Time-Space Compression

In the 19th century, to get from one side of the world to the other, you'd travel by boat. From the UK to Australia, it would take you many months to do so. Now, you can take a commercial flight and be there within 24 hours. You can now call someone on the other side of the world in live time, rather than wait a week for a letter to find its way there. These are textbook examples of the geographical theory of time-space compression. But what exactly is the definition of time-space compression? What are the disadvantages of it? Is it important in today's world? Let's find out. 

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    Time-Space Compression Definition

    Time-space compression is a geographical spatial concept. Spatial concepts help us to understand our relationships with places or objects. Examples include distance, location, scale, distribution etc. Time-space compression is just one of the many concepts used to explain our changing world. But how exactly do we define time-space compression?

    As a result of globalisation, our world is becoming more interconnected. With the increase of flows of capital, goods and people, as well as the advancements in technology and transport, our world is seemingly shrinking. The world isn't physically getting smaller. However, with the rise of jet planes, internet communication, and cheaper travel, it has become much easier (and faster) to be connected with faraway places.

    The expansion of the railway network, accompanied by the advent of the telegraph, the growth of steam shipping, and the building of the Suez Canal, the beginnings of radio communication and bicycle and automobile travel at the end of the century, all changed the sense of time and space in radical ways.

    - David Harvey, 19891

    The Annihilation of Space by Time

    These ideas created the theory of time-space compression. In his prominent novel Grundrisse der Kritik der Politischen Ökonomie, Karl Marx speaks of the 'annihilation of space by time'.2 This was foundational for geographers and globalisation studies; distance has reduced rapidly (the annihilation) due to the developments of technology and transport, making it quicker to communicate with someone or travel somewhere (time has destroyed space).

    The Condition of Postmodernity

    During the 1970s and 1980s, other Marxist geographers reshaped this idea. Most notably, David Harvey. In 1989, Harvey wrote his famous novel The Condition of Postmodernity. In this novel, he speaks of how we experience this annihilation of space and time. He notes that capitalist economic activities, the movement of capital, and consumption, are rapidly increasing, which in consequence, reduces distance (space) and has accelerated the pace of social life. With the support of improved technology and transport, capital is moving its way around the world much faster. Time-space compression, then, is how capitalism has compressed the world and sped up economic processes. This consequently affects and disrupts human lives; Harvey notes that time-space compression is 'stressful', 'challenging' and even 'deeply troubling'.1 Through these processes, the importance and relevance of place are diminishing. Some places are valued more than others, and unevenness between places can occur. Some places have even lost their identities; places like Duisburg in Germany were once characterised by its industry during the age of Fordism. Now in the time of post-Fordism, places like this have been stripped of their identity. With capitalism on the search for ever cheaper labour and resources, areas like this have deindustrialised. This, for Harvey, has changed the power structures connected with place.

    This compression of space and time, to Harvey, is the pillar of globalisation.

    Time-Space Compression Example

    Examples of time-space compression can be seen through the emergence and transformation of transport. Distance has massively reduced since it has become easier to travel from one place to another (with the increase of rail, air, and automobile travel). Harvey highlights this in his novel too. The image below shows how the world is seemingly shrinking as developments in transport occur.

    The growth of technology and communications is another symbol of time-space compression. The mobile phone is a textbook example. The mobile phone dramatically compresses space between two people communicating through it. Computers are also a typical example; however, the phone is communication in raw form, without images etc. The phone is a perfect example of the compression of space, as it allows live connections with anyone and at any point. The phone is also a mobile and on-the-go device, allowing communications not just from the comfort of home but, quite literally, anywhere.

    Time-Space Compression a man on a phone StudySmarterFig. 2 - Do you use your mobile phone to connect with someone on the other side of the world?

    Disadvantages of Time-Space Compression

    Some say that this compression of space destroys local experiences and creates a homogenous way of living. Globalisation is also inherently uneven; with it being a driver of time-space compression, globalisation has created uneven experiences across the world. Time-space compression has been useful for describing the effects of capitalism and globalisation, however, the concept has been critiqued as being too generic. Let's look at one of the most prominent examples of time-space compression criticism.

    Doreen Massey

    One of the main critiques of the theory of time-space compression is by geographer Doreen Massey. In the current era of the world rapidly speeding up, we are experiencing the spreading of capital, culture, foods, dress etc. This is our world becoming what Harvey describes as the 'global village'.1 However, Massey notes that this original idea of time-space compression is heavily Eurocentric, focussed on a western perspective. Harvey admits to this early on in his example of time-space compression in his novel. Through time-space compression, people in the West may be seeing their local areas become more diverse, causing a certain sense of detachment. However, Massey notes this must have been experienced by non-western countries for years, as British and US products made their way around the world, i.e., this is not a new process.

    She also theorises that capitalism is not the sole cause of how we experience time-space compression. She argues that the characteristics of a person or accessibility have an effect on the experience of time-space compression. Some people experience time-space compression differently from others; location, age, gender, race, and income status all have an impact on how time-space compression can be experienced. For example, someone living in the developing world may not have the economic capacity to own technologies to connect internationally or even the education levels to be able to use the technology. Even the movement around the world is experienced differently. For example, a jet-setting businessman is going to have a drastically different experience than an undocumented migrant. What about the people just receiving the effects of time-space compression, such as the old couple watching a Studio Ghibli film whilst eating a curry takeaway in their home in Boston? Thus, time-space compression affects us all differently. Massey, then, states that 'time-space compression needs differentiating socially'.5 These critiques show the many disadvantages that the theory of time-space compression brings to the table.

    Massey also discusses the idea of a sense of place in relation to time-space compression. With the reduction of locality and feelings of the local, and the increased homogenisation around the world, is it possible to still have a sense of place? She perceives that there needs to be a global sense of place, a progressive one.

    Time Space Compression vs Convergence

    It is important to note that time-space compression may often be confused with another spatial concept. Time-space convergence, although similar, does refer to something slightly different. Time-space convergence refers directly to the reduction in travel time from one place to another. It now takes less time to get from place to place, as a direct result of improved transport and improved communication technologies. Take a look at our explanation on time-space convergence for more on this.

    Time-Space Compression people sitting on a carriage pulled by a horse StudySmarterFig. 3 - Think how long it would take you to travel by horse-drawn carriage. The advancement of transport has made travel much faster.

    Importance of Space Time Compression

    Time-space compression is a relatively important theory for the study of space in geography. Within geographical studies, understanding our connections with space and place is fundamental. Time-space compression helps geographers to unpack the constant change within our world and the impacts this has.

    Time-Space Compression - Key takeaways

    • Time-space compression is a spatial concept within geography, referring to the metaphorical shrinking of our world due to developments in technology, communications, transport, and capitalist processes.
    • Marx once referred to this as the annihilation of space by time.
    • This was reshaped by other prominent theorists, such as David Harvey, who states that capitalism has compressed the world, affecting human lives, speeding up the pace of life, and reducing the significance of place.
    • There are criticisms of this theory; Doreen Massey states the concept is too Eurocentric and that experiences of time-space compression are not unified. Time-space compression is experienced in different ways.
    • Although similar, time-space convergence refers directly to the shrinking of travel time as a result of improvements in transport and communications.
    • Time-space compression is an important geographical theory, as it helps to understand the non-static processes of the world.

    References

    1. David Harvey, 'The Condition of Post Modernity, An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change'. 1989.
    2. Nigel Thrift and Paul Glennie. Time-Geography. International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences. 2001.
    3. Doreen Massey. 'A Global Sense of Place'. Marxism Today. 1991.
    4. Fig. 2: person using a mobile phone (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:On_the_phone_(Unsplash).jpg), by Søren Astrup Jørgensen, Licensed by CC0 (https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/deed.en).
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Time-Space Compression

    What is time space compression in human geography?

    Time-space compression in human geography refers to the way that the world is seemingly getting smaller, or compressing, as a result of increased transport, communications, and capitalist processes.

    What is an example of time-space compression?

    An example of time-space compression is the mobile phone.

    What causes space time compression?

    There are different theories towards time space compression, but most notably, David Harvey believes the cause of space time compression is caused by the speeding up of capitalism and capitalist processes.

    Who benefits from time space compression?

    Wherever time-space compression has had a positive impact, will benefit from it.

    Is time space convergence the same as time space compression?

    No, time space convergence is different to time-space compression.

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