Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2000


Marilyn Porter (2000) 'Objects In Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear - Or The More Things Change The More They Stay The Same- Or Ruminations On Space And Time In The Next Millennium'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 4, no. 4, <>

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Received: 23/2/2000      Accepted: 24/2/2000      Published: 29/2/2000

Prediction is not my thing. Too often I get it wrong, and I never win raffles. In the splurge of millennium reflections and nostalgia, what strikes me most is how impossible it would have been for me to predict now, then, say 25 or 50 years ago. I can remember at about age 7, working out that I would be 57 in the year 2000, and thinking that was so impossibly old it wasn't worth thinking about (it isn't impossibly old, though I still have trouble thinking about it), and my mother saying "Well, I won't have to worry about it, dear, I'll be dead by then" (she isn't). So for the purposes of this piece, I shall restrict myself to ruminations about certain features of my life, and a kind of backwards extrapolation as to how these features might (or might not) change.

The single most important (and unforeseeable) change/event in my life in the last 25 years was the offer of a one year sessional appointment at Memorial University and my move to Newfoundland from the UK in 1980. So here I sit, on 28th December 1999, gazing out of my study window at an unusually unwhite Christmas, at the ancient trees in the park opposite (named for a particularly repressive British governor in 19th century), registering the brilliant blue of a winter sky, and pondering the virtues of skating on the newly frozen ponds versus dramatic cliff walks this afternoon, while my son saunters out of bed, ready for another day of happy reunion with his high school gang, who have not all been together in the same place for 15 years, but who all came back, from California to the west, to the Hague to the east, to celebrate the New Year on the St. John's waterfront, half an hour before anyone else in North America (though well behind the Europeans, and long after the Asians). Time and space; have we expanded the former and contracted the latter? Is the kind of life I live now, on this rocky island, the size of the UK but with barely half a million people, 500 miles from Halifax and 3000 miles from London, the same or different to the way it would have been 50 years ago?

Well, for a start, 50 years ago, Newfoundland had only been a province of Canada for 9 months, and there are still, today, passionate debates about whether that was a smart, or inevitable, move. But part of Canada we are - the most easterly, poorest province, dependent for centuries on the export of primary products (notably fish) and labour. (Like the Irish, from whom many Newfound landers are descended there are many more scattered around the world than still live here). But their sense of identity is as strong as ever - which brings me to my second theme. Is the world still divided primarily into nation states? Or is our identity tied up with smaller, ethnically defined units, or with larger federations. Are we primarily Europeans or Scots? Quebeckers or Canadians? Kosovars or Yugoslavs? What about the nomads, the immigrants, the refugees, the 'rainbow' people with mixed ancestry - where do we belong? if anywhere? Does it matter?

Let us begin with the apparently simple matter of the exponential advances in communication and the way they have apparently shrunk the world. There are many ways in which this is so manifestly true that there seems no logical stopping point before we enter a totally homogenized world, in which where you live has no bearing on what you do, who you relate to or how you live. Aeroplanes scuttle around the world, delivering people and goods more swiftly than we could have imagined even 50 years ago. It now takes me five hours to fly from St. John's to London, and then rather more than that to get to North Wales to see my mother. But at least the trip doesn't entail two or more weeks on a ship, so I do return 'home' twice a year, rather than once in a lifetime as the generation of immigrants of 50 years ago did. Airmail is supposedly much quicker than surface mail, though it often seems to take just as long, but we can send faxes or e-mails in a blink of an eye. Fifty years ago it was unheard of to telephone across the Atlantis - or at least it was a cumbersome extravagance unlikely to replace the letter. Today, IDD and competing phone companies persuade us to spend more time talking across oceans than across rooms. It is true that junk United States based shows have now replaced local radio in the remotest corners of the globe. News coverage, from even the most respectable sources, flits from televisable horror to televisable horror, abandoning 'stories' the moment something more glittering catches their eye. It is true that more people watched Princess Di's funeral than knew the name of their own prime minister. Such things are all true, and are likely to intensify in the coming years, but what do they actually mean, and have they really shrunk the globe?

My own life, more than many, exemplifies the differences that communications can make. I would have felt very differently about moving so far from family and friends without access to cheap and frequent contact - but it isn't the same as living a few miles away, and we'll come to that. Nor could I work happily in such a remote university were it not, in particular, for e-mail. The couple of hours or more I spend each morning on e-mail enables me to carry out both administrative and creative roles that would be impossible otherwise. I edit a journal, with a co-editor located in Vancouver, a Managing Editor located in Halifax, and panel spread across Canada. As President of national organisations, I have been in daily contact with my Executive Directors in Ottawa and Montreal. I plan workshops and linkage projects with co-Directors in Jakarta and Karachi. I wheedle references and reviews out of colleagues, known and unknown, around the globe. While a certain amount of collaboration over distances happened before, the kind of interactions I experience daily would not have been feasible (or even imaginable).

And it has had a usefully equalising effect. Because of e-mail (and to a lesser extent, phone, fax etc) I now communicate regularly with people over much greater distances than before, and that communication tends to be both more careful (who has not inadvertently offended by using e-mail too casually?) and more open. The skills of building committees of people scattered across 3000 miles includes 'snagging' them with the same kind of intimate sharing that we use to develop good relations gathered round a table. Thus the sagas of my wicked cats are better known in Victoria than they are in St. John's (where the wickedness is perpetrated).E-mail can foster a very intimate form of communication, so that I will often share my most personal problems and griefs with friends who are far away - and often not the ones round the corner. I share at least as much news and gossip with friends in the UK as I do in the pub down the road. And that word 'gossip' itself signals that I keep in touch with a number of communities (Of course, most of us always were members of several communities, but it is different if you can only connect once a year at, for example, the annual conference).

But there are still only 24 hours in the day, and I cannot, therefore, increase indefinitely the number/quality of my interactions. If I spend 2 hours on e-mail, I am not spending that time with colleagues or any other 'real people'. If I am confiding my problems to friends half a world away, I am relying less on friends round the corner. While it is personally satisfying to discuss new books or ideas in my special areas of interest with like minded people in specific networks, it means I have less motive to impart them to colleagues in my own university. I simply cannot talk to an indefinite number of people - at least not often and not at great length. The human brain is capable of an enormous amount, but there is a limit, and e-mail tempts us into forgetting that.

The curiously attenuated and diverse nature of our e-mail communities, and the diminution of our 'real' communities is one downside of our new facility, but there is also the matter of space. There are two aspects of this that I want to raise, and which I think have bearing on how we view the coming century. The first is that newly minted dichotomy between 'virtual' and 'real'. Virtual means electronic: real means physical. In the midst of our love affair with motherboards and video clips, we still do realise that face-to-face means something. You can't (and I don't think however real 'virtual reality' gets in the future, you ever will be able to) kiss through the computer screen, or stroke cats down the phone. That's what makes e-mail quarrels so fearsome. What you write can't be modified by tone of voice (despite the ginky little smiley faces). Nor can you use body language to herald the kiss-and-make-up stage. There are advantages to invisibility, of course. Colour and racial differences disappear; disabled people become as able as anyone else. But it is not the same as an actual conversation, in real time with a real, physical person with her own smell and earrings you admire. There is a kind of richness to e-mail friendships and discussions that is cleaner than the 'real' thing. Very often, that depends on an occasional 'real' meeting. We still need to have a picture in our heads of what our correspondent actually looks like, and where she is sitting as she types her reply.

Which brings me to the other aspect of space - where we are. I opened this piece with reference to the view outside my window. It has snowed since then. The sun is high, and it is incandescently beautiful, but the wind is out of the north, giving a wind chill of -23c. I say this to point out, dear Reader, that you will be experiencing a different reality. You will be sitting in a different town, probably in a different country. Not only will the weather conditions and climate be different, but so will the whole political, social, economic and cultural context outside that bubble, which is you and your computer.

If Newfoundland has taught me anything over the last 20 years, it is the inalienable importance of place. It is not just that we live on an island, rather far out into the Atlantic, which can be hard to get on and off. It is because of a history that has provided very few creature comforts and no economic prosperity, but has conferred a sense of identity as obdurate as the rock on which we are built. Newfound landers, as I mentioned earlier, are spread across the globe, but it is no accident that so many of them have 'come home' to celebrate the millennium. These are, of course, the most recent Newfound landers. At the turn of the last millennium various small groups of 'nations' inhabited this island (Maritime Archaics, Beothics, Mikmaq), when they were (probably) 'discovered' by some intrepid Vikings from Greenland. It took another 500 years before Europeans decided that the bountiful fish of the Grand Banks was worth settling for, and it was not until the 19th century that the island was fully settled. (Labrador has its own story, which I will not enter into here.)

It only takes three years after becoming a 'landed immigrant' to become a Canadian citizen, but it takes at least three generations to become accepted as a Newfoundlander. Otherwise, you are known as a CFA - Come From Away, and this is at least partly because you cannot be exactly located in a particular bay and community. It is of overriding importance which Porter you are - whether you are one of the Porters from the South Side of St John's or from Port de Grave, Conception Bay. If you are from neither, then there is no way in which you can be securely 'fixed' in a family or in a community, each of which has a history and culture slightly, but significantly different from the one next door. This is the way an 'ethnic identity' actually works - it locates people in a known social framework. Newfound landers are known across Canada for their assertive pride of place and for the way they preserve and develop a distinctive culture. In this, Newfoundland is not unique. Many other groups, especially those who have been able to isolate themselves from the homogenizing effect of the global world, behave in similar ways. But so, too, do immigrant groups. Neither the 19th century Ukrainian immigrants, nor the more recent Chinese immigrants to Canada have lost their specific identities, nor have they any intention of doing so, while, at the same time, grafting on new kinds of 'belonging'.

I think it is important that we are seeing so many such groups, all over the world, from East Timor, to Kosovo, to the Kurds, to Scotland, rising up against the larger imperialist bodies in which they have been smothered to assert their independence in one form or another. This is less to do with 'nation', in the sense of a geographically bounded political entity, than with finding an identity that works. The 'imagined communities' that Anderson deals with tend to express themselves in political arrangements, but here I am pointing to a related but different point. This is that individual human beings know themselves to be located in one place rather than another, and this sense of place informs their identity. They need to belong to or to have come from a specific, geographical place, and, in my view, this need will express itself ever more urgently as the world gets - apparently - smaller.

For small does not mean 'small' in any 'real' sense. It means that we are provided with more information, or access to information, about a much greater number and variety of people and places (including the opportunity to visit, or even move to, such places). For some, this opens up exciting opportunities. But for many, it provides unreal, and often, threatening possibilities not far removed from the 'Here Bee Dragons' of ancient maps. Western women travellers in male dominated countries know to their cost that endless re-runs of Dallas and the like have convinced the local men that all western women are as sexually available as the screen nymphets. All many westerners know about central Africa is starving populations and senseless massacres. These images do not break down boundaries so much as convince people that they should erect barriers against an apparently savage and meaningless - and now, much closer - world.

This is one reflection on the increase in feelings of identity based in place. More positively, I see around me the absolute clarity with which Newfoundlanders in outport communities know that here is here and there is there, and there is no confusion between the two. They talk to their outmigrating families in Alberta by phone and sustain 'virtual communities' by any means possible, but there is something about the contact of their feet with the particular ground that reared them and received their forbears that provides them with an enduring sense of perspective. Last summer, I cruised to a small cluster of islands far out in Bonavista Bay, called the Flat Islands (for good reason). They were first populated early in the 19th Century and the last inhabitants left in the 1950s, when the Labrador schooner fishery collapsed. Nothing remains now but a few fireplaces and root cellars, broken pottery at the landwash, some stakes driven into rocks, two broken hulks of schooners - except - a few cabins, built and occupied during the summer months by returning inhabitants and their children. They carry photos of scraggy children outside the schoolhouse; of tidy congregations at weddings, of joyous launches of boats. Their memories are clearer still. They can tell you exactly who lived on which spot, who married whom and how many children they had, where the boats were built, how high the water came in the big storms, where the best berries were to be had. It's as if time has slowed right down, and space contracted to these tiny islets again - as it was in the past. And who is to say if their sense of the world is truer than mine or not?

So - time and space - have we expanded the former and contracted the latter? If we have done this, has it made as much difference as we might expect? These ruminations, as ruminations are apt to, lead in contradictory directions. There are ways in which we have shrunk the world, as well as making it more homogenous. Rapid communications, electronic media, global marketing have all ensured that we share more and can do more than we ever did 50 years ago, whether we like it or not. But people are not 'virtual beings' - they are human beings. We live in bodies, that are located in space and bounded by time. If I must predict anything, it is that this will not change. Rather, living with the consequences of these contradictory tendencies, and creating satisfying and coherent lives and societies out of them will continue to be one of the most crucial human activities - and studying it will continue to provide the most centrally important occupation for sociologists

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2000