Thursday, January 26, 2012

How telecommunications technology affects our conceptions of space

I often think about how our conceptions of space have changed as we look deeper into the far reaches of the universe, and as satellite navigation technologies influence the way we move on the surface of the Earth.

Oliver Sacks once wrote an article about how a man blind since early childhood fared when he recovered his sight. Vision created such a profoundly different way to apprehend the world than touch and hearing alone. As Sacks explained it, when we look at a cat, we see all its constituent parts at once: the head, ears, tail, legs, torso, fur, whiskers. We see that the right kinds of bits are there in the right kind of relationship to each other and in the right proportion. It is a simultaneous way of knowing. If you had to identify what kind of animal it was by touch alone, though, how would you do it? His patient would touch each part separately, and would only know if it was a cat if, after feeling enough of them, this was the most logical conclusion. So this is a chronological way of knowing.I found this a very compelling description.

I think something similar has happened to people who now rely on navigation devices in their car, like taxi drivers. Whereas once you might have had some kind of map projection in your head, where in your mind's eye you could visualise your destination and then think of a way to get there, now it seems that you listen to the instruction and then follow it, bit by bit, just like the Sacks' patient. "In 500 metres, turn right". It's more like touching than seeing. So it produces a different conception of space: in fact a more closed-in one, where you are only aware of your immediate environment.

Perhaps this works for the much-speculated-about ability of Aboriginal people to paint or represent country from an aerial view, when they haven't seen it from the air.  It's hard for us to comprehend this because even before GPS, our way of interpreting spatial relations was based on maps with Cartesian coordinates.

So you can imagine I was very interested to see this Scandinavian project looking at the way the telegraph changed people's conceptions of space in the late 1800s. This is how they describe it:

Distant news and local opinion: How the Telegraph Affected Spatial and Temporal Horizons in Northern Scandinavia, 1850-1880

Image courtesy of CMYBacon
The electric telegraph lines constructed across Europe starting in the late 1840's profoundly changed conditions for long-distance communication in the region. This project analyses the effects of the electric telegraph on northern Scandinavia.

Focus is on the relationship between time and space in 7 newspapers from Norway, Sweden and Finland. By investigating 1) the motives behind extending telegraph lines to these regions, 2) the ideals associated with the technology itself, 3) the representation of time and space in the news and 4) the spatial and temporal references of the concept “public opinion”, the study gives a new perspective on the development of communications in this area. Using the spread of technology as a lens through which we may observe societal change, this work will produce a transnational history relating the idiosyncrasies of northern Scandinavia to the common developments affecting Europe during the second half of the 19th century.

I think this is really interesting stuff. I don't know if I would have chosen newspapers as the primary source to address the spatial/temporal - but the point about newspapers is that they will, presumably reflect public sensibilities, and the news reported will change radically as events further away become reported more quickly. So what people read will shape the boundaries of their conceptual world. Herodotos for the 19th C, and perhaps with as many marvels.

1 comment:

  1. It seems I'm not the only one to be speculating about this issue. In this article (, Julia Frankenstein says:
    "Like most questions asked in our tech-dependent era, these underestimate the power of the human mind. It is surprisingly good at developing “mental maps” of an area, a skill new research shows can grow stronger with use. The question is, with disuse — say, by relying on a GPS device — can we lose the skill, too?"