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|Excerpt of chapter 16 of Democracy and New Media (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003), edited by Henry Jenkins and David Thorburn|
Time in communicative
life can be understood not merely as sequence but also in terms of frequency.
A "wavelength" of 1,000 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
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
(Time). 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 naturalized 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 television news programs, such as the British Independent Television News (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 Independent Television (ITV) was allowed to timeshift News at Ten only in 1999 (to make room for peak-time movies) after a failed attempt in 1993, a national inquiry by the Independent Television Commission (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.
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:
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 rerun); 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 a copy of 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 scrutinized 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 harbor, but it is a better-known text than
the lead item on the highest-rated news broadcast.
writing" displays high to low frequencies right through the process
from creation ("writing"), via publication ("text")
to consumption ("reading"). For the purposes of this chapter,
however, the primary "wavelength" will be that of circulation:
the interval between publications, on the model of "journalism"
itself (the word derives from the French jour, "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 recognized as
"the media," and it extends to much lower frequencies. It certainly
includes inscriptions carved into monuments, tombs, temples, and the like.
But 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 organization 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 B.C., 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 facades 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 table 16.1).
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 they are 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. Although 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
"reincarnated," 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; and
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 recognized 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 table 16.1).
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 were released
on the Internet, bypassing the usual journalistic gatekeepers. On the
publication of the Starr Report, television 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
nonstandard 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 television)
was reduced to the status of mere servant to the instantaneous Internet.
Furthermore, CNN got into trouble even for this secondhand timeliness,
as commentators expressed discomfort at seeing the unexpurgated facts
on a television 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 capitalized 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 "narrow-cast" 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 television
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 or may not relate to the pictures being
displayed, and inset video frames with pictures that may or 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 public relations, 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 it gives the lie to the old-fashioned notion that news can occur only after some sort of event has occurred, a myth of news making that has never been true.