From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

August 30, 2008*: Actually, I could have waited.

The Barack Obama campaign announcement that it was offering anyone interested the opportunity to "be the first to know" who he would pick as his running mate brought me back almost eight years to the U.S. presidential elections of 2000. The results of those elections, we may remember, were bogged down in recounts and the courts, and although a winner had been declared, it still took a few days until things became "official". I recall that CNN, realizing that many readers were distressed with this situation, offered us the opportunity to sign up to receive an email message with the definitive results, a message that would be sent to us as soon as those results became official. I remember signing up for this service. There was no particular reason that made me want to be the first to know, but the idea of utilizing the immediacy of email in this way was quite captivating. As best I can remember, I never received that promised email, and don't know of anyone else who did. When the official count was actually broadcast all the media channels had access to it, and knowing a moment or two before anyone else rather quickly lost any significance. But of course this only sharpened the fact that the larger question wasn't one of whether I could have been the first to know, but was instead one of whether knowing a few moments before anyone else actually made a difference.

From what I've been able to discern, the Obama campaign's decision to announce the vice-presidential selectee via SMS wasn't primarily an attempt to address immediacy. Though the objective was certainly to permit supporters to be the first to know, speed wasn't essential. Instead, the major reason for making the announcement public in this way was to establish the feeling of being an insider. By receiving an SMS from the campaign at the same time that the media received news of this decision, the campaign was suggesting that those who subscribed to this service were part of a select group, and weren't dependent on established media channels for their news.

Does the internet's promise of information include a corollary that hints to immediacy in receiving that information? Though nobody can actually speak for "the internet", I'd venture the guess that most of us feel that this is quite a bit more than just a hint. The media frequently portrays those of us who are constantly connected as information junkies who can never get enough, and in this case, quantity and the rapidity of its delivery would seem to go together. After all, if we're satisfied with whatever information has come our way, we're no longer junkies, and if we need more, it's because what we've already received no longer satisfies us. Not only do we take pride in how many hits a particular search provides us - we also marvel at how swiftly our search engine found them.

I've never been much of a subscriber to this aspect of information. Certainly, if I want to know something, I'd like to know it quickly, but on the whole, most of the information that I find useful isn't dependent on the immediacy of its delivery. Actually, almost the opposite is the case - the Boidem has often prided itself on being "behind the curve", and has tried to examine issues that have proven at least a passable degree of resilience. Many seemingly interesting topics quickly fade into oblivion, and I rarely feel compelled to examine issues that shine only momentarily. Certainly knowing something in advance of other people has its advantages, but this is primarily the case in settings that I tend not to frequent. If a particular stock is about to skyrocket, or plummet, for instance, I suppose that having this information before others get a hold of it can be of critical importance. But knowing that Pluto is no longer considered a planet, important as it may be, is not the sort of knowledge that demands being there first. Things might be different when dealing with more down-to-earth breaking news, but in order to follow breaking news, we need to know it's breaking. I'm quite sure that the only times I've turned to the internet for the latest update on a news story is when I've perhaps received a phone call from someone saying "did you know ...", and since I'm already at my computer, and don't have a television or a radio by me, I'll check a news site. But that's hardly my first choice. Instead, it's a choice of convenience.

As our expectations for immediacy increase, news agencies have to find means of meeting these expectations. Daily newspapers are hardly in a position to meet our need to know now. Print just isn't the right medium for that. Radio and television are much better equipped to keep us up to date. Still, newspaper (and news agency) web sites can try, and sometimes they can even succeed. Numerous news agencies have, for instance, started posting Twitter feeds as a way of perhaps trumping radio and television. For those of us with our computers continually open and online, this is certainly a logical way of keeping abreast of the news. But it's probably too exhausting to really try to follow these mini-feeds, to scrutinize the deluge of items that might come our way in order to simply be the first to know something that we might find there - something that very soon is going to be common knowledge anyway.

In a short essay, A Short History of News, Mitchell Stephens, author of the much more comprehensive A History of News, tells us that our hunger for news is far from new:

Rather than some relatively recent craze, stimulated by the arrival of satellites, television or even the newspaper, the good news is that the frenzied, obsessive exchange of news is one of the oldest human activities.
Stephens reports that a desire for up to date information, including what we often call gossip (though that doesn't prevent us from printing it in our newspapers) can be traced to pre-literate societies. He tells us that Julius Caesar attended to the posting of "daily handwritten news sheets" in Rome, and I'm sure that his book (which of course I haven't read) contains numerous additional historic examples. We hungered for news well before cable television and the internet made it available anytime, anywhere. And in the same way that our appetite for news is nothing new, neither is the inevitability of today's headlines becoming yesterday's readily forgotten history. In that respect, the internet certainly hasn't changed much, though it's no doubt speeded up the process. If a generation ago the Rolling Stones could ask "Who wants yesterday's papers?", today they'd perhaps be asking "Who wants the morning edition?", or "Who wants the previous hour's headlines?". The internet didn't create this situation, it's only made it more acute. But the immediacy of the moment, and of the next, and of the next, perhaps forces us to confront our desire for the breaking news, for the headline that, once we've heard it we'll probably return to doing whatever we were involved with before hearing it. As I suppose that many of us asked after Obama's running mate was announced, and the novelty of the way we heard it faded, "now what?".

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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