Technology journalism — 4000 years old and still going strong

Telling stories about what we make will only die out when we do

These are interesting times for technology journalism, and technology journalists. As Dave Lee said yesterday, fifteen years ago the title “Internet Correspondent” was one of the geekiest and downright peculiar things a hack could be — now, it’s as outdated as “Trades Union Correspondent”, a title that in the 1970s guaranteed you front page stories all week and a double-page spread in the Sundays.

Back then, the unions could shut down the press for weeks at a time. The Internet, however, has shuttered more print works than the most militant strikers. This time, they’re staying shut.

Guess what. Technology changes, and along the way it changes the way we live and work. That’s doubly true for journalists of every stripe. What it doesn’t do is go away, or stop being one of the most important stories in our culture. Flash back to 2300 BCE in Giza, Egypt, where an unknown tech hack was decorating the Tomb of Akhethotep with detailed images of rope making. It’s all there — tools, people, process — and our long-lost Rope Correspondent wrote it down. Rope’s still around: that job title, however, is unlikely to appear in LinkedIn. At least for another decade.

Flash forward to 2024. That’s around the time that rope and rope makers are likely to be back in the news, albeit in the form of carbon nanotubes. That’s because this is one of the most promising technologies to take over from silicon as the major economic driver in IT development.

The reason information technology has changed our world so dramatically over the past 50 years — tech journalism gratefully riding on the back of the elephant the while — is because since the mid-60s, every eighteen months or so silicon chips have got twice as powerful while not costing any more. One year, a transistor needed a billion atoms to make, the next, 500 million, and so on.

They’ll be talking about those 50 years 4000 years from now. But the physics that drives this process is running out of steam; once you’re down to a few thousand atoms per transistor, you can’t go any further. That means the fact of life we’ve come to expect, that every year our gadgets get cheaper and smarter and the Internet gets more ferocious, will stop being true. The Apples and Intels and Googles of this world will have to find something else to do.

We may get lucky. Carbon nanotubes may pick up where silicon stops, letting us weave far smarter and more intelligent technology. More likely, the circus will move on. Technology journalism in 2024 will be about bio-engineering and medicine, or artificial intelligence, or environmental engineering, or post-car transportation, or post-privacy politics, or…

You get the picture. When I started in technology journalism in 1984, ordinary people were just starting to buy personal computers. I wrote about those — and extended memory architectures, batch files, clock speeds and a thousand other things that don’t matter an RS232 interface lead these days. When I was getting really stuck in in the mid-90s, it was CD-ROMs and multimedia and AOL vs CompuServ. The noughties — ADSL and PDAs and logging onto the Internet at 9600bps from a tent at Glastonbury. I seem to remember ropes were involved.

It was great fun to write about. The next couple of decades will be great fun to write about too. It’ll be different — like all journalism, technology reporting still hasn’t found how to make money now the technology itself has totally disrupted the toll roads between writer and reader. Us geek writers just get extra irony in our diet.

But the basic driver — here are things that are changing your life you want to read about — and the basic challenge — how to do so truthfully and accurately while paying the bills — are the same now as they were for the Rope Correspondent in 2300 BCE.

Technology journalism is part of the story of mankind. It’s not going away. The easy money and the automatic status from knowing a bit about chips is going away, but them’s the breaks. My fellow tech hacks: our jobs are not going away. Our readers need us, more than ever. The blasted liars haven’t stopped blasted lying to them, and only we can save mankind.

Stop kvetching and get on with the story already.

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