geo- (“earth”) + -gram (“something written or recorded”) n. earth-record
Growing up, I was always fascinated by the news, and as a child, television news was the earliest form accessible to me. The 24-hour news cycle was taking its first unsteady steps as I toddled through mine, and although the parade of pearl-toothed half-bodies had not always coursed through our living room (cable still being something of a luxury), the synonymity of news and the unfurling of the day was a phenomenon whose maturation paralleled my own.
Like others of my generation, I grew up with my particular news families, anchored (literally!) by mom and dad delivering the news (or two dads or two moms, clearly an early attempt by the librul media to infiltrate our homes and draw us into the moral abyss). I was devastated when one of them would sit us down in front of the set and announce it wasn’t our fault but that they would soon be snuggling up with some upmarket audience while I enjoyed my Kraft with the remaining parent’s new thing. I was a child of news divorce.
Despite the philanderings of news personalities, the stories remained. Always and never the same, the servings of terrible weather puns, state fair costumes, substance-enhanced sports reports, and death–always death–were placed neatly alongside the mac-and-cheese and the Cheerios during my daily meals. The early coincidence of mealtimes and broadcast news shows reinforced that news was for consumption.
Once we finally had cable consistently, these neat blocks of stories began spilling out into an ever-lengthening stream of reports, updates, analysis, re-analysis, and don’t-miss-it bumpers. Though novel at first, the news soon was like the flower vase on the table was or my impenetrable biology homework was. Following 9/11, news was-ed in much more paranoid, sinister ways: we now always waited for the figure in the decorative painting against the wall to move, for the Event to explode from the mundane.
Mostly, however, the news was boring. Newspapers and magazines had been largely for grownups through adolescence, something to peer over glasses at and smoke to. Because my wealth equaled exactly zero throughout childhood, I didn’t contribute to the bills that brought TV news into my world: it was free. Newspapers were for adults because newspapers weren’t free. Their appearance in our household was subject to parental financial discretion, and at times there were more pressing concerns like, you know, food and utilities. Occasionally you could pick through scraps on Sundays, but that was usually for comics, with serious reading reserved for the books I tore through for recreation and to amass Accelerated Reader points. My favorite pastime growing up was libraryhopping, but the dusty periodicals in the front were but pennies to the riches of tales of long-ago frontier life, imaginative Canadian redheads, and disorders of the mind. Magazines were more interesting and visual than newspapers but were largely limited to soap opera rags hidden surreptitiously behind Sports Illustrated or muscle car covers at grocery checkouts.
And then, the Big Bang. The second, technically, but of only slightly less significance than the first. Whereas the first brought into being all of spacetime and its accompanying physics, this one brought into being an information-time, if you will, that fundamentally changed our relationship to knowledge, time, reality, and each other. Information was now a part of a medium whose tendency bent towards its generation and openness, though there has been no dearth of regimes–political, economic, and otherwise–attempting to wrestle it down.
As the Internet became more than something to wrestle the phone line out of family members’ grip for, the written word returned with much bigger artillery to challenge the primacy of television as an information and entertainment source. For one, there were more options; and two, I controlled when and how I accessed the information. I was no longer dependent on the editorial choices of a select number of production outfits; I was dependent on the creative and editorial forces of a wide range of production outfits, some of whom were not even affiliated with major publications or channels. Even I could be one of those outfits: my early participation in the fledgling yet vibrant community of online soap operas (another story for another, faraway time) demonstrated as much. As an aficionado-ling, I still depended on the work of others to point me in the direction of quality, relevance, and trustworthiness, but continual engagement ensured that I was soon able to tailor content to my tastes. Before long, technology itself began assisting with curating the massive amount of information pouring into the World Wide Web.
The love only grew from there. Heading to college, I became more dependent on the Internet to keep me connected to the happenings of the world. Televisions were mostly for twentieth-screenings of Wedding Crashers and weekly viewings of reality masterpieces like I Love New York. Print journalism was steadily losing step, and social networking platforms, the rise of online video, and increasingly sophisticated web design were slowly turning stories into “content” just as my newly minted college degree transformed me into a full-fledged adult (purportedly).
We had both struggled through adolescence in the ’90s and ’00s. I through ill-fitting pants, unattractive glasses, acne, and braces. Contemporary news through awkward cable shows and the wild terrain of the early Internet (is this a news chatroom or a “news” chatroom?). But we’re both still here somehow and still deeply connected, though we look a bit different from our earlier selves. It’s that deep connection I am looking to explore now. Though no journalist by trade, I have always believed in the possibilities of the news: to inform, to educate, to inspire, to connect, to imagine, and most powerfully of all, to tell stories.
Many of our most critical historical transformations as a species have resulted from transformations in our abilities to tell stories to ourselves. Our lives were altered when the monopoly on news was wrested from oral culture with the introduction of writing, later paper, later still the printing press, and on through the explosion in communications technologies of the last two centuries leading to our current digital era. A fundamental instrument in our ability to construct shared values and histories and articulate what doesn’t yet exist but could be, storytelling–in whatever form–provides a bedrock from which to build family, community, and society. It makes possible the web of interconnections that, taken in its entirety, defines globality, or a truly planetary whole.
In its attention to current events and the “world-as-is,” journalism is a unique form of storytelling. Its early history is long and at times ill-defined: from the administrative decrees issued and recorded in ancient times for the purposes of the exercise and maintenance of power to the rise of business- and economically focused broadsheets and pamphlets of the early modern period to the eventual appearance of politically minded publications and the daily in the early moments of the industrial era, a wide range of activities look, in hindsight, to be “the news.” Its coalescence as an industry over the last two centuries, however, has been marked by its diversification and entrenchment in civil and political society to the point of inextricability.
Which brings us back to the beginning of this story. The contemporary history of news has been one of its continuing permeation of all aspects of everyday life. The 24-hour cycle, social media, virality, and mobile computing have all in some way contributed to a plugged-in journalism that emphasizes speed, breadth, accumulation, and openness. It’s a journalism of circulation over dissemination, collaboration over autonomy, and the former stalwarts still struggle to keep up. Its expanse and the extent to which it connects farflung peoples leads us to the second part of this story.
Growing up, I was mesmerized by geography and all of its paraphernalia. Maps, atlases, globes, and other cartographic treasures could arrest my attention for hours on end. The symbolic, scaled-down representations of the world around me struck an early chord, prefiguring later fascinations from language theory to transportation systems and beyond. Somehow, the entire stage on which the greatest historical acts to the smallest everyday gestures played out could be held between my two hands: observed, known, and felt. My mother still jokes that it worked out that we didn’t have much money since what I wanted could be bought for a few dollars at a gas station (thanks, Rand McNally!).
Maps in the ’90s were curious artifacts. Each one was a historical record of a dynamic moment where our understanding of the oversized islands we billions inhabit was in flux: wars, strife, and diplomatic accords pushed borders this way and that, cleaving and yoking disparate peoples and naming and renaming lands in the furious making and unmaking of nations in the new world order of the late 20th century. One atlas might have Zaire while another the Democratic Republic of Congo. Your hand could brush part of Yugoslavia on one globe and Serbia, Slovenia, and Croatia on another. Enclaves and exclaves freckled the world to varying degrees depending on what you had managed to get your hands on. Yet ultimately the globe was still round and the lands still their funny little shapes in every map. An aphorism found early meaning for me: the more things were changing, the more they could only stay the same.
Though I never traveled beyond the borders of my country as a child, I could at times grasp that life on my small patch of the globe was different from other places. Some places had the tan shading indicating that the dense brush covering the hill behind my grandmother’s house was nowhere to be found, while others were the deep green cut with bright blue lines that held wet, forested wonders beyond my comprehension. Still, there were people in those places, and they–like me–ate, slept, awoke, and lived, which somehow blew my preadolescent mind. Rather than one world, there seemed to be an unimaginable number of parallel worlds vibrating in this great planetary cauldron. Images of these parallel worlds poured in from–you guessed it!–the news, their meaning neatly articulated by the headlines, ledes, captions, and talking heads. The news populated the maps that so captured my imagination, bringing the world back down to scale even as it referenced faraway places.
It took me a while, however, to grow into the significance of what I was seeing, the daily struggles packaged into clips and trafficked before my eyes. I soon connected stories of the billions of impoverished people around the world to the people I witnessed suffering on the streets of my own cities, found similarities between the struggles of persecuted minorities of unheard of name to access resources and dignity and the struggles of U.S. minorities to achieve full recognition and enfranchisement, wondered what our responsibilities were to people thousands of miles away when so much of what our world had materialized into had been built by their hands. The world was becoming smaller but our obligations ever larger. There was an increasing sense that the abstract wonder of tracing borders in my grandmother’s atlases no longer sufficed.
Every map is a story, and there are limitless ways to draw our interconnections to one another and the world we live on. But ultimately, the atlas is a call not merely to knowledge, but to action.