Telecom, transport, and (unequal) time-space compression

One of the oldest terms to think about the influence of both transport and communication technologies on the experience of time and space is “time-space compression”. This notion expresses the sense that the experience of time passing by is accelerated while the importance of distance diminished. Geographer David Harvey made the term famous, although it has been in use much longer. Sociologist John Urry quotes an anonymous English commentator who in 1839 says that the new railway system were “having the effect of ‘compressing’ time and space” and that “distances were thus annihilated” (Urry 2007: 96). This latter expression is made famous by Karl Marx who talked about “the annihilation of space by time”. At the same time commenters (e.g. Nigel Thrift) have noted that the immensive speed-up of transport and communication technologies not only lead to shrinkage but also to enlargement and widening of space and time, since people could now get a sense of other worlds beyond their previously known local one and simultaneous presence with people elsewhere.

Recently I stumbled across two examples that explore its very edges. The first is a fascinating map of the remotest place on earth.

The maps are based on a model which calculated how long it would take to travel to the nearest city of 50,000 or more people by land or water. The model combines information on terrain and access to road, rail and river networks. It also considers how factors such as altitude, steepness of terrain and hold-ups like border crossings slow travel. Plotted onto a map, the results throw up surprises. First, less than 10 per cent of the world’s land is more than 48 hours of ground-based travel from the nearest city. What’s more, many areas considered remote and inaccessible are not as far from civilisation as you might think. In the Amazon, for example, extensive river networks and an increasing number of roads mean that only 20 per cent of the land is more than two days from a city – around the same proportion as Canada’s Quebec province.


(image source)

The map is created by researchers at the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre in Ispra, Italy, and the World Bank. It is part of a research that measures urbanisation from the new perspective of travel time to 8500 major cities. Key findings are:

  • we passed the point at which more than half the world’s populations live in cities around the turn of the Millennium (2000) – much earlier than the 2007/8 estimate;
  • more than half of the world’s population lives less than 1 hour from a major city, but the breakdown is 85% of the developed world and only 35% of the developing world;
  • 95% of the world’s population is concentrated on just 10% of the world’s land; but
  • only 10% of the world’s land area is classified as “remote” or more than 48 hours from a large city.

The map beautifully shows just how incredibly connected the world has become – not only via telecommunications but also by physical mobility – and how even the remotest regions are now closely tied to the urban sphere. The fact that 10% of the world is more than 48 hours from a large city raises questions about the definition of ‘urban’, as states the news release. More nice maps here.

A second example is the Reuters news that a Nepali telecom firm is planning to expand its mobile phone service to the top of the Mount Everest. The Mount Everest is one of the busiest high mountains. Each year hundreds of climbers attempt to reach the summit. Until now they were dependent on expensive satellite telephones to call family and friends from the top. Now even the highest peak on earth will become connected to the worldwide communication networks.

The question of course remains whether this potential for mobility and connection to ‘the global’ actually contributes to a worldwide “imagined community”. What this map does not indicate is that mobility and connections are unequally divided. Doreen Massey has called this “the power-geometry of time-space compression” (see article). While for global and digital ‘neo-nomads’ the world may indeed seem one homogeneous ‘smooth space’, for others it remains firmly divided by barriers and obstacles.

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