24 Hours on High-Cyber Diet
All the hype and twice the Gore
by Paul Bacon
On February 8, 1996, I joined a team of writers and Web techies as a copy editor for the largest computer-generated event in history: "24 Hours in Cyberspace." Attempting to "put a human face on technology"--and attract major corporate sponsorship in the
process--we assembled a live Web site with photos and stories, documenting how complicated computers can make our lives in just one day.
More than 250 news organizations attended the event, and the resultant hype--which was front page news in many cities--caused more than 4 million computer users to visit the hype. More than anything,
I just wanted to delete the Tipper Gore story, but as a grammar and spelling proofreader, my editorial license allowed little more than playing with her dangling participles.
FEBRUARY 7, 9:00 P.M.
Three hours before the site goes live. Following a stampede of television crews, I arrive at "mission control," a 6,000-square foot facility resembling the set of "Apollo 13" with more monitors and better haircuts.
A photographer in South Africa transits one of the project's first shots, part of a human interest story about rural villages learning English online. A dozen TV cameras huddle around a computer as the image slowly appears on the screen. The text is the standard feel-good far, but the opening photo is worthy of a Frank Zappa album cover: a lanky man is wading across a river, cradling a computer monitor in his six-inch Afro.
The project director announces the first three stories have been uploaded to the Web--the 24 hours have begun!
A technician berates me for missing a typo that he had to correct himself, nearly preventing us from making it live at midnight. Apparently, an essay by Al Gore referred to the "14,400 precious minutes" in every day--which is ten times too many. When I tell him the text was lifted directly from the vice president's home page, the techie storms off muttering nasty things about Democrats.
The wee hours have officially arrived, but no new stories have come in for hours. I start surfing the Net to look busy.
I find a fake William Burroughs postage stamp on someone's home page and, thinking that's kinda cool, I e-mail it to my home computer.
A staff member announces that a catered breakfast is ready in the dining room and that throngs of hungry, underpaid reporters are scheduled to return shortly. Two interns are nearly trampled as the control room empties.
Returning from breakfast, I see the previous night's entanglement of TV crews has reproduced itself, dousing the facility with one million foot-candles of key lighting and wafts of breakfast burritos.
I hear a group of editors working on yet another Gore story, this one about the VP's wife Tipper, a proponent of soft censorship and a likely scapegoat for disgruntled Web denizens protesting "anti-indecency" measures in the newly signed Telecommunications Act.
One editor flips through the White House home page in disbelief that Mrs. Gore's first name is not set in quotes, while another ponders what to call the wife of a vice president. "Second lady?" "First Vice Lady" Someone walking by offers, "Here's a clue...It starts with 'B' and rhymes with itch'."
A young reporter says she wants to interview me for a live morning news show. "In thirty seconds," she adds, freezing before the camera with a look of perky attentiveness.
Just before she goes live, I hear my name being shouted across the room. Looking up from my computer, I see the entire senior editorial team--including staffers from the Associated Press, Washington Post and National Geographic--is summoning me. I acknowledge them, but point helplessly at the reporter. "I don't give a shit," shouts one of the editors. "Get up here now."
After making the shrewdest split-second career decision of my life, I burst out of my chair just as the reporter begins, throwing off any composure she may have had. When I reach the editor's platform, I find I have exactly one minute to proofread my first story of the event: "Tipper Gore, Photojournalist."
Six hours later, the next 35 stories are ready for checking--all at the same time. Another proofreader and I spend the rest of the afternoon cranking out pages, reminding each other to blink.
Sometime around number 24, I feel dizzy and need fresh air. Trapped in a windowless room with no time to step outside, I grab my brand-new paperback dictionary off the desk and bury my nose in its freshly printed pages. The crisp aroma fills my nostrils and clears my head; I am ready for further punishment.
I finally have a chance to browse through the online site but stop quickly, having found a new typo on nearly every page, mine or not.
The last group of stories is uploaded to the Web. What's done is done.
Cases of champagne and propeller beanies arrive at the back of the facility. The champagne is consumed immediately; the beanies go untouched.
Remembering the haste with which I had to proof the Tipper Gore story, I decide to check it for posterity. I am relieved to find that the one page I skimmed through at breakneck speed is error-free.
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