TIME AND SPACE
The most famous Australian spatial metaphor, ‘the tyranny of distance’, invented by the historian Geoffrey Blainey in 1966, became an all-purpose catchphrase to explain not only Australia’s geographical position but also its culture, economy and politics. Whatever the circumstances, they could be explained by Australia’s apparent isolation from its European heritage and, later still, its political reliance on the United States.
The sub-title of Blainey’s book says it all: ‘How distance shaped Australia’s history’. The idea that this one aspect of space is the overall determinant of historical process conveniently ignores Australia’s geographic location and proximity to Asia. Little attention has been paid to an even more recent metaphor: ‘the world is shrinking’, which on the surface appears to be about spatial relations but actually refers to the time an action takes—whether that is to travel by jet to Europe or receive a message via the internet.
Space has been problematic for Australians since the foundation of the modern nation-state. It is a demographic fact that Europeans have settled close to the shores of the island continent, but have drawn their inspiration from its ‘dead heart’, mythologising the bushman and his ideology expressed graphically in the literature of the Bulletin school, best exemplified in the poems of Henry Lawson and the art of Arthur Streeton, and historicised in the work of Russel Ward.
Sparsely populated, seemingly barren and unknowable, the vast bulk of the Australian geographic space was inhabited by the original occupants, who didn’t exist legally until Australia realised it required a degree of antiquity in order to imagine itself fully as a country. Thus space has always been problematic in the construction of the national narrative—viewed as something to be conquered.
In many respects, the media’s role in Australian history has been to conquer space: to end the sense of isolation and to traverse the distance between the margins and the centre. There has been a particular trajectory to this conquest. In the first place, railways not only connected capitals to the productive hinterlands but also standardised time: train timetables—required to ensure safety—meant that people in Kalgoorlie followed the same time regime as those in Perth. The telegraph, closely associated with the introduction and expansion of railways, performed a similar function—albeit on a larger scale. The telegraph not only connected Sydney and Melbourne, but also London to both, as well as linking the cities to the outback, with significant economic consequences. Squatters no longer had to wait three months to discover whether they were solvent, because the telegraph tied Australia firmly to global markets for commodities.
In The Wired Nation (1996), K.T. Living- stone makes a compelling case to regard the history of Australia’s Federation as the history of technological nationalism. The early modern history of Australia is a period where Australians came to terms with the new communication technologies, which in fact ended ‘the tyranny of distance’.
Canadian historian Harold Innis argued persuasively in The Bias of Communication (1952) that space and time are the two axes long which civilisation develops, and that this development is closely allied to the predominant communication technology of an era: civilisations that were static and time bound were dominated by immovable communication technologies, while those characterised by portable means of ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼communication became space oriented. It has become commonplace to argue that the world has shrunk as a consequence of the introduction of space-binding technologies such as radio, television, satellites and computers. This appears to be particularly true for Australia.
During the interwar years, time calls became a standard feature of Australian radio. In Sydney by 1938, 2UE was commencing its broadcasts with The Alarm Clock at 6 a.m., while 2SM broadcast the GPO chimes at 7 a.m. In the push to regulate listening behaviour, and to package parcels of time to sell to advertisers, programmers exhibited an increasing concern about punctuality. Radio was geared to the rhythms dictated by work, household and school.
Radio has now become part of the fabric of modern life, but it was initially considered ‘a marvel’, an ‘unseen voice’ emerging from the ether. Radio transcended space, making people feel connected to their capital city and even to Britain. Radio developed vast networks based on technological innovation, moving from the circulation of huge acetate records, through wire services, microwave links, satellite connections and ultimately the internet, with each step representing the further conquest of Australian space.
A similar pattern emerged with respect to television, which was initially a highly regionalised medium, with true networks only emerging after the introduction of satellite communication. Before that, various technologies were used to link Australia’s urban centres with the rural areas, as television stations were established throughout Australia between 1960 and 1993. Coaxial cable, microwave line-sight links across the continent and the introduction of videotape, which ended the reliance on 16mm film, helped form recognisable networks—particularly the ABC, enabling it to fulfil its charter.
The improvements in technology presented particular political and commercial problems. Politicians, often responding to the demands of their electorates, sought to prevent the creation of monopolies—or at best duopolies—among the television networks, with legislation defining markets and audiences, and prescribing what share of this a network could claim. In short, the technological progress of television had created a situation where centralisation and standardisation made eminent commercial sense but were politically unappealing.
Over a period of 40 years, Australia moved from being a regionalised market for television to one with the potential to service the whole of Australia from a single office in Sydney. This situation was confirmed with the introduction of satellite broadcasting. The problem of Australia’s vast distances had been solved by the introduction of the time-delay mechanism.
However, such views ignore the significance of time as a determinant of culture, civilisation and history. Harold Innis was aware of the problems of undue emphasis on space when he released A Plea for Time (1950). He observed that the fashionable mind was a time-denying mind.
The one significant work on the importance time in the Australian narrative is Graeme Davison’s The Unforgiving Minute (1993). Essentially, Davison’s book is a history of how Australians adjusted to the introduction of international standard time advocated by Sir Stamford Flemming, another Canadian, and finally introduced in 1912.
In agreeing to observe the protocols of standardised time, Australia was effectively divided into three time zones, which were grudgingly accepted and have been subverted ever since due to the inconsistent adoption of daylight saving, thus denying the conquest of distance expressed in standardised television broadcasting.
In March 1964, J. Russell Wiggins, editor of the Washington Post, stated that for geographical reasons a national Australian newspaper was ‘physically not feasible’. Four months later, the Australian proved him wrong. Overcoming the problems of distribution and time differences, it developed two editions: 11 p.m. for Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth, Tasmania and inland New South Wales; and 1.30 a.m. for Sydney and Melbourne.
As the 21st century dawned, the media’s role in telling the time underwent another fundamental transformation. Podcasting, along with digital radio and television, allowed audiences to listen to programs of their own choice at times of their own choosing.
REFs: L. Edmonds and B. Shoesmith, ‘Making Culture out of the Air—Radio and Television’, in G. Bolton et al., Farewell Cinderella (2003); H. Mayer, The Press in Australia (1968 edn); A. Moyal, Clear Across Australia (1984).