Tuesday 14 July 2009

Comparing Geography is History and The Death of Distance

In material I'm writing for TU100: My Digital Life (a new OU course due out in 2011), I called a section Geography is History.

One of the other members of the team writing the course suggested that The Death of Distance is a more familiar phrase. But, while at one level they are both slogans drawing attention to the ease of communication brought about by recent technologies, on another level they have rather different resonances.

Geography is History is a phrase that was used by BT for marketing some of their broadband internet business products. My attention was first drawn to it by Professor Doreen Massey in an internal OU talk a few years back. I recall Professor Massey saying* that the phrase might taken to be referring to the idea that the subject of (human) geography is 'nothing but' a branch of history. That is the idea that there are no fundamental differences between peoples, rather that populations in different places are at different stages along the same historical timeline. Thus the UK is 10 years behind the USA and so on. To me this and related themes are important ideas that lead all sort of places. Eg, it could be that globalisation is killing geography, so that maybe there used to be geographical differences, but now globalisation - and the internet - are turning the world into a single timeline.

* If anything I say is wrong, that's me remembering it wrong or misunderstanding, not Prof Massey getting it wrong, of course!

The Death of Distance I don't like, to start with simply because of the dark, cold, connotations of death picked up by the alliteration with distance. There's something science fiction dark-side about it (Darth Vadar). Maybe that's not really legitimate, so lets explore further. The positive angle it is picking up, of course, is of ending distance between people, distance which could be interpreted in lots of different ways such as emotional distance as well as physical distance. So in this sense the death of distance is all good. The only negativity comes from the word death, and so the only negativity is the negativity you might have in, say, killing smallpox. (Or waging a war on terror...?)

So, I think what I'm suggesting is that Geography is History leads to more places than the Death of Distance. Geography is History is more ambiguous, and ambivalent about the benefits of improved communication technology. In spite of the darker words, Death of Distance only points to the good that comes about from improving communication - the ending of distance between people - whereas Geography is History reminds us that that we could be losing something of value. Assuming of course that you do value differences between people, which I do. And then, more directions, the debate about multiculturalism springs to mind!


John Naughton said...

"Geography is history" is nicer partly because it's more literary. It's also more subtle.

Rebecca Ferguson said...

Of course, there's also the mirror view - that history is geography, as in LP Hartley's observation that 'The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.' :-)

Two problems for me with the phrase 'geography is history'. First is that it's a negative take on history - treating it as synonymous with 'dead and gone' or 'no longer relative' - rather than viewing history as an essential tool for making sense of what we are doing and where we are going.

Second, the idea that different populations are at different point on an historical timeline aligns a little too neatly with the idea that there are 'primitive' and 'advanced' societies - rather than a variety of societies dealing with the 21st century in different ways.

Sounds an interesting course that involves thinking these ideas through.

David Chapman said...

That's neat, Hartley's observation as the mirror view.

In see your points about the negative takes on 'geography is history', but maybe it is part of the richness of the phrase that it can motivate consideration of these issues?

Certainly food for thought, to feed into the course.