Why new media require us to rethink time/space relations.?


Examine why new media require us to rethink time/space relations.

“Space and time are basic categories of human existence” (Harvey, 1989: p.201)

The ability of humans to create, change, adapt to and enhance their surroundings, their interactions, and their lifestyle has been an incredible feat throughout mankind's existence. Even ancient inventions such as the wheel or the discovery of fire have propelled human's forward, enabling them to build tremendous, continuously developing infrastructures throughout the world. With these ever-developing infrastructures in place, the rapidity of movement and communication has been constantly increasing. They have effectively shortened the time it takes to cross a certain distance. Time and space are the main factors of being; our movements, daily routines and interactions are entirely based around them. However, with technologies ranging from telegraphic communication to the internet and the mobile phone, time is, in some aspects of social live, not only being shortened but is becoming detached from space itself causing us to reconsider how time and space are actually related to each other.

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The concepts and parameters of time and space are particularly hard to define due to their complexity as Harvey (1989: p.203) states: “the objective qualities of physical time-space cannot be understood, therefore independently of the qualities of material processes.” We have learned to measure them and therefore have given them a basic characterization, so that there is a certain logical feeling to time and space, a sense of passive control. Without matter, time and space have no importance. Modern existence has revolved around understanding and ultimately decreasing time in order to shorten space. Due to mobility inventions starting with the horse cart and ending with the jet plane, the space we move backwards and forwards in has become compressed, while the measurements of space itself has not changed. Time was until the invention of the clock, hard to pin down. Obviously individuals were able to make out periods of a day (morning, midday, night), but there were no proper time periods, no sense of timely organization. With the clock, society became more structured. Employees were allocated work hours, social meetings could be allocated to a specific hour in the day and a clear timely division between work time and recreational time was put in place. During the industrialisation and even nowadays, this time control has put an exact time structure for allocated movements in an allocated space. It allowed bureaucratic systems to emerge, with which control and structure was implemented into social live. The clock's effect is immense, possibly just like the internet is having an effect on society in post modern society. Space on the other hand is more straightforward for individuals to perceive. Harvey describes space in a social context as “‘stations' (places where certain activities like working, shopping etc. occur) and ‘domains' where certain social interactions prevail” (Harvey, 1989: p.211) However, defining space as stations and domains, could also be seen as an oversimplification of space itself. This definition, as Harvey even states himself “makes no attempt to understand why certain social relations dominate others, or how meaning gets assigned to places, spaces, history, and time.” (Harvey, 1989: p. 212) This simplification and Harvey's contradiction to it, shows that there is more to space than just simple stations or domains. Space is not necessarily easily definable. Space and our perception of it are under constant fluctuation, causing us to observe different spaces different. There are private spaces, public spaces, restricted spaces, spaces controlled by a specific group of people. Time and space are intertwined with our social actions and social statuses.

There are two important theories of how time and space relations are changing throughout modernity and post modernity; Giddens's time-space distanciation and Harvey's idea of time-space compression. Giddens refers to a development “which tears space away from place by fostering relations between ‘absent' others, locationally distant from any given situation of face-to-face interaction” (Giddens 1990, 18) as well as “lifting out of social relationships from local contexts of interaction and their restructuring across time and space” (Giddens 1990, 21). Giddens calls this disembedding. This means that time and space distance themselves from each other, furthermore we ourselves are lifted out of time and space in a social and communicative context. The need for a physical space to communicate is becoming less central. Harvey's idea of time-space compression on the other hand touches upon the fact that with a globalising world, individuals who live in very distant places are able to experience the same things at the same time. In essence, this means that they live in the same space, having the same experiences during the same time period. Harvey thus points out that due to our constant development of new communication technologies; the space we move around in and the way we communicate, becomes compressed because we are able to cover the same distance in less time or in no time at all. Both of these two theories about rethinking time-space relations state the fact that information and communication technological advances are central to creating a world that in all places is synchronized. However, a completely electronically synchronised world is far from becoming an actual reality.

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How can time and space be understood in a postmodern era, where due to new media technologies time and space have changed? As stated earlier, communication changed due to the emergence of immediate communication. The telegraph has changed the idea and concepts of real time. There no longer was the need for oral communication in the same space, and written communication was replaced by the immediate communication technologies. Written communication, took long periods of time to move from sender to recipient, while the telegraph was able to overcome these time ‘gaps'. Capitalism, with its need for ‘speeding up' time to thus reducing space to increase production and consumption, media technologies, such as the telephone, television, the mobile phone and ultimately the internet have all caused the diminishment and perception of space further than the telegraph, and increased production and consumption due to its increased outreach without the hindrance of space. Space, as stated before plays an integral role in shaping society, and with it constantly being challenged by new emerging media and technologies, the way we see space changes. In a modern capitalist society, companies, who at first were only capable of reaching people in a confined space, are able to advertise and reach targeted consumers globally. A perfect example of a diminishing space rift is Coca Cola. Due to a globalising world, and the achievement of immediate worldwide communication, they were able to market their product worldwide, produce it worldwide. We no longer perceive a person that lives halfway across the globe unreachable. We are able to communicate with them instantly with the new media mediums being put to use. A good example of this are the call centres based in India, who do not actually cater to the Indian public, but to the British, who often are not even aware of the fact that they are making a call across the globe. This is evidently a space and time reduction. “...Space appears to shrink to a ‘global village' of telecommunications and a ‘spaceship earth' of economic and ecological interdependencies...” (Harvey, 1989: p.240)

The more technological advances occur, the more are needed, thus the rate at which they are researched and put to use gradually increases, which also in turn causes time to speed up at the same rate. The capitalistic need of ‘instant noodle' products constantly advances. Ultimately the internet, since its emergence has become an extension of our space, and a shortcut through time. The internet has replaced post mail, bulletin boards, shopping catalogues, libraries, video rentals, etc. It has not only replaced all these, it has reduced the time needed to access them and use them.

Modern communication has become time based rather than space based. With mobile phones, instant messaging and social networking sites, we no longer have the need for space for communication. Our communication has made space, in a social context, physically redundant. In premodern society on the other hand, the need for space was vital for communication, due to the lack of communication technologies. Space and time in that case were equally important. Here it must be understood, that space itself is a hurdle that has to be overcome in order for human interaction to take place.

Surveillance and new media technologies are closely interlinked. This idea touches upon Foucault's panopticon, where prisoners, workers, schoolchildren etc. are able to be watched and surveyed from a single point. The idea of this social control has taken a new turn. Society can now be under constant observance, CCTVs and other monitoring devices can be installed anywhere in a country or even abroad, and can be immediately be viewed hundreds of kilometres away. Thus the idea of social control in coordination with time and space has changed as well.

Are the virtual spaces that we have created the same space as we occupy? Considering that these virtual spaces are not actually physical. We know that the space we occupy physically exists, because of our ability to sense (hearing, smell, touch, sight and taste). Social movements and interaction, has until recently been entirely confined to this ‘space'. With the emergence of the electronic virtual space, we have created a dimension which we cannot touch or smell. However, we are able to see and hear it. We are able to use this virtual space from the space that we occupy. We create avatars, to represent ourselves in this virtual space. Or is this virtual space, actually part of our space? Has it caused us to understand time and space differently? While we cannot be physically present on the internet, we have used it to extend and at the same time change our social space. The internet, as well as other electronic media, changes our social surroundings. We no longer have to meet a friend, colleague or family member in a physical space; due to the internet we have the ability to not change our spatial location, but can simply contact them via social networking sites, instant messaging software or other internet or telecommunication based means. Furthermore, touching upon capitalism again, in reference to the internet, consumption is changing. The internet enables us to shop, without moving further than our doorstep to pick up a parcel delivery. We can order any item imaginable, ranging from groceries to electronics to cars to land. We can buy them directly from retailers or take part in auctions on eBay.

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Giddens asks the question “Why is the separation of time and space so crucial to the extreme dynamism of modernity?”(Giddens, 1990: p.20) Giddens then proceeds to answer the question and argues that the separation of time and space is the “prime condition of disembedding” (Giddens, 1990:p.20). Disembedding is not only the removal of individuals from the boundaries of time and space, but also the disembedding of entire institutions. This shows that time-space distanciation happens on a much larger scale. It is not only the communication between single individuals, but the communication of entire companies, institutions, and even entire countries. The disembedding that Giddens mentions, is the product of new media technologies. Furthermore, this affects the basis of contemporary social life. The societies we live in nowadays are highly globalised. This is not only due to the fact that people of different origins live in the same country, but that people can by the click of a button, order products, programs, or receive information on and from any other country.

The relations between time and space, has definitely changed with every communicative technology. Due to new media technologies such as the internet and the mobile phone, we are now able to communicate without having to be in a designated space. We can be in the most public of places, yet be able to talk to someone that was not even in that area. The internet allows us to receive information, communicate with literally anyone instantly, no matter where they are without having to be physically present. It has enabled the emergence of multinational corporations, the intertwining of cultures. Time and spaces relation however, has always been under constant change and will continue to change with every technological advancement we make.