In another story (“But Who’s Counting?”), I describe how the absence of common tools for measuring the size of online audiences is threatening the future health of media, as print and broadcast television and radio shrink in importance: “No one really knows how many people visit websites. No established third-party supplier of audience measurement data is trusted. Internal Web logs exaggerate audiences.” This matters. Because the content on most websites is free, the only thing that will pay for anything like good journalism is the “display” or banner ads that publishers sell; but the inability to agree on audience numbers is stunting the growth of display advertising. As Roger McNamee, an investor in Forbes, puts it: “Getting this right is absolutely necessary for publishers to be able to continue to do interesting things.” No less an expert than McNamee himself confesses that “the remedy is not yet obvious.” Yet the story provides a reason for cautious optimism: an innovative San Francisco startup named Quantcast is working on new ways to more accurately measure online audiences.
All three stories point to a similar moral. Faced with large, pressing, global problems–how does one build a green city? Can medicine really be personalized? How can one save publishing?–conservative worthies fret that there may be no immediate solution. But the most innovative technologists are blithely optimistic about their inventions. They are sure that some application of existing or emerging technologies will force a breakthrough on big problems. They are not wholly irrational; they are not like those magical thinkers who proclaim that nothing is impossible if one only wants it sufficiently. But technologists do think they understand the difficulties that interest them, and they are happily confident that their particular combinations of technologies will be equal to the challenge.
Of course, their confidence may be misplaced. The great anxiety of editing Technology Review–and also its great fun–is that while we also understand the day’s big problems, we are never entirely certain at the time of publication, even with the best analysis and all our sources, that we have in fact chosen the solutions that will later make the conservative fretters sit up, eyebrows flying, and say, “Well, I’ll be damned.” But we’re optimistic that the technologies in this issue will be the ones that matter.
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