In 1994, it Was Easier to Imagine the iPad Than Gawker

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Peter Kafka linked to Paleofuture's wonderful video find from the Knight Ridder archives about a tablet that looks and acts roughly like an iPad... and was produced in 1994.

What's fascinating is how many people predicted something like a tablet newspaper. It makes me think that it was not that hard to imagine a big screened device that displays rich media. The bigger challenge was to imagine how news stories themselves might change in the web era. It was easier to deduce that the interface might change than that the words people would want to read would be different, too.

The kind of newspaper story that we grew up with in the latter half of the 20th century was historically specific. (If you don't believe me, take a look at the Chronicling America collection of newspapers from around the turn of the 20th century.) It was a genre like the 18th century novel or the epic poem. It had conventions and people who policed its boundaries. There were schools that taught you how to write news stories and tests that could see if you knew what you were doing. A story in the paper might have looked like the organic way of delivering a piece of new information about the world, but it wasn't any more natural than a television anchor's diction.

In the web era, there has been an explosion of different news genres that deliver information but are not "stories" as understood by the newspaper people of 1994 (or many today). There is the Matt Drudge headline. There is the Andrew Sullivan one-liner. There are the short, sharp blogs posts of web pioneers like some of my colleagues here at The Atlantic or alums like Matt Yglesias. There is the Gawker story. There is the one-paragraph Slashdot summary. There is the reported newsblog like Danger Room. There is the liveblog (which the Guardian takes to a glorious level). These are all ways of using text to deliver people what they want to know about the world. We have different names for all of these things and they all have conventions, but readers tend to group into the same cognitive space: news.

The video above proves that a team of smart people conversant with the latest technology and the news business could imagine News Corp's The Daily in 1994. That kind of change in information design makes sense. But this other one I'm talking about, the one in which the very text changes might have been outside the cone of foreseeable possibilities.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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