My earliest memory of obsolescence was the sudden disappearance of Alfred, the Maltese-born elevator man in the small Manhattan loft building where my father’s firm made plastic business novelties. One day, when I was eight and visiting my dad’s office (always a treat because I could pound away on his industrial-strength typewriter and fantasize about a writer’s life), the elevator was out of commission and Alfred was no longer around. It took three months before an automatic elevator was running, but Alfred would never return.
He was supplanted by buttons on a control panel and relays behind a rudimentary computing system that
couldn’t replace Alfred’s extra-elevator skills as a daytime watchman, neighborhood information resource, and thoroughbred racing tout extraordinaire. After he was gone, there were thefts in the building as well as frequent breakdowns of the automated elevator, but never any talk of bringing Alfred back.
One morning five years ago a story on the front page of The Wall Street Journal gave me the shock of my life. I got from it that computer software was about to make my profession obsolete, that I was to suffer the same fate as Alfred and the other elevator operators whose work has disappeared. I was in a panic.
My profession consists of writing about technology for periodicals in print and online. (All right, it’s not strictly a profession-I didn’t have to do graduate study for it and I’m not licensed by the state, like dentists and beauticians.) My colleagues and I are hardly as visible as political journalists or business writers-nor, thankfully, as reviled. There are maybe a few hundred of us practicing technology journalism full time, either on staff or as freelancers, like myself. Without our experience, communications skills and dedication to accuracy, the publication you are reading and others like it would have a hard time filling their pages. And yet here we were about to be turned into computer-fodder by the very technology we covered-or so I sensed nervously between the bytes.
The Journal story, by staff reporter William Bulkeley, was ostensibly about sports journalism. Running in the “A-head” position, the paper’s central column usually reserved for offbeat topics, it had a wry tone. “Semi-Prose, Perhaps, but Sportswriting by Software Is a Hit” the headline read. Added the subhead: “Reporters Sometimes Sacked, Aren’t So Gleeful; Would Grantland Rice Be Fired?”
The article, appearing on March 29, 1994, detailed how a $100 PC program had replaced a $1,500-a-month sports writer at a weekly newspaper in Humphrey, Neb. This software, called Sportswriter, took reports of scores and quotes from coaches of high school football and basketball games; once the information was keyed in by a typist, the computer would spew out serviceable prose relating the outcome of the game, complete with sports cliches like “knotted” scores or teams that “jump in front.” The program’s author, Roger Helms, was said to be looking beyond sports. The story concluded with a quote from Helms: “A virtual TV weatherperson would be a natural-you could create an image you couldn’t tell from a real person.”