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A Story That's Here to Stay, but a Leave-Taking Nonetheless

December 29, 1997|Jonathan Weber | Jonathan Weber can be reached via e-mail at

When I first began writing about technology for The Times back in 1990, I wasn't entirely happy about it. I mean, it was a great job and all, and I knew technology was important, but it just wasn't a subject that captured most people's imaginations, to put it mildly.

Sure, there were plenty of personal computers around, and the Apple Computer soap opera was well underway, and Intel was churning out microprocessors and Microsoft was writing software, but it was all of interest mainly to professionals. Hardly anyone had e-mail, only a few sci-fi junkies talked about cyberspace, Silicon Valley was cowering in the face of the apparent Japanese threat--and high tech was rarely front-page news.

Proof of broad apathy about the topic lay in what became my private joke, the Airplane Conversation. It went like this:

Random person in the next seat: So, what do you do?

Me: I'm a journalist.

Person (curious): Oh really, who do you work for?

Me: The Los Angeles Times.

Person (now really intrigued): Wow, that must be interesting. What do you write about?

Me: High tech. You know, computers and stuff.

Person (shoulders sagging with disappointment): Oh. (Quickly takes out a book and begins reading).

About 18 months into the job, though, things began to change. Technologies that had been of interest only to hobbyists and scientists and corporate computer managers crossed a threshold, becoming cheap enough and powerful enough to affect a much broader range of human activity.

The turning point I always think of came in December 1992 when John Malone, head of cable giant Tele-Communications Inc., said his company would convert its systems to digital technology, thereby making it possible to offer 500 channels of television and a range of newfangled interactive services.

Ironically, that turned out to be a false promise--Malone just this month made an almost identical this-time-we-really-mean-it announcement about digital services--but it served to bring home in simple terms what these new technologies might mean for the then-uninterested masses.

Technology, rather suddenly, became a hot story.

Newspapers and other mainstream media organs began paying much closer attention as the Internet burst into view around 1994. And my own unambiguous proof that something was different lay in the Airplane Conversation, in which I'd now be peppered with questions about what kind of computer to buy and which tech stocks to pick and where the Internet was really going until I took out a book.

I've had a great run with this story, and now I'm leaving to pursue it in another venue, as editor of a new weekly newsmagazine about the technology business (details to be announced). It will be a much more specialized publication, and the one thing I know I'll miss is the constant challenge of rendering very complex subjects comprehensible and relevant to a broad audience.

As editor of The Cutting Edge, I've always tried to keep three questions in mind: How do we remain accessible to the novice while being interesting to the expert? How do we convey the importance of developments without hyping or sensationalizing them? How do we set ourselves apart and bring something valuable in an environment cluttered with new sources of information?

By answering those questions well, I thought, we could also help to answer an even more cosmic question: How do newspapers support and serve a broad audience at a time when, in large part because of technology, geographical community is giving way to other kinds of special-interest association?

I won't try to assess specifically how well we've done on those first three questions. But your feedback certainly indicates that The Cutting Edge has been a success, and that suggests we're providing at least some answers to the last question.

The very nature of innovation, of course, dictates that any coverage of it will be imperfect: The most important changes always have consequences that are wholly unforeseeable. The World Wide Web was invented by a lone researcher at a European physics lab who was looking for a better way to share information with his colleagues; he would have been the last to guess that it would become a major new mass medium.

Next year, to cite another kind of example, Motorola will turn on the Iridium satellite system, which will make it possible to make a wireless telephone call from anywhere on Earth. There will no longer be such a thing as really being out of touch. Any predictions on the ultimate significance of that?

At the same time, though, we can't surrender to the idea that technological progress and its consequences are forces of nature entirely out of our control. Most of us can make personal choices about how we adopt technology in our own lives--what to buy for ourselves and our children, what careers to pursue, what to do with our leisure time.

And we can--indeed must--make political choices on issues such as privacy and security and indecency on the Internet, and technology in the schools, and universal access to e-mail, and free speech in the electronic age, and anti-trust enforcement in the software industry, just to name a few.

It's the novelty, complexity and importance of these questions that has made technology such a great story in recent years, and it's one that isn't going to go away. Thanks for reading.

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