On one hand some people claim that new information and communication technologies – such as the internet and mobile phones – mean that many everyday troubles originating from spatiality have simply disappeared. After all, our long-awaited dream of overcoming space may become reality, since we are surrounded by global, readily accessible networks, which make it possible to do more and more activities anywhere. Even at home we can sit in front of the computer and buy goods, speak with distant friends, or perhaps manage business affairs. And who cares where our office is located geographically?
The opposing view is less radical, for when we consider the role of geography we are looking at more concrete things, and it has to be said that the global network is not accessible absolutely everywhere and for everyone. Infrastructure, cable lines and mobile phone antennae have to be constructed, and where they are missing, access does not exist. Additionally even if it was technically possible, not everyone would be able to use or could pay for such things. Some people are clearly ‘digitally disadvantaged’, and they can be relatively well defined geographically. Unfavourable socioeconomic backgrounds owing to lower levels of education or wages, and lack of coverage in rural areas or less-developed parts of the world, limit digital access for many people.
Travelling In Cyberspace
There is, however, another aspect of geographical space we should take into account, which is that not everything can be done by network communication. Some things simply cannot be transmitted through the internet, cannot be written down, but are nevertheless critical to human communication – just think about the non-verbal gestures, impressions, moods or ambience that accompany our social interactions! As a result it will always be important for people to meet face to face in geographical space. This need cannot be met by new technology.
The role of geography today is not as simple as it used to be. The innovations of the information age have brought us completely new geographical experiences, which can be traversed subconsciously while we are roaming cyberspace. Come to that, cyberspace is not a real space, but just an imagined one, a mental creation. We only feel that we are moving in cyberspace when we jump from website to website, or visit places that are distant and unfamiliar, or those that are closer and well-known to us.
This untouchable space can, however, be explained in geographical terms, which define it simply as a set of computers and cables. Our research also proved that these two things – cyberspace, and the physical space where computers and cables are located – are not exactly the same. By using some freely available tracerouter programmes, an information package can be tracked along internet cables and through cyberspace. Starting in Budapest, for example, we found that a website registered in the neighbouring country of Slovakia was reached via Geneva, Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Prague, Vienna and Bratislava. The details of this route may change from time to time, but the connection between these two countries remains far from direct.
Smuggling Geopgraphy Back
Geography has a quite different role in the case of wireless technologies. Wi-Fi or mobile technologies were, after all, created to overcome geography. We buy these very things in order to browse the internet and communicate from everywhere and anywhere. Location-independency also makes it possible to work far away at the other side of the world.
On the other hand, though, manufacturers and service providers smuggled geography back when location-based and geographically differentiated services were developed. Instruments with built-in GPS, or smart mobile phones may tell us where the nearest ATM is located, and of course to do this they have to be able to identify exactly where we are in geographical space. Accordingly geography still seems to be important for those technologies which try to dismiss it.
So, can we dissolve this duality? Is geography important, or is it dead? It seems that we will just have to see what possibilities these new technologies offer us and what concrete experiences can be found in everyday reality. The debate certainly leaves us with something to think about!