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NY Times Reporter Has Seen It All Before, and He's Still Pessimistic

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John Markoff covered the two Steves a year after the birth of the Mac. He was there right after Bill and Paul started Microsoft, and he's seen technology change the way journalists cover the world around them. Now, he says the world is looking progressively bleak. We caught up with him recently and discussed where we have been, and where we're likely to go.

John Markoff has been writing about computers, technology and the Internet for The New York Times since 1988. Before joining the Times, Markoff covered technology for The San Francisco Examiner and Infoworld, and wrote a weekly column for the San Jose Mercury News.

Markoff started covering technology in 1977, one year after Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs founded Apple computer, and just two years after two geeks from Seattle -- Paul Allen and Bill Gates -- first got together to write software.

Under Markoff's watch, the idea that everyone could own a personal computer has gone from fantasy to reality, e-mail has transformed how we communicate, and the Internet has given everyone the ability to publish their own version of the news.

In just the past year, camera- and video-enabled cell phones and other mobile devices have changed how the news is reported by mainstream news outlets: Ordinary citizens are getting in the act, sending news photos to newspapers via their cell phones, sending video to TV stations and calling in reports from the scene long before the real reporters arrive.

Markoff took out a few minutes recently to talk about changes in technology, changes in journalism, and what's on the horizon for both. This is an edited excerpt of his conversation with the Online Journalism Review:

OJR: You've probably heard of the Japanese newspaper that claims to be the first newspaper to have published a photograph on its front page sent from a cell phone. Do you think we'll be seeing more of this in journalism? That kind of reader-gatherer, participatory journalism?

JM: Yeah, I think that's absolutely inevitable. As usual, the science fiction guys got there first. Let's see, there's Max Headroom, the British television show that sort of outlined that world, and I think there have been a number of other science fiction guys who've written about a world like that. That goes back to David Gelernter's Mirror Worlds idea, in which he argued that the networking of the world would inevitably mean that everything is instrumented. In that kind of a world, I think one of the things that does for journalism is it sort of changes our role in ways that I find totally baffling at this moment. But I think we're going to be in this period, you know, a long period of instability because technology will keep changing, so I'm not worrying about it.

Q: Well, you've touched on a really central concern of a lot of people -- over the last 10 years, if not longer --  particularly among journalists who, I guess you could say, are more traditional, who look ahead and see all these pitfalls that are coming -- of people who suddenly start creating content who don't have the same standards as, well, The New York Times. Do you see that as an issue or are we beyond that now?

JM: Well, I'm of two minds. I certainly can see that scenario, where all these new technologies may only be good enough to destroy all the old standards but not create something better to replace them with. I think that's certainly one scenario. The other possibility right now -- it sometimes seems we have a world full of bloggers and that blogging is the future of journalism, or at least that's what the bloggers argue, and to my mind, it's not clear yet whether blogging is anything more than CB radio.

And, you know, give it five or 10 years and see if any institutions emerge out of it. It's possible that in the end there may be some small subset of people who find a livelihood out of it and that the rest of the people will find that, you know, keeping their diaries online is not the most useful thing to with their time.

When I tell that to people ? they get very angry with me. ... I also like to tell them, when they (ask) when I'm going to start a blog, and then, 'Oh, I already have a blog, it's www.nytimes.com, don't you read it?'

Q: (Laughing) High-end blog, maybe?

JM: Yeah, that's right.

Q: What, as we look into the future, some other things we've seen are -- that are very near future, are you know video, IM, video game architecture -- do those have roles in journalism?

JM: Oh, that's really interesting. Well, certainly, IM has an operational role in journalism, and we use it at The New York Times between writers and editors on a sort of an ad-hoc basis and it's very effective in that way. I mean it seems like kind of a minor thing, but in just the kind of one- and two-word kind of communications you do in the workplace its very effective on deadline so it's become a standard part of the routine, at least among the technology writers at the New York Times.

Whether, you know, whether it extends itself, I'm still -- I mean it's pretty interesting -- I mean -- audio IM makes sense to me, text IM makes sense to me, I'm still sort of scratching my head about video. I've got an iSight camera (from Apple) and you know occasionally I'll phone up somebody else with an iSight camera and then we'll wave at each other and then we'll wonder why we did it. You know? One of the reasons that video teleconferencing might not have taken off is that there may not be any great use for it, any real use for it.

But I don't know, maybe when everything's sort of built in and we take it for granted then we'll begin to use it. I'm sort of holding out. But you mentioned IM and the other was?

Q: Yes, video game architecture.

JM: Oh, video games. God, you know, the vastly multiplayer games just are so intriguing to me and I believe -- and this all comes from reading a science fiction book, I have to confess, by John Barnes called "Mother of Storms" -- where he wrote a narrative in which video gaming and networking and the anonymity of pornography ultimately merge together and the story basically will make the hair on the back of your neck stand on end.

When I see the vastly multiplayer game phenomenon I just sort of think of that. This is clearly an alternative to television, at least television in terms of the evening sitcom fare, where the bar is set pretty low. I could quickly see these interactive gaming things displacing sort of conventional network television, and I think that's already starting to happen if you look at the numbers.

The other thing that's going on that I think is quite intriguing is the rate of growth that's going on in sports video gaming. EA has just put out some numbers that seem like they're actually consumer mass numbers, and then you get into sort of young men in their 20s, right, who used to watch television and instead they?d rather play Madden football against somebody in the evening because it's more fun. And by the way, Madden football in this generation and the other football games are starting to look visually indistinguishable from actually watching television, football on television.

Q: You've mentioned science fiction a number of times and as you said science fiction writers tend to get there first -- what have you read lately that seems particularly insightful?

JM: Oh, gosh, have I been reading any good science fiction? Yeah, I'm afraid that I'm so depressed by the world that I've been reading Alan Furst, so I've been going backward and reading sort of dark, le Carre-esque novels set in Europe. I read Gibson's most recent, and I loved it. It was pretty much set right in the present. I'm stuck in the middle of Stephenson's follow on the Cryptonomicon, which I'm still scratching my head over, because that's in the past too. He's gone deeply into the past; it's a sort of a prequel on the Cryptonomicon, I guess. So I haven't been doing my homework on sort of the outliers of science fiction who obviously have the most interesting ideas.

Q: You say you've been depressed lately which brings to mind actually something I noted from your presentation in our last seminar, that you'd gone from being a techno-optimist to being maybe not so necessarily optimistic. Is that still the trend of your overall mood?

JM: I read Bill Joy's Wired piece with great, great despair two or three years ago. It's not clear to me that Joy was right on nanotechnology or robotics or AI -- that's still I think pretty far-fetched stuff -- but the ability to create pathogens and biological weapons really quite worries me. And I feel like it's just a matter of time, and that's one of the things that makes me so pessimistic. I think there's nothing built into the nature of technological progress that determines that the world will get better as a whole. It can go either way and everything just seems to look more and more bleak sometimes.

Q: If you're still at The New York Times say, 10 years from now, with this beat, any idea what you'll be doing and how you'll be doing it?

JM: Ah, 10 years, so let's see, I've already been here --

Q: A while!

JM: Yeah, I've been here 15, so that would be 50 percent more, and how much has my job changed in the last 15 years? I mean it's true that the Times barely had digital editing systems when I showed up in '88, and they were very late coming to that, I mean, I went backward when I went to The New York Times, which was always a great source of irony to me.

Q: That was from the Examiner?

JM: Yeah, from The San Francisco Examiner, so I assume that there will still be a paper, that I'll still be writing for paper and they'll still be killing trees a decade from now, although that's mostly on the basis of the failure of the first and second generation of electronic books. That technology, like most technologies, (there) will probably be a 15-year incubation period, which would put it past the 10-year mark.

I assume there will be a time when newspapers will die in favor of wirelessly connected tablets of some kind but I don't think it will happen in a decade, although, you know, I mean once again this acceleration makes everything very difficult to predict.

I also assume that there's going to be a -- whatever the media -- there'll be a role for people who find stuff out and digest it and put it in a form, so I assume there will still be a role for reporters.

There's this argument that as this explosion of brands happen, you know, brands that you can trust become more valuable, and I tend to buy that, so I think that the New York Times will survive in some fashion and they probably will still need people to write and explain technology, so that's hopefully a form of plan for me until they kick me out.

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Related Links
AOL history
Akihabara, Japan
Alan Furst
Apple history
British spy novelist John Le Carre
CB radio
Citizen reporting in Japan
DRAM
David Gelernter's Mirror Worlds
Electronic Arts
Infoworld
Madden football
Markoff bio
Max Headroom
Microsoft history
Moore's law
Mother of Storms, by John Barnes
Multiplayer games
NYT: Netscape to launch Internet news network
Neal Stephenson and the Cryptonomicon
Nytimes.com
Pac-Man
Participatory journalism
San Francisco Examiner
The end of Moore's law
William Gibson
Wired: Why the future doesn't need us, by Bill Joy
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John Markhoff: "To my mind, it's not clear yet whether blogging is anything more than CB radio."

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