The brilliant biologist and author, H. G. Wells (1866-1946), who wrote The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, War of the Worlds, and who foresaw space travel, atomic bombs and the development of the world-wide web, also predicted that the latter invention would bring what we are now experiencing–the downfall of journalism. Peering into the 21st century from his 19th century world of gas lamps and horse-drawn buggies, Wells did not divine this catastrophe by musing or gazing into a crystal ball. Logical reasoning from basic facts led him to conclude that the world-wide web would arise and undermine journalism–and he accurately pegged it to begin in the year 2000. His most unsettling prognostication, which current events now bring into sharp focus— is that the technological and economic forces of electronic publication would fractionate society and drive the ultimate failure of democracy.
Wells lays out his prediction in an extended footnote on page 175 of his book, Anticipations on the Reactions of Mechanical and Scientific Progress Upon Human Life and Thought, published in 1901. “There is every possibility of [news]papers becoming at last papers of world-wide circulation…the identical matter that will appear almost simultaneously everywhere, will no doubt have its special matter and its special advertisements.” Projecting the technological trajectory of the telegraph into the future, with electrons outpacing print, he conceived of a time where there would be “long-distance electrical type-setting.”
“Illustrations will be telegraphed just as well as matter, and probably a much greater use will be made of sketch and diagram than at present…. Daily papers may presently give place to hourly papers, each with the last news of the last sixty minutes photographically displayed.”
Wells nailed it, I think, as I beat back the incessant ‘breaking news’ notifications on my cellphone. And he saw that this frenetic sizzle of news would drown the authoritative newspaper servicing society at large. “One will subscribe to a news agency, which will wire all the stuff one cares to have so violently fresh into a photographic recorder, perhaps, in some convenient corner. There the thing will be in every house, beside the barometer, to hear or ignore….”
“Ping!” goes my cellphone newsfeed. I can’t help but think that Wells did not imagine the time machine; he must have had one!
His key insight was that this technology would not result in what one might expect: one global authoritative paper, but rather electronic publishing would splinter journalism into fragments. “There will not be one world paper of this sort…but several, and as the non-provincial segregation of society goes on, these various great papers will take on more and more decided specific characteristics, and lose more and more their local references. They will come to have not only a distinctive type of matter, a distinctive method of thought and manner of expression, but distinctive fundamental implications, and distinctive class of writer.”
Fox news is but one example; Facebook is another. The result is that individual citizens will inhabit their own ‘echo chamber’ ecosystems of news, opinion, facts and ‘alternative facts.’
“These specializing newspapers will, as they find their class, throw out many features that do not belong to that class. It is highly probable that many will restrict the space devoted to news and sham news…. They will probably not contain fiction at all, and poetry only rarely, because no one but a partial imbecile wants these things in punctual daily doses.”
Wells appreciated the liberation this medium could bring, giving equal voice to all and feeding the peculiar needs and passions of every individual. While he embraced that powerful development, he also saw the inevitable corruption of journalism in the electronic age from the way it is financed. “This paper will have, of course, many pages of business advertisements,” he concludes, but in appealing to its various factions, rather than to the consensus, targeted advertisement will fractionate the news.
Having worked as a journalist, Wells observed, “The real income of the newspaper is derived from advertisements; large advertisers will combine in the future to own papers confined to the advertisements of their specific wares.” The result—corporate monopoly.
The United States has lost almost 1,800 papers since 2004, including more than 60 dailies and 1,700 weeklies, according to the University of North Carolina’s Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media. In 1983, fifty corporations supplied most of the American media. Today, five corporations dominate the industry, according to a PBS report. Most Americans now get their news from ‘social media,’ according to a 2019 analysis by the Pew Research Center.
Wells saw that credibility would crumble as the electronic news blitz outraced the sluggish paper-and-ink technology of news reporting, and catered to fringes, fads and factions. “The editor [of electronic publications] will need to be constantly alert to exclude seditious reflections…”
Thirty-eight percent of Donald Trump’s tweets after the Presidential election were labeled by Twitter editors as false or misleading, according to a November 5, 2020 article in the New York Times.
Wells detected signs of journalism beginning to decline in his own time. Reflecting on the “dignified newspapers of the Victorian period,” Wells wrote that, “Newspapers of that time were able to discuss, and indeed were required to discuss, not only specific situations, but general principles. That, indeed, was their principal function…. The papers did then very much more than they do now to mould opinion…. But the often cheaper and always more vivid newspapers that have come with the new democracy do nothing to mould opinion. Indeed, there is no longer upon most public questions…any longer a collective opinion to be moulded.”
In Wells’ view, therein lies the seeds of the most destructive and ironic force at work in the challenges to journalism in the age of the internet—democracy itself. While democracy relies upon an independent press, mass media that fuel factions is corrosive to unity.
“It is upon the cultivation and rapid succession of inflammatory topics that the modern newspaper expends its capital and trusts to recover its reward. Its general news sinks steadily to a subordinate position; criticism, discussion, and high responsibility pass out of journalism, and the power of the press comes more and more to be a dramatic and emotional power, the power to cry ‘Fire!’ in the theater, the power to give enormous value for a limited time to some personality, some event, some aspect, true or false, without any power of giving a specific direction to the forces this distortion may set going.”
As a consequence, political discourse will suffer, Wells deduced, “A tone of public expression, jealous and patriotic to the danger point, is an unavoidable condition under which democratic governments exist…patriotically quarrelsome is imperative. . . . They [politicians] will not possess detailed and definite policies and creeds, because there are no longer any detailed and definite public opinions.
“He has no plan!” Biden charges in the presidential debate. Trump deflects, “It’s a hoax.”
“The [political] party conflicts of the future will turn very largely on the discovery of the true patriot, on the suspicion that the crown or the machine in possession [of power] is in some more or less occult way traitorous, and almost all other matters of contention will be shelved and allowed to stagnate for fear of breading the unity of national mechanisms.”
Today our national politics are clouded in conspiracy theories, fearmongering, and cries to “Lock her up!” Even the minimal unification for the public good to wear a mask to inhibit spread of deadly disease during a world-wide pandemic, has failed.
“Democracy will cry aloud for the stranger men,” He predicted, hitting too close to home as we suffer the spectacle of the President of the United States, and former reality TV star/real estate mogul, contesting his loss in the recent presidential election. “Simply to keep in power, and out of no love of mischief, the government or the party machine will have to insist upon dangers and national differences to keep the voter to the poll by alarms, seeking ever to taint the possible nucleus of any competing organization with the scandal of external influence.”
The implications of Wells’ analysis illuminate current political policy and process. “Jealousies and anti-foreign enactments, tariff manipulations and commercial embitterment, destructive, foolish, exasperating obstructions that benefit no human being, will minister to this craving without completely allaying it. . . . The politicians of the coming times will force one another towards the verge, not because they want to go over it, not because any one wants to go over it, but because they are, by their very nature, compelled that way, because to go in any other direction is to break up and lose power. And, consequently, the final development of the democratic system, so far as intrinsic forces go, will be, not the rule of the boss, nor the rule of the trust, nor the rule of the newspaper; no rule, indeed, but international rivalry, international competition, international exasperation and hostility, and at last—irresistible and overwhelming—the definite establishment of the rule of that most stern and educational of all masters—War.
If H.G. Wells did have a time machine, I can only hope that he would put it in gear and return to us today, to help guide us through the turmoil rocking journalism and politics in the wake of the world-wide web. But the visionary thinker offered no remedy, other than to adopt democratic socialism, which he embraced in the 1920s. Prescient indeed.