Saturday, March 22, 2014

Mind the Gap—Technology and the Multiplication of Space/Time

Sitting on my desk is a book that I page through when I have a moment:Quantum City.  It’s not something I’m going to assign in classes—it’s really a manifesto, with quantum  looking a bit like a brand-name than a serious application of quantum mechanics to urban planning.  But it reminds me how important anthropology has been to thinking about space and time as an indivisible whole embedded in everyday life.
Frame from the film Man with a Movie Camera by Dziga Vertov. Photo courtesy wikicommons
Frame from the film Man with a Movie Camera (1929) by Dziga Vertov. Photo courtesy wikicommons
If we think of 19th century anthropology as the effort to produce time and space as a classificatory grid into which we might slot cultural alterity, then the twentieth century suggested a fairly successful effort to challenge that orthodoxy through a cultural relativism that also occasionally included space/time relativity, the idea, in other words, that space and time form a folded topology in social and cultural life rather than distinct variables in a linear equation.  These are not new insights for ethnographers who are steeped in what Bergson called “duration.”  On the other hand, as Fabian pointed out long ago in his Time and the Other (1982), these insights into temporal relativism often came at a cost, imprisoning “the Other” in bubbles of time/space that made anthropology’s interlocutors even more vulnerable to power and manipulation.
But when applied to the city’s spaces, anthropology anticipates many of the insights and critiques of Henri Lefebvre and others, namely that capitalism seeks to impose ideologies of homogeneity on the city’s diverse rhythms, practices of space and time which, paradoxically, capitalism generates through highly differentiated productions of commodified spaces, work schedules and mobilities.  For Lefebvre, recovering the “rhythms” of our actual lives is antidote to this ideological reduction.
Within these interstices of space/time lie new possibilities for challenging hegemony.  On the other hand, each juncture suggests new possibilities for commodification and profit, with differences in the production of time and space exploited through arbitrage strategies that commodity them.
Nowhere has this been truer than in the development of mobile computing and social media.  On the one hand, our mobile handsets promise homogenous instantaneity, where physical presence is just a phase embedded in a spectrum of virtual presences, and every corner and relationship is reduced to a node in a web of commodified information.   On the other, these ubiquitous technologies generate countless fractures and interstices in space/time, with each technology generating absences and lacunae right alongside transparency and surveillance.  Far from complete homogeneity, social media makes our urban perambulations more like a lattice of Wi-Fi coverage—with people moving in, out and between charged fields in ways that multiply connection, continuity and ubiquity, but that simultaneously construct their opposite: disconnection, discontinuity and schism.
There are numerous, well-known examples.  In 2012, Facebook forced all of its accounts into its “timeline”—a chronology of your posts that scrolls down your screen.  At the same time, it introduced gaps in that chronology: the time before your Facebook account, or the times when you’ve been less active on the social network.  Foursquare users “check in” at different intervals with their status and location, but the social media simultaneously introduces gaps and inconsistencies before or after “check-ins”.
Some of these discontinuities may tease out the ghosts of alternative possibilities.  After having been accused and harassed for months by the FBI, the artist and University of Maryland professor Hasan Elahi began his own “sousveillance,” calling the FBI before his trips abroad and updating his whereabouts constantly on his website/art installation, “Tracking Transience.”   There are (reportedly) more than 20,000 photos on his site—an eloquent protest against a government obsessed with the surveillance of ordinary people.  But there is also an element of “intransigence” here as well, for each photograph is simultaneously the creation of an infinite number of movements and practices that are off-frame—the spaces and times between the photographs that proliferate despite the Orwellian state.
Of course, these rifts in time/space are more often ambiguous in their ultimate significance.  I think of driving around last week in Baltimore in a friend’s car with GPS.  We follow its deadpan directions through West Baltimore and then suddenly balk when it prompts us to drive through the parking lot of a strip-mall.  Did this lead me to critique of the commercialization of public space?  Does the GPS help me to question the legitimacy of the strip mall to interrupt the maximum efficiency of our route?  I remember feeling annoyed, but also wondering if I shouldn’t stop and buy something.
But that isn’t atypical.  Space/time discontinuities are routinely exploited by an advanced capitalism forever expanding into new frontiers of accumulation.  A few months ago, a big box store in Seoul (HomePlus), installed  virtual shopping along the walls of the subway station at Seonreung Station, allowing commuters to use their smartphone to click onto pictures of groceries that get delivered to their homes that evening.  The success of the virtual store depends not on the homogenization of different temporalities, but on their exploitation.  By moving into the space of competing urban rhythms: work, commuting, shopping, delivery, HomePlus seeks to colonize the temporal fragments that mark the borders of one type of mobility and another.
Undoubtedly, we will see more of this.  While the promise of ubiquitous, mobile computing is the perfect synchronization of our digital and material lives, the exact opposite is also true, with each mobile technology delivering disconnection and rupture right alongside promises of transparency and connection.  There are also reasons to hope that an anthropology sensitive to time and space practices as generative of difference and heterogeneity will continue to use these gaps in order to evoke critical topologies, but it must do so nimbly.  By the time we step in, disruptive time/space may have been already (re)colonized as productive time/space.
[published previously in Anthropology News]