Technology Review claims to be the oldest technology magazine in the world, going back to 1899.
Coming out of MIT, there’s a certain cachet to the publication as it strives to educate us mortals on emerging technologies.
Not exactly considered the magazine for hammock reading during a lemonade summer day.
And certainly not a magazine known for its entertainment value.
Not so fast.
There’s bona fide storytelling in the publication’s July/August issue as it strives to reveal the real Wolfram Alpha in the article “Search Me.” (BTW, great double entendre for the over-50 crowd who, when asked a question in their youth they didn’t know, would respond “search me.”)
Check out the lead sentence in the story:
On the evening of April 27 a ferocious rain raked the windows beside Jamie Williams’s cubicle as the physicist sat, exhausted, immersed in the minutia of food science.
Nice twist on the “dark and stormy night” opener; the stage setting continues with:
Williams wasn’t toiling in a redoubt of Silicon Valley Web entrepreneurs but in a Midwestern citadel of science geeks: Wolfram Research, in Champaign, IL, housed in an office block overlooking a Walgreens and a McDonald’s. This was the corporate lair of Stephen Wolfram …
Great word “lair,” last prominently used in Batman.
I also liked the explanation of the technology through a jargon-free example:
Say you wanted to know how much cholesterol and saturated fat lurked in a slab of your grandmother’s cornbread. You’d transcribe its ingredients from her yellowed index card to an online query bar, and Alpha would run computations and produce a USDA-style nutrition label.
Now this isn’t to say the piece doesn’t periodically delve into the esoteric — etymology tables, crystallographic patterns, animal morphologies, and the like — but again, a genuine story threads the content with a couple decent subplots.
It turns out “grasshopper,” none other than Google Founder Sergey Brin, interned for Mr. Wolfram in 1993 before surpassing the master. And while Technology Review doesn’t play the conspiracy card, it chronicles a series of Google actions that allow the reader to draw his/her own conclusions.
Also, we learn there are people who dislike Wolfram and view him as a “techwomizer,” a bit of a showoff when it comes to technology. So when Wolfram postulates on his search engine’s place in history in the same breath as the invention of mathematics and this thing called the Internet, it rubs some in the scientific community the wrong way.
While the ending is somewhat predictable, we see a softer and dare I say humble side of Wolfram in the closing line:
“It’s here as a useful service, and the test is, do people find it useful or not?”
From a communications perspective, there’s no question that Stephen Wolfram is good copy. He seems like a cross between Stephen Hawking and P.T. Barnum.
Still, the person or people behind building the public profile for Wolfram Alpha deserve credit for delivering access to Technology Review which, in turn, allowed for the storytelling. Striving to control this type of article suffocates the narrative.
As a side note, Wolfram Alpha has possibilities for PR professionals. Just one quick example: Dropping “BusinessWeek versus Technology Review” into the search engine results in the following: