point in St. Joseph Missouri.

New telegraph lines passing through New England led transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau to note that “we are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”  The same could be said about phone obsessives today.  But that’s another story. The race was on to build news networks to be known as “wire services” that terminated in most city news rooms, providing local papers with much more coverage of events that had occurred in distant cities.  To this day The Associated Press still depends on local reporters to feed local stories of potential national interest to their far-flung subscribers.

Fittingly, the most important thoroughfares in some cities carried the name of the new network that was beginning to knit the country together.  Telegraph Road is arguably Detroit’s best-known Street, and somehow fitting in a city known for technology and innovation.  San Francisco and Berkeley California have their own versions, and do many other towns.

So when you wonder when we became addicts to the effects of charged electrons traveling at the speed of light, give those early 19th Century innovators their due. It all started with a single wire carrying simple on-off pulses, technically little more than a long distance doorbell, but one that would eventually summon us all.


Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu