Space, Time, and Communication Theory

John Durham Peters (Department fo Communication Studies, University of Iowa)

Abstract: This plenary address to the Laurier conference extends the fundamental insight of Innis and McLuhan that communication studies concerns time and space by inviting scholars to consider the very large and the very small, the very old and the very far, as outer limits to communication theory. Specifically, it explores geology, astronomy, and cosmology as inquiries into media that span deep time and deep space. It suggests that communication studies is not merely an interdisciplinary field, but one that goes beyond the human scale and potentially encompasses any inquiry into time and space. The untold expanse of communication is a territory, I contend, which we are only just beginning to appreciate.

Résumé : Cette allocution plénière au congrès Laurier pousse plus loin l'idée fondamentale d'Innis et McLuhan que les études en communication portent sur le temps et l'espace, en invitant les érudits à considérer le très grand et le très petit, le très vieux et le très distant comme confins de la théorie en communication. Plus particulièrement, cette allocution explore la géologie, l'astronomie et la cosmologie à titre d'enquêtes sur les médias qui tiennent compte du temps et de l'espace profonds. Elle suggère que la communication n'est pas seulement un champ interdisciplinaire mais aussi un champ qui dépasse la dimension humaine pour englober potentiellement toute enquête sur le temps et l'espace. La véritable portée de la communication comporte selon moi un territoire qu'on commence à peine à apprécier.

Culture is concerned with the capacity of the individual to appraise problems in terms of space and time . . .

- Harold Innis

In the Canadian tradition, time and space, especially but not only in the writings of Harold Innis, can carry a heavy philosophical and emotional freight and serve as an evaluative axis for what is wrong with the modern world.1 The contrast of time and space invokes other dualisms: sacred versus secular, feeling versus reason, tradition's stability versus modernity's ruptures, oral vitality versus print's mechanization, even France versus the United States (Babe, 2000, p. 71ff.; cf. Innis, 1992, p. 195). Innis' tale of the displacement of the oral tradition (time) by mechanized communication (space) was recast in turn by McLuhan as the hypertrophy of the literate eye over the other modes of sense and sensibility. In this talk I want to unpin space and time somewhat from this moral-political pathos, the hint of mourning, and attempt, as a tribute to and extension of the Canadian tradition, some speculations about how media, broadly conceived, have shaped visions of the cosmos over the past two centuries. Such cross-cultural emulation, of course, can create tragicomic breakdowns. Species flourish in exile, in large part because they lack natural enemies: oranges grow in Florida, rabbits run wild in Australia, potatoes grow in Europe, and the best Spanish music, they say, is written by Frenchmen. The same is true with thoughts. Perhaps you Canadians are tired of hearing about Innis and McLuhan from people who know them only from a romantic distance. The modern Greek poet Seferis wrote of the burden of those who inherit a great tradition:

I woke this morning with this marble head in my hands;
it exhausts my elbows and I don't know where to put it down.

Innis and McLuhan are not Plato and Aristotle, but they can still exhaust your elbows. I think it was Ruth Prawer Jhabvala who wrote of an encounter between a German and a South Asian. The German wants to talk about mysticism; the Indian wants to talk about steel foundries. Each projects onto the other what is his own secret interest. Forgive me if I do the same in this talk.

Innis did much to nuance the point that communication has greatly changed the experience of time and space in both the history of civilization and the modern world and infused it with a critical edge: "the balance between time and space has been seriously disturbed with disastrous consequences to Western civilization" (Innis, 1992, p. 76). As an economic historian, he focused on space and time in a civilizational setting. He was interested in power and social organization, and foreshadowed later analyses of the time-space warping dynamics of capitalism such as David Harvey's notion (1987) of space-time compression. McLuhan (1962) suggested that the telegraph and the radio were inspirations for modern physics' revolution in space and time. In a similar spirit, James Carey (1989) argued that a key consequence of the electrical telegraph was the historic separation of communication from transportation. The electrical telegraph sent signals at the speed of light, emancipating communication from its leaden footing in the world of matter. Electricity helped liberate the realm of significant differences from substantial cargoes - which opens up a set of physical and metaphysical possibilities for communication theory. Such curious entities as electricity, the speed of light, and the collapse of distance are full of suggestion for media studies. Communication theory has most typically drawn upon the humanities and the social sciences, with occasional forays into the natural sciences (mostly in the hunt for metaphors), but the natural sciences, medicine, and engineering are full of considerations of time, space, signals, distance, contact - central concerns and topics of communication theory. This lecture is nothing but a sighting of distant possibilities along the horizon; lifetimes of work (fortunately) remain.

The temporal imagination of communication theory usually spans from the apparent immediacy of face-to-face interaction to the millennia of civilization, but why shouldn't it range from the attoseconds of laser technology to the billions of light-years of the universe? Practices of communication, writ large, have much to do with modern cosmology and give us a range of time-space imagination that even Innis, one of the most daring frontiersmen in these territories, left largely unexplored. Geology and astronomy, physics and mathematics form the outer limits of communication theory. Most media technologies today, in their digital guts, consist of math (vast oceans of ones and zeros), and most modes of modern representation, from the camera to the phonograph, emerge out of research on physics and physiology (Kittler, 1999). There is no particular reason why thinking about communication should be restricted to the human scale except that we are quite interesting to ourselves and find ourselves more or less at the midpoint in size between very small things like atoms and very large things like galaxies (Barrow, 2002).

Extending the scale of time from the few thousand years of civilization to the age of the earth and the scale of distance to the age of the universe might seem to depoliticize concepts of space and time or remove their critical (that is, Canadian) content and context. Politics depends on the human scale, of course, but even so, nothing deserves critical interrogation like science, math, and technical theory and practice as agencies of social control or possibility. What better site to view the formation of monopolies of knowledge or the exercise of oligopolistic power? To study space and time in their extremes is not necessarily to transcend politics; it is to get a clearer fix on what is at stake for communication theory in an age of subatomic nuclear reactions and nanosecond computers, the Hubble telescope and the big bang. Not all communication is human communication. Animals and machines, atoms and the earth, the seas and the stars are themselves full of curious communications, and our efforts to have intelligence with such entities reform our own practices as well. A vision of communication committed to democracy cannot foreclose on entering into intelligence with radical otherness, including the earth, other species, machines, or extraterrestrial life.

The discovery of deep time

In the early seventeenth century Galileo's telescope helped place our planet in a solar system unimaginably more vast than the geocentric vision. The cozy closed universe gave way to seemingly endless space. A similar expansion of the temporal axis had to wait until later. The best informed scientific opinion in seventeenth-century Europe thought the earth around 6,000 years old. Thomas Browne, for instance, the mid-seventeenth-century physician and essayist, wrote that a person who lived to be 70 or 80 "could see about the sixtieth part" of time and thus experience "a curt Epitome of the whole course thereof" (Toulmin, 1975). The immortal line by the obscure Victorian poet John William Burgon, "A rose-red city half as old as time," was not a nebulously evocative metaphor; it meant precisely that the city of Petra was about 3,000 years old. By the time of Kant in the late eighteenth century, or that of Charles Lyell, the chief founder of modern geology, in the early nineteenth, it was becoming clear the earth had been around for at least tens or hundreds of millions of years, up to the more recent estimate of about five billion years. The discovery of what Stephen Jay Gould (1987) has called "deep time" started to take hold at a popular level - unevenly, of course, as the ongoing presence of young-earth creationists attests - in the nineteenth century. In 1841 Ralph Waldo Emerson invited his readers to "respect the Naturlangsamkeit which hardens the ruby in a million years, and works in duration in which Alps and Andes come and go like rainbows" (1981, p. 211). Suddenly even our most enduring monuments seemed subject to transience.

The expansions of space and time, which have only continued in both size and strangeness over the past century, teach us something about communication. Astronomy and geology both practise the art of reading records that come from far-off times and places. Such interpretation must always grapple with the distortions that attend transmissions across distances. These two sciences are hermeneutic in that they read "texts" removed from their original situation. In both geology and astronomy, as I will argue below, "the medium is the message" in a profound way. Like Marxism, psychoanalysis, archaeology, and papyriology, to name only a few, astronomy and geology are historical sciences that share the fundamental insight of media studies: texts cannot be interpreted apart from an interpretation of the processes that produced them.

The pairing of astronomy and geology as the sciences of space and time, respectively, was already a commonplace by the late eighteenth century, for example, in the writings of James Hutton. As Lyell put it in his epoch-making Principles of Geology (1830-1833): "The senses had for ages declared the earth to be at rest, until the astronomer taught that it was carried through space with inconceivable rapidity. In like manner was the surface of this planet regarded as having remained unaltered since its creation, until the geologist proved that it had been the theatre of reiterated change, and was still the subject of slow but never ending fluctuations" (Lyell, 1830/1991, vol. 1, p. 73). Both astronomy and geology are schools in immensity. Lyell wrote of "ruins," a trope beloved of the romantics but borrowed from the baroque, and was explicit in his textual metaphors. The geologist had the task of "deciphering monuments" and reading the "ancient memorials of nature . . . written in a living language" (p. 75). Though geological memorials were written in a living language, they were fallible, partial, and fragmentary. By studying the processes that shape the earth today, such as erosion or sedimentation, one could, thought Lyell, also view the same processes that had gone into both writing and obliterating so much of the text of its past. The confidence in the sameness of geological process across historical time (as opposed to creationist or other cataclysms) was central to Lyell's famous "uniformitarianism," a term coined by William Whewell, one of the English language's great coiners.

Lyell's disciple, Charles Darwin, advanced the textual metaphor for the earth in chapter 10 of The Origin of Species (1859), "On the Imperfection of the Geological Record," a treasure trove of reflections on the methodological problem of how to draw inferences from an incomplete record of deep time - a problem relevant not only to paleontology, but to astronomy, archaeology, and many kinds of historical interpretation. Like Freud, Darwin reads not only the distorted pieces, but the meaning of the distortions and the trauma. Darwin's chapter answers an objection: if organic evolution occurs by "innumerable transitional links" (Darwin, n.d., p. 234), why is the record so full of gaps? "Why then is not every geological formation and stratum full of such intermediate links?" Darwin appeals to the nature of the recording medium. His argument turns on what the twentieth century would call a sampling problem: it is the geological record that is jagged, not the real (but inaccessible) history of life itself. If we had a full archive of life's history we would readily find all the intermediate links. (Darwin does not consider the possibility that life's history is itself catastrophic rather than smooth. This was a rival position in his era, but a friendly amendment in the twentieth century in Gould's disputed notion of "punctuated equilibrium.")

Wreckage, immensity, ruins - Darwin has an acute sense of the sublime. He shares with figures such as poets Wordsworth and Hopkins, among many other nineteenth-century intellectuals, belief in the moral or intellectual edification, often harsh, provided by the contemplation of nature: "a man should examine for himself the great piles of superimposed strata, and watch the rivulets bringing down mud, and the waves wearing away the sea-cliffs, in order to comprehend something about the duration of past time, the monuments of which we see all around us" (Darwin, n.d., p. 236). "It is good to wander along the coast," he continues, endorsing the reveries of a wandering nature-lover. The rocky coastlines of England, with their erosion of the soft and endurance of the hard, prove the sublime truth of uniformitarian assumptions by revealing the selective preservation of history. "Nothing impresses the mind with the vast duration of time, according to our ideas of time, more forcibly than the conviction thus gained that subaerial agencies which apparently have so little power, and which seem to work so slowly, have produced great results" (p. 237). In geological history, there are "blank periods of enormous length." "The consideration of these various facts impresses the mind in almost the same manner as does the vain endeavor to grapple with the idea of eternity" (p. 238). Darwin is one of many nineteenth-century thinkers who stretch the sense of duration, and geology provides "facts leading the mind feebly to comprehend the lapse of time" (p. 236). His Lyellian epigram is relevant for many kinds of inquiries besides paleontology: "We can best gain some idea of past time by knowing the agencies at work" (p. 236). Contemporary processes explain historical ones - the doctrine of "actualism," as it is called in geology. Whereas Wordsworth found in contemplation of nature a moral, even spiritual edification, and Emerson thought "the consideration of the great periods and spaces of astronomy induces a dignity of mind and indifference to death" (Emerson, 1981, p. 737), Darwin saw both sublime immensity and scientific truth.

The chapter's peroration must be a locus classicus for nineteenth-century textualism: "For my part, following out Lyell's metaphor, I look at the geological record as a history of the world imperfectly kept, and written in a changing dialect; of this history we possess the last volume alone, relating only to two or three countries. Of this volume, only here and there a short chapter has been preserved; and of each page, only here and there a few lines. Each word of the slowly changing language, more or less different in the successive chapters, may represent the forms of life, which are entombed in our consecutive formations, and which falsely appear to have been abruptly introduced. On this view, the difficulties above discussed are greatly diminished, or even disappear" (Darwin, n.d., p. 255). Darwin's earth is a library in which the books have been pillaged, scattered, censored, and burnt. (It looks rather like Lacan's unconscious.) His theory of evolution is clearly kin to the other historicist sciences emerging in the nineteenth century, from archaeology and astronomy to philology and psychoanalysis, all of which read weak signals sent across great distances and interference. For Darwin and Lyell, the earth is a recording medium - a profoundly fallible one. At best it inscribes ruins, enigmas, and hieroglyphics; at worst, blank stretches of oblivion. In their conviction that history can be memorialized only in fragments, Lyell and Darwin form one strand in a modern conversation about the nature of media inscription. They find a certain melancholy edification in the spectacle of life's wreckage. (Natural selection is itself one such spectacle.) Forgetfulness and loss are the way of the universe. Alps and Andes vanish like rainbows.

Reading the book of nature in the earth and the air

A contrasting view insisted on the preservation of all that has ever occurred. Charles Babbage, the nineteenth-century polymath whose analytic and difference engines are hailed as the ancestors of modern computers, wrote these extraordinary words in 1838:

[W]hat a strange chaos is this wide atmosphere we breathe! Every atom, impressed with good and ill, retains at once the motions which philosophers and sages have imparted to it, mixed and combined in ten thousand ways with all that is worthless and base. The air itself is one vast library, on whose pages are for ever written all that man has ever said or woman whispered. There, in their mutable but unerring characters, mixed with the earliest, as well as with the latest sighs of mortality, stand for ever recorded, vows unredeemed, promises unfulfilled, perpetuating in the united movements of each particle, the testimony of man's changeful will. (Babbage, 1838/1989, p. 36)

In his belief that "the air we breathe is the never-failing historian of the sentiments we have uttered," Babbage reflects the physics of his French acquaintance Laplace (1814, pp. 2-3), who believed that everything that occurs is caught in a vast web of minute cause-effect relations. To any intelligence able to process the subtlety and quantity of the infinitesimal vibrations thus recorded, the universe would be an infinite library of sights, sounds, and events. For Babbage nothing is lost to cosmic memory. He thought the air a library, but to us it seems more like a immense camera-cum-tape recorder. Talk about a recording medium!

Babbage's vision of a kind of perfectly accurate and complete inscription is "a founding charter of all analog media" (Kittler, 1995, p. 291). Writing one year before photography's official discovery in 1839, Babbage dreams of "characters" infinitesimally inscribing every thought, word, or deed. Contemporary observers of the analog media of photography and phonography - writers of light and sound, respectively - used Babbage-like language of a recording process capable of infinitesimal subdivision. In 1840, Edgar Allan Poe, for instance, proclaimed that a daguerreotype was "infinitely" more perfect than a painting could ever be. "If we examine a work of ordinary art, by means of a powerful microscope, all traces of resemblance to nature will disappear - but the closest scrutiny of a photogenic drawing discloses only a more absolute truth, a more perfect identity of aspect with the thing represented" (Poe, 1840/1980, p. 38). Poe's belief that photography's representational fidelity held across levels of magnification was echoed by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., in 1859: "[O]ne may creep over the surface of a picture with his microscope and find every leaf perfect, or read the letters of distant signs . . ." (p. 73). Such microscopic fantasies overlook the lower limits of depiction of photography - at some point detail will give way to graininess - but we should take such ideas as metaphysical beliefs about analog media, not as descriptions of photography. "Theoretically, a perfect photograph is absolutely inexhaustible. In a picture you can find nothing which the artist has not seen before you; but in a perfect photograph there will be as many beauties lurking, unobserved, as there are flowers that blush unseen in forests and meadows" (Holmes, 1859/1980, pp. 77-78). Key parts of the plots of the films Blow-Up and Blade Runner are already here, the idea that you can dive into the hidden micro-realms of photographs. If one seeks an origin of the ideology of photographic objectivity, look no further.

A marvellous statement on cosmic recording comes from the late Victorian photographer William Jerome Harrison: "[E]very action which has ever occurred on this sun-lit earth of ours - or indeed, for that matter, anywhere within the illuminated universe - is recorded by the action of light" (1886, p. 23). Harrison makes explicit what Babbage and others only assumed: that to catch the inscriptions written in light one would have to exceed its speed. If we could do so, Harrison reasons, we could travel into space and catch the records made by the waves. As we caught up with these hurtling photo-documents, we would see events unfurled before us in reverse order - our own youth, the lives of our parents and ancestors. "History would unfold itself to us. We should only have to continue the journey long enough to see Waterloo and Trafalgar fought out before our eyes; we should learn the truth as to the vaunted beauty of the Queen of Scots; and the exact landing place of Julius Caesar on the shores of Britain would no longer be a mystery" (Harrison, 1886, p. 23). Harrison invokes several staples of time travel, from gazing at beauties to resolving historical mysteries, all within the frame of British nationalism, but he articulates the dream of outer space as a broadcast archive written in light and scattering at its speed, a theme in such films as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Contact. Harrison's discovery is this: light's transmission is also a recording. The endless record is found in the motion of light through outer space. The transmissions of light across the cosmos constitute a mobile archive. Recording (saving time) and transmission (bridging space) are indistinguishable in his picture.

In commentary by Edison and others on his invention of the phonograph in 1877, there is a similar confidence in the infinitesimal continuity of phonographic sound-tracings, and a similar glimmering of the discovery of the ultimate unity of recording and transmission. Edison's aim originally was to improve telegraph transmission: to make a repeater that would store words without the labour of the human hand or errors of human attention. Copying of any kind corrupts, and the electrical telegraph required the copying, amplification, or relay of messages to cover long distances. The phonograph would, instead, disable the human or mechanical intermediary and enable undistorted sending at a distance by catching direct voice dictation in a stable form. The phonograph recast the problem of transmission as a problem of recording. The desire to transcend distance inspired a device for preserving time. To send a message (transmission), it must be preserved from death or corruption in transit (recording). Recording and transmission turn out to be reversible: you unzip a recording to get a transmission, or zip up a transmission to get a recording. To transmit, one must record the data in some form; to record, one must alienate the original by sending its data somewhere else. Stored time means shrunken space. Today in computer architecture, memory means both storage and processing. Edison's inadvertent discovery - that sending and saving are twin faces of the same communication circuit - foreshadows, arguably, the cosmological imagination of twentieth-century physics with its time-space continuum. The technical experiences preceded the theoretical insights. The humble phonograph, like Harrison's light zooming through outer space, shows that transmission and recording, at least in theory or in cosmic extremis, are one.

The clash between continuous and discrete, complete and partial visions of recording media resonates to this day. Darwin's emphasis on the imperfection of the geological record already announces his opposition to the Laplacean idealism running from Babbage to Harrison that everything is preserved in minutely continuous causal networks. Statistical mechanics and quantum physics, which showed that the infinitesimal continuum was full of randomness and uncertainty instead of order and knowability and that phenomena get more bouncy rather than clearer the more closely you look at them, was a dagger in the heart of such dreams - as was, later, digital recording: at closer levels of magnification, one does not find progressively finer tracings, but the step-wise quanta of pixels or sound-samplings. Digital media teach us to be content with approximations and deny the desire for a natural and infinite correspondence between original and copy (Rothenbuhler & Peters, 1997). Admittedly, the contrast of Darwin and Babbage is not exactly or only that of digital and analog; even so, Darwin finds an inevitable loss in every transmission, and Babbage envisions the possibility of a fullness in recording.

The space-time continuum

In traditional history and textual interpretation, the problem of transmission concerns inferences about the history of how texts are preserved and handed down. Textual survival does not necessarily mean textual integrity; as both Innis and McLuhan noted of manuscript culture, copying introduces scribal errors, opinions, emendations, and other corruptions that can only be exposed with the painstaking comparison of variants. Likewise students of the geological record or the ancient light falling on telescopes must account for how the history of the earth or universe has shaped what we receive now. Both geology and astronomy face the problem of belated reception, interpreting messages that come posthumously, as it were, after long delays. Both sciences are always also media studies; they necessarily study not only content, but signal and channel properties as well (this is also true of quantum physics). And, as it has become increasingly clear in the past two centuries, geology has no monopoly on deep time; the deep space of astronomy turns out to be inseparable from deep time. To gaze into the depths of the universe is not only to look far off into space but far back into time. The light we see from distant galaxies is old. A supernova recently witnessed may have occurred billions of years ago. Astronomy is not, as Auguste Comte thought, the purest science next to mathematics (because only observation and no experimental manipulation was possible); it is, again, like geology, a historical science. The universe is its fossil record. Any light that hits our retinas is evidence from an earlier point in time. Telescopes are machines of time travel as of space-spanning; we might well call them paleoscopes. The farther we see into the universe, the farther we see into deep history. Dealing in an enormous universe has taught us that all emanations come out of the past. All transmissions are records. Outer space is outer time.

Perhaps it was William Herschel, discoverer of the planet Uranus, organist and court astronomer to King George III, who first discovered the unity of space and time in astronomical observation. As he noted about 200 years ago, "A telescope with the power of penetrating into space has also, as it may be called, a power of penetrating into time past." He boasted, with eminent justification, that he had seen more deeply into time and space than anybody in history. "I have looked further into space than ever human being did before me. . . . I have observed stars of which the light, it can be proved, must take two million years to reach the earth" (Panek, 1998, p. 119). Herschel advanced the trend summarized by Innis: "In astronomy time was extended to infinity" (1992, p. 63). In fact, recent astronomical observations suggest that the age of the universe, though immense, is actually finite, around 13 or 14 billion years old. Thanks to the Hubble Deep Field, a series of images taken by the Hubble telescope in 1996 of a small window of deep space - which scientists have predictably compared to a "geological dig through layer after layer of a 'core sample' of the universe" (Panek, 1998, p. 1) - it is now possible to receive light (and of course a much greater spread of wavelengths as well) more than 10 billion years old. The Hubble Deep Field may see to the edges of the observable universe, which should be the same as looking back to its beginning. It is an odd thought that seeing far enough might be able to view the beginning of it all. Innis broke open the time span of communication theory by inviting reflection on the millennia of communication across civilizations but, even this, in the large scheme of things, is relatively brief! Seeing far is seeing back. Pictures from the edge of the universe may be like postcards from the beginning of time.

May be. Ten billion light-years is a long way to travel. All the evidentiary problems that face historians of the earth's crust, the biblical text, or Mycenae hold for interpreters of ancient light as well. "We cannot magnify the object without magnifying the medium," said Herschel in 1800 (1912, p. 49). That is, telescopes work by penetration, not magnification, since the latter would simply enlarge the column of air between the telescope and the distant object. It would be hard to find a more profound statement for our field: we cannot study the object without studying the medium. In astronomy, the medium is the message. The very fact that evidence of distant bodies exists at all is a chief problem for interpretation. What events have shaped and distorted optical, radio, and other signals as they travelled for billions of years through superclusters of galaxies?

Consider the discovery of the red shift in astronomical imaging in the 1920s. According to the Doppler effect, waves emanating from receding objects lengthen and waves from approaching objects shrink. Light from distant cosmic sources shifts into the lower, i.e., red and infrared, optical frequencies, because the sources are moving away from us, still rocked by the explosion of the big bang. Instead of rejecting reddened images from distant sources as corrupted, cosmologists such as Hubble and Gamow saw that the redness was a chief fact of interest, a clue as to the distance, age, and speed of cosmic phenomena. In 1913, the Andromeda nebula was calculated to be moving away from us at 300 kilometres per second (automotive enthusiasts would be pleased with a car that went 300 kilometres per hour!), and the universe continues to hurl itself outward at appalling speeds; astronomers now use red shift measures as units of age, like growth rings in a tree. Astronomers recognized that a perturbation of the channel was not the ruin of the message, but a message in its own right. Instead of clinging to the epistemological yearning for a pure image, of unsullied evidence, they read the distortions as meaningful in the same way that, say, historians of medieval French can use copying errors in manuscripts as evidence of linguistic forms otherwise unattested. Canadian communication theory takes similar advantage by reading the apparent extras (media) as essentials (messages), valuing the raw fact of papyrus or linear type, say, as much as the writings that they record and transmit.

Innis and McLuhan had the intuition that the minutiae of media practices foreshadow much larger cosmological issues. A compelling case for media's central role in cosmology is found in relativity theory. Einstein faced the problem that the universe can communicate with itself only at finite speeds. Information can move no faster than the speed of light. On a cosmic scale, this is not very fast. Media played a central part in the genesis of Einstein's special theory of relativity, as fascinatingly recounted by Peter Galison (2000). The standard story of Einstein's discovery of special relativity in 1905 - a story he himself actively propagated - has him as a lonely bored genius working in the patent office in Bern, Switzerland, his talent being wasted, like that of Kafka, in the service of middle-European bureaucracy, dreaming away of space and time. As it happens, Einstein was not a solitary brain dreaming great thoughts, but an expert situated at the heart of modern media and machines. Though trained as a physicist, Einstein achieved a high degree of competence as an engineer. The theory of relativity has specific technical and imaginative conditions, a "media a priori," as Kittler (1995) would put it.

Galison places Einstein "in a universe of meaning that crossed mechanisms and metaphysics" (2000, p. 387). In the Bern patent office, Einstein was working in the great homeland of clocks, Switzerland; his specific assignment was the review of patent applications having to do with the nexus of the clock and the telegraph. Einstein reviewed signal amplifiers and switching relays that linked clocks into national and international grids - devices that, once transfigured to a higher level of abstraction, provide the imaginative context for relativity theory. The question of "distant simultaneity" - for example, how can two remote clocks be synchronized given that it takes time for light or any other signal to communicate between the two - was not only the founding question of relativity theory, but the question that kept Einstein busy on a daily basis, as proposals crossed his desk for electrical methods and means of coordinating timekeeping at a distance. The patent office was no backwater; it was, as Galison says, "a grandstand seat for the great parade of modern technologies" (p. 389). The examples that inform relativity theory - elevators, train schedules, flashlights, synchronized watches, space travel - do not simply offer good things to think with, but point to the theory's very conditions of possibility. Einstein was a modern man living in a plastic world of space and time. One can hardly imagine relativity theory (or its mathematical ancilla, non-Euclidean geometry) before the nineteenth century and its curious new distortions of speed, time-discipline, and consciousness (Schivelbusch, 1986).

Einstein's great discovery was, as he put it in a 1905 note to a friend, that "there is an inseparable relation between time and signal velocity" (Galison, 2000, p. 375). This impossibly brilliant insight spans from the engineering experience of telegraphic signals - the very matrix of modern media (Carey, 1989, chap. 8) - to the heights and depths of modern cosmology. Time can move no faster than communication. For Newton, gravitation operated instantaneously, irrespective of distance. For Einstein, gravitation is not an action at distance, but a warping of the time-space field; information from a massive object's movement can travel no faster than the speed of light. Relativity is a theory of communication, more specifically, of the universe's difficulty of communicating with itself, if you will, the lack of a cosmic telegraph to sync clocks in distant points. Who would have thought that media had such a central place - not simply a clever metaphor - at the heart of the relativity revolution? Einstein's universe, curiously enough, looks more like the old order of clock time before railroad time, where every town had its own local time (noon set by the point of the shortest shadow) than like the Newtonian regime of Greenwich Mean Time, where the whole planet is centrally coordinated in a single grid. There is no single "now" that pervades the universe. Every now has a radius of dissipation. Every now has a broadcast "footprint" like a satellite, the extent of its transmission or propagation. "Now" can stretch only as far as our signals carry. The universe's ontology is bounded by the speed of its signals. The universe is in incomplete communication with itself. The only thing that holds it together is its common history - what every eye in the universe can see in common.

The unpredictable past

Relativity invites a new way of reflecting about history. In the Einsteinian universe, all messages come out of the past (or from the rear-view mirror). No place in the universe is truly simultaneous with any other; there is no point of shared presence. Even on earth, there is technically no true simultaneity, only its image, thanks to the slowness of our senses. The tidiness of physics on the earth's surface might convince us that Newton was correct; just so, we usually think that past, present, and future are three symmetrical entities like length, breadth, and depth. Seen in the larger scheme, however, perhaps only the past exists. Just as any light we see from Alpha Centauri is 4.3 years old, any communication we receive from another person comes out of the past, undergoing, even in a face-to-face discussion, an infinitesimal delay between departure and arrival. In the infinitely small interval between your utterance and my hearing, the present moment slips away asymptotically, leaving a gap long enough for the universe to end or otherwise change the meaning of the message. That such catastrophes are rare does not mean they are impossible. From the Odyssey to Romeo and Juliet to almost any Hollywood film, a central narrative device is the principle that the slowness of message delivery can determine our fates. Einstein continues in the age-old tragicomic lineage of reflection about messages that never get to the right place at the right time. Like Freud, Samuel Beckett, and the Marx Brothers, Einstein took theoretical advantage of incommunicabilities.

Signal propagation and time are inseparable: our field has hardly begun to understand what this means. Knowledge is necessarily historical, even in sciences where history might seem irrelevant. The universe is a text, a distorted text, that comes from afar - a classic hermeneutical situation. In contrast to Lyell and Darwin's assumptions, recent astronomy prevents us from assuming uniformity in processes. It is possible that some of the basic constants of nature have changed over time (Barrow, 2002, chap. 12). Every glimpse into a telescope receives the message from a repeater, as it were, not the source. We receive what the signal is after its traversal of time, space, and matter, not what it was when it was sent. Messages from the edge of the cosmos suggest that the past may well have played by different rules than the present (for instance, had a different gravitational constant): the present signal we can only interpret as the distorted picture that comes to us after travelling for billions of years across a universe whose shape and very rules may well have since changed.

Our instruments think with us. We probe, at best, the limits of our instruments. The limits of my world are the limits of my language, said Wittgenstein; today, we might want to revise that to my media or instruments. Galileo's telescope, the occhiale or perspicullum, revealed the earth's status as the third of several planets about the sun; Herschel located the solar system in the Milky Way, expanding the cosmos from solar system to galaxy; twentieth-century radio astronomy multiplied the number of galaxies and the Hubble telescope has introduced us to superclusters (Panek, 1998). Who knows what surprises lurk around the corner to be revealed with new instruments? The history of our knowledge is the history of our media. Likewise our knowledge of history is our knowledge of media. The past changes retroactively. As the old quip goes, "Russia is a country with an unpredictable past." What were once rocks became fossils to Lyell and others. What were once clouds became galaxies to Herschel. The past is open to radical revision when it becomes readable in new ways. Galileo saw light a few minutes old from Jupiter's moons, Herschel saw light two million years old, and the Hubble telescope yields signals (not just the relatively narrow optical window) billions of years old. The past has expanded geometrically. Antiquity is modern. New ways of seeing have made the world more full of evidence about its past. In the last two centuries Indo-European origins have been reconstructed; Egyptian and Mayan hieroglyphics, cuneiform, and linear B deciphered; Homer and the Bible, two dominant texts in Europe's past, have been re-read thanks to the higher criticism, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and excavations at Troy; and paleoanthropology has made new horizons for the species. The discovery of DNA reveals that we carry an accumulated species and familial past with us in every cell of our flesh and bones; geology has revealed that the planet itself has a history; and most deeply, we can now imagine back to the beginnings of the cosmos, including quantum subdivisions of the very first second of the big bang. Media of stretching knowledge, vision, and signals have reshaped understanding of space and time. Sometimes these are traditionally understood media (e.g., telegraph, phonograph, and radio), sometimes media in a broader sense (telescope and geology). The past is actually quite recent.

McLuhan, following Innis' discussion of Minerva's owl, observed that the content of a new medium was a previous one. The car, he said, was first known as a horseless carriage. Likewise, the telephone was a speaking telegraph, the radio a wireless telegraph. Thus we walk, as Kierkegaard said, backwards into the future. A new medium's most important effects may lie in its reorganization of the past, not the future. To understand the ways that media shape the cosmos, we need a philosophy of history that recognizes the production of a "new already" (Peters, in press). New emergences reveal what was always there - but was never there before. The American philosopher and mathematician Charles Sanders Peirce, who gave a name to the metaphysical principle of infinitely minute and nested analog representation ("synechism," he called it), dreamed of the future revealing the past: "Give science only a hundred more centuries of increase in geometrical progression, and she may be expected to find that the sound waves of Aristotle's voice have somehow recorded themselves" (quoted in Peters, 1999, p. 162). Like Babbage, Peirce contemplates the retrieval of departed voices from the air, but more importantly, he imagines the past growing more, not less, accessible as time advances. What is loss or oblivion to us today may be text and eloquence tomorrow. New artificial sense organs, from telescopes and geological theories to cameras and phonographs, re-order not only what we can see and hear; they reorganize the historical record. They constitute what even counts as a record and thus change the past. Media are agencies of time and space travel. They are the chief cosmological devices at our disposal. Innis and especially McLuhan knew that quantum physics and modern art alike were intellectual founts for thinking about our modern topsy-turvy world of media and messages. But we, looping through the past, can now see that these thinkers knew this truth better than they thought they did. Minerva's owl, like Einstein's flashlight, does that sort of thing.


  1. The author delivered this plenary address at a conference called "Revisioning Boundaries: New Directions in Communication Studies in Canada" at Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario, April 11, 2003. His introductory comments follow:

    I am glad to be in Canada and for the gracious reception. Sometimes when I contemplate my country, I wish it could be less militaristic, more internationally aware, less scarred by the racist legacy of slavery, and, while we're at it, that it could have access to universal health care - in short, I wish it were more like Canada! Canadians live next door to an elephant that is always rolling over, in the famous metaphor, and must legitimately worry about being mentally and materially colonized by the United States and its culture, but there are counter-longings as well, South to North. We know from a variety of analysts of the inner life of international hegemony (I am not sure if I want to use the words imperialism or colonialism here) such as Sartre, Fanon, Memmi, Spivak, and Bhabha, that mimicry and emulation do not just flow from the bottom up. The master can yearn for the seeming authenticity of the slave; the dominant party can admire the apparent liberty of the subaltern. Relocating to Canada is a remarkably common dream among some sectors of the American public, though accepting a monarch is the ultimate test for most Yankees. And for many communication theorists, Canada is an imagined homeland, a place unafraid of big thoughts about the large meaning of communication in history and modern times, a place communication studies has always been critical, philosophical, and historical at once. So I'm glad to be here.


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