After all these years, old media shows no signs of getting over its thing about new media. You know, the "that's-so-cool!" thing. Virtually every magazine and newspaper now features regular reports on the latest Web sites, CD-ROMs and high-tech toys. Nothing wrong with that -- they do the same for movies, books, television and so on. But the journalists and critics who cover movies, books and television rarely behave as if the very existence of these media is so amazing that the particular film or novel or sitcom being discussed is automatically worthy of celebration simply because it exists. (How many times have you seen a newspaper column raving about, oh, how to make travel arrangements using the Internet? No doubt such services can be useful, but the paper has to make it sound exciting, fun, cool. It's almost as if the columnist honestly doesn't know that visiting a travel agency's Web site is just as boring as calling one on the phone.)
Among the highest-profile offenders in the wow-can-you-believe-all-this-incredible-stuff department is Newsweek's Cyberscope page. The name, of course, plays off the magazine's popular Periscope section, but while Periscope's editorial attitude is one of healthy skepticism, Cyberscope gushes enthusiastically about everything it covers.
Take the recent, utterly typical review of Jedi Knight, a $50 CD-ROM game. That's a lot of money, so you'd think a critic's responsibility would be to tell readers if it's worth it. Instead there's a series of straight-off-the-packaging sentiments like, "[the] power to right wrongs and fight evil can be yours," followed by this bottom-line assessment: "The game isn't much more than Doom wearing a Star Wars costume, but who cares really? Everybody wants to be a Jedi Knight. Listen to the music, watch those way-cool scenes in between levels and -- most importantly -- fight with a lightsaber. Now get out there and do some good."
If you can't grasp how appalling this is, just imagine if a respectable publication like Newsweek covered any other medium the same way:
"'The Peacemaker' isn't much more than 'Die Hard' with better hair, but who cares really? Everyone wants to see nukes exploding. Plus there's music -- in stereo -- along with realistic moving images and sound that's actually synched to the pictures! All this, a comfortable chair and popcorn too. Now get out there and join the peace process."
Here's another Cyberscope item:
"For the definitive tour of all things Simpsons, check out Fox Interactive's Virtual Springfield. Once you get past the disc's awkward navigation controls, you can roam around the 3-D town, drop in on the Simpsons' house, lounge in Lisa's room or peek inside Bart's closet ... After this tour you might just say, 'Ich bin ein Virtual Springfielder.'"
Well yes, exploring 3-D environments is pretty much the point of a CD-ROM like this. That should be a given. Is there anything funny in the Simpson's house? Will fans of the TV show learn something interesting by looking into Bart's closet? Cyberscope apparently doesn't care. Again, imagine:
"For the definitive tour of all things Windsor, check out Kitty Kelley's 'The Royals.' Once you get passed the smarmy inaccuracies, you'll love how individual words are strung together into sentences, sentences link up to form paragraphs and paragraphs eventually make entire chapters -- each with its own topic. And the whole thing fits between two covers! After reading this book you might just say, 'Yup, I read this book.'"
Other Cyberscope entries in past weeks include a $190 watch that doubles as a pager (surprise: Dick Tracy is mentioned in the first sentence) and a Web site for people who like old typewriters ("Find a list of repair sites, or just read through typewriter collectors' loving anecdotes"). What Cyberscope never, ever does is question the need for a Dick Tracy watch or admit that perhaps the only thing less interesting than a list of typewriter repair sites is other people's loving anecdotes about old typewriters.
So what's the reason for the it's-all-so-cool thing? My theory is most new media critics and their editors and publishers don't really believe that new media is all that important. They just started covering it because everyone else was (or because publishers needed it to get new media advertising), and once that initial decision was made, they became locked into a perpetual state of self-justification. They're afraid that if they admit how lame most of what they write about really is, people might wonder why they bother. Editors might get dismayed at too many negative reviews and instruct writers to take on only products that are genuinely useful or entertaining -- by any standard, not merely relative to all the even-worse-crap around. This, of course, would effectively put the writers out of work.
Combined with new media's own self-serving hype, which probably still fools many people with limited hands-on experience, the impulse to be fanatically upbeat all the time is overwhelming. The result is a charade that has, strangely, resulted in new media coverage becoming the reliably feel-good section of any publication -- not unlike the section of the local newspaper where readers are introduced to puppies and kittens up for adoption. I'd love to one day read about the puppy that, to tell the truth, sheds badly and snaps at young children, but I ain't holding my breath.