Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Time-Space Compression in the Digital Realm

My work on time in the digital realm is coming slowly but surely. At the moment I'm thinking of multiple temporalities and the ways in which we occupy these dimensions while adhering to standardized time. Birth (2007) explores these issues with an article that deals with the conflicts that can arise out of a meeting of biology, clock, sun, and sociality. Birth raises a point in particular that has given me some pause: “If place-bound identities are becoming more significant as Harvey argues (1993, 4), then one wonders about the ways time and space are experienced locally … and in relationships that span different time zones” (2007: 216). But can this statement be applied to the digital realm as well? Are place-bound identities still significant in the digital realm?

In this instance with Birth, place-bound identity is characterized by one’s position on the globe and consequently one's position in multiple systems of time:
Longitudes indicate relationships of local solar times, and time zones define clock time for state-specified ranges of longitude (Galison 2003). One’s latitude, while not affecting local clock time does affect ones relationship to the temporal markers of dawn and dusk and to seasonal changes. In many animals, human included, the farther one is from the equator, the greater the seasonal variation in hormonal cycles, particularly melatonin (Schwartz et. Al. 2001; Wehr 2001) (2007: 216).
One can see how temporal conflicts can be created out of this system between the culturally constructed times and biological circadian rhythms. With this statement on longitudes, my experiences in South Florida become clearer. While we may reside in the same time zone, residents of Port St. Lucie, FL have differing relationships to their local time when compared to my relationship with local time in New York City. Local time is often tied to solar time, which is in turn linked to biological time. Our bodies are regulated by sunrise and sunset. However, this is not the time we live by in New York City where time is regulated by the clock, an instrument of labor, and as a result solar time is all but ignored. The meeting of these local times in the context of meal time caused a social disruption: I am used to a later dinner hour than is customary in this locale, and the hostesses were unsure of how to handle the situation.

Capitalism has driven the standardization of time. The result is that we often live by the time of the metropolis, that center of enterprise and production. As Birth notes, “participation in global processes of commodity circulation is a major dimension of the experience of globalization, and such participation has its own rhythms and cycles that are not homologous to local biological rhythms (2007: 218). So though the sun may rise at a later time in Kansas, for example, farmers who want to make deliveries to cities on the eastern coast of the United States have to reposition themselves temporally to Eastern Standard Time for business practices—or run the risk of their produce spoiling. (I hope this example is clear; it’s a little muddled in my mind.) Though Port St. Lucie resides in the same time zone as New York City, they are not necessarily regulated by the same clock hours as life in the city is. Capitalism directs clock time, true, but residents in Port St. Lucie do not have a direct business relationship with New York City, so dinner at 4 pm can be the norm. However farther south, in the metropolis of Miami where multiple temporalities regularly mix, they can better accommodate differing temporal expectations.

These dimensions of time and the importance of place-bound association are very physical. What happens to these issues when we begin to interact online? Yes, there are still elements of temporality—someone in London is not necessarily going to be available at the same time as a New Yorker or someone in India, but does the digital somehow minimize the temporal disruption experienced? To have an IM or Skype conversation, you still need to coordinate time, but without the need to travel, does the body still experience conflicts stemming from the disruption in local solar times?

The biological conflicts of time-space compression are well documented. Birth uses a great baseball example relating to a certain team (bias disclosure: they will not be named on my blog because I’m a fan of their cross-town rivals) who opened the 2004 MLB season in Tokyo. Fans of this team (which obviously excludes me) were annoyed because the game began at 5:00 am EST, and upon returning to New York, the team had trouble adjusting (Birth 2007: 219). Birth writes:
Speed of transportation technology would not cure this problem. Even if the Concorde were still in operation, when the [team] played in Japan, their bodies would still manifest their New York circadian cycles, and their Japanese opponents would still manifest Japanese circadian cycles—the time chosen to play the game would give one team a significant advantage (2007: 19).
So there are certainly physical and social ripples in navigating space-time compression, but can these effects be minimized online? To what degree does awareness of time matter?I leave you with these questions, Readers.

ResearchBlogging.orgBirth, K. (2007). Time and the Biological Consequences of Globalization Current Anthropology, 48 (2), 215-236 DOI: 10.1086/510472


  1. It seems like there are at least two different ways that people engage time in the digital realm. You mentioned Skype and IM, platforms that require people to coordinate their activities to coincide temporally. But a lot of social media now is asynchronous in the sense that people don’t need to be logged in at the same time in order to interact through Facebook or wikis or what have you. With two people it works a lot like writing to a pen pal, but it seems to create a different dynamic when there is a whole group interacting. In my experience, especially with message boards, conversations tend to become very cyclical in nature as people who were not logged on for the latest part of the discussion jump in with responses to posts that others have already moved past and force the conversation to return to older points (not unlike my response to your blog post over a week after its original appearance). That might not be new, though. It works a lot like traditional knowledge building: the group as a whole moves forward incrementally but people always go back to revisit older issues.

  2. You raise an interesting point, Joe. I have not yet gotten around to thinking about asynchronous events in the digital space - I'm still sinking my teeth into "physical" time, but your remarks on the group dynamics are intriguing. You say cyclical, but it is almost as though we move backwards to an earlier temporal moment to bring the group forward - that is, if it's worth bringing the whole group forward. There are often a few stragglers that no one bothers to respond to on message boards. Thanks for giving me something to think about!

  3. Yeah, that's right. Time keeps moving forward but the conversation has to go back sometimes.

  4. Which isn't too different from classroom discussions, right? If the professor or teacher doesn't stop to review briefly and verify that all the students are on the same page, then he or she runs the risk of leaving some learners behind.

    Asynchrony further reduces the clock's importance. Hmm, does the clock matter at all in the digital space?