Introduction: Detours on the road to abolishing distance
“The frank abolition of all distances brings no nearness… Everything gets lumped together into uniform distancelessness.”
(Heidegger, 1971, pp. 165, 166)
Heidegger’s remark seems to call attention to the fact that technology’s much celebrated victory over distance fails to deliver everything it promised. While technology might be able to facilitate our drawing near to things once considered far, much more than technology is required to bridge the existential gap between the knower and the known. Distancelessness, in other words, is not the same as nearness. Hours of watching television or surfing the internet might increase our knowledge about the object of our attention, but might not necessarily result in a feeling of being closer to it. In fact, the whole experience might result in an increased feeling of alienation from the object and from the ‘real’ world, as we consciously or subconsciously realize that our efforts have failed to produce meaningful nearness. And yet, contrary to Heidegger’s assertion, some kind of crossing of distances must bring nearness, if the words ‘far’ and ‘near’ are to have any meaning at all! Is it that the distances that technology helps us traverse are of little consequence in existential terms, or that we have not yet fully understood what it is that technology brings near or pushes far, and how this shapes our relationship with the world? This essay constitutes an attempt to shed some light on the issue of how technology is changing our ideas about distance. My argument rests on the proposition that we need to start thinking of distance in more sophisticated ways than the traditional temporal/spatial approach, and that we also need to realize that some kinds of distances, paradoxically, are necessary in the production of nearness.
Before modern communication technologies, this distance was defined basically in Euclidean terms, since the opportunities for communicating with others were completely determined by temporal/spatial distance. As Borgmann (2000) suggests:
In a premodern setting, what is present in space and time has prominence since a resort to elsewhere and elsewhen is slow or laborious. To the prominence of presence corresponds a focal area of nearness that is centered on my body. Within the circle of proximity, things and persons present themselves in their own right and are known directly, by acquaintance rather than description. Objects that are remote in time and space, however, I know indirectly, by having information about them… In this way a substantive metric of nearness and farness underlies or is inscribed on the formal metric of Euclidean space… The substance of farness lies in the reference of signs to things and persons that are concealed by distance in space and remoteness in time. (p. 95-96)
It is not my intention to provide here a detailed analysis of everything that happened in the move from such a setting to our current times. Suffice it to say, again in the words of Borgmann, that “Information technology in particular does not so much bring near what is far as it cancels the metric of time and space” (2000, p. 98). The so-called ‘death of distance’ means that suddenly the remoteness of objects is no impediment to accessing them in some mediated way. But this new ordering of distance affects not only what is far, but also what is near. In contrast with the premodern setting, where communication with the near was convenient and communication with the far was difficult, modern information and communication technologies (ICTs) make it largely irrelevant whether we are communicating with someone down the hall or halfway across the planet, and whether we are doing so synchronously or asynchronously in one case or the other.
But while the metric of space and time may have become somewhat redundant, I wouldn’t go as far as proclaiming its annihilation. Not only does it continue to play an important part in our experience of the world, but more to the point of my argument, its rules continue to largely influence how we associate value judgments with distance. For instance, many critiques of modern technology hinge on the argument that an increase in mediation automatically results in a lamentable decrease in the quality of communication; in other words, the more mediation that is required in the act of communication, the worse the interaction is deemed to be. This kind of judgment carries with it, implicitly, a bias towards face-to-face communication as the prime model for communication. Consequently, these critiques tend to approach the question from the perspective of what we lose in mediated communication compared to face-to-face communication, not of what we gain that face-to-face communication is unable to provide. In other words, an IM chat with someone hundreds of miles away is critiqued from the perspective of how much richer that conversation would be face-to-face, not from the perspective of how impossible that conversation would be without IM. More nuanced critiques might concede that the benefits of an IM conversation in circumstances where face-to-face communication is an impossibility outweigh the detriments. But these same critiques would still condemn an IM conversation carried on with someone in the next cubicle, in light of the possibility of having that same conversation face-to-face (I myself have presented such arguments on occasion). Are there really no circumstances under which we could argue that having an IM chat with someone in the next cubicle is preferable to having a face-to-face conversation? It is as if the discussion of the affordances (what the technology makes possible, and what it makes impossible) of any technology that mediates communication must begin from the position that any deviation from face-to-face communication already entails a loss. The propensity to see things this way is, as I will explore more fully below, a remnant from the days when indeed communication with the far implied an increase in mediation, and this increase in mediation resulted in a decrease in the quality of communication. Today, this bias against mediation serves as a way to express the anxiety we feel as we find the Euclidean logic behind our traditional understanding of distance undermined by ICTs.
However, my project is not simply to recommend that we learn to accept the annihilation of the metric of time and space and move on with our lives. Distancelessness, as Heidegger suggests, is not the same as nearness. The concept of distance continues to be useful, I think, as a way to measure the existential nearness between us and what we seek to know. When seen as a moment, not as a permanent state, distance can help us to take stock of our position in relation to where we want to be. This fits nicely with my interest in normative theorizings of technology, in arguments for the use of technology to increase our understanding of the world, ontologically reintegrating ourselves into it, to use an image by H.S. Bhola (1992) that I am fond of paraphrasing. In order to do this, I am proposing that apart from temporal/spatial distance, we need to consider epistemological distance and ontological distance.
The tyranny of temporal/spatial nearness
Before I get into the details of what I mean by epistemological and ontological distance, I would like to delve deeper into the question of how, despite the redundancy of the metric of time and space brought about by ICTs, certain manifestations of temporal/spatial distance continue to influence how we think about nearness in an online setting. I call this the temporal/spatial bias.
The temporal/spatial bias is just what its name suggests: a set of assumptions (based on our experience of time and space) that influences how we construct meaning about nearness and farness. I am interested in how these assumptions inform value judgments about online technologies. My observation is that, despite the supposed annihilation of the time and space metric in online communication, temporal/spatial distance continues to be used instinctively as a benchmark when describing distances in the online world. This is particularly the case in normative assessments of online experiences, when we are trying to argue that the distance that mediation introduces between the knower and the known is detrimental. As I illustrated above, some arguments propose that any kind of face-to-face communication is better than any kind of online communication because it is immediate and synchronous. The implication, based on traditional temporal/spatial assumptions, is that farness translates into an increase in mediation (the farther the object, the more mediation is required), which in turn results in more impurities introduced into the process. In other words, the use of any instrument to mediate communication is seen as a lesser form of perception than what can be experienced directly by the body, because in some way or another this mediation constitutes a decrease in the quality or amount of data that could be gained through one’s senses.
I am not arguing that the outcome of replacing direct interaction with mediated interaction is something that should not be analyzed and, when appropriate, critiqued. I wish instead to point out how the idea of temporal/spatial farness is used to critique the quality of mediated experiences even when those experiences represent the only opportunity for interaction, or when the knowledge that can be derived from those experiences is something that could not be acquired through any other means.
I would like to use two simple metaphors to make the point that direct experience is not always better than mediated experience. First, consider the use of a mirror to look at the reflection of our face. Obviously, the use of this instrument constitutes a form of mediation, since given our anatomies it is impossible to focus our eyesight on our own face. Without the mirror’s mediation we would have no first-hand knowledge of our own countenance. While it is true that not all knowledge about ourselves comes from our reflected image, the specific knowledge of how we look to others can only be gained through representation. Second, consider the act of star gazing. Not only is the knowledge derived from celestial observation greatly delayed temporally (to the extent that some of the stars we look upon may not even exist anymore), but the spatial distance reduces information emanating from gigantic suns to tiny points of light. And yet, this limited, mediated information has proved incredibly useful for various purposes including navigation, calendar calculation, scientific and religious construction of theories about the nature of the universe, etc.
In presenting these two simplistic examples, I wish to point out that mediated perception, while different from unmediated perception, can provide kinds of knowledge not available through the latter. This lesson can be transposed to our analysis of online experiences. While we need to be mindful of the advantages of face-to-face communication, we also need to acknowledge the kind of insights (about ourselves, about our world) that can be gained through online experiences that cannot be gained through unmediated perception. Categorical denunciations of virtuality only serve to reify the idea of cyberspace as an alternate, autonomous reality, not as a new part of reality that must be integrated and balanced with the other parts. As Wilson argues, the function of our most important technologies is not (or at least should not be) “to replace the natural world, but to display it” (p. 2000, p. 69). Likewise, the function of communication technologies is not to replace the richness that temporal/spatial nearness affords, but to facilitate communication that temporal/spatial distance would make impossible. The fact that this implies a degradation in temporal/spatial nearness is countered by the fact that this kind of communication provides new knowledge and new dimensions of being; in other words, new opportunities for nearness of a different sort.
What am I trying to imply by saying that things can be epistemologically near or far? This conceptualization of distance has to do with the degree to which I can justify my knowledge of something based on my current assumptions. One thing is epistemologically nearer than another when my knowledge of the former is relatively more justified (to me, at least) than my knowledge of the latter.
The interesting thing is that the temporal/spatial bias would suggest that things are epistemologically near when they are near in terms of the space and time metric, when in fact (because of the ‘annihilation’ of this metric) this is no longer necessarily the case. To understand how this works, let’s consider the variables of synchronicity and mediation when looked at from the perspective of epistemological distance.
Synchronicity refers to the timeliness of experience; it describes whether experience is immediate or delayed. Because of the temporal/spatial bias, the common belief is that synchronous experiences translate into epistemological nearness (in other words, knowledge about something that is immediate is assumed to be more justified); consequently, asynchronous experiences translate into epistemological farness (that is, knowledge about something that is delayed is assumed to be less justified). However, because of the abolishment of temporal/spatial distance, what is temporally/spatially near is not necessarily what is epistemologically near; something can be asynchronous or delayed and be epistemologically near (e.g., knowledge gained through an email exchange with someone, whether down the hall or hundreds of miles away, whose ideas are epistemologically congruent with mine), while something can be synchronous or immediate and be epistemologically far (e.g., knowledge gained through a face-to-face conversation with someone whose ideas are epistemologically incongruent with mine). So epistemological distance is a function not of things being synchronous or asynchronous, as the temporal/spatial bias would suggest, but of an altogether different measure: how justified is my knowledge about something.
The same kind of argument can be made about mediation, which I am using here to mean the degree to which an original object is technologically represented, or mediated, in order to be engaged remotely. In other words, mediation describes whether an experience is concrete or represented (actual or virtual, in the common parlance). Because of the temporal/spatial bias, the common belief is that unmediated experiences translate into epistemological nearness (in other words, knowledge about something that is concrete is assumed to be more justified); on the other hand, mediated experiences translate into epistemological farness (that is, knowledge about something that is represented is assumed to be less justified). But again, because of the ‘abolishment’ of temporal/spatial distance, what is temporally/spatially near is not necessarily what is epistemologically near. Something can be mediated or represented and be epistemologically near (e.g., the email exchange in the example above), while something can be unmediated or concrete and be epistemologically far (e.g., the face-to-face conversation in the example above). Again, nearness in this case is a function of how justified I feel my knowledge of something is, not how far or near in temporal/spatial terms it is from me.
According to the logic I just described, knowledge of things in cyberspace might be more justified (to me) than knowledge of things in my own neighborhood. This is not unproblematic. I have warned previously (Mejias, 2004b) of what can happen when what is spatially near becomes irrelevant in comparison to what is, thanks to technology, spatially far but epistemologically near. The argument just presented is not so much a refutation of this as it is an attempt to further explore the dynamic. As Dreyfus (2000) has argued, epistemology (the Cartesian flavor, at least) can be limiting if it positions the subject as detached from the world, the internal mind as separate from the external body and world, the knower as the skeptical, independent entity that must question the reality of the known. In such a scenario, it doesn’t really matter whether epistemological distance is related at all to temporal/spatial distance, and the knower might not care that he or she is embedded in a social world more immediate than the online world; since such view argues that the knower is separate from the world no matter what, things can be spatially near or far without serious consequences to their epistemological availability. Hence the critique of Cartesian epistemology as a way of knowing: “Taking the skeptic seriously and attempting to prove that there is an external world presupposes a separation of the mind from the world of things and other people that defies a phenomenological description of how human beings make sense of everyday things and of themselves” (Dreyfus, 2000, p. 53). Thus, given the need for something to link temporal/spatial and epistemological distance to a more normative notion of nearness (a notion of nearness that specifies how the individual should relate to the world), I turn to a discussion of ontological distance.
What am I trying to imply by saying that things can be ontologically near or far? While epistemological distance has to do with degrees of knowledge justification, ontological distance has to do with degrees of agency: the ability of subjects to act upon things, to bring things existentially nearer by making them part of their sphere of action. One thing is ontologically nearer than another when I am more capable of interacting with the former than with the latter.
Again, the temporal/spatial bias suggests that things are ontologically near when they are near in terms of time and space, but upon closer examination we can see that this might not be necessarily the case. We can look at the variables of synchronicity and mediation again and derive similar observations to those we derived for epistemological distance: Whereas the temporal/spatial bias leads us to assume that synchronous and unmediated objects are ontologically nearer, the diminishing primacy of time and space brought about by ICTs confirms that asynchronous and mediated objects can be ontologically near as well. In other words, it is possible for the subject to have a higher degree of agency in relation to something that is remote or mediated as opposed to something that is immediate and unmediated. For instance, my actions can have weightier significance and meaning in an online asynchronous forum than in a face-to-face forum in my neighborhood.
Ontological distance involves an assessment of temporal/spatial distance and epistemological distance. Ontological distance combines our perception of where objects are in time and space with our knowledge about those objects in an effort to figure out what they mean to us, what types of actions are possible. Ontological distance helps us acknowledge that Object X, at a particular temporal/spatial and epistemological position, has a particular meaning, and that certain actions are or are not possible based on that meaning. This search for the relationship between meaning and action, as Dourish (2001) explains, has been the project of phenomenology:
What the phenomenologists have explored is the relationship between embodied action and meaning. For them, the source of meaning (and meaningfulness) is not a collection of abstract, idealized entities; instead, it is to be found in the world in which we act, and which acts upon us. The world is already filled with meaning. Its meaning is to be found in the way in which it reveals itself to us as being available for our actions. It is only through those actions, and the possibility for actions that the world affords us, that we can come to find the world, in both its physical and social manifestations, meaningful. (p. 116)
Ontological distance tracks our uncovering of meaning in the world, and indicates the degree to which this world is available to us for action. A change in ontological distance signifies a change in this availability, and thus a change in meaning: Things that are ontologically far from us are experienced abstractly, offering us little opportunity for involvement; conversely, things that are ontologically near are experienced as part of our sphere of action-things that we can change and that can change us. In this light, Bhola’s (1992) call for the ontological reintegration of the individual to the world can be interpreted as the abolishment of ontological distance by re-inscribing the individual into the world as a full agent, or to paraphrase Freire (1972), by transforming the individual into a subject-not an object-of history. The important point to make here is that while things might be epistemologically nearer than ever (due to the availability of information), and while temporal/spatial distance does not matter as much, they are also more ontologically distanced than ever, in the sense that we are not always fully empowered to act upon them.
This lack of ontological nearness is a phenomenon that I do not intend to address right now. Suffice it to say that it involves power dynamics that include the use of technology (mainly, mass communication technologies) for the specific purpose of creating ontological alienation within oppressed classes. At the same time, however, technology also offers new affordances or possibilities that can bring ontological nearness. For example, technologically facilitated shifts in temporal/spatial distance can, as I have discussed, provide better perspectives or vantage points from which to learn about the world and learn about ourselves-perspectives that would be impossible to acquire without technological mediation. Likewise, shifts in epistemological distance can allow us to reassess the assumptions that justify our knowledge, creating opportunities for critical thinking and the questioning of things as we have assumed them to be. These shifts, if properly channeled, can result in an ontological re-approach or re-integration to the world.
Most critiques against technology’s objectification of the individual and the world revolve around the assumption that we should strive towards temporal/spatial nearness. As I have tried to show in this paper, this bias no longer yields a meaningful model for understanding a world in which ICTs play a major role. Thus, a re-evaluation of what nearness means to us is in order. My argument is that we should strive towards ontological nearness, and take advantage of the unfolding affordances created by ICTs to manipulate temporal/spatial distance and epistemological distance to attain this goal, even if this manipulation entails an increase, not a decrease, in those types of distances.
My point, then, is that nearness can be engendered by distance; or to articulate it in a less paradoxical way: cultivating certain kinds of farness at certain times can eventually lead to more meaningful forms of nearness. As I have argued, distances do not necessarily diminish meaning when they produce information that would otherwise not be available to us, or when they represent steps on the road to increased understanding. Thus, the goal of a pedagogy of nearness (a pedagogy which I plan to define and develop more fully in a later project) is to use temporal/spatial farness to reveal new information, and epistemological farness to challenge our assumptions and justifications. Both distancings can be important tools in the process of figuring out what is our current ontological position vis-à-vis the world, and whether this position is satisfactory to us.
One of the biases I hope my argument can begin to dispel is that a simple, linear progression towards nearness in all of the three distances discussed is the desired goal. The process of understanding and acting upon the world requires moves that are multifaceted and complex, moves that simultaneously require nearness in one type of distance and farness in another. Sometimes a distancing in one axis is required before nearness in another can be achieved, which in turn causes a shift in another axis, and so on. For example, a temporal/spatial distancing from my surroundings can lead me to an epistemological re-assessment of them, which can lead to new ontological approaches to those same surroundings.
What role can technology play in this process? To begin with, we need to abandon previous biases and acknowledge that not all the farness that technology introduces is damaging, as not all the nearness that it engenders is (from an ontological perspective) as helpful as we would like to believe. Ultimately, we need to acknowledge that technology’s power in allowing us to manipulate distances should be placed in the service of a larger goal. This goal requires that we remain conscious of technology’s possibilities as well as its limitations in facilitating ontological nearness. This kind of view of technology (which is itself part of an ontological reintegration to a world in which ICTs are increasingly part of our lives) is what constitutes the difference between “using the real world as a metaphor for interaction and using it as a medium for interaction” (Dourish, 2001, p. 101). In other words, we should not seek to design a virtual world where technology affords a virtual ontological nearness, but we should seek to design technologies that afford ontological nearness to the actual world, even if that nearness is incomplete and must be supplemented by non-technological means.
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