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communications, geography of

  The geography of messages and messengers. For a long time, communications were a topic of only secondary interest in human geography. Often subsumed under categories like transport geography, they were seen as simply the threads which drew societies together. But now, communications are seen as central to what societies are and how they can be. As communications have come to be seen as a vital part of the process of social relations (see also media, geography of), so they are now becoming of immense interest to human geographers since they show how societies are geographically constructed.

The realization that communities are a crucial element of social relations has many forebears. There is the work of nineteenth-century writers like Baudelaire, for whom one of the chief characteristics of modern life was speed, and in the earlier part of the twentieth century there is the work of sociologists like Lazarsfeld and Sorokin and political scientists like Lasswell and Lerner who, in their very different ways, were keen to inject notions of time and space into their accounts of the media and communications.

But it was not until the mid-twentieth century that the study of communication really started to become central to social science because of the work of two Canadian writers, Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan. Innis held that communication technology was the basis of political and economic processes, a thesis he set out in Empire and communications (1950) and The bias of communication (1951). Innis argued that power involved the control of space and time and that communication systems therefore shape social organization. Marshall McLuhan made such insights into something approaching a fetish by insisting that the communications medium itself determines the nature of what is communicated and that new communications media will lead to new forms of civilization. McLuhan\'s technological determinism has been taken up in recent years by writers like Paul Virilio, for whom the speed of modern communications determines the form of civilization we will live in. In Virilio\'s case this means that the near-instantaneous speed of urban communications produces inertia; what in times past would have appeared as the sign of a handicap or infirmity — the inability to move in order to act — becomes a symbol of progress and ability to command the environment. Instead of the movement of the body, a complex of screens. For a humanist writer like Virilio, this is a profound threat to civilization since it undermines the notion of the human.

There are, however, three less heady approaches to the study of communication. One can be usefully counterpoised to approaches based on technological determinism. It attempts to understand the way in which technologies of communication can be understood as a part of more general practices. Such interchanges between the technology of communication and practices can be understood in numerous ways: through careful ethnographies of the use of communications devices in everyday life (e.g. Silverstone, 1994); through more general theoretical approaches like actor-network theory, and Debray\'s (1995) \'mediology\'; or even, at the most abstract level, through the work of philosophers like Derrida, who writes of a general and proliferating structure of communication which is based on a scriptural model founded on the new sciences of communication like molecular biology, information theory and cybernetics, and Serres, who wants to write the space-time of communications as a topology of message-bearing systems.

Two other approaches are also important. One is the political economy of communications, which considers the extent to which the ownership and control of communications is a crucial element in the unbalanced flows of information and cultural products between countries. The other is a more practical empirical orientation to communications which is manifested in the results of questionnaire surveys, focus groups and the like and which probably still accounts for the bulk of research on communications.

Given the heritage of the work of geographers like Innis, and the inherent spatiality of communications, it is surprising how little attention has been given by geographers to these issues. There are exceptions, however. In the 1960s, work on time-space convergence was often conducted around communications (e.g. Jannelle, 1969) and Harvey\'s subsequent work on time-space compression might be thought of as in the grandiose tradition of Innis, McLuhan and Virilio. More generally, historical geographers have spent considerable time and effort excavating a geography of communications which is of considerable interest (cf. Pred, 1977; Gregory, 1987; Thrift, 1990; Brayshay et al., 1998; see also Schivelsbuch, 1986).

The issue of communications is, of course, only underlined by the growth of the Internet since the 1980s (Kitchin, 1998). After all, in certain senses, the Internet is nothing more that the telegraph writ large. In another sense, though, it seems to presage new and radically different senses of space and time. In a literature which thrives on exaggeration the answer, no doubt, will lie somewhere between. (NJT)

References Brayshay, M., Harrison, P. and Chalkley, B. 1998: Knowledge, nationhood and governance. The speed of the Royal Mail in early-modern England, Journal of Historical Geography 24: 265-88. Debray, R. 1995: Mediologies. London: Verso; Frictian of distance? Information circulation and the mails in early nineteenth-century England. Gregory, D. 1987: Journal of Historical Geography 13: 130-54. Harvey, D. 1989: The condition of postmodernity. Oxford: Blackwell. Innis, M. 1950: Empire and communications. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. Innis, M. 1951: The bias of communication. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. Janelle, D.G. 1969: Spatial reorganisation: a model and a concept. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 59: 348-64. Kitchin, R.M. 1998: Cyberspace. Chichester: John Wiley. Mattelart, A. 1996: The invention of communication. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Matterlart, A. and Mattelart, M. 1998: Theories of communication. A short introduction. London: Sage. McLuhan, M. 1962: The Gutenberg galaxy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. McLuhan, M. 1964: Understanding media. New York: McGraw-Hill. Pred, A. 1977: City systems in advanced economies. London: Hutchinson. Schivelsbuch, W. 1986: The railway journey. The industrialisation of space and time. Berkeley: University of California Press. Serres, M. 1995: Angels. A modern myth. Paris: Flannmarion. Silverstone, R. 1994: Television and everyday life. London: Routledge. Thrift, N.J. 1990: Transport and Communications, 1730-194. In R.A. Dodgshon and R.A. Butlin, eds, A new historical geography of England and Wales, 2nd edn. London: Academic Press, 453-86. Virilio, P. 1995: The art of the motor. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Virilio, P. 1997: Open sky. London: Verso.

Suggested Reading Matterlart, A. and Mattelart, M. (1998).



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