Time–space compression

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Time–space compression (also known as space–time compression and time–space distanciation), articulated in 1989 by geographer David Harvey in The Condition of Postmodernity,[1] refers to any phenomenon that alters the qualities of and relationship between space and time. Harvey's idea was rooted in Karl Marx's theory of the "annihilation of time by space". A similar idea was proposed by Elmar Altvater in an article in PROKLA in 1987, translated into English as "Ecological and Economic Modalities of Time and Space" and published in Capitalism Nature Socialism in 1990.

Time–space compression often occurs as a result of technological innovations that condense or elide spatial and temporal distances, including technologies of communication (telegraph, telephones, fax machines, Internet), travel (rail, cars, trains, jets), and economics (the need to overcome spatial barriers, open up new markets, speed up production cycles, and reduce the turnover time of capital).

According to theorists like Paul Virilio, time-space compression is an essential facet of contemporary life: "Today we are entering a space which is speed-space ... This new other time is that of electronic transmission, of high-tech machines, and therefore, man is present in this sort of time, not via his physical presence, but via programming" (qtd. in Decron 71[2]). In "Vitesse et Politique", Virilio coins the term dromology to describe "speed-space." Virilio describes velocity as the hidden side of wealth and power, which represents a determining factor concerning societies' structures. Historical eras and political events, out of this perspective, are also speed-ratios. In his view, acceleration destroys space and compresses the time in ways of perceiving reality.

Theorists generally identify two historical periods in which time–space compression occurred; the period from the mid-19th century to the beginnings of the First World War, and the end of the 20th century. In both of these time periods, according to Jon May and Nigel Thrift, "there occurred a radical restructuring in the nature and experience of both time and space ... both periods saw a significant acceleration in the pace of life concomitant with a dissolution or collapse of traditional spatial co-ordinates".[3]


Doreen Massey critiqued the idea of time-space compression in her discussion of globalization and its effect on our society. She insisted that any ideas that our world is "speeding up" and "spreading out" should be placed within local social contexts. "Time-space compression", she argues, "needs differentiating socially": "the ways in which people are placed within 'time-space compression' are complicated and extremely varied". In effect, Massey is critical of the notion of "time-space compression" as it represents capital's attempts to erase the sense of the local and masks the dynamic social ways through which places remain "meeting places".[4]

For Moishe Postone,[5] Harvey's treatment of space-time compression and postmodern diversity are merely reactions to capitalism. Hence Harvey's analysis remains "extrinsic to the social forms expressed" by the deep structure concepts of capital, value and the commodity.

For Postone the postmodern moment is not necessarily just a one-sided effect of the contemporary form of capitalism but can also be seen as having an emancipatory side if it happened to be part of a post-capitalism. And because postmodernism usually neglects its own context of embeddedness it can legitimate capitalism as postmodern, whereas at the level of deep structure it may in fact be more concentrated, with large capitals that, accumulate rather than diverge, and with an expansion of commodification niches with fewer buyers.

Postone asserts one cannot step outside capitalism and declare it a pure evil, or as a one-dimensional badness. For Postone, the emancipatory content of such things as equal distribution or diversity are potentials of capitalism itself in its abundant and diverse productive powers. It misfires however, when a form of life such as postmodernism takes itself for being the whole when in fact it is just another appearance of the same capitalist essence.


  1. ^ Harvey, David. The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1990.
  2. ^ Decron, Chris. Speed-Space. Virilio Live. Ed. John Armitage. London: Sage, 2001. 69–81.
  3. ^ May, Jon and Nigel Thrift. "Introduction." TimeSpace: Geographies of Temporality. NY: Routledge, 2001. pp. 1–46.
  4. ^ Massey, Doreen (1994). "A Global Sense of Place". Space, Place, and Gender. University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 0816626162.
  5. ^ Postone, Moishe. "Theorizing the Contemporary World: Robert Brenner, Giovanni Arrighi, David Harvey" in Political Economy of the Present and Possible Global Future(s), Anthem Press, 2007.