Robert Sharl, Senior Lecturer in MA Visual Communication, Birmingham Institute of Art and Design

“The age of secretive mandarins who creep on heels of tact is dead:
We are all players now in the great game of fact instead
So since you can’t keep your cards to your chest
I’d suggest you think a few moves ahead
As one does when playing a game of chess”

Momus, “The Age of Information”

Sunday January 10th 2013. It’s The Year of The Snake, both here in the UK and in China. At 4pm GMT yesterday it was midnight in Guangzhou. My partner was celebrating the Lunar New Year with her cousin, while brothers, aunts, and mother slept in the scattered rooms of the house, its tiled floors swept and shrines prepared for the rituals which bind them to millennia of tradition.

She’d travelled the three hours from Kowloon by Ferry along the waterways which connect the Zhujiang River Estuary to southern China, and which in turn flow into the two-thousand year old canals that irrigate land and provide trading routes. She’d reached Hong Kong by Airbus A380, flying at a speed of around 900 km per hour.

The family television flickers with images of the fireworks which are lighting up the capital city 1,336 miles away. I am almost 6,000 miles away, connecting through Apple’s servers in San Jose, about a 2.4 seconds journey from the iPod touch in Chun’s hand. We’re chatting about the cake she ate, and the one I’m about to eat, and about sticky rice dumplings.

Earlier the same day she’d called me on FaceTime and showed me the rooster that was loosely tied up in her aunt’s house and which had woken her with its crowing. It was night-time in Birmingham, and the sound rang loudly around my living room at about 343 metres per second, probably disturbing my neighbours. By now that bird is most likely in a hot pot.

The Universe might have been expanding for 13 billion years or more, but human distance has been collapsing since at least the introduction of the railway. My lover might be fifteen hours away, or a 2 second journey between our mail servers, but I can still blow her a goodnight kiss at the speed of sound. We’re able to be both further away and closer together than has ever been possible before. When we’re half a world apart we exchange more inconsequential and private thoughts than we do when we’re in the same room. It’s as if we compensate for the lack of physical presence with increased transparency. We all say things online that remain unsaid in ‘real’ space.

From IDD calls and email to IM and Skype, and stretching back to the telegraph and beyond, technology has seemingly been on a centuries-long trajectory to annihilate distance. Lovers have endured periods of extended separations for all of human history, but we’ve never before been able to perceive so many aspects of each other’s presence in the world while being so far apart.

The Internet has made long distance relationships more likely, and perhaps more sustainable, than ever, but it’s also inserted itself into all of our relationships in ways that are less obviously progressive. Facebook has been the most visible example where the ease and fluidity of information sharing has created new tensions in less-solid partnerships, but pretty much all of the new platforms aggregate and share data in ways that rewrite our expectations of privacy. I read what you said on Twitter, I checked your tags on Facebook, I watched what you watched on YouTube. Trust has been redefined, and now seems to demand backup from facts.

In the end, this collapsing of space isn’t new, and we’ve measured distance in time between points for most of our civilised history. What’s new is our ability to maintain these low-level, almost trivial connections on a continuous basis. The kaomoji arriving in my Messages app is like a gentle touch of the hand, a privately passed smile that just says I’m still here and you’re important to me. We occupy multiple spaces simultaneously, and we’re no less here for being there. It’s not that our attention is elsewhere, it’s that it’s everywhere.

A quick check of Find My Friends reduces ten thousand kilometres to a one-second scroll in an inch-square window. The on-going dynamic of a trans-continental relationship now seems punctuated more by the relentless to-and-fro of time zones than by physical distance.

Today is Wednesday. By the time I sleep tonight it’ll be Valentine’s Day in China, though they’re still enjoying family gatherings for the New Year. I’ll be in Birmingham UK, but I’ll also be just a fraction of a second away from my partner, in the cables and routers of the network, glowing on the display of the iPod on her bedside table.

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Robert Sharl
Lecturer in Visual Communication at Birmingham City University