NPR's On the Media


Broadcast: December 18, 1999

Mitchell Stephens

The Model-T stage: the Internet in its immaturity.

Every new technology � and this certainly includes every new communications technology -- goes through a period when it is immature and unformed. The Model-T stage, we might call it. This period can last a long time.

Writing, for example, was invented in Sumeria and Eygpt more than five thousand years ago. But, for the first five hundred years of its history, scribes did little more than record business transactions and data on the flooding of the Nile. For the first five hundred years of writing, in other words, no one thought to scribble down a story.

The earliest newspapers � four hundred years ago -- began as lists of items presented as they arrived in the print shop: Someone's political prospects might be touted on page one; that person's death reported on page five. The first editor that we know of � the first person charged with placing news items in some coherent order � did not appear until many years later.

There are countless other examples of new forms of communications struggling to find their way. And one thing all these "new media" have in common during this stumbling Model-T stage is that hardly anyone is aware that this is the stage they are at. In the first few centuries of printing, for example, no one announced that the products of their presses were still primitive and imagined them eventually being replaced by Tolstoy or The New Yorker. We usually see ourselves as standing at � or, more commonly, past � the apogee of human artistic and intellectual progress, not somewhere on the upward slope.

The Model-T stage is, of course, precisely where the Internet is currently at. (TV, I would argue, hasn�t gotten much further.) Despite all the billions of dollars that are now being gambled on the Internet�s future, it seems unlikely that we are any better at envisioning that future than folks in Henry Ford�s time were at envisioning interstates or malls or even cars that didn�t require cranking.

Clicking our way around the Web can certainly be interesting. Undoubtedly driving a Model-T seemed pretty cool at the time, too. However, it is quite likely that we have not yet seen the developments that will do for the Internet what the story did for writing, or what the editor did for the newspaper, or what the gear shift did for the automobile. When it comes to the Internet, we are still dealing with, to continue the analogy, a car with running boards and without side windows, and we are still � users, analysts, investors � driving unpaved roads.