A brief history of hype in the age of the ‘Net

Not long ago, a reader sent me an e-mail challenge. “”I’ve been cleaning out my old computer magazines,”” he wrote. “”I want to send some to you, so you could write a history of hype.”” I didn’t respond right away, and we never managed to arrange the delivery of his treasure trove of retrotech wisdom,

but the idea has stayed with me ever since.

A history of hype. What a grand mission. It has often seemed to me, over a decade-long career as a privileged observer of the tragicomedy of information technology, that so much of what I’ve read in computer magazines, indeed what I’ve written for computer magazines, has been hype.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The truth is the last decade has been an exciting time. We live in an age of instant information, of machine intelligence — or at least pseudo-intelligence — capable of responding to our commercial wants, of managing increasingly complex production and even of defeating chess grand masters at their own game.

Ten years ago, the Internet was a primitive, text-based medium used to transfer tiny files and documents and connect users to shockingly low-resolution information resources. A 2400 bps modem was fast remote access, and Megabit Ethernet — not even Gigabit Ethernet — was an ambitious goal. The World Wide Web was Tim Berner-Lee’s daydream. The trip from there to here has been dramatic and exciting. The hype seems natural, normal and appropriate when you think about the hyperspeed jump we’ve made.

And yet, the term “”hype”” actually derives from the word “”hypodermic.”” Its original sense was of a sudden jolt of excitement artificially pumped into the public bloodstream like a public-relations speedball. Though the word is recent — it gained currency in the 1970s — the idea, or rather, the strategy is quite old. In The Fabrication of Louis XIV, historian Peter Burke notes that the great 17th century French king was himself the product of what we today would call hype.

In its strictest sense, hype is the immediacy of mythmaking. While there might well be a correspondence between the product or idea and the myth, it’s only the myth that really matters at that moment. And the moment is all there is. Hype is a short, energizing shot to the system. It has no denouement and no staying power, even if the idea is successfully resurrected at a later date. Internet2 is still out there, but not in the way it was hyped by U.S. News and World Report under the headline “”Building the next Internet”” in 1999. It has become what it was all along: An academic networking initiative, and not what it was hyped to be four years ago.

As this year careens to its close, I can take some solace in the fact that sometimes the hype is right and correct and appropriate, no matter how hyperbolic and hyperactive it sounds.

“”The infobahn is poised to become the essential medium for small companies to make a dent in global markets, without committing the vast resources that the corporate giants have,”” I wrote in 1994.

I feel I was right about that.

Matthew Friedman is a Montréal-based freelance journalist. friedman@blam.ca

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