SEPTEMBER 2, 2009 2:18AM

A look back at a primitive day: Today

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It's hard to put yourself into the mind-set of another time, but if you can do it, you might get some insight into how you think about the present.

Do me a favor, give it a try and watch this 1981 KRON-TV report from San Francisco about people reading the newspaper on their home computers.

"Imagine, if you will," begins the anchorwoman, "sitting down to your morning coffee, turning on your home computer to read the day's newspaper. Well, it's not as far-fetched as it may seem."

Try to picture yourself seeing this report in 1981. Maybe spend the extra two and a half minutes and watch it twice so you can get over the time-capsule humor. Here's the guy jamming the handset of his rotary phone into the acoustic-coupler modem. Check the on-screen graphic identifying him as "Richard Halloran: Owns Home Computer." Dig the primitive look of all the computers in the piece -- how about that green text? Giggle at the reporter saying the electronic version of the paper "isn't as spiffy looking" as the real thing as you see a shot of a butt-ugly, blotchy newspaper with smudged black-and-white photos.

Imagine what you'd say as you learned about how eight newspapers, including the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner, were "investing a lot of money" to try to make it possible for customers to read the paper on their computers.

Remember the context: Reporter Steve Newman mentions that there are an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 computer owners in the Bay Area, which at the time had a population of about 5 million. This was an era, kids, when "owns home computer" was a description of a person that really made him stand out. Not even close to one person in 100 owned a home computer in the technologically forward Bay Area.

By way of contrast, a 2007 survey by Leichtman Research Group found computers in 81 percent of households nationwide.

So into this world of broadcast TV, land-line phones and the 20-cent newspaper comes a report about reading the paper -- "with the exception of pictures, ads and the comics" -- on your home computer, which, if you were like almost everyone, you didn't have one of. It takes two hours to download the entire contents of one day's paper, the anchorwoman tells us, with the connection costing $5 per hour. In 2009 money that's about $24 a day to read the paper.

And our friend Mr. Halloran, the guy who "Owns Home Computer," tells us, "With this system, we have the option not only of seeing the newspaper on the screen, but also, optionally, we can copy it. So anything we're interested in, we can go back in again and copy it onto paper and save it, which I think is the future of the type of interrogation an individual will give to the newspapers."

Let's get in the time machine, shall we? Here's the 18-year-old me happening upon that story in 1981:

Wow! For only $10, I can copy the electronic newspaper onto actual paper! Imagine that. The newspaper -- on paper! And I get to spend two hours every day to get the paper on my computer, rather than spending, oh, a second and a half bending over to pick it up off my doorstep? That sounds fantastic!

But wait, it gets better. I also don't get photos or comics, and I'll bet I don't get the crossword puzzle or TV listings either. And I can't take it to the can or on the bus, unless I print it out on paper first, which, gee, there's just something that strikes me odd about printing out the newspaper on paper for $10 a day. What could it be? Oh, I know. It's already on paper for 20 cents!

This is the Future of Journalism? Give me a break.

Back in the present, the 1981 me sounds foolish and short-sighted, doesn't he? Here was a little iceberg-tip of the future appearing before his eyes, and he dismissed it with a laugh because it wasn't what it promised to become. It was all promise, in fact, and the kid thought, "Yeah, I'll believe it when I see it."

Newman, the KRON reporter, expressed a similar sentiment by ending his piece on a street newspaper vendor selling a copy on the sidewalk. "For the moment, at least," Newman says, "this fellow isn't worried about being out of a job."

Does any of it have a familiar ring? It does to me. It sounds like a lot of the comments about experiments and innovations in our time.

Bloggers will never match what professional reporters in big newsrooms can do. EveryBlock is just a bunch of government press releases. Twitter is nothing but surface-level nonsense. Hyperlocal has already been tried and it didn't work.

On and on it goes. In the comments of this blog and elsewhere, rarely are innovations or experiments discussed without someone, often a lot of people, dismissing them, deriding them or laughing them off. Yeah, say the naysayers, I'll believe it when I see it.

But the difference between 1981 and now is that we've seen it and seen it and seen it. The people of 1981 thought the pace of change was pretty snappy. Now, it's dizzying. A decade and a half after that TV report, people were just starting to sit down with their morning coffee to read the newspaper on their home computer. Today, if there's a working prototype of some coming innovation in communications, the real thing will probably be here in a few months.

If you want to look as dumb as the 18-year-old me from 1981, keep pooh-poohing these things. Keep saying that because it's not working now the way it promises it will, you'll stick with what you know, thank you very much.

The big changes aren't just coming. They're here, and they're still coming. They won't all work out, but each one is a steppingstone to wherever it is we're headed. When we get there, let's not have to look back at ourselves the way I'm looking back at the hypothetical 18-year-old me.

You'll believe it when you see it? Don't worry. You'll see it.

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Excellent, King. You've stroked another one that's caromed off the scoreboard!
I love the quote from David Cole in the video, "We're not in it to make money. We're not going to lose a lot but we're not going to make much either". Well, you were half right, David.
Oh man, that was a fantastic find! Loved it, including I remember those news people (I live in the Bay Area). Hard to believe 1981 was actually that primitive. It doesn't seem that long ago.

I liked your other point about people scoffing at change. And tech change often starts in this ungainly way. It seems like a poor substitute for what it's replacing but gets better and better.

I remember a friend's reaction when CD's were first being sold. I said that they were considered to be the form that music would be delivered in for quite a long time. She snorted and said, "Right, that's what they said about 8 track tapes." I thought they seemed distinctly different from LPs and tapes, but she couldn't see it and refused to buy any for years, being certain they'd disappear soon.
There's an article out today on Sony's push to deliver 3D TV by the end of 2010. Various manufacturers have been working off and on for decades trying to develop the technology.
That clip was great! Ah the 80's the last analog decade. Did anyone notice Mr. Halloran's strange use of the phrase "interrogating the newspapers"?
Good ol' wiki has an entertaining entry about those flying cars we've all been expecting: here
I remember when my hair looked like that.
I remember when the "Z" channel was the first cable network and the nay-sayers were all reporting "Who would pay for something you get for free?" Course living in a valley in upstate NY, the ONLY way we could get any television was through paid cable, so I never quite understood the context, until Channel Masters, who manufactured television antennas, went out of business!

Had Compuserve back in the early 80's and Prodigy service, so maybe was a bit ahead of our time, but I always had a hard copy paper delivered every morning, until about 10 years ago when our local paper folded.

I still read USA Today when I'm out of town. It doesn't need batteries!
Wow, the guy was using the TRS-80! That was my very first computer, still have the model III in my garage and a few Radio Shack computer catalogs from back in the day when I used to sell them at the RS Computer center. Like looking at old baby photos. Thanks for the link!
Is that Doogie Houser's old computer?
Actually, I believe you are right, I will see it. And that's what does worry me. If we manage to extract ourselves from in front of computers at home and work, we wander through the real world attached to cell phones, ipods and who knows what. (I rue the day the telephone crawled off the hall table and out the front door.)

There is another article on the front page of OS about the 10th anniversary of Blogger. 388 million words a day. But what will those words be about in ten years when all we do is download, Google and twitter away our days?

I'm thinking of starting the 1981 Primitive Society (not to be confused with 1984, which appears to be around the corner.)