As a third-generation journalist, I grew up hearing stories about how they used to do things in the old days. One of my favorites was about the installation of a new telex machine that would be used only in times of national crisis, rather like the Bat signal from Commissioner Gordon’s office.
The newspaper’s night watchman was given orders to alert the news team if the machine ever began to chirrup in the middle of the night. So when it went off a few months later, he woke the editor by phone, who in turn called out an emergency news team.
Gathered around the telex a short time later, they waited expectantly as the editor pulled the paper feed from the machine. Was it war, maybe? Major news from Buckingham Palace? The editor read out loud:
The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
You’ll probably recognize this classic pangram as one of the first lessons from typing class; a routine test of the telex’s keys, not a hot-off-the-press update from a nearby farm. Clearly, technology intended to help communicate important news proved to be problematic. Some things haven’t changed.
What concerns me about having replaced the telex with text and Twitter is that we have reversed the downside of technology, if you will. Instead of making a mountain out of a molehill, we are creating an information plateau.
I subscribe to a number of news updates that I receive on my iPhone. Deaths, natural disasters, wars, and other calamities are all reduced to the same size, scale, and sound as LOLs from friends, shopping lists, and special offers. There isn’t a sense of moment, as offered by the usually silent telex. Everything matters as much as everything else. But when everything matters, nothing matters.
The latest text message I receive is just another in an ongoing stream of bits and pieces of information that flow through my day. Noise, not news.
Not only am I perhaps less likely to be impacted by what I read on my hand-held device than if I saw it online or in print―where positioning and point size give me some suggested measure of significance―but because I can put my phone away in my pocket or drop it into a bag, I’m tempted to believe I am in control of the information it presents. The world is manageable.
The problem with the telex back then, was that it could mean you ended up making a big fuss about nothing. The problem with texting and tweeting, today, is that we can end up making a big fuss about nothing.
The more passively and distractedly we receive the news—and glancing at 140 characters or less is a step down from concentrating on longer text, audio, or visual—the more actively we need to engage it. The medium may or may not be the message, but it sure can subtly help frame or diminish its significance. The news can get neutered.