Time-Space Compression

Time-Space Compression is a term developed by David Harvey in his book “The Condition of Post-modernity,” as a way to describe the change in our experience of time and space that started as a result of technological innovations involving transport and communication which lead into the twentieth century and continue to progress today. The technological boom started in the nineteenth century with the harnessing of electrical power, the invention of the telephone and the automobile as well as radio broadcasting. Initially, these inventions were the reserve of the wealthy or as facilities afforded to the townspeople in general, but with their inevitable wider proliferation came an increase in the agency of lay people, as well as a shift in their fundamental understanding of the world around them. In physics, the values of speed, time and distance are inextricably linked, with the variation of any one inevitably affecting and interpenetrating the others. Distance, our essential relation to the space around us, as well as time and speed, while being objective scientific measurements, also occupy subjective space within our cognition. In mathematical terms, simple distance between two points is calculated by the multiplication of speed and time; the numbers remain constant. However, in our imaginations – being fundamentally temporal beings – the burden of distance is significantly reduced by the decrease of time required traversing it, and the increase of speed with which we do so. With the steam train and subsequently the automobile, came an expansion of the landscape for ordinary people who would otherwise be confined within the immediate area surrounding their residence, larger distances being navigable only with the speed of a horse drawn wagon. The former, more modest situation of man was also subject to structural differences in terms of his organisation of his geography, facilities and relationships. Where previously, in general, travel was restricted to local sites, family members were dispersed within close reach and friendship groups formed around shared geography, all this became subject to an immense overhaul that is still continuing to this day. The automobile allowed wider access to consumer product retail and made social visits an easier undertaking, while the telephone did the same for maintaining frequent contact with people with whom ties would have otherwise been strained. Radio broadcasting and later the television allowed the instant transmission of news stories and media such as films, programmes and advertisements, negating spatial distance, and creating a breadth of information available with greater frequency that pertained to a wider geography than before. All this allowed an expansion of provincial mindsets, creating a heightened awareness of wider cultural influences, with the only real impediment being the money required to procure use of these facilities.

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The implications of time space compression are manifold in that they hold significance not only for the individual, or collective cultural perception, but also for the economic models and material production that provide a framework for society. The benefits afforded by new technology were bifurcated in the sense that they were both practical – allowing transport of goods and people across large spaces – and informational – relaying information instantly irrespective of distance. These factors were responsible for a huge sea change in the way material production was orchestrated and organised. Because land travel had been prohibitively expensive, all the key elements in a supply chain had to be closely concentrated around a locus, which led in the earlier stages of the industrial revolution, to sprawling industrial cities which specialised in the production of particular goods. With the minimisation of exigencies relating to the difficulty of transporting raw materials over land, supply chains were able to broaden geographically, allowing manufacture related labour to occur at sites separated spatially from the source of the raw materials. This meant a new set of considerations had to be taken into account: how could the proprietors of these industries minimise the cost output in manufacture? The answer to this was decentralisation, and relocation to regions with cheap and readily available labour power, resulting in the globalisation of industry, and creation of new interrelations between nation states.

Throughout the world, however, the dispersal of the facilities that enabled these things is uneven, and faster means of travel as well as media are not accessible to all people in the same degree. The availability of these faculties is subject to the financial means within both the macrocosm of national economies, as well as the microcosm of personal wealth. There is a sense of gravitation towards wealthier states, augmented by the increased ease of international travel, which can provide means of gainful employment as well as increased quality of life. Where there previously existed giant industrial cities there now are expansive metropolises with very diverse cultural demographics, such as New York City, which in the course of its twentieth century development was host to an influx of European immigrants, many of whom could not speak English. These migrants, as a result of the communicational barrier, as well as the comfort of familiarity, tended to cluster in social microcosms which were couched in the culture endemic to their home states. This resulted in several interesting phenomena. These new cultural quantities, rather than existing solely as appendages to a monoculture, instead became incorporated into culture at large. Consequently, there occurred a sort of homogenisation wherein the more idiosyncratic aspects of the foreign culture were jettisoned, very much in the way in which when two people speaking different languages are confined in a space, they reconcile the fundamental terms into a lingua franca. In the way in which the differentiation of species from a common ancestral genus occurs, wherein when a population is estranged geographically from its main constituency, it begins to evolve along different lines, dependant on the novelties of its new surroundings. These cultures, alienated from their main body, did the same. Simultaneously, however, there also occurred an expansion and complication of culture at large as a result of the incorporation of these new elements.

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In modernity, with the ubiquity of increasingly faster modes of travel, the world has in a sense, become smaller and more acclimated to cultural integration, while monolithic conceptions of national identity are seen as outdated as anachronistic by progressive parties. Ease of availability and the relative lack of expense of Intercontinental flights allow a sense of cultural tourism that was extremely limited previously. With the advent of the internet and social media came another shift and the corollary consequences of Time-Space compression continue to cause us to restructure our thought patterns. The need for physical presence became even more deferred, with social connections becoming augmented by a persistent documentation of events allowing a greater vicarious involvement in peripheral relationships and acquaintances, as well as expanding one’s social circle beyond the natural capacity of the human mind to maintain. In addition, the increased accessibility and speed of online resources is not only changing the way we conduct social interactions, but is altering our basic cognition. Neuroscientist Jonah Lehrer says “For most of human history, the progress of knowledge was constrained by a shortage of information. Books were expensive and rare, libraries were reserved for elite scholars and communication was extremely slow. Mail moved at the speed of horses.”[1] Cultural artefacts weren’t abundant in their dissemination, and thus knowledge, such as it was, tended to be second hand and filtered through, for example, religious institutions. However, with the abundant wealth of information available in the internet age “the availability of the internet is changing the nature of what we remember, making us more likely to recall where the facts are rather than the facts themselves.”[2] This external storage of information allows us to become, in a way, conduits of temporary information flow, meaning our sense of identity based on what we read, perceive and assimilate becomes more fluid. In postmodernity, this is reflected in the increased rapidity of shifts in cultural identity where trends tend to be a sort of pastiche of old ideas, re-contextualised and given new meaning.

The title of Harvey’s book is a play on Jean-Francois Lyotard’s “The Postmodern Condition,” in which he, in part, addresses the unique privileges predicts will divide people in the information age of the twentieth century and beyond. He poses the question “Suppose, for example, that a firm such as IBM is authorised to occupy a belt in the Earth’s orbital field and launch communications satellites or satellites housing data banks. Who will have access to them…who will know?”[3] Lyotard predicts a culture of haves and have-nots based on the information they are privy to, which is what he deems will be the fulcrum of future political leverage. He characterises postmodernity as “incredulity towards meta-narratives,” which are means of “legitimising” swathes of information, in order that they may fit an interpretive paradigm. Postmodernity, by contrast, defines a culture constructed in piecemeal fashion from the excess of available ideas. Inevitably, Time-Space compression is an idea that is most useful when used in conjunction with others such as Archive Fever and Re-contextualisation, since the phenomena that these terms refer to interpenetrate and lead into one another.


[1] Jonah Lehrer,” Focusing on Focus” in “The Frontal Cortex,” http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2011/09/focusing-on-focus/ [Accessed 05/04/1989]

[2] Jonah Lehrer, “Is Google Ruining your memory?” in “The Frontal Cortex,http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2011/07/is-google-ruining-your-memory/ [Accessed 05/04/1989]

[3] Jean-Francois Lyotard, “The Postmodern Condition,” Ed. by Michael Drolet, (Routledge, 2004) p.126

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