Warp Speed Journalism
AbstractIndustrial age journalism is all but dead. But the written word and the essay thrive. Paradoxically, pre-industrial forms of journalism are also the new "warp speed" journalism. Industrial culture lives in Euclidian space and follows Newtonian mechanics. It is an effort to irradiate chaos and produce predictable uniformity of product. But the wired generation lives in non Euclidian space/time, quantum mechanics and Einsteinian possibility. All the other poor bastards of less fortunate generations are locked up in locations, events, and identities. They, who think of themselves a "they" ask Who? What? Where? And Why? As a means of orienting themselves in a reality matrix. "They" will not understand what I am saying here. Even some people who use the World Wide Web on a daily basis may not fully get it. But there are those of us who know the god, Unix, and can prey using command line mantras. And there are Windows jockeys who can snap a mouse with speed and grace, like a flamenco dancer plays the castanets. We are the witches and warlocks of the post modern age. When we tell our stories, we use the tools of the bardic poets, and despite the use of ancient story, fable, and myth making forms, we are the warp speed journalists.
PART ONE - Whooo? Asked the hookah smoking caterpillar. Whoooo are you?
The advent of the age of telecommunications requires a rethinking of our concepts of time and space. One cannot think exactly like a refrigerator repair man and untangle a crashed computer system or network. The "trouble shooting" and the debug process are similar . A computer systems analyst could probably get a refrigerator up and running, eventually. But a refrigerator repairman would have less luck with the computer network. The systems analyst sees himself as a wizard or a guru. He deals in chaos and uncertainty. He is outside the constraints of space and time, and it seems that he is working magic.
The warp speed journalist does the same. And often the language and concepts of decades old science fiction classics provide useful vocabularies. The following is a useful vocabulary, an analogy, much like the "men of silver and gold" mythic analogy used by Plato in the Republic, used to convey his complex set of ideas on government and education. Now there are hyper-space mathematicians and physicists working on Einstein's unfinished work of deriving a unified field theory. Some of them posit a 14 dimension physical universe.
This paper is not trying to do that. All it is doing is constructing a useful fiction, a simplifying model of human experience. We experience our lives as if we and everything else in creation (including deities) exist in a multiple dimension universe, with dimensions of space, time and also of consciousness and identity. These correspond loosely with the fundamental journalistic questions: Where? When? Who? What? And additional questions about a chain of causally: How? And Why? Journalistic story telling must match the way readers experience life in order to inform them.
It is easy to consider a four dimension universe with three axis x, y, and z of space and t of time. Robert Heinlein, science fiction writer and futurist, posited a five dimension universe, as early as 1941, in a story titled "Elsewhen". Throughout his career he returned to the topic of how we experience time and space. For the sake of understanding journalism, we can add to the dimensions of time the multiple dimensions of consciousness of and identity. Consciousness is just a way of experiencing the universe like mass and location.
There can be a number of different ways that space, time, and identity are experienced. Yet most people believe that their way is the only "reality". Those who experience it differently are barbarians, fools, or are mentally ill. Here is a story to illustrate the point It is a parable that might be true or not about the famous anthropologist, Margaret Mead, and a gentleman from Samoa.
When Margaret Mead went to Samoa in the late 1920s she might have discovered that Samoans experienced time differently than Mead. Watches were important in Mead's experience, but may have been useless in Samoa. The key question an anthropologist would ask is, "When does the present become the past?" In Western culture the process is instantaneous, of course. But to a Samoan, the present may remain and linger for a while. The Samoans may experience chunks of what we would call "the past" as persisting in the Samoan present.
It may take a ritual, or a sunset, or the birth of a child to have the experience of "now" become the experience of "then." So it becomes useful to consider the experience of time to be a cultural matter. So, Mead and the Samoan share approximately the same coordinates of space, a hut on Samoa. They might live in different coordinates if time, that is different "nows." Further, when Margaret Mead looked at a Samoan, she was conscious of being who she was. The Samoan knew who he was. To Mead the Samoan was an interesting man. To the Samoan, Mead might have been a potential afternoon's sexual dalliance; or she might have been a nutritious snack.
Suppose the prevalent Samoan religion in the '20s was a nature oriented pantheism. Mead might have certainty that she was not the Samoan. But the Samoan might have seen Mead as part of himself. A policeman on the street sees something or someone he identifies an "suspicious." An urban kid sees a cop and identifies the policeman as "threatening." Clearly, this is a common situation: same place, same time, but different consciousness. And the consequences of this collision of consciousness may be a matter of life and/or death. It is different matrices of space, time and identity in collision and competition. Location is also variable. Where is here? It is a point with three co-ordinates in a Cartesian coordinate space. Does here occupy one cubic inch? Is the one next to it there? When here is Hiroshima or Nagasaki how large is here? What duration does here have? How long before here is there, or perhaps more frighteningly before there is here?
For there to be a here and a there, there must be a communication emanating from someplace and received someplace else. The emanation is going from here and arriving there. This is seemingly very elementary in Euclidian space/time. But, in our epoch, the one of warp speed journalism, there is something called Amazon dot com and it has a discrete location. Amazon dot com is where it is and is no place else. It is not at Amazing corn cob. But where is Amazon dot com? There is a corporation called Amazon.com Incorporated. It has headquarters in Seattle, Washington. Its stock sells for between 70 and 100 a share. So it has material existence and measurable material value. Its vale does not derive from profit. It is losing money.
Its value is that it is everywhere. Now "Coca Cola is everywhere" means that in that to a greater or lesser degree one can buy a Coke anywhere, but Amazon dot com is anywhere there is a computer an a phone connection. "Coke is everywhere" is a metaphor. "Amazon dot com is everywhere" is an empirically measurable proposition.
The Internet gives anyone an opportunity to participate in world building as if it were a parade of the living dead. In one web persona I am Jack Kerouac returned. In another I am my lover. In a third, I am Mike Wallace chasing a story and a confession for a virtual television news magazine. Some place else, I am an old French whore. The point is that space, time and identity (or consciousness) are experienced as free variables, not as semi fixed variables on linear continuities.
Postmodern mobility means that someone or something, need not be fixed at a location, an event, or an identity. As a consequence there is the Internet, where hundreds of thousands realities collide and compete in cultural warfare. On television Coke may battle Pepsi, or Leno may compete with Letterman. But on the Internet, Coke competes with Pepsi; the Department of tourism in Nova Scotia; WWF wrestling; hot college age girls who are eager to please; Serbia; Mickey Mouse; a poker game being held at an off shore casino; Brittany Spears; and skinhead Neo-Nazis.
Each element on the net has its own peculiarities of space, time and identity. The holiest of holies and the place where the dogs do it are only a mouse click apart. And despite all government intervention, it cannot be controlled or stopped. The Internet is bigger than government. Given this demonstrable model, a raging cultural war, what is the role of the twenty-first century journalist? Who resigned and passed the mantle of god hood onto him?
PART TWO - "It's your great grandfather's bicycle and not your father's Oldsmobile"
The Internet age does not require a new kind of journalism. Warp Speed journalism is not some kind of wiz bang style of writing. It is the kind of journalism that has always flourished at times of rapid change and transition.
One such time was in 14th century Venice. Marco Polo had returned and started writing about his experiences in China in the court of Kublae Khan. Polo was a correspondent, who wrote what this strange and wondrous place, the Orient, was like.
As journalism developed into books, magazines and newspapers; the correspondent piece, "The letter from India" type piece where the author went to an exotic or dangerous places and wrote about their adventures became popular. This developed into travel journalism, and when done in a academic setting became anthropological studies like those of Margaret Mead in Samoa.
Another type of correspondent went off to war and wrote letters from the front to publications. This was the prevalent style of journalism until the late 19th century when the lone correspondent was replaced by the wire service. The Associated Press wrote the stories in the field and wired them back to newspapers around the country. At this time, each newspaper had its own viewpoint, its own way of dealing with space, time and particularly identity. This was manifest in the political positions the publication took. In order to sell the same text to many newspapers all around the country several conventions of journalism had to be established. The AP story was generally not written by someone who was a participant observer, it was written by a reporter. This person would find people who either witnessed or could comment on a news event. The reporter would ask spokespeople what they saw or thought. The reporter's job was to remain objective and to present balanced reporting. If one side said that shoddy construction had caused the mine disaster, but management said that it was an act of God, the reporter, being objective, reported both sides. Journalism schools made it a virtue to report on equal basis the statements of the saints and scoundrels, and let the readers decide.
The myth was fostered that there are two sides to every story, and that Democracy required all sides to have their say. There may be and usually are many interpretations to a set of facts, but AP journalism applied the standards of objectivity to matters of fact, not just interpretation. There were times when reporters were eye witness to the event and had their own viewpoint on what happened. The wanted to tell the story from their own viewpoint, that is be a correspondent not a reporter. The AP frowns on this. They wanted a story that would play inoffensively anywhere.
A distinction was made between the objective and balanced reporting on the news pages of a paper and the opinionated material on the editorial and op-ed pages. AP journalism is a method of doing research and a of reporting news events. Theoretically anyone who knows AP research methodology and grammatical conventions could go and report on the same event and produce almost identical rendering of it. And these dispatches would go by teletype to newspapers around the world.
There were still travel reporters, there were still war corespondents. Still letters form India. But most journalism was bland, boring and approximately 50% bogus. The warp speed or gonzo journalist is a corespondent journalist. But correspondent journalism has been so completely replaced by the industrial Associated Press model of journalism that it seems that the gonzo journalism is new and radical. Further, the journalist first associated with the word "gonzo" is Hunter S. Thompson. And he brings in an association with taking drugs. Getting blasted was certainly a part of his stories.
But to say that drinking a bottle of tequila and then covering a story makes you gonzo, is not necessarily true. It depends on the story. In this time of globalization, cultural wars, and the nullification of space, time, and identity, the story to be told is not an event with a who, what, where and when. The story to be told is that there are scenes that share this culture sphere, and that they are strange and wondrous. The point is to tell the reader who may be laboring under the illusion that they are privy to the one and only really real reality, that maybe they might not be. After all these other people figure that they have the word of reality straight from Gods lips and they dance around with rattle snakes every Sunday. If they were wrong God would have a rattler strike dead the minister's lovely 14 year old daughter.
Oh Yeah?, say the fire walkers; the Roman Catholics; the reform Jews. The world, especially the Internet driven world is certainly a worthy of provoking thought. It is something to think about at least. The gonzo correspondent journalists break the Associated Press mold, as they seek to provoke thought in readers.
Roundtable I | Roundtable II | Roundtable III | Roundtable IV