Atlantic Unbound

NPR Commentary -- May 16, 1996
by James Fallows

A Blank Slate?

Last fall, while promoting his book The Road Ahead, Bill Gates of Microsoft joked acidly about the Internet hysteria then getting underway. Propose some cockamamie idea, Gates said, and people will laugh at you. But propose the very same idea adding the magic words "for the Internet!" and people will say admiringly: Hey, why didn't I think of that?

The latest illustration of this principle involves Gates's own company, which next month will unveil an online magazine called Slate. The editor of Slate, Michael Kinsley, is an old friend of mine, and as a reader, writer, and citizen I wish his venture only the best. But even Gates and Kinsley must wonder at the hype that Slate has generated. This magazine, after all, has not published any articles; has hired no staff writers; has a target audience barely two per cent as large as that of the program you're now listening to; and, if all its plans succeed, it will be .... a magazine. But because it's a magazine "for the Internet!" it has already provoked a cover story in Newsweek, a lengthy chronicle in the New Yorker, and more overall buzz than any real publishing event in months.

We've seen other recent outbreaks of breathless reporting about computer news -- for example, when Netscape and Windows 95 were launched last year. Why is it, exactly, that our usually hard-eyed media types now swoon in the presence of high-tech? I think it has to do with a fear of being left out, even of being old. Europeans have for years over-scrutinized trends from America; the rest of America has looked to California; anxious middle-aged people have looked at youth culture; style-conscious whites have looked to blacks -- all in search of clues about not seeming out of date. The anxiously-aging Baby Boomers who run today's media establishment know that something big is happening with all those young people in software firms. If they call that something a "trend" and put it on the cover, maybe some of the hipness will rub off.

When I see stories in established magazines about the latest exciting cyber-trend "for the Internet!" I think of Ed Sullivan, man of the Eisenhower era, stiffly inviting the Beatles onto his show. I think of those misguided grownups of the 1960s who bought love beads, went to Esalen, wore their bell-bottoms, and took a toke, so they could seem groovy like the young.

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Copyright © 1996 by James Fallows. All Rights Reserved.