A recent article in the MIT Tech Review inspired me to write about a topic that, on its own, can seem rather commonplace, but in the context of information and communication technologies (ICTs) is hotly debated, and incredibly complex. The topic in question being geographical space.
While the article I read was more focused on the idea that mobile computing is reconstituting the importance of distance for marketing and selling consumer products, I would like to turn my attention towards, and admittedly only skim the surface of, how mobile ICTs have redefined what geographical space means in the context of community and interaction. Probably the most prominent effect that mobile technology has had is the blending of public and private space. There is no longer a clear distinction between being on a bus on your way home from work and having an intimate conversation with your partner, nor does being in the privacy of your own home mean that you can’t broadcast your every thought to the outside world.
Does this mean that space has lost its value, or rather that it has been endowed with infinite meaning and possibility? In terms of community, we as individuals can participate in numerous communities built around a variety of topics all at once, but what about the quality of these communities? Some say that the loss of space combined with the ability to choose who we interact with and when we want to participate have led to single minded communities, echo chambers, that deny disorder, dissent, and transformation. While net critics who would say that the notion of ‘intimacy good, distance bad’ is a simplistic one, I would argue that accusing online communities of somehow being less complex than offline ones is equally simplistic. Arguing that online ‘space’ makes for legible communities of like-minded individuals denies their entwined relationship to the offline.
What does ‘space’ mean today? How have mobile technologies reinvented the ways that we interact with the world around us? There seem to be an abundance of both utopian and dystopian opinions on the matter, but in reality each individual will experience it differently. Gradually over time our perceptions of space have shifted and reacted to emergent technologies, from books to the telephone, with each technological advancement our environments have been irreversibly affected.
I know that this post is more of a loose train of thought than a cohesive argument, but that’s the best I can do. My intention in writing this is to inspire anyone who reads it take a moment to consider the strange and incredible way we use space, something most of us take for granted (myself included). I can walk down the street in London and have a group conversation with friends in Los Angeles, Zanzibar, and Montreal all at once without so much as a second thought. Not only that, but I can be in an open public space having this, a private conversation, that is taking place in four distant parts of the world.
So next time you’re out and you take out your phone to comment on a youtube video, or reply to someone’s tweet, or even just to call a loved one and tell them that you’re on your way home, think of how incredible and weird, and totally unique your experience of that technology is. Think of how your immediate space is simultaneously invaded by, and invading someone else’s space, how your call or tweet has disrupted, or enhanced that person’s experience of that geographical location. Try and remember these interpretations, experiences, and interactions because before too long they’ll have shifted completely once again.