The Era of Not-Knowing

I waited for a bus after dark on Bay Street in San Francisco and I knew two things. The bus would arrive in 11 minutes and we’re living at the end of an era. As eras go, it’s been short — about a century long. The era of not-knowing, when people want more information than they can access on their own, is ending.

We had gone to see a play. Google Maps had estimated it would take us 28 minutes to walk from the restaurant to the theatre, and it took us just a little more than half an hour.

The hills seemed steeper when we contemplated walking back after the show, so we opted for a bus. I pulled out my phone and returned to Google Maps, but this time pressed the mass transit emblem for the return trip. Google tapped the real-time bus movement provided by Muni, and relayed it to my phone. A bus returning us to our hotel would arrive in 11 minutes.

It did.

It has not always been thus. Bus schedules have traditionally been aspirational. All a rider could do was show up on time and wait, hoping for the best. But now we have handheld devices giving us real-time information.

As long as people lived in small villages, there was no need for a bus schedule. There was no need for a bus. The world people lived in was small and manageable. Things were happening far away that would impact them, but there was no need to know about it — and certainly not right away.

Then came the telegraph and teletype machines, conveying real-time information over great distances. The modern newspaper was born because a teletype was expensive technology. Newspapers relayed information people couldn’t get any other way.

Newsreels mimicked the technology, but without the immediacy. Radio and later television followed, but without the depth of detail. People didn’t have all the news they wanted until it landed on their doorsteps.

Whether it was the winner of last night’s match or the fate of a gunship in the Pacific, we lived mostly in a state of not-knowing. So having a general idea of when a bus might show up seemed good enough.

No more. By the time we got back to our hotel, we could have read on twitter.com what others thought of the play we’d just seen. We could have logged onto yelp.com to review the play or the dinner we’d enjoyed that evening.

Waiting for the newspaper’s review in the morning is just not the same. Maybe it’s better, but it’s not the same. The monopoly on timely information has been broken up. With the addition of smart phones, the Internet has caught and passed newspapers, disseminating information much more quickly.

The Internet still has its challenges. Sifting and sorting information is a work in progress. Rating information for its usefulness and veracity is also in its infancy. Newspapers do these things better on most days, but it’s only a matter of time before Big Blue catches the chess grandmaster. We know the story. John Henry beats the steam engine, but only for a little while longer.

The Register-Guard will slim itself on June 1, as the newspaper continues to adapt to a world where readers carry mini-teletype machines in their pockets.

I drove home from San Francisco, but not before checking “trapster,” a little phone app that catalogs 30,000 speed traps across the nation and overlays it onto my itinerary. My phone located for me the nearest no-fee ATM.

Whatever trivia question we busied ourselves with along the way could be answered in real time. Ukiah’s palindromic poetry contest was won this year by La Vidas Canaris with this haiku: “Mendocino Drive / A skateboard sticker / On a no-skateboarding sign.” Weed, California is named for its founder Abner Weed, and the town once boasted the world’s largest sawmill. A third of California’s rice crop is exported to Japan. You should blow your nose one nostril at a time.

Waiting for information is a thing of the past.

Next time you’re on the University of Oregon campus, wander over to Allen Hall and look for the old AP teletype machine, outside the dean’s office and down the hall from the soda machines. That gizmo was once the Great and Powerful Oz. Now it sits in a hallway, without a plaque or any protection, looking more like discarded office equipment than a keepsake of a bygone era.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) has read a newspaper almost every morning since he was a teenager. He writes for The Register-Guard each Friday. He teaches occasionally at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism & Communications. He published a free weekly newspaper in Eugene for a decade. He blogs.