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section heading icon     periodisation

This page considers periodisation.

It covers -

section marker     introduction

Journalists and proponents of internet exceptionalism have referred to "the Age of the Internet" or promoted notions such as 'Business 2.0' and 'Education 2.0', supposedly somehow unique and entirely distinctive of our epoch.

Are we living in the Age of the Net, with earlier generations living in the age of television, steam age, radio age or epoch of another technology and communications medium?

Does periodisation say more about the person articulating that period than it says about a technology, economy or culture. "Sex" for example wasn't really "discovered" in 1911 or 1964 (despite claims by Virginia Woolf and Philip Larkin) and a peculiarly French hubris is required for periodisation that divides history into before and after Parisian street theatre in mid 1968.

Historians, publicists and literary scholars have typically deployed four types of periodisation to promote regimes (eg Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany), bundle attributes (the Renaissance, the Enlightenment), illustrate a thesis (the Steam Age, Age of Elecricity, the Time of Troubles, the Dark Ages, Age of Appeasement or Age of Anxiety) or bestow approval.

One basis for periodisation is the "merely chronological", with a count of years from a particular event - eg the birth of Christ or Hegira - or other time (eg reigns, centuries).

Such a periodisation embodies a worldview (before and after Christ or Muhammad) or power relationships (eg centred on the person of a monarch, with law reports and legislation being tied to regnal dates).

It may instead represent an intellectual shorthand that elides diversity and complexity, with 'the Victorian period' for example often represented as a caricature of sexual repression and literary stodge that is supposedly different from the vivacity, even raciness, of the 'Georgians' and 'Edwardians'.

Another periodisation uses a biological analogy, typically a cycle of birth/emergence, juvenile growth, maturity, senescence and death or decay.

That periodisation reflects conceptions of nations, regions and civilisations as spinning on a wheel of fortune (rise and fall, birth and rebirth), at the mercy of cosmic weather (a Prague Spring blighted by a cold snap) or progressing from 'dark' ages through 'middle ages' to 'modern times' and 'postmodernity'.

A third periodisation model embodies what the author considers to be the fundamental attribute of a culture in a particular period of time, with that period having a meaning in itself and readily distinguishable from earlier/later periods (which might be of longer or shorter duration).

Those attributes might not have been experienced by or even had much effect on most people in a particular epoch. Italian peasants (let alone their peers in Nortern and Eastern Europe) were not conscious that they were living in 'The Renaissance', did not engage in a dialogue with humanists or translate Latin poetry to each other after a day in the fields. Arguably they were most affected by the diffusion of double entry bookkeeping, which facilitated greater control of tenants. we don't, however, refer to the Age of Paccioli.

A fourth type of periodisation - influential despite or indeed because of its polemical nature - defines a period through blessing or condemnation ... the Age of Gold, Age of Innocence, Decade of Greed and so forth.

section marker     glib taglines, frequently applied

Journalists, scholars, politicians and pundits have been quick to proclaim that we are living in "the age of the internet".

A cursory Google search will thus throw up results such as -

  • The Golden Age of the Internet: Enjoy it while you can
  • Learning in the Age of the Internet
  • Job search in the age of Internet
  • Storytelling in the Age of the Internet
  • The professional service encounter in the age of the Internet: an exploratory study
  • Scholarly Publishing in the Age of the Internet
  • Cyberpolitics: Citizen Activism in the Age of the Internet
  • From lackey to leader: the evolution of the librarian in the age of the Internet
  • Media Literacy in the Age of the Internet
  • Sociology in the Age of the Internet
  • Legal Reasoning and Legal Change in the Age of the Internet
  • Cyberscience: Research In The Age Of The Internet
  • The Age of the Internet has arrived. Books have become decorations
  • Literacy Theory in the Age of the Internet
  • Reconciling Canadian Content Requirements in the Age of the Internet
  • Democratic Processes in the Age of the Internet
  • Cinephilia in the Age of the Internet
  • Identity in the Age of the Internet
  • Performance Analysis In the Age of the Internet: A New Paradigm
  • The abdication of the Intellectual in the Age of the Internet
  • In the Age of the Internet, Whatever Will Be Will Be Free
  • Free Expression in the Age of the Internet
  • Can Public Consent Still Be Engineered In the Age of The Internet?
  • The Robot in the Garden: Telerobotics and Telepistemology in the Age of the Internet
  • Global ethics in the age of the Internet
  • Networks of Innovation: Change and Meaning in the Age of the Internet
  • Coming out in the age of the internet: Identity demarginalization through virtual group participation
  • Informational Privacy in the Age of the Internet
  • Media Regulation in the Age of the Internet
  • Nation Building in the Age of the Internet: The Phenomenon of 'NationNets'
  • Text-E: Text in the Age of the Internet
  • Social Interaction in the Age of the Internet
  • Newspapers In The Age Of The Internet: Adding Interactivity To Objectivity
  • Telephone Thinking in the Age of the Internet
  • Organisational Culture in the Age of the Internet
  • Citizenship in the Age of the Internet
  • Office Lingo in the Age of the Internet

section marker     whose 'age of the internet'?

We can ask, if we are living in 'The Age of the Internet', whose internet and what internet?

To adapt William Gibson's quip about the future, past ages were unevenly distributed.

Some regions experienced particular ages before others. The 1930s for example might have been the 'Radio Age' in metropolitan Germany and the US but much of Africa and Papua New Guinea remained in the 'stone age', sans jazz and telecommunications, and have only caught up in recent decades.

Some regions did not experience a particular age at all. The Thirty Years War and Russian Time of Troubles in early modern Europe were for example distant rumbles for the rulers of China and unheard by clerics in Timbuktu or hunter gatherers near Uluru.

Essentialist periodisation in characterising an epoch's start, finish and nature

In the 'age of the internet' - golden or otherwise - substantial number of people remain offline (with a range of divides relating to education, physical disability, the unavailability of infrastructure or the prohibitive cost of access where infrastructure is available).

section marker     videosphere to noosphere?

Much periodisation regarding electronic media is triumphalist and teleological, with innovation portrayed as an inevitable and virtuous progression from barbarism to "the End of History".

French gadfly Regis Debray for example adapted McLuhan, Toynbee and de Chardin in suggesting a new periodisation for the "mediasphere" - "material forms and processes" through which its ideas transmitted, "the communication networks that enable thought to have a social existence".

His periodisation encompasses -

  • the logosphere - "that long period stretching from the invention of writing (and of clay tablets, papyrus, parchment scrolls) to the coming of the printing press" - with reception of information on the basis that "God dictates, man transcribes"
  • the graphosphere - "from 1448 to around 1968: from the Gutenberg Revolution to the rise of tv", with "three successive chapters: reformation, republic, revolution". The graphosphere is the age in which "the image is subordinate to the text" and "the poet or artist emerges as guarantor of truth"
  • the videosphere - beginning in May 1968 and characterised as "the age of the image, in which the book is knocked off its pedestal and the visible triumphs over the great invisibles - God, History, Progress - of the previous epochs".

Debray argued that

This mediological periodization allows us to situate the life-cycle of socialism, that great fallen oak of political endeavour, within the last 150 years of the graphosphere; and to explore its ecosystem, so to speak, through its processes of propagation. Socialism will not be treated here in terms of the intrinsic value of any of its branches. Rather, the aim will be to grasp the common mediological basis that underlies all its doctrinal ramifications - from Fourier to Marx, Owen to Mao, Babeuf to Blum - by approaching it as an ensemble composed of men (militants, leaders, theoreticians), tools of transmission (books, schools, newspapers), and institutions (factions, parties, associations). The ecosystem takes the form of a particular sociotope, a milieu for the reproduction of certain kinds of life and thought.



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version of September 2007
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