Friday, January 18, 2013

Instances of Space-Time Compression

            The concept of space-time compression has been of vital importance both to the trend of globalization and the emergence of what can be considered as global history.  This compression refers to increase in the spread of information across large areas in a speedy manner.  The spread of information—be it news events or intellectual thought—is a prominent and key factor in the integration of the modern world, an integration integral to global history.  The speed at which this information travels across borders, both political and geographic, has played a large role in this integration; this speed has not been constant throughout history, however.

            While the first true instances of compression were the inventions of language, writing, paper, and the wheel, the first great “modern” compression occurred when navigators developed the ability to sail in the open waters without being helplessly lost.  The inventions of the magnetic compass, sextant, and the astrolabe all facilitated maritime exploration by allowing for more accurate navigation, particular in the open ocean. 
            The next modern compression transpired in large part to the European invention of the printing press.  This allowed for the spread of rudimentary newspapers across the continent throughout the seventeenth century.  These newspapers gathered important information into one document which could be bought, sold, and transported across long distances fairly cheaply.  While still constrained by the speed of the ship, this offered one of the first instances of “institutionalization” of knowledge, allowing more information to be diffused across the world by means other than the mouth.
            While compression continued throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the next substantial gain occurred in 1837 when Samuel Morse invented the electric telegraph.  This was arguably the largest instance of space-time compression since the invention of the wheel.  The telegraph allowed information to be transmitted across long distances in a matter of minutes or hours, depending on the length.  When the trans-Atlantic cable was completed in the 1860s, the Eastern hemisphere could communicate with the Western hemisphere in a matter of hours, as opposed to nearly six months (about two months both ways) at the turn of the century.
            The invention of the telephone a few decades after the telegraph similarly compressed space-time, but since it did so in the same manner as the telegraph it will not be discussed.  In the years immediately after the Second World War, a new form of transportation rapidly emerged on the scene and drastically changed the way people traveled to a degree which the locomotive and steamship industries could only dream of.  The advent of commercial jet flight cut travel times to hours and did so in a manner much cheaper than the railroad industry, as costly tunnels through mountains were not necessary.  The ease with which people could travel internationally helped facilitate the spread of ideas in a manner not possible simply through the telephone or telegraph.
            The most drastic instance of space-time compression is of course also the most modern; the internet and satellite communication have reduced the time it takes to transfer information from one end of the world to the other to mere seconds.  With instantaneous transfer of ideas, a student in Chicago can learn about happenings in Mali just as fast as an individual in Bamako.  The compression in space-time which this has resulted in cannot be overstated; as the Arab Spring demonstrated, the internet and associated social media platforms can be employed to air grievances and coordinate action against organized government to a degree which was not possible even a decade ago. 

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