The unripened word

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.

2 thoughts on “The unripened word

  1. Miklos

    It is worth reading the whole letter – called “On Rational Politics” – from which this excerpt is taken to see how wrong Lamartine was in his utopian view of society (a republican monarchy based on Christian ethics), which will avoid strife and generalized wars. Count the wars which took place since 1831.

    Later in that letter he speaks of the role of the press, which will defend society against deception and tyranny, and be the base of the rational era, that of “public reason.” When we see now how the traditional press fights for audience by catering to the sensational and by playing on the most basic instincts (the latest panic about the A flu is such an instance), how homogenized it is (there are very few distinct sources – AFP, AP… – whose news get copied almost verbatim in thousands of different newspapers in the world), how dependent it is on its private or public owners; how the less traditional (i.e., internet-based) sources of information may feed and demultiply rumors… after all of that, books are still a safe haven, are they not?

    Lamartine was a much better poet than politician or sociologist, I would suggest reading his poems.

  2. thatstephen

    You seem to confuse speed of publishing with the unmediated nature of so much modern digital communication. In the age of the telegraph it was possible for news to arrive at the great hubs of communication as fast as a modern twitter and in the age of wireless, for that news to be disseminated to the public as fast.

    What has been removed in the move from mass media to immediate digital media such as blogs and Twitter is not the hours or minutes between event or thought and dissemination, but the editorial organisation between author and public.

    The reasons for the disappearance of this editorial organisation are many and obviously owe much to the enabling technology of the web but also owe much to the public’s taste for and faith in the (seemingly) personal and immediate over the corporate and considered.

    We have faith in the truth, value and interestingness of personal testimony from autobiographies to the incessant pseudo-psychoanalytic personal oupourings that dominate reality TV. Every populist media outlet thrives on the idea that the public are getting the unmediated truth from an individual. God knows this is nothing new – the great world faiths have always presented their books of revelation as personal outpourings not as the products of corporate editorial machines that they are.

    We have lost faith in the trustworthiness of the editorial machines that were the newspapaers and broadcasters that are struggling to survive. Journalists have done little to win the trust of the public over time ,this is not a dig at the honesty of journalists just an honest reporting of their public rating. The exposure that journalists have given to politicians’ atttempts to game the media system with their armies of spin-doctors has undercut people’s faith in journalists. Politicians have tried to up their media spin game or in Obama’s case cut out the journalist as middleman in public discourse.

    So unripeness is not all, but the immediate is all.

    Immediate not in the temporal sense that is so often used, but in the sense of it’s latin root – immediatus “without anything between,”

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