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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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').
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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).
Frequencies of Public Writing
Before the Event
Previews, Leaks, Briefings, PR, 'Spin'
Internet, Subscription News: e.g. Matt Drudge,
Reuters Financial TV, Bloomberg.com|
||'Rolling Update' News:
e.g. CNN, BBC-24/Choice, Radio 5-Live|
e.g. CBS/ABC/NBC; ITN/BBC, Radio 4|
e.g. The Times, New York Times, Sun, New York Post|
e.g. Time, New Statesman, Hello!, National Enquirer|
e.g. Vogue, Cosmopolitan, The Face, Loaded|
||Scientific & Academic Journals:
e.g. International Journal of Cultural Studies|
||Books, Movies, TV Series:
e.g. Harry Potter, Star Wars, Ally McBeal |
||Scholarship, Contemporary Art:
e.g. 'definitive' works, textbooks, dictionaries, portraiture, fashionable artists|
||Building, Statue, Canonical Literature:
e.g. Sydney Opera House, war memorials, Shakespeare|
e.g. Parthenon, Pyramids|
e.g. Stonehenge, Star Trek|
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Writing and the Time - Space Axis
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
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
of Democracy: 'Hunters' and 'Gatherers'
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?
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.'
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
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).
Space, Postmodern Time?
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).
2: Space-Time Co-ordinates
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.'
each such medium displays different frequencies (see figure
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.
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).
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).
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).
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).
Tide: Frequency in Various Public Contexts
Figure 3: Frequencies of Various Media
Frequency-Range Within Different Media
Gown (Legal, Academic)
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.
Figure 4: Frequencies of Culture
Frequency-Range of Culture
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.
5: Frequencies of Historical Periods
Frequency-Range of Historical Periodisation
Pre-Modern or 'Classical'
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.
Figure 6: Frequencies of Political Economy
Frequency-Range of Political-Economic Activity
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
Figure 7: Frequencies of Knowledge-Type
Frequency-Range of Information 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.
Figure 8: Frequencies of Meaning
Frequency-Range of Meanings
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.
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
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.