Long Live The Word

Early this week, “The New Yorker” told the world something we Internet old-timers have known for years. Words are in.

Despite all the broadband hype, the web remains a reading-and-writing zone. I wrote a dozen years ago that the online world was about “talking with your fingers and listening with your eyes,” and that remains true. The most popular Internet service is non-graphic, plain vanilla, old-fashioned text-based email. Web pages have evolved into little pictures and lots of words.

There are people who expect this to change, maybe soon. Time Warner’s Entertaindom is all about little films. Streaming technologies and broadband pipes are supposed to turn the web into something like TV.

Former president of TCI and head of AT&T’s broadband unit Leo Hindery was pretty explicit about this during his November @d:tech keynote address. “A shift is underway in which watching television will become as past tense as dialing the phone,” he said. “This shift will create a TV-centric Internet experience, and this functionality will propel the TV past the PC into the position of the premier ubiquitous access device of the future.”

Hindery was talking about Advanced Digital Cable Television, a merger of the Internet and TV content driven by new set-top boxes from companies like Motorola’s General Instruments division (and your cable company). But his point was that viewing-and-clicking will soon get mouse potatoes back on the couch, this time to stay.

In answer to a question after his speech, he quoted Time Warner chairman Gerald Levin. “I’m willing to redefine what I mean by television, but I do know a good encounter when I see one.”

Video and audio are more compelling than print, but they have two big problems technology can’t solve.

First, good TV is hard to produce. It’s not like everything on TV now is golden, and the medium needs the extra bandwidth. (Yes, that’s my final answer.) The limit isn’t technology, but talent. A video experience coordinates a script, direction, acting and special effects in a seamless whole. I can’t whip that out in an hour, and neither can anyone else. (Yes, even David Letterman has help.)

There’s a natural limit to how much good TV can be produced, in other words, and interactivity adds yet another layer of complexity to it. There is no such limit to thought. That’s all writing represents, raw thought, modestly edited.

The second problem involves you. Everyone who reads this column has a different experience, filtered by knowledge, background, prejudices and imagination. Judging from what comes into my email box (especially after a column like my recent piece on Matt Drudge), these experiences are wildly different.

That’s not true for video, because video captures all your senses, and gives everyone the same experience. We tend to associate video (and audio) with a single production, and I’ll close here with an embarrassing story.

When I was just a tyke, my mom got me the Broadway cast album of “The Music Man.” Then she took me to Broadway to see the show. By this time, however, Bert Parks had replaced Robert Preston in the title role. So three-year old Dana jumps from his chair in the middle of the show and shouts (pointing) “That’s not the real Professor Harold Hill!”

The point is that a theater, movie, recording or TV experience is one thing, but words can be anything you imagine them to be. I think they’ll do fine in the next millennium.

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