Traveling with Communication Technologies in Space, Time, and Everyday Life
First Monday


Traveling with Communication Technologies in Space, Time, and Everyday Life

Contents

Introduction
The Conquest of Time and Space
What is Possible?
The Consequences
Conclusion

Introduction

Travel is movement through time and space and every trip is a space/time experience leading to different cultures and times. This paper is about man on the move, travelling through time and space, through the meaning of human existence. After all, time is the fundament of history, without which past, future, nor present would exist. Without time, thought and human action would not exist. Time is the essence of meaning; space, on the other hand, is the essence of reality. Because our social and biological environment determines our existence, no space means no life. The absence of space also excludes surprises because there is nothing to discover in a void. Hence, space and time determine our position in the universe. To understand this, one should only image being the first man on earth, fatherless, without history, future or frame of reference, full of doubts, in short without a position in time or space.

Undoubtedly, some of next century' s most central issues will consist of finding meaning in a universe which, thanks to information and communication technologies, has trivialised time and space and where, after centuries of human history, these key concepts will no longer be obstacles to man.

The first part of this paper will give a historic overview of how time and space have been conquered. Then the most recent developments in communication technology, today's possibilities and their consequences will be dealt with. Finally, their implications will be discussed.

The Conquest of Time and Space

The conquest of time and space has undoubtedly been one of man's most permanent non-vital urges. Whereas food and drink are essential to man's survival, the conquest of time and space is not. Nevertheless, it has always been central in man's actions. Apart from the search for means of survival like food and procreation, man also has been looking for ways to increase the speed of his actions by imitating what is happening elsewhere (conquering time) or by looking what can be found over there (conquering space). That is why human history may well be presented as the continuous search to overcome the restraints of space and time by any creative means.

The wheel, for example, initially served to transport food more easily, but soon became a tool for anything that benefited from speed, or the reduction of time. Think of moving armies faster to enemy lines, or the delivery of slaves, or transporting massive stone blocks for the construction of the pyramids. Thousands of years after the invention of the wheel, and still as a result of that search for speed, man is flying to New York by Concorde in only a few hours, a crossing which, not even four hundred years ago, would have taken years, if not the travellers' life.

Trying to conquer time is something we have been doing since time immemorial. Adam himself went to have a look behind the Tree of Paradise where he discovered Eve, a discovery which had dramatic consequences. Later, whole generations, tribes, and civilisations did likewise and moved from one spot on the Earth to another, always from the known to the unknown and usually in search of food or to flee an aggressor. Obviously, our reasons to explore the space we live in have expanded over the course of time. Whereas the Crusades, for example, were religiously inspired, the colonial enterprise served purely economic interests. However, man always wanted to see what unfamiliar places had to offer and whether the grass was not greener on the other side.

Nowadays, communication technologies, together with the search for better means of transport, are the prime expression of this basic urge. Actually, communication technologies, carrying data and information, may well be considered to be a means of transport.

The very first step in the history of communication technology quite literally needed the use of one's feet. The Greek marathon, or the physical transmission of a message by means of a relay race, was the first innovation in the process of breaking down space/time barriers in communication. The simple principle of getting a message across as quickly as possible has never changed and resulted today in a situation where speed cannot possibly be increased and where no place on earth is free from communication. The present state of technology allows us to live on an uninhabited island say somewhere in the Pacific and receive whatever television channel we desire by satellite. It allows us to contact whomever we feel like by cellular phone or personal computer and even to follow daily business in our office, if, of course, we would care to.

In these circumstances, just try telling the story of Robert Louis Stevenson's Robinson Crusoe to children. It's almost sure they will ask why in Robinson's time cellular phones did not exist. These questions reveal a loss of magic and enchantment, one result based on the presence of powerful communication technologies globally.

Another major step in the history of communication was the invention of writing, which may be considered as the graphic record of the spoken word, enabling us to receive messages regardless of space and time. The importance of writing can hardly be exaggerated. It enabled Roman generals to pass into action much more quickly and thoroughly than their communication-technological primitive enemies. And, speaking about the transcendence of space/time, writing also allowed the word of Jesus to spread much more efficiently than that of all the other prophets which existed at that time and competed for attention.

The next step in breaking down the space/time restraints on human communication and the spreading of ideas consisted of print. Printing was as revolutionary as writing allowing communication on a much larger scale. In this respect it is significant that the very first printed books were Bibles, indicating that the process of attributing meaning to communication technologies was often religiously inspired. Religious organisations have had a long standing tradition of utilizing technologies as they emerge (radio, film, and the Internet).

Telephone and telegraph once again broadened the scale on which communication liberated itself from space/time restrictions and this time dramatically so. After all, the telephone permitted individuals to react to messages without having to be in the physical presence of others. The telephone enabled interaction over a distance. It also introduced mobility into communication. It threw overboard the necessity to remain in a village if you wanted to contact family and friends. As a consequence, the social environment (space) into which people moved became potentially enormous. In the United States many live very long distances from one another but still remain united by means of the telephone. It allows them to have the idea, or better the illusion, that they are still a family. In this respect cellular phones are pushing the illusion of remote proximity to the edge. Even on our imaginary Pacific island, one can still cherish the idea that the people one really wants to talk to are just around the corner. Only, they won't be able to be there when they're really needed.

The Internet is actually nothing more than an application of the principles of mobility, interaction, and interactivity telephone users are familiar with, pushed to the extreme and applied to every possible content. From anywhere in the world whatever kind of message (text, image, sound) can be sent and received. Even face-to-face communication can be done across oceans if video conferencing facilities are available.

Finally, audio-visual media complete the transcendence of space/time by means of communication technology. Radio and television, both less than 80 years old, inform us personally about whatever happens anywhere in the world nearly right at the moment when it occurs. It is no longer necessary to travel in order to see a cheetah execute its kill, something which one rarely sees in real life. Similarly, thanks to television, a missionary does not have to return from Rwanda in order to become informed about current events. Thanks to CNN and other media outlets we know exactly what is happening at the moment when a revolt occurs at a safe 12,000 kilometres' distance. Ever since the Vietnam War, which was the first war to be broadcast live, the space/time barrier has been effectively lifted on television.

Technically, all space/time restrictions have been effectively eliminated from the communicative process. We may now know everything as soon as it occurs and can say anything to anyone wherever they are. Clearly, we live in a global space and time.

Events happen in real time, with the smallest possible gap between the event itself and the moment we learn about it. Location is no longer important. The slogan 'The World at your Fingertips' is a favourite in the world of communication technology, because it truly means that with just a few clicks of a button (remote control, mouse, telephone) the world opens up.

Hence, the phrase 'global village' takes on a more realistic meaning. At one point in history physical restrictions (location in a village) determined the context of personal experiences. That is, the neighbourhood determined the view of the world and most people's socialisation. In the global village, exactly the same happens, but on a planetary scale. One may chatter just as easily with a South African friend as with the next door neighbour and get to know more about Rwanda than about one's own neighbourhood. Paul Virilio has pointed out that, as a result, we created a 'temps unique mondial' (single global time) in analogy with 'la pensée unique'. We no longer live according to the rhythm of our village, but on the pulse of the world. Our values are no longer our neighbours' average, but those of 'Neighbours'. We are living in the planetary now, the global moment, the 'hic et nunc'.

How exactly this is influencing our view of life and our socialisation still remains to be seen as the process is still going on.

What is Possible?

The speed and ease of communication has created a new standard: life. When United States armed forces invaded Somalia, a CNN camera crew awaited them on the beach. Communication technologies allowed us to see bombs falling on Baghdad during the war with Iraq as if we were watching a video game. Only the absence of a joystick prevented us from giving our own commands. Technically impossible? Not at all. MIR camera's can be directed by means of a personal computer from Earth, at a 40,000 kilometres' distance.

However the incredible speed with which the media operate nowadays also entails some risks. In the first place it multiplies opportunities for mistakes. Think, for example, of the manipulated photographs when the revolt in Timisoara broke out. Second, fast production inevitably entails reduced quality and a lack of profundity.

Communication technologies allow work to be distributed on a global scale. For example, Swissair's accounting is being done in Bombay. In the evening all data are transmitted to India where at that time it is morning. Indian programmers (with lower wages than Swiss counterparts) pick up the data and spend a day's work on them before transmitting information back in the evening, when offices in Europe are opening up. This system is three to five times cheaper than processing data in the West.

Nowadays we dispose of 'global positioning systems', miniaturised personal computers with a satellite connection, which are able to signal your position accurately anywhere in the world with an error of one meter or less. Obviously, this may be convenient when you are lost on the ocean and want to know your location. It also comes in handy when you arrive in a strange city, say Brussels, and want to be directed from Zaventem airport to the city center with a request to a device. The market already offers specialised gadgets which provide additional details, such as the best Chinese restaurant in the neighbourhood.

These technological advances certainly rob some of the adventure of travelling, such as the pleasant surprise of discovering a small, cosy hotel in a new locale. Those of us who still want a travel adventure have to go to quite some length to find it. Lonely Planet, a company that publishes travel guides, has built a business around finding travel adventure with 250 destinations on sale. If you are planning a trip to Vietnam, you no longer have to spend months beforehand on travel research. Just buy a guide at your local bookstore, read it on the plane to Saigon, and know where to find your hotel on arrival, the best bar around the corner, and that unique beach that you simply have to go to on the next day. Your only surprise will be how many others have chosen exactly the same cosy hotel, cool bar, and "unique" beach. Ironically, Lonely Planet was founded to avoid exactly this sort of conjunction where everyone travels along the beaten path.

In any case, apart from the ocean, there is no real physical space left to discover. Earth has been very thoroughly explored. Many no longer look for excitement in the exploration of space, but in testing their own physical limits.

The less athletic stay at home and explore the Internet to communicate with almost everyone in other parts of the globe. In this way they possess the illusion of meeting other cultures. Research has shown that this creates planetary subcultures between people who only have their invisibility in common. That explains why Flemish MTV watchers may feel closer to New York rappers than to their own neighbours, without ever having been to New York. The British sociologist Giddens calls this the differentiation of space and time: there no longer is a necessary correlation between the creation of one's identity and one's physical environment. In other words, socialisation no longer takes place in one's neighbourhood and identity building is no longer geographically determined. It explains why some who are living in perfectly quiet country places still have the idea that society is full of crime. They are overwhelmed by news programmes and television serials in which, for commercial reasons, crime is so dominant.

Even gambling no longer takes you out of the house since Internet offers virtual casinos. Moreover, some firms already offer live peep shows on your personal computer. From Belgium you can call an operation in the U.S. and choose a lady or gentleman of your choice out of a catalogue. You are then transmitted to a studio where you can choose your own camera angle and type in commands to the stripper. In this way your PC enables you to watch a private peep show via telephone from 10,000 kilometres' distance without anyone ever seeing you head into a sleazy bar. Four American companies offering this service in March 1997 reported monthly revenue ranging from $50,000 to one million after being in operation for only a few months.

Examples like these abound. Paul Virilio recently pointed our that there never existed a technology that goes against this trend of acceleration. Quite on the contrary, the gurus of communication technology indicate that faster processes will soon be available that ultimately would end the last remnants of space and time. MIT and Philips, for example, are now developing permanently portable electronic badges which you can carry like a brooch. These devices would contain all your personal information accessible through a kind of mobile connection. Meeting someone then becomes an immediate exchange of data, enabling you to judge whether the person in front of you has reconcilable interests. In this way you do not risk losing valuable time with trivia, like getting to know each other.

Clearly, we are evolve towards a society in which the now, the globally, instantly available and reachable, the mobile, the live, the just in time, and the virtual dominate. Virtuality is a key concept and its significance will increase since it is physically impossible to live in the now, the omnipresent, and the ever available. No one can ever be really available on our imaginary Pacific desert island mentioned earlier. Communication technology only gives the illusion that these contacts are real. Illusion is the essence of virtuality.

We are also evolving towards a society in which the rhythm of life will no longer be determined by the seasons, as it used to be before the Industrial Revolution. Instead we will live in terms of nanoseconds. The fate of European companies may be determined in a split of a second through speculation on the Tokyo Stock Exchange. Clearly, time has become money.

The overall picture is clear. Whereas in the past information used to be a prerequisite for knowledge and the acquisition of knowledge gave you time to think, nowadays information equals knowledge. Seeing the invasion in Somalia live means knowing about it (not understanding it); the possibility of handling millions of databases (not using them usefully) equals knowledge. Hence, knowledge is no longer a cultural product. Communication has replaced culture. That is why those who watch a lot of television never have the impression that they are wasting their time. After all, they are communicating and that is supposed to be a cultural occupation.

So, the trends are set. The question now is how we should go on at a time when it has become impossible to travel any faster in time and space.

The Consequences

In general, one of the consequences of living in a single global time and space, a 'temps unique mondial', undoubtedly is the acceleration of political and economic processes which underlie society. As we know, speeding is all right as long as the road is straight and traffic is low. However, as soon as the road starts turning or traffic increases, it gets dangerous. The 1987 crash on Wall Street clearly illustrates this. That is why it is astonishing that no one ever questions the continual increases in the speed of communication processes.

Quite on the contrary, the dominant discourse nowadays calls for more and faster communication technologies. It is perfectly illustrated by the European Union's policy in this respect. We are told that the evolution towards an information society is absolutely essential to improve the way things are. The credo of more, better, and hence faster communication has turned out to be a new ideology. Politicians never stop stressing its necessity, managers consider it to be the perfect solution to almost everything and newspapers are loaded with details on the topic.

This new discourse may be explained by the end of the Cold War, when the traditional clash of ideas ceased to exist and capitalism went looking for new founding myths ('idées moteurs') in order to continue mobilising society around its ideological programme. 'Communication' seems to be one of these myths and has even replaced 'progress' as the dominant paradigm of capitalist discourse.

In Broken Order - Leo Apostel's analysis of the deep cultural crisis the West is passing through - the Belgian philosopher points to the fact that people need ideals to give meaning to their lives. Without these, the ideal of virtuality, on which the information society is based, has free reign. Obviously the idea of virtuality is a tempting one since only a few are able to resist the urge to retire to a desert island and still be able to be in touch with every Tom, Dick, and Harry. However, at the same time, few realise the danger of such a move, entirely based on illusions.

This ambiguity in our current experience of time and space, both seducing and revolting, deserves our utmost attention. It is time to wonder whether people can live with it and whether anyone manages to deal with the daily data overkill from all parts of the world. Won't the abundance of information hamper real communication? Won't the increase of global awareness rule out conscience, or, in other words, won't the daily confrontation with misery result in ignoring it? For many this certainly is the case. Even though the media gives us a global village, it seems that many are unable to handle such a perspective. That undoubtedly is what we may conclude from the rise of extreme right ideologies and nationalisms of all kinds. Isn't the idea of ethnic purity simply a return to what can be controlled, to the space and time we are personally familiar with and are able to deal with? For example, isn't Flemish nationalism a reaction against the gigantic European unification process which many cannot rationally understand? Isn't the rise of fundamentalism and integrism a revolt against the abundance of frames of reference that reach us every day through the media, as Bernard Henry Levy claims?

The search to transcend time and space led to a surplus of information and communication which resulted in the intellectual and social incapacity to deal with it. At the same time, there exist innumerable problems worldwide. These two issues will prove to be essential in the decennia to come. In other words, what to do about those global, economic, political and other hot issues that most people do not like to be raised, neither intellectually nor emotionally? The latter question leads us to the consequences of this evolution for the individual. Dealing with time, time pressure, and the lack of time is a vital challenge since it indirectly determines the immaterial quality of our lives. When a quiet Saturday morning breakfast in a Finnish hotel is disturbed by half of the table companions starting to use their cellular phones, quality is at stake (Finland has the highest penetration of mobile phones in the world). Spare time has vanished because much employment now requires permanent availability through beepers or the Internet. Isn't this, after all, creating a modern, virtual version of 19th century serfdom which forced people to be permanently available?

Spare time has become a valuable commodity, so precious that everything has to be planned and. Holidays have become exercises in stress (to 'do' Crete in one week, to travel the whole United States in three weeks). Private, personal time has lost every sense of surprise and coincidence.

It seems that the paradox between the increased velocity of time and the need for quality time (time without speeding) will only become more fundamental. Indeed, for many, spare time is time which must be bought in order to have a good time.

Once again, we are confronted with a paradox: quality time, just like enjoying space, does not support hurrying, it cannot be scheduled or planned. It takes days to get that holiday feeling that you are really enjoying your spare time because first you have to get rid of the stress of daily life. In short, because of our search to lift the barriers between time and space, we have forgotten that we do not always have to be on the move, that sometimes we simply do not want to be informed. In other words, we have lost those moments in which time and space are irrelevant.

Conclusion

This paper dealt with a number of paradoxes which result from the increased velocity of time and space and for which we will necessarily have to find some solutions.

It is worthwhile considering Jacques Attali's conviction that modern society needs a new form of labyrinthine thought. His somewhat confusing, but fundamentally brilliant, analysis of the evolution of human thought, concentrates on the labyrinth as symbol of the unknown and of the opposite of linear thought. In other words, for centuries man has evolved in a labyrinth of the unknown and saved himself by trial and error. According to Attali, the modern age has become uncomfortable with this procedure and demands linearity, efficiency, and positivism. We may not lose time anymore and space has to be optimally used.

However, our world has become so tremendously complex that linear thought only serves to create more problems. We are only losing ourselves by trying to save time.

According to Attali, not only we have to accept that the world is a labyrinth instead of a transparent, perfectly controllable system, but we also have to dare think in a labyrinthine fashion. Or, simply said, Ariadne's thread saving us from the labyrinth is no drill breaking down its walls and hence making the world collapse. On the contrary, Ariadne's thread weaves a many-sided web of creativity, the non-linear, multiform thought that allows us to escape from the labyrinth by carefully checking all possibilities.

This paper started by stating that the conquest of time and space has always been one of man's most fundamental urges. For centuries time and space have been large, unfamiliar labyrinths. Now, when modern communication technologies make us believe that we finally found the exit, we only entered a new labyrinth. We thought to have banned ignorance by conquering time and space, but we only created a new mystery: one that confronts us so quickly that we hardly know where we are anymore and one that tells us so much that we do not know what to believe. The new labyrinth consists of the massive amount of knowledge and expertise that is available and out of which it is increasingly difficult to choose. Nowadays, linear thought only pushes us further into the labyrinth.

After all, those who travel too much and continually search for new horizons, lose their head. Real travellers regularly takes time to stop moving and to think instead. They occasionally consider, register, and eliminate impressions received. And of course, real travellers have a purpose and, above all, homes. If not, they are drifters. And isn't modern communication society creating exactly that: drifters in a universe of sense?

About the Author

Jean Claude Burgelman is Professor of Communication Policy at the Free University of Brussels where he leads the research group entitled Studies on Media, Information and Telecommunications (SMIT). He is on leave as Visiting Scientist at the Institute for Prospective Technology Studies in Seville, Spain. The Institute is one of eight institutes making up the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission.
E-mail: Jean-Claude.Burgelman@jrc.es


Editorial history

Paper received 15 February 2000; accepted 20 February 2000.


Contents Index

Copyright ©2000, First Monday

Traveling with Communication Technologies in Space, Time, and Everyday Life: An Exploration of Their Impact by Jean Claude Burgelman
First Monday, volume 5, number 3 (March 2000),
URL: http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue5_3/burgelman/index.html





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