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Hype and Glory

About 10 years ago, when I was editing a magazine called American Business, I received a press release from a …

About 10 years ago, when I was editing a magazine called American Business, I received a press release from a public relations firm trying to drum up interest in a book about magnetic resonance imaging machines. The press release was written in the jubilantly fatuous style of many lower-tier P.R. outfits, which is to say that most of the information was extraneous hype.

Yes, the P.R. firm concluded, MRI machines-which have become a vital diagnostic tool in the health-care industry-were basically designed for medical uses. But MRI machines, the press release said, could be used at airports to detect hidden weapons in luggage, or at drugstores to detect tampering with bottles of over-the-counter drugs.

That was the hook of the story.

Because American Business was a quirky publication that was always on the lookout for oddball news items, I decided to interview the book’s author. During the interview, I immediately asked him to discuss the use of MRI machines as anti-terrorist, anti-tampering devices. He laughed. He said MRI machines were used to detect medical problems that other diagnostic devices-X-ray machines, etc. -could not. I read him the press release accompanying his book. He sighed. It’s all hype, he explained. Yes, in theory, it was possible to use MRI machines to detect bombs or poisons, but it would cost a fortune. It would be like opening a lemonade stand on the moon: doable, but stupid. His book, he said, had to do with the real uses of MRI machines and they were not designed for airports or drugstores. Period.

I mention this incident because something similar is going on right now with the Internet. Like most sensible people, I am tired of hearing about “cool” Web sites whose putative “coolness” has been determined by a geek with a modem Carolinas. I am tired of hearing about graphically innovative Home Pages concocted by residents of Death Row. (Yes, a prisoner waiting to be executed somewhere does have his own Web site.) And I am tired of hearing about databases that will enable me to find out the hours and locations of every good Chinese restaurant within a five-mile radius. Most of all, I am tired of hearing about Bill Gates and his awful book.

But Internet hype should not blind any of us to the positive contributions the information superhighway is likely to make to this society. Basically, the media, in collusion with the computer industry, have riveted the public’s attention on the wowie-zowie element of the information revolution, playing up the gadgets, the novelties, the frills. This has diverted attention away from the practical uses of the Internet.

The truth is, the Internet does have a wide assortment of practical, money-making uses that have nothing to do with cool Web sites and mass murderers’ Home Pages. The Internet has a practical use as a research aid. It is useful for tapping into gigantic databases, for obtaining information about consumers, for retrieving news articles, and for finding out where your FedEx package is at any given moment. Essentially, the Internet is a vast secretarial tool. It is a cheap way of sending employees to the library without actually having to send them to the library. This is useful. It is not, however, cool.

The Internet has other practical uses. It’s a useful way of reducing long-distance phone charges. It has great value in conducting electronic meetings, so people can avoid some routine business travel. And, yes, it is extremely useful as an investor’s aid. Cynics think the Internet will turn out to be the CB radio of the ’90s. The cynics are wrong. The Internet is here to stay.

Why then do we hear so little about the practical uses of the Internet? Because of hype. Journalists like to write sexy stories, and sexy stories always seem to involve sex freaks, Home Pages for assassins. Hype is why journalists prefer to write about the entertainment industry over the bond market. John Travolta is sexy. John Bogle is boring. (Don’t take this personally, John.)

I’d like to predict one positive development from the Internet: It will revolutionize the publishing industry. One thing writers learn as soon as they start producing copy for online media services is that people want much less text when they read it off their computer screens. It is the publishing world’s dirty little secret that most books are magazines padded out to book length, and that most magazine articles are op-ed pieces inflated to article length with verbal helium. I predict that the Internet soon will lead to a spate of online books that will run around 60 to 80 pages, which is all anyone really has to say, anyway. What’s more, consumers won’t have to go into a bookstore to buy them: They’ll simply download them to their computers directly from the publishing house.

I swear, this is not hype.

Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron’s and The Wall Street Journal.

About Joe Queenan

Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron's and The Wall Street Journal.