Learning from the past

On my journalism course they gave us a bunch of books on a list to get . . I eagerly purchased got a few before I realised that most were way, way out of date. In a quiet moment the other day I picked up ‘the British Press: A Manifesto’ for the first ever time. It was published in 1978 and is a selection of essays by academics on the state of the UK press at the time — slanted hevaily towards the print industry.

There are some very revealing tidbits. did you know the so-called ‘inverted pyramid’ style of newspaper writing comes not so much from a desire to squeeze as much info into the first 2 paras in order not to lose impatient readers, as from a desire not to annoy the printers (and your time-squeezed editor) who used to set the metal type into the page ‘formes’ in days of old. Basically, if something had to be cut from your text in the middle or at the beginning then it would necessitate all the lead slugs after your cut being removed and realigned in the page (like a jigsaw — see here). however, if you cut from the end then obviously the worst that could happen would be to pad out the last line with some blank space. This lead reporters keen not to have their beloved prose hacked up, to leave the crud to the end and fill the top para(s) with the juicy bits.

I digress though. Here’s something revealing, the author, whose blushes I spare, is writing about CEEFAX, ORACLE and the UK Post Office’s soon-to-be-implemented VIEWDATA system, all of which in the 70’s were heralded as the next big thing in information technology:

If tomorrow’s landscape is to be criss-crossed by electronic data highways, then he who licenses the drivers and the cars and charges the tolls must be in a powerful and responsible position; and ‘he in this context is the government.

Such faith in the role of the state seems quaint to us now. Can you now imagine an internet controlled by a government charging ‘tolls’? Of course the author’s premise — like many in the 70s — is that the UK newspapers were at the time not nearly Marxist enough in their vision and influence and, spotting the way the wind was blowing for old-style hot metal typesetting, the author decides to take his chance and get in a bid for big government control while the technology is still foetal.

Thankfully by this time back in the states — where they have a much healthier distrust of government control than we do — the net (called ARPANET then) was already just under a decade old. In 1978 the Internet was still a hobby for DOD buzzcuts and Berkley geeks –yes I know the DOD is government but it was left largely to its own devices with this new-fangled networks thingy and both the DOD and local academia operated without being ‘licensed’ by the government. Thanfully they persisted and while there is much that is proprietary about the web today, the core protocols are open and transparent and it’s 100% down to the complete lack of involvement from an overbearing government.

Let that be a lesson to any civil servant with a million-plus IT budget. Governments are good at certain things — schools, armies, roads etc — but innovation in technology is never their bag.

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