Spiegel im Spiegel 

1 February 2008

I’ve been a technology journalist of one sort or another since 1974, and in my view there are two fundamental requirements for the job: an ability to write, of course, but also an ability to research. You really need to know about the subject before you hit the keyboard, or you risk making a fool of yourself.

Well, we might hope so. The fact is that the words of a lot of journalists are taken as gospel without anyone checking to see what orifice they are talking out of. Last year, Andrew Keen’s book The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture and Assaulting Our Economy caused a stir sufficient to surface on the BBC’s Click pop technology show a week or so ago, but the fact is that people have been writing crap for a great many years: the difference today is that anyone can do it, not merely a bunch of so-called professional journalists.

But it’s still the mainstream journalists who have the impact, and they are still the worst. Yes, the cult of the amateur might mangle the odd Wikipedia article, but it’s the under-researched twaddle in a major business paper that causes investors to plonk millions of dollars down on the wrong high-definition disc format or whatever and cause those of us who do know a little about the subject to cringe.

Of course, yes, I understand the difficulties. I’ve been there, though thankfully not on a daily newspaper. There are deadlines. The subjects are often quite deeply specialised and have steep learning curves. You think you only have time to jump in, go and check out the things someone has told you about or you briefly read elsewhere, write your piece and off to the next assignment. But, ladies and gentlemen, it can still be done. And indeed, today it’s easier than ever to research a topic well enough to at least discover there is controversy about it, that your preconceptions need a makeover, and that you need to be careful about what you say.

Worst of all, however, is when “the media” looks at a subject and gets it wrong, and then other journalists look at that and get it doubly wrong. The misconceptions themselves are misconceived; looking into the mirror you see… another mirror; and the result is utter twaddle – believe any of it at your own risk.

So it has been with the latest programme in the Wonderland strand on BBC2, “Virtual Adultery and Cyberspace Love”, which I reviewed yesterday in this column. Caitlin Moran in The Times (Mmm, nice pixels, 26 January) had already had a go at it, before the rest of us had even had a chance to see the programme; yesterday, however, it was the turn of her colleague Helen Rumbelow to miss the point in almost all possible ways. A friend of mine had commented that the programme itself was “not the train-wreck it might so easily have been”, a view with which I mainly concur. Rumbelow’s article, however, has drawn some flak, particularly as it was published the day after we had all had a chance to see the show.

Thankfully the published comments on the latter article (including my own) point out that you cannot document a phenomenon like Second Life at a distance or instantly: immersion for a while is the only way – and this is the point here, not only about something like Second Life but about any modern technological topic. You do not “get it” in an instant, and if you think you have, you probably got it wrong.

A virtual world, like any civilisation, culture or subculture (which is probably what it is), is complex and can’t be appreciated, let alone understood, instantly. And as a high-technology environment, there is a steep learning curve and a bunch of complexities to learn which are particularly difficult, it would appear, for those over about the age of 35.

It’s evident from the programme itself that the film-makers did actually spend some time in-world, if only to pick up a few contextual shots and film the scenes they had pre-arranged, and they also worked with one of the primary creative agencies operating there, Rivers Run Red, who have enormous experience and certainly do know what they are doing. However they were compromised by being focused on one specific and very narrow goal, and missed the point of the environment as a whole.

You can focus on an aspect of the real world and not be obliged to give it context, because we all live there. In a virtual world, however – at least at the present time – you cannot make that assumption. People do not have the basic knowledge, and you have to give people the context or they won’t “get it”. Think “The Worldwide Web” in the early 1990s. So even if the Wonderland team “got it” at some level, there was only a limited chance that anyone else would. Especially a media journalist with column inches to fill on a deadline – and bearing in mind how easy it is to write knocking copy.

The reference to the dawn of the web was a deliberate one, of course. When I was first involved in the field in the early 1990s, I think most of us knew we were working on something that would become very important. We saw the initial over-hyping and knew that the bubble would burst. All too soon the tech journos were telling us that the big companies who had got in were pulling out, unsuccessful, and ultimately that the Web was nothing more than porn and arranging illicit sex. And then, suddenly, we noticed it was ubiquitous and the talk was how, of course, they knew it would become important all the time.

I have the same feeling about Second Life today. And it, too, has been going through the same phases: Excitement over something new; over-hyping; bubble-bursting; “it’s only about sex”… and at some point, writing about people actually doing useful stuff which in fact they were doing all along – and it’s a fact of life. No doubt in five years’ time we’ll look back on the buggy, somewhat clunky downsides of today’s Second Life and wonder how we ever managed, just as we felt about Lynx or Mosaic.

In fact, elsewhere in the world, they have already moved on to the next phase: Wonderland and Ms Rumbelow have already been superseded. I have a Google Alert set up for “Second Life”, and every day it delivers links to stories about the metaverse from around the world. Most of them are about large corporations increasing their in-world investment; universities expanding in-world courses and seminars; international conferences and developments for the disabled that use the in-world experience as the platform for new possibilities.

And then once in a while something like a Wonderland or a Rumbelow piece turns up. It’s depressing, but I know that people will “get it” in the end. I just wish they would do their research in the meantime.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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