He was off by two centuries and a medium or two, but it was, nevertheless, the French poet and bureaucrat Alphonse Marie Louis de Prat de Lamartine who, in an 1831 letter, foretold all:
Before this century shall run out, Journalism will be the whole press – the whole human thought. Through that prodigious multiplication which art has given to speech – multiplication to be multiplied a thousand-fold yet – mankind will write their book day by day, hour by hour, page by page. Thought will spread abroad in the world with the rapidity of light; instantly conceived, instantly written, instantly understood, at the extremities of earth, it will spread from pole to pole. Sudden, instant, burning with the fervor of soul which made it burst forth, it will be the reign of the human soul in all its plenitude. It will not have time to ripen, to accumulate into the form of a book – the book will arrive too late. The only book possible from today is a Newspaper.
Today, I went out and picked my copy of the Sunday New York Times off the dirt, shucked off its damp plastic wrapper, and felt like a mug. I had already seen all the headlines on the web; the cover story of the magazine had been up on the Times’s site forever. I pay good money for my subscription – I keep the goddamn newsroom afloat – and the Times treats me with contempt. It laughs in my face.
But what choice does it have?
The Newspaper arrives too late. The only Newspaper possible from today is a Text. A Tweet. Sudden, instant, burning with the fervor of soul which made it burst forth.
Unripeness is all.
A hundred years ago, James Gordon Bennett Jr., editor of the New York Herald, was criticized for the inconsistency of his paper. He replied: “I bring the paper out every day. Advertisement dwells in a one-day world.”
Media define our conception of time. The one-day world is gone. Today it’s a one-minute world. Today it’s a one-second world. Today it’s realtime.
Writing of the arrival of radio, Harold Innis, the economic historian who taught McLuhan everything he knew, observed, in his 1951 book The Bias of Communication:
The radio accentuated the importance of the ephemeral and of the superficial … The demands of the new media were imposed on the older media, the newspaper and the book. With these powerful developments time was destroyed and it became increasingly difficult to achieve continuity or to ask for a consideration of the future.
We think we’re special with our high technology. But we’re merely living out a fate ordained centuries ago when the distribution of the word was originally mechanized. Time is in pieces. We shake them as a baby shakes its rattle.
This post is an installment in Rough Type’s ongoing series “The Realtime Chronicles,” which began here.