The Frequencies of Public Writing: Tomb, Tome and Time as Technologies of the Public
by John Hartley


Modes of public communication, ranging from journalism to architecture, can be understood not only in relation to space (their geographical setting) but also in relation to time. 'Public address' of different kinds has a frequency, from the (high-frequency) instant to the (low-frequency) millennium. This paper explores some of the implications of analysing public 'writing' in terms of its frequency, and considers how changes in frequency, in journalism especially, may affect the cultural form and public understanding of the medium in question. The relations between spatial and temporal aspects of public communication are discussed, and comparisons made between 'writing' of different frequencies, including journalism (high frequency), academic and scholarly writing (mid frequency) and public architecture (low frequency). Any consideration of 'media in transition' needs to consider frequency both historically and comparatively; from Egypt to email.

News and Time

Time in communicative life can be understood not merely as sequence but also in terms of frequency. A 'wavelength' of 1000 years represents a very low time frequency, whereas the pip-pip-pip of the speaking clock or the up-to-the-second news bulletin represents high-frequency time. Time and news are obviously bound up in each other. The commercial value of news is its timeliness. Simultaneously, for the public, part of the quotidian sense of time in everyday life comes from keeping up with the news. For its devotees, news confirms a sense both of time passing, as stories unfold and new ones emerge, and of the concrete experience of the 'nowness' of each day and time of day, as one pays attention to a particular news program or title.

Not surprisingly, therefore, the longest-lasting news outlets tend to be named after time itself, whether their frequency is the hour, day or week; for instance the American weekly magazine Time, the British daily newspaper The Times, and the nightly Soviet/Russian TV news bulletin Vremya. For more than seventy years BBC Radio has used the second-by-second time-pips to introduce its most portentous news bulletins. This convention is so naturalised that it has become unthinkable to begin broadcast news bulletins at any other time than 'on the hour' (or half-hour) - the public simply can't be trained to tune into a news show at, say, seven minutes past the hour.

Clocks and datelines feature prominently in the design of TV news programmes, such as the British ITN News at Ten. Indeed, over a thirty-year period this show and its timeslot became tightly bound together with a widespread sense of British national togetherness. The commercial television network ITV was only allowed to timeshift News at Ten in 1999 (to make room for peak-time movies) after a failed attempt in 1993, a national inquiry by the broadcasting regulator (the ITC), and a hostile parliamentary debate. It seemed that messing with the news was tantamount to messing with time itself. The conjunction of time and journalism was thought to be significant to national identity. The 'frequency' of news is thus a weighty matter.

'Public Writing' - From Slow-Mo to Po-Mo

Public writing is produced, circulated, and deciphered or read. Each of these moments in its career has its own frequency:

  • The speed of creation - how long a given 'text' of public writing takes to produce;
  • Frequency of circulation - intervals between publication;
  • The wavelength of consumption - the period a given text spends in the public domain before being superseded by later 'pulses' of text from the same source.

In news, the frequencies of production and consumption are designed to match that of publication. A premium is set on high-frequency news-gathering; on increasing the frequency (i.e. reducing the time lag) between the occurrence of an event and its public narration, although not all public writing shares this imperative. And all news relies on what they used to call built-in obsolescence: a high frequency of consumption. News that is golly-gosh today is chip-wrapper tomorrow. There are commercial and even ideological reasons for trying to keep the three wavelengths tightly bundled, although in principle they are not. For instance news can sometimes take much longer to create than its daily rhythm would predict (investigative stories, news from remote locations, stories recovered from the past and re-run); and of course once published, news 'texts' continue to exist long after their newsworthiness has expired. Given long enough, their value begins to appreciate once more; a copy of a seventeenth-century newspaper is much more valuable than this morning's.

In contrast to news, very low frequency public writing, like an inscription on a public monument, which is designed to remain legible for a very long period, may take longer to create and to transmit than very high frequency writing that is expected to be discarded after a day or two. In other words, carving is slower than speaking, and it also takes a given 'interpretive community' longer to pass by a fixed building to read the inscription than it does to broadcast a news bulletin to the same proportion of that population. Low frequency should not be confused with inefficiency - the proportion of Americans who have personally scrutinised fixed inscriptions of the peak national monuments in Washington and New York is likely to be higher than the proportion watching any news show. 'Bring me your huddled masses' is written on just one structure, located inconveniently in the middle of a very large harbour, but it is a better-known text than the lead item on the highest-rating news.

Thus 'public writing' displays high to low frequencies right through the process from creation ('writing'), via publication ('text') to consumption ('reading'). For the purposes of this paper, however, the primary 'wavelength' will be that of circulation - the interval between publication, on the model of 'journalism' itself (the word derives from 'jour,' French for 'day').

As already hinted, 'public writing' as a term refers not just to alphabetic print but to communication by any means that is designed to address its interlocutor as 'the public.' Such 'writing' includes contemporary electronic forms of public address from broadcasting to the Internet. Naturally it also includes print, from the tabloid press to book publishing. But 'public writing' is much older than those forms that are currently recognised as 'the media,' and it extends to much lower frequencies. It certainly includes inscriptions carved into monuments, tombs, temples and the like.

But in order to do full justice to the range of 'public address' covered by the notion of frequency, it is in fact necessary to expand what is normally understood by the term 'writing.' Messages 'written in stone' are clearly intended to be more permanent and portentous than those breathed into the air; 'inscription' is a mode of public address somewhere along a continuum with speech. However, stone itself may be regarded as a form of writing. Sculpture and architecture are themselves among the earliest forms of 'public address,' the 'mass media' of their day, certainly in western (Egypto-Hellenic) traditions. Tombs and temples, palaces and palisades, statues and sphinxes, were all, beyond their functional organisation of space, also forms of public communication, using familiar codes, conventions, idioms and styles. They were for their creators, and remain today, forms of 'public writing' in fact. Furthermore they were designed to express long-term, stable meanings, and to communicate very serious messages. They spoke the language of death, eternity, empire, power and beauty. They took communication from the personal to the collective plane, from individual to imperial. They remain to this day the lowest frequency forms of public writing.

Indeed, the continued existence of ancient examples of 'public writing,' and the reworking of their 'idiom' in contemporary buildings, demonstrates that 'new media technologies,' all the way from limestone and granite via print to electronic and digital media, do not supplant but supplement older ones. Writing itself has never been extinguished since the Egyptians and Sumerians first invented it some time before 3000 BC, despite a number of 'mass extinction' crises suffered by particular writing systems since then. Individual 'texts,' such as the pyramids at Saqqara and other antiquities dating back to the very earliest periods of public writing, are still belting out complex messages that 'speak' to millions of contemporary readers (the Egyptian economy is dependent upon this fact). Such 'messages' survive millennia, and communicate to cultures with meaning systems quite different from that of the original builders.

But more significantly, the 'idiom' of ancient 'public writing' in stone survives and is reworked to make new messages; it remains an active 'medium' of communication among the many later media. Cities around the world are crammed full of postmodern, high-tech buildings that add their contemporary voice to the low-frequency mode of public writing in stone. Their façades are clad in Portland limestone (quoting St Paul's Cathedral) or travertine marble (quoting the Roman Forum), even while their occupants are busy producing electronic, virtual and digital public communication at ever-higher frequencies.

Some communicative syntax, for instance many architectural details understood as 'classical' from the portico to the pediment, column to frieze, have been transferred from temples and triumphal arches to the facades of banks and media corporations. Presumably the urge here is to preserve rather than to change the temporal signification of stone. Such uses of architecture have become the very 'language' of permanency and power, exploiting the ultra-low frequency of architecture and sculpture to 'say something' public about commercial institutions, using the idiom of civic and religious communion. The classical temple, tomb and palace, the imperial European city, the art deco American one, and the sprawling megalopolis of the developing world: all rework the low-frequency mode of 'public writing' (see figure 1).

Paradoxically, the most enduring human creation is the ruin. The ruin may indeed be defined as public writing that has outlived its author's intentions and even the language of public communication in which it was created. It sends what may be termed the 'Ozymandias' message. Ruins speak to the unfolding present from 'time immemorial,' but the 'message' is unintended, a text without an author. The ruin, together with other 'immemorial' texts, such as prehistoric cave-paintings and carvings, is the lowest-frequency of all forms of public address.

Some ruins remain semiotically active without a break for millennia - Stonehenge, the pyramids, the Great Wall, the tomb of Augustus in Rome. Although not 'ruins' in the same way, even greater communicational longevity may apply to rock-carvings and cave-paintings. But it would not be safe to associate low-frequency public address with traditional and pre-industrial societies. They too make widespread use of high frequency forms, from the sand art of the Navajo and also of some Aboriginal peoples of Australia, to the painstaking making of the mandala by Buddhist monks who destroy their work on completion. But of course it is the low-frequency communication of traditional societies that tends to survive. While some 'rock art' is perhaps tens of thousands of years old, it remains sacred and significant for the Aboriginal communities who live with it, and it is increasingly revered by official cultures as part of their unique 'national' heritage.

Other ruins are intermittent signifiers, being lost or forgotten perhaps for centuries, later to be 're-incarnated' as it were, to communicate new meanings with the help of archaeology. Such 'texts' include 'rediscovered' temples in Java or Cambodia; Maya, Aztec and Inca ruins in the Americas; the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, first emperor of China.

If all media are forms of public writing, then the concept of 'media' extends well beyond those forms that are currently recognised as belonging to the media sector of the contemporary economy. Between high frequency journalism and low frequency marble there are myriad media of public address, distributed across all frequencies from the moment to the millennium (see figure 1).

Before the Event    Previews, Leaks, Briefings, PR, 'Spin'
High Frequency  
Instant/Second: Internet, Subscription News: e.g. Matt Drudge, Reuters Financial TV,
Minute: 'Rolling Update' News: e.g. CNN, BBC-24/Choice, Radio 5-Live
Hour: Broadcast News: e.g. CBS/ABC/NBC; ITN/BBC, Radio 4
Day: Daily Press: e.g. The Times, New York Times, Sun, New York Post
Week: Weekly Periodicals: e.g. Time, New Statesman, Hello!, National Enquirer
Mid Frequency  
Month: Monthly Magazines: e.g. Vogue, Cosmopolitan, The Face, Loaded
Quarter: Scientific & Academic Journals: e.g. International Journal of Cultural Studies
Year: Books, Movies, TV Series: e.g. Harry Potter, Star Wars, Ally McBeal
Low Frequency  
Decade: Scholarship, Contemporary Art: e.g. 'definitive' works, textbooks, dictionaries, portraiture, fashionable artists
Century: Building, Statue, Canonical Literature: e.g. Sydney Opera House, war memorials, Shakespeare
Millennium: Temple, Tomb: e.g. Parthenon, Pyramids
Eternity: Ruins, Re-runs: e.g. Stonehenge, Star Trek
Figure 1: Frequencies of Public Writing

Journalism Frequencies

Over its two to four hundred-year history journalism has shown a consistent tendency to drift upwards in frequency. New forms of news, especially those that attract the most intense capital investment and public disquiet, are ever faster. Journalism can range in frequency from the second and faster down to the quarter (e.g. Fashion Quarterly), though this frequency (like the once-common bi-weekly newspaper) is now archaic for news; it has been occupied by academic and scientific journals.

At the very highest wavelengths, instantaneous reporting has appeared on the Internet. This development has caused some commentators to predict the end of journalism (as we know it). The Monica Lewinsky affair was the trigger for such concern, since court decisions and other news-sensitive information was released on the Internet, by-passing the usual journalistic gatekeepers. On the publication of the Starr report, TV-viewers around the world enjoyed the spectacle of CNN cameras pointing to a computer screen while the reporter scrolled down pages of Internet text to find newsworthy references to non-standard uses for cigars. It certainly looked as though the form of journalism that prided itself on its high frequency, i.e. the rolling update continuous 'breaking news' format of cable TV, was reduced to the status of mere servant to the instantaneous Internet. Furthermore, CNN got into trouble even for this second hand timeliness, as commentators expressed discomfort at seeing the unexpurgated facts on a TV screen, although they seemed happy for the full text of the Starr report to appear on the Net itself.

Currently, then, there is a complicated readjustment in progress between the previously fastest and next fastest news media. Up-to-the-second forms of journalism are concentrated at the premium end of the market for news, targeted at the most highly capitalised sector of the economy with time-sensitive information needs - the financial markets. This is one place where news has attracted new investment and innovative format development. Reuters Financial Television and Bloomberg, for example, are locked in an international competitive struggle for this 'narrowcast' but ultra-high frequency form of journalism, which can be sold at a premium to corporate clients. Meanwhile, the look of the instantaneous format has already been 'borrowed' from the Net to give the slightly slower TV screen the appearance of instantaneous news. For instance, CNN's on-screen design now resembles the aesthetic of the Internet, with rolling stock-prices, text captions that may not relate to the pictures, and inset video frames with pictures that may not relate to each other.

It seems journalism can't get any faster than the instant. But with previews, leaks, spin-doctoring, news management and PR, a good deal of news crosses the time barrier into the strange world of 'news before the event.' This sector too is in a phase of rapid commercial development and expansion. Of course gives the lie to the old-fashioned notion that news can only occur after some sort of event has occurred - a myth of newsmaking that has never been true.

Just how badly news-before-the-event can tear the normal fabric of the political time-space continuum was demonstrated in 1999 in Britain, with the difficulties experienced by the government after the pre-release of part of the Macpherson Report into 'institutional racism' in the Metropolitan Police (the Stephen Lawrence inquiry). The government tried to injunct the publication in the daily press of sections of a report they themselves were due to release to Parliament two days later. By the time the full report was published the various players had already taken up their positions in the public domain. But within hours of the official publication the Home Office had to recall the entire print-run as the report contained the identity and addresses of witnesses. Thus, quite apart from its controversial contents, conclusions and recommendations, the report became a political hot potato purely because of its timing. Released before their (albeit arbitrary) time of publication, the untimely facts caused unmanageable side-effects as they darted about in the public domain before their own release.

More routinely, most morning newspapers and breakfast TV or speech-radio shows are sustained by giving news of what will be announced, published and released later in the day. The story, the interview with the minister, the opposition's viewpoint and the analysis of commentators are all done in advance of the 'event' they report.

At the slower end of journalism's frequency range, the glossy fashion and style monthlies hold sway (see figure 1). Vogue and Elle have been joined by the 'lad-mags' for men, like Loaded. Some of these have proven so successful that they have crossed the Atlantic. Other booming sectors are lifestyle and 'shelter' magazines like Wallpaper, and a proliferation of titles for teenagers and young women; the More! the merrier.

The monthly wavelength of the periodicals market is buoyant. However, the once dominant higher-frequency weekly magazines for women, such as Woman and Women's Own, are in decline. While their circulation tends to be higher per title than that of the glossies (reaching millions rather than tens or hundreds of thousands), this is no comfort to them. Their sales are steadily trending downwards with declining profitability. The reaction to these tendencies by the top-selling Australian women's magazine, the Australian Women's Weekly, is interesting. For some years this magazine has been published as a monthly, despite retaining its title. Recently it has also begun to appear in international editions aimed at a general readership (so it's no longer Australian, women's, or weekly - its descriptive title ought to be the International General Monthly).

While news-journalism tends to the highest frequencies, non-news journalism, from the political and gossip weeklies (New Statesman, Hello), to the fashion and style monthlies (Vogue, The Face), operates at lower frequencies. Weekend newspapers draw on aspects of both of these types. Non-news journalism on television also tends towards lower frequencies than 'hard' news. While news is hourly, current affairs shows are week/daily, and lifestyle journalism (such as holiday, fashion, food, motoring and consumer-watchdog shows) is weekly.

It is also apparent that increases in the speed of journalism are associated with new media. While (500 year-old) print dominates the wavelengths between the day and the week and below, (80 year-old) broadcasting predominates in the frequencies between the day and the hour. Non-broadcast forms of screen and electronic media, i.e. cable and Internet forms (introduced for only two or three decades), have taken over in the wavelengths between the hour and the instant.

Academic Writing

Moving down to the mid-frequency range (see figure 1), journalism is still present, but it is giving way to other forms. In the non-fiction area, its place is taken by book publishing, and by academic, scientific and scholarly writing. Mid-frequency journalism includes books by journalists on current affairs. Sometimes these can be newsworthy in their own right (Andrew Morton's book on Diana, Princess of Wales), sometimes they can define an event for posterity (John Reed's Ten Days That Shook The World), and sometimes they might contribute to the practice of journalism itself (Philip Knightley's The First Casualty).

Academic writing is on the same continuum as journalism - it's just 'public writing' at a lower frequency. Its wavelength is counted in months and years (mid) rather than either days (high) or centuries (low). Scholarly writing is mid frequency. It is lower than both journalism and much commercial writing (the latter is geared to the financial year and is therefore rarely slower than annual). But it is not as low as canonical big-L Literature, especially 'classic' texts that are out of copyright (i.e. with a frequency lower than fifty years). Academic writing that attains classic status, such as Charles Darwin's Origins of Species, may be re-published as literature, even though its value as a scientific text is far from spent.

The time lag between commencing a piece of writing and its publication in academic work is, in the main, much greater than that for journalism. Scholarly articles and books can take months or even years to write. After that, the waiting lists for publication in some academic journals can be counted in years, even after a paper has been refereed over several months. In the case of books, an academic book takes from nine months to a year to publish after delivery by the author. It is therefore really difficult to achieve topicality in academic writing using print as the means of dissemination (e-journals have begun to change the situation, but as yet only at the margins of academic endeavour). Knowledge of the slow frequency of academic writing has an influence on what is written; topical references and anecdotes have to be treated with care, and arguments or analyses have to anticipate unfamiliar reading contexts. Abstraction is consequently at a premium over immediate local, practical detail. Once published, academic knowledge aspires towards stability. Academic books may stay in print for years or even decades. They are available indefinitely in libraries. Influential papers are cited in other people's works long after they are published.

As with other media (see below), there are internal frequency differences within the medium of academic writing. Topographical maps may be expected to be quite stable when published, lasting perhaps decades. Policy documents have a use-by date measured in months. Some academic knowledge is very high frequency at the point of discovery: witness, for instance, the regularly reported race to publish some new scientific or medical discovery first (and the stakes - a Nobel prize or a lucrative patent - can be very high). But that same knowledge becomes very stable once published, especially in the 'natural' sciences such as physics or astronomy. A double helix remains a double helix well after its first announcement, but the people who first announce it can set a very high premium on the timeliness of their work.

Meanwhile, textbooks tend to be much lower in frequency than leading-edge research, becoming more so at the most introductory levels. In the teaching context, knowledge can be really low frequency, maintaining theories, methods and even individual examples or anecdotes long after the scientific field to which they are an introduction has moved on. Not infrequently introductory textbooks will carefully teach ideas, approaches and even 'facts' that have been entirely refuted at higher levels of the same discipline.

Conflict can arise from what may be termed frequency mis-tunings. Journalists, habituated to high frequency public address, and academics, attuned to the rhythms of mid-frequency writing, find it hard to understand one another. They may decode each other's writing as if it should be operating at their own wavelength. The inevitable result is noise, communication breakdown and bemusement or hostility. Journalists and academics literally (but simply) cannot get on each other's wavelength. If however their respective efforts are conceptualised as the same enterprise - public writing - done at different speeds, then here at least is cause for dialogue, if not common cause.

Public Writing and the Time - Space Axis

Besides the frequency (time) axis of public writing, some consideration of another axis - that of space - is also necessary. Public communication inhabits space as well as time. Just as the very notion of 'the public' in contemporary political organisation is customarily derived from classical antecedents, so the spatiality of public communication is conventionally associated with the polis - 'the city,' which in the western Hellenic tradition equates with 'the state.' The period of political modernisation inaugurated by the American and French Revolutions coincided with the first 'virtualisation' of a city-based notion of citizenship to the much more abstract concept of the nation, and thence nationality, as the 'space' of citizenship.

Combining the concrete spatiality of the city with the abstract idea of national citizenship has resulted in the habitual association of the concept of 'nation' with the space occupied by a people. Citizenship is modeled on the spatial idea of assembly of people (in the agora, the forum or town square) - to perform their role as citizens it seems people must be gathered together in space as well as time. A city's architectural showpieces act as a kind of permanent reminder of that role; they bring together the inhabitants, the place, and the particular ordering of political, religious, commercial and national arrangements, as manifested through architectural, spatial and inscribed 'public writing' peculiar to that place.

Contemporary, faster modes of communication based on print and electronic media have radically textualised this association of space and nation. Once virtualised, a sense of civic or national identity is also rendered portable. It can be taken to all corners by contemporary media, which are centrifugal, radiating outwards to find spatially dispersed addressees - the 'imagined community' - at a given moment. The older, slower modes of public address based on stone and sculpture, conversely, are centripetal ('all roads lead to Rome'), drawing the people into the city centre to be constituted as the public - as an assembly, congregation or crowd. Rather than reaching everyone simultaneously, the older modes of communication rely on many people, perhaps all, passing through them sooner or later. Thus frequency and spatiality are related to each other for both very high and very low frequency public communication, albeit in alternating modes.

As it evolved in Britain and France from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, modern journalism was organised most intensively around a frequency of between a day (the dailies) and a week (the periodicals). In those early days it was not uncommon for titles to be published twice or three times a week, but that intermediate frequency is now empty in the newspaper press. The Sunday paper is still one of journalism's most successful products, even if other weekly formats, especially the political magazine, are in decline. Indeed, the 'Sunday' format is expanding. Saturday editions of dailies have taken on many of the characteristics of Sunday papers.

However, the traditional form of daily/weekly journalism as a whole is under attrition, and has been steadily declining for at least fifty years since the Second World War. Many commentators see this as evidence of changes in spatial arrangements. The slow decline of national broadsheet daily newspapers and of weekly political and women's magazines is taken to be a symptom of globalisation of information, internationalisation of trade, and the withering away of individual allegiance to the nation state.

Questions of identity and citizenship are less easily associated with territorially bounded spatial entities - nations - than was previously taken for granted. Identity is more mobile, indeterminate and voluntary. Citizenship is 'weakened' as sovereignty is shared 'upwards' and 'downwards' from the nation state:

  • 'Upwards,' sovereignty migrates formally to supra-national bodies like the UN, EU, WTO, NAFTA, APEC, NATO and the International Court of Human Rights; informally to 'humanity' movements such as the environmental, peace and various religious, humanitarian and charity movements.
  • 'Downwards,' sovereignty is devolved formally to sub-national regional, state or federated parliaments; and both formally (by legislation) and informally (culturally) to communities based on ethnicity (first peoples), gender (women's rights), age (children's rights), sexual orientation (gay and lesbian rights), virtuality (cyber-democracy) etc.

Within this context, journalism as a national discourse, a discourse of spatial belonging, the modern (textualised) equivalent of the agora/forum of the city/polis, is in long, slow decline.

But journalism is no longer confined to the frequencies of the day and the week. Over the whole period of modernity -- 200 to 400 years -- it has tended to drift upwards in frequency. Journalism that is faster than the day has thrived, both in broadcast and print forms. But also, perhaps counter-intuitively, journalism that is slower than the week, from monthly magazines to books by journalists on journalistic themes, seems to be in rude good health too.

Thus, while spatial metaphors for large-scale human organisation lose their familiar landmarks as they evolve into new configurations, so it may become increasingly important to analyse the temporal axis. What may look like decline or even disaster on the spatial plane may look very different on the temporal plane. 'Nations' and 'regions' may simply be changing speed, at least in communicative terms.

If this does prove to be the case, it is a significant matter, since of course nations are generally perceived to be much more than communicative units. Their culture, custom and character; law, language and learning; their very purpose and the power they hold over their citizens, are all commonly understood to be unique to each individual nation and one of the main sources of each person's sense of individual identity. There's considerable evidence that national feeling is stronger than ever, despite the decline of the classic, nineteenth-century nation-state (i.e. the self-contained sovereignty of 'splendid isolation'). Certainly there are literally more nations than ever before, and the logic of self-determination lays claim to ever more locally-defined nations.

In such circumstances, where spatially-understood nations are the traditional site for the expression of their people's sovereignty, and where there are both 'strong' and 'weak' forces affecting how citizenship is legislated and lived, it is pertinent to ask what is happening to the 'technologies' that hold such sites together in some sort of coherence. What, for instance, is happening to the technologies of democracy and of the public? Among such 'technologies' -- the mechanisms by which these 'imagined communities' are brought into being and sustained -- are the media, and diurnal political journalism in particular. This was one of the fundamental 'technologies of democracy,' being the very means by which 'the public' was brought into being at the outset of political modernity in Britain, America and continental Europe. Now, this is the form of journalism that seems most in decline. Its decline is far from catastrophic in terms of annual figures, but it is profound in the sense that sales, readers, and titles have all been trending downwards for fifty years, across many countries. Does it follow that democracy is trending downwards too? Many observers do in fact take this view. But what does the view look like if the changes are observed from the perspective of time rather than space?

Technologies of Democracy: 'Hunters' and 'Gatherers'

To consider the impact of 'new technologies' on the space/time axis of public communication, it is necessary to move away from the notion of technology understood as 'black boxes' (scientific and technological innovations), and instead move towards ideas like 'technologies of democracy' and 'technologies of the public.' In other words, what are the mechanisms through which democracy and the public are created, sustained and operated in modern societies?

In this context, black-box technology is not decisive in itself - the French Revolution, for instance, perhaps the most decisive founding moment of political modernity, was promoted and disseminated on the Gutenberg wooden press, a pre-modern technology that was already 300 years old at the time. At the lowest frequencies, the same may be argued - the revolutionary form of the Egyptian pyramid was achieved not sui generis but by a novel application of the existing 'mastaba' form of tomb. The Internet may be pointing the direction to change, but itself relies on the oldest technology of communication (writing), and as yet is not politically or culturally decisive in the way that a newspaper, book or even speech can be. There might even be an argument to suggest that new technologies are less 'revolutionary' in their uses than mature ones. It is necessary for a culture or epoch to become familiar enough with a medium to be able to break the rules with it before it can be used for seditious, incendiary or reformist work. A technology cannot call a public into action before that public has been called into being, and the establishment of a community of readers around a new communicative technology takes time. Books weren't used effectively to spread ideas about science and Enlightenment across Europe until at least a century after Gutenberg. Agitation through the press for popular sovereignty waited centuries after print was invented - two in Britain (the Civil War and the Levellers' pamphlets), three in France, four in Russia, five in South Africa. Similarly, more recent 'new' technologies such as television and the Internet ought not to be heralded as revolutionary just because they've been invented. Instead, their social impact needs to be assessed according to their 'use' in creating and occasionally mobilising publics. Their impact is not as 'technologies' as such, but as technologies of the public.

Political modernity is itself now over 200 years old. Despite the spate of bicentennial celebratory pyrotechnics (1976 in the USA, 1989 in France, 1988 in Australia) and a rather muted tercentennial coin-issue in the UK in 1989 (to mark the 'Glorious Revolution'), there is widespread concern about the effectiveness of the ageing 'technology of democracy.' It sometimes looks as though it doesn't work any more. Fifty years of Cold War, with its easy-to-understand oppositional structure of friend and foe politics, may have masked a growing uncertainty about who 'we' are, whether 'we' are understood as nations, publics or even as persons.

A combination of identity politics and entertainment media has grown up in the private sphere, and is now sustaining the most vibrant areas of media innovation and expansion, from 'lad-mags' and the Internet to spectator-sport and sitcoms. Meanwhile the classic 'technologies of democracy' - print media, political parties, parliaments - seem to be atrophying, growing further apart from the people they're supposed to represent, losing credibility and ratings in an inexorable decline that is no less remarkable for the fact that it has been happening for half a century.

It is no longer certain what the public is, or where to find it. The classic 'technology' of the democratic public is the daily broadsheet newspaper (The Times, the Washington Post) and heavyweight political weekly (The Spectator, The New Yorker). Both have given ground to competing media forms, from television to the tabloids. Meanwhile, along with so much else in contemporary deregulating commercial democracies, 'the public' itself has been privatised. People are simultaneously addressed as publics and audiences, citizens and consumers, and the media of democracy have expanded into areas previously thought of belonging to the private sphere and to commercial entertainment.

Citizen-formation is now undertaken by chain stores - Marks & Spencer was named in March 1999 as the sponsor of the 'National Identity' theme in London's Millennium Dome. The same week, on Wales's national day (March 1), Marks & Spencer's Cardiff store handed out to each customer a daffodil, Wales's national emblem, and a guide to the forthcoming elections to the new National Assembly for Wales. The £2 commemorative coin that marked the 1989 tercentenary of England's Glorious Revolution was issued by the Royal Mint (a privatised public corporation), but it was circulated as a free gift through supermarkets by the makers of Jif, Frish, and Jif Spray'n'Foam. Teenagers learn ethical comportment, neighbourliness and civic virtues from Clarissa and Clueless. They avoid the modernist 'technology of democracy' like the plague. Does this mean they are living outside of the political community? Are they incomplete persons, not fully formed as citizens? Or has the 'technology of democracy' migrated to the private sector? Commercial entertainment media and postmodern journalism are new 'technologies of the public' - the new public sphere.

Hence journalism, as the forum in which 'we' communities are constructed and 'common knowledge' is exchanged, has migrated well beyond news. At the same time, news has evolved generically to accommodate to its media neighbours. Further uncertainty is caused. Doubts about what is fact and what is fiction are now pursued into the very fabric of media communication. News-photos are digitally enhanced, public access shows on TV are faked by using actors, columnists fake stories, TV-documentaries feature fake people and situations. Meanwhile, over in the supposedly fictional world of commercial entertainment, you might find much more careful attention to truth.

How do these time-frequencies intersect with spatiality? How do technologies of time interact with those of locality, region, nation, and international or global space? The highest-frequency media forms have tended towards transnational markets. Globalisation is most commented upon in its commercial, high-speed, information-economy guise, even though mid-frequency forms such as science, scholarship, book-publishing and fiction have been international, indeed global, for decades or even centuries. Somehow, high-frequency technologies of public communication seem more threatening to technologies of space than do lower-frequency ones.

Traditional - modernist - journalism and broadcasting have pitched their tent, as it were, in the temporal rhythm of the day and the week. But this is the frequency that seems most under attrition in present developments. There's major investment in very high frequency journalism, and also in mid-frequency forms such as magazines. Men's and women's monthlies (lad mages, style and fashion glossies) are currently the fastest-growing media sector in the UK, while mass-circulation women's weeklies are in decline. Books too remain a significant component of public life, and are often extensions of journalism. They are being reinvented for a new generation of reader-citizens by innovative publishers like Dorling Kindersley.

There may be a challenge to traditional daily/weekly journalism and broadcasting in this scenario. But is there a threat to democracy? To public life? For those who worry about the decline of public service media, the commercialisation of the public sphere, and the evacuation of the public domain, perhaps the problem is one of frequency. People are responding to different speeds of public communication, but this doesn't necessarily mean the end of democracy. It's speeding up, not dumbing down.

It may even be argued that the long-standing association of citizenship and nation with space rather than time is nothing more than a constraint on trade, a restrictive practice, a monopolisation of the market by those who have trained their readerships to expect information pitched at frequencies these suppliers can accommodate. If all your eggs are in the daily-weekly basket, then you don't want customers wandering off the band-width to the nano-second, the year or the decade.

People who may suppose themselves entirely explained by spatial co-ordinates -- nation, city, etc. -- are nevertheless also attuned to temporal rhythms. The communicative year is divided into seasons marked by sports, TV schedules, and annual holidays, weekends, Christmas Day and once in a while the millennium. In other words 'we' communities are identified temporally, via connections that cut across spatial boundaries. Humanity as a whole is in fact a time-based concept, referring to a 'we' community of 'everyone who is alive today.'

Communications media can gather populations, or they can divide them. Some forms, such as sport, drama and pornography, have proven to be reasonably indifferent to national boundaries. In tempo-spatial terms, they're 'gatherers.' They gather populations from widely separated places at one time to act as spectators. Others, especially news, seem reluctant to dissolve local, regional and national boundaries; they insist on differentiation of populations along territorial lines. They're 'dividers' if not 'hunters.' But news media may also be 'hunters' in the sense that they tend to define their 'we' communities negatively - 'we' are what others (especially other nations, but also criminal negativisations of 'wedom') are not. Modern journalism thus has a long history of investment in foe creation and the language of conflict and violence. News media hunt out the alien and the criminal among the home population. Their clumsiness at this task in an era of migration and mobility, where 'we' include ethnicities, identities and activities routinely marked by the news media as 'foreign' or 'criminal,' is now cause for widespread debate and reformist agitation.

Perhaps this 'hunter' aspect of news journalism is the very 'technology of democracy' that is most in need of reform. Perhaps the higher and lower frequency media are establishing new 'we' communities via new 'technologies of the public' that are 'postmodern,' commercial, private, volatile, migratory, dispersed, and aimed at cultural identities not well served by the public sphere - for instance the young, women, ethnic minorities and 'foreigners' (migrants).

Modern Space, Postmodern Time?

Does a shift in perspective from space to time explain changes in journalistic content? For instance, news has drifted from a 'modernist' status as a discourse of power, interested in the decision-maker, towards a 'postmodern' status as a discourse of identity, interested in celebrity. Citizenship is now struggled over in the name of identity, not territory. There's a shift from discourses of rights to those of ethics, from unionism to individual responsibility. In short, people are identifying with 'virtual' communities based on co-existence in time, not co-extension in space (see figure 2).

Space (Modern)      Time (Postmodern)     
[Co-Extension] [Co-Existence]
Territory Community
Actual Virtual
Power Identity
Decision-Maker Celebrity
Rights/Duties Ethics/Practices
National Unity Individual Responsibility

Figure 2: Space-Time Co-ordinates


Comparative Media Frequencies

Moving beyond journalism, it is useful to point out that many different communicative media function to create publics, and they also operate along frequency ranges. The visual arts, drama, fashion (clothing), music and publishing are all instances of such media. They are indeed 'technologies of the public.'

Internally, each such medium displays different frequencies (see figure 3):

  • In drama, soap opera and sitcoms occupy the highest frequency; the TV telemovie or mini-series and the feature film dominate the mid-range wavelength; 'classic' drama is low frequency. Soap operas operate to a much higher frequency of production than do other forms of screen drama. Many more episodes are made per year, and they are produced to a much tighter schedule (more pages-per-day are shot). They are circulated socially at a much higher frequency, being designed for one-pass scanning by a casual audience that is not expected to maintain an interest in the single episode. So it may be that hundreds of episodes of a major soap opera, or dozens of episodes of a sitcom, may be made in one year. During the same period, it is unusual nowadays for more than one feature film to be made by any one production team. Assuming it is successful, that movie will be seen over a longer time period than the single episode of an average TV serial, and it is more likely to extend its time-frequency over several years via the video market, TV screenings and cable-TV re-runs. At the lowest frequency, 'classic' drama, whether film- or stage-based, achieves something close to immortality. People know all the words, moves, characters and scenes of Casablanca, Romeo and Juliet, or Citizen Kane (of which a new print was released in 1999, giving the Orson Welles classic a new lease of life, though not very good ratings, for a new generation). Such drama is canonical, 'law-forming' in relation to its genre, and sometimes even in relation to its time and society -- Apocalypse Now had this status in the post-Vietnam era in the USA, until it was 'repealed' by the counter-revolutionary film The Deer Hunter.

  • Recorded music ranges from the pop single (high frequency) via the album (mid frequency) to the symphony (low frequency). It would be surprising to find a pop singer such as Britney Spears celebrated on a national currency, but symphonic composers can be. Sir Edward Elgar, not the Spice Girls, is pictured on the 1999 British £20 note (it was said that Sir Edward's hairy moustache would deter counterfeiters, but the same could be argued in relation to Scary Spice's hair: this was not a 'technical' decision). Unlike pop, symphonic music may be taken to express low-frequency, national values. In this context high-frequency music is deemed commercial, ephemeral, global and 'unworthy.' No matter how talented, popular, original or profound a pop act might be, it won't achieve 'serious' status until it has released multiple albums - until, that is, its musical frequency is lowered at least to the mid-range (see also figure 4).

  • Vestimentary media (i.e. communication via apparel) range from haute couture collections and the T-shirt (both high frequency, though at opposite ends of the pop/high culture scale) via the suit and dress (mid frequency) to academic, religious or legal garb (low frequency). Legal wigs and gowns are continuations of eighteenth century costumes; academic gowns and priestly vestments are medieval. When members of the general public step out of everyday time and into a 'timeless' state - as for instance during a wedding ceremony - they may signify the same by radically lowering the frequency of their vestimentary communication. The 'traditional' bride's wedding dress and the groom's top hat and tails are derived from upper-class Edwardian fashion; 'timelessness' is achieved by changing to low-frequency costume. Other vestimentary codes are also tied to time frequencies. For instance, the business suit of the 'salaryman' is worn exclusively within the frequency of the working week; holiday fashions follow an annual rhythm; Santa Claus dons his red suit but one day a year (except in Lapland).

  • In the visual arts, 'old master' painting (high art oils) is low frequency. Portraiture in photography or painting is mid-frequency. Billboard advertising and photojournalism are high frequency (see figure 4).

  • In publishing, the book is lower in frequency than the periodical. Within book-publishing itself there's a wide range of frequencies, ranging from work that is an extension of journalism in the higher ranges to reference works such as the OED at the lowest. Some modes of writing such as canonical Literature tend to operate socially at a low frequency no matter what their original wavelength, including journalism of a former age (e.g. Samuel Johnson), or political speeches that achieve identity-forming status, from Pericles' funeral oration to Lincoln's Gettysburg address. Even fiction may be received initially as high-frequency journalistic communication, achieving canonical status later (e.g. Dickens's novels) (see figures 4, 1).

Frequency-Range Within Different Media
  Song Drama Apparel
High Single Sitcom/Soapie T-Shirt/Haute Couture
Mid Album/CD Movie Suit/Dress
Low Symphony Classic Theatre Gown (Legal, Academic)

Figure 3: Frequencies of Various Media

The mid-range frequency (see figures 1, 4) is developed to the greatest extent not in journalism but in the area of fiction. The 'season' or annual wavelength is occupied by new movies, TV series, novels, and comparable productions such as CDs, videos and computer games. Moving to the lower frequencies of public communication, the so-called 'serious' arts predominate -- 'classical' music, 'classic' or canonical literature and 'fine' art.

Frequency-Range of Culture
High Popular Culture
Mid Intellectual Culture
Low High Culture

Figure 4: Frequencies of Culture

Time and Tide: Frequency in Various Public Contexts

Temporal periodisation is itself sensitive to frequency (see figure 5): postmodern (high frequency), modern (mid frequency), premodern or 'classical' (low frequency). Whether or not this corresponds to more than the words used in journalism and academic colloquy to sort the concepts into coherence is a moot point. However, where distinctions are made between the modern and postmodern, for instance, an increase in frequency is clearly an issue, often a cause for concern.

Frequency-Range of Historical Periodisation
High Postmodern
Mid Modern
Low Pre-Modern or 'Classical'

Figure 5: Frequencies of Historical Periods

It may be that there is an economic aspect to frequency distribution (see figure 6): the commercial sector is characterised as high frequency (and high investment), the professional sector as mid range and the public sector as low frequency, especially towards the 'dignified' part of the constitution - state occasions and courts of law, rather than state enterprises.

Frequency-Range of Political-Economic Activity
High Commercial
Mid Professional
Low Public

Figure 6: Frequencies of Political Economy

It follows that within such a structure, the type of information tends to vary according to frequency (see figure 7). Rumour, 'gossip' and information are 'faster' than knowledge, fiction and science; these in turn are faster than belief, faith and religion. News, however, ranges across many of these frequencies in its content. News can be a textualisation of high-frequency rumour, gossip and information. But equally news can express much lower rhythms in the guise of quotidian narrative: myths and beliefs - not to mention fictions - are routinely recreated in the form of daily stories.

Frequency-Range of Information Type
High Rumor 'Gossip' Information
Mid Knowledge Fiction Science
Low Belief Myth Religion

Figure 7: Frequencies of Knowledge-Type

As we descend the frequencies from screen via page to stone, it is possible -- though far from inevitable - that meanings move from volatile to stable, private to public (see figure 8). To the extent that this may be so, it may further occur that volatile meanings are associated with private affairs and are about identity; meanwhile arguable meanings are associated with the collective life of society and are about power. At the same time, stable meanings are associated with public life, and aspire to the condition of the natural. Thus frequency seems to carry extra import -- low frequency public communication seems closer to 'nature', literally written in stone, when compared with higher-frequency messages.

Frequency-Range of Meanings
Range Meanings (Medium) (Location) (About...)
High Volatile (Screen) (Private) (...Identity)
Mid Arguable (Page) (Social) (...Power)
Low Stable (Stone) (Public) (...'Nature')

Figure 8: Frequencies of Meaning

As it has drifted steadily upwards in frequency over the past century and more, journalism has also tended to drift in its meanings. Where it was a discourse about power, focused on the decision-maker, it is now (at least as much) a discourse of identity, and is focussed on the celebrity. Its meanings are more volatile.


In public address, speed is of the essence. Frequency (rather than ostensible content) may be a major determinant of what a given piece of writing means. Over the longue durée of history, public communication has exploited differences in frequency to articulate different types of meaning. Apparently revolutionary periods may be explicable by reference to changes in communicative speed, and also by investigating changes in the balance between temporal and spatial co-ordinates of national and personal identity. To understand what is happening to journalism in the current era of change from spatial (national) to temporal (network) communication, the frequency of public writing is a crucial but somewhat neglected component. It determines what kind of public is called into being for given communicative forms, and therefore has a direct bearing on the development of democracy. Changes to 'technologies of the public' have historically tended to increase speed or frequency of communication; democracy itself may be migrating from space-based technologies to faster, time-based ones.


This paper follows journalistic rather than academic practice: there are no scholarly references. The article is an attempt to map out (time out?) some ideas, rather than to review an existing field. It is intended as a contribution to an interdisciplinary conversation in the spirit of the MIT 'Media in Transition' theme of comparative media studies; in such a context specialist citations cannot be expected to convey the usual disciplinary sense of place. The paper is also addressed those outside the academy who may be interested in 'public writing.' The longstanding convention for that sort of writing is that sources are not formally referenced. Naturally, the lack of references should not be taken to imply that no debt has been incurred to others' ideas in the preparation of this article; indeed, it is brim-full of them. I particularly want to thank McKenzie Wark for sparking the ideas into life, and William Uricchio, Michael Bromley and Eva Vieth for straightening some of them out.