I’ve been recently inspired by the work of the Long Now Foundation and a book by Stewart Brand about The Clock of the Long Now. It makes me think that one problem with the news is its relationship with time.
Whether you expected the Jetsons, Hal 9000 or the Singularity, there was a time when we had collective imagination about some kind of future. Now the future is like a parody of itself. Who has time to think about the future?
Michael Chabon‘s description of his son’s vision of the future reveals a bleakness once reserved for the most cynical old people: “If you ask my eight-year-old about the Future, he pretty much thinks the world is going to end, and that’s it. Most likely global warming, he says—floods, storms, desertification—but the possibility of viral pandemic, meteor impact, or some kind of nuclear exchange is not alien to his view of the days to come… My son seems to take the end of everything, of all human endeavor and creation, for granted. He sees himself as living on the last page, if not in the last paragraph, of a long, strange and bewildering book.”
News has a lot to do with this sense of impending disaster. We observe and record the disasters of the world in seconds and minutes. It exhausts our ability to think in months and years. We report as if the president of the United States should be able to reverse an economic disaster years in the making before the next poll. We are so busy recording hourly drama that we’re losing the capacity to prepare for the deep transformations necessary to sustain what we know and love. We’re not only exhausting ourselves, we are actively exhausting the imagination of everyone who comes in contact with the news.
Analog communication set rhythms that governed the producers and consumers of news. An hourly schedule, perhaps, for radio. A 24-hour period for early television news and newspapers. A weekly, biweekly or monthly cycle for magazines. Deadlines were incessant but still provided moments for reflection, release, escape. The news could be consumed over dinner and then life would resume.
Digital news imposes no deadlines. The only deadlines we live by are those we impose ourselves and we break those constantly. A friend told me about a reporter at The New York Times who pitched a story to his editor and discovered the Times had already published an identical story the month before. And he had written it. In the blur of reporting, writing, posting he had no memory of it whatsoever.
As journalists, we have no external deadlines with space between; just one long deadline with no relief. As consumers we have no break between breaking news. News is now a river that rushes through every channel and vein in our lives; it binds the personal and private with the public and universal. It takes the rhythm of daily living and invades every moment. The pace is neither comprehendible or sustainable.
We need to create news that helps people order their thinking and understanding. We need a longer now for the news.
This doesn’t mean we give up on timely updates. Perhaps it means we isolate those updates to manageable spaces and create new spaces for context, longer views, reflection, and wisdom. A time-starved media narrative is robbing us of a sense of future possibility at the precise moment we most need it. (See Matt Thompson’s pleas for context.)
We also need a longer view for managing digital news organizations. John Kao (Innovation Nation) says it well:
“We need to see our work on innovation as involving disciplined practice, not the quest for short-term wins. This is an obvious problem in our instant-gratification, quarterly-earnings-based culture in which corporate managers (and politicians) are evaluated and rewarded based on their success at maintaining a continuous upward trend that produces immediate results. At times, it seems like the question ‘What have you done for me lately’ approaches the status of a business model. If resource allocation, decision-making processes, and career-path planning all obey a short-term logic, while the important challenges facing both organizations and society are mostly long term, isn’t the disconnect obvious?”
Most digital journalism resembles an endless billboard of digital clocks measuring only seconds. There are no minutes, no hours, no days, no weeks, no months, no years, no decades, no centuries.
This approach to the news is robbing our politicians of the time and patience needed to craft policy and for our citizens to understand it. It blurs the present and obliterates the future.
Communication technology may be driven by Moore’s Law but our minds and emotions do not have the flexibility of integrated circuits. Cramming more and more in a denser space and time will not end well. Our challenge is to create news that has context for longer time periods than a very short now.
In “The Clock of the Long Now,” Stewart Brand notes that the ancient Greeks had two kinds of time. He writes: “Kairos is the time of cleverness, chronos the time of wisdom.”
How might a newsroom with routines measured by chronos rather than kairos operate? What would news look like that assumes the well being of our children’s children’s children matters to the decisions we make today?
Imagine a journalism that defined value by its worth to future generations. That would be a very, very different front page.