Zoom-sphere and the re-working of social space: a conceptualisation


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Here, I’d like to do something thinking about how we get beyond binaries that have framed our experience of social space and time, with particular reference to the Zoom-sphere that became such a prominent feature of spatial life in the global pandemic. Zoom-sphere has accentuated the collapse of space and time by shrinking much social interaction to the instantaneous and intensely proximate. A resource to help us think about this question is that of the sociologist Georg Simmel.

A binary that has played out strongly in recent times has been between the death of distance technologically and geographically versus the existential cries of nationalism for people to keep their distance and bring power close to home. That played out through reaction against faceless people running our lives, as I wrote in We Count, We Matter (Steed 2018). As geography collapsed, the world was coming nearer. We were, of course, used to real-time events taking place over the other side of the world being relayed to our TV screen. But zoom-sphere took this to a whole new dimension.

The old binary was that of geography: space and time versus things and people that represented local life. As the transport and communication revolutions shrunk the planet, tensions were set up between the local and the global. Globalisation became a reality: the notion of glocalism was one conceptualisation of how things could be in both dimensions (Bergman 1992). But there was a political backlash against these tendencies that we have seen in our times such that the public square has been riven by very noisy debate about national and community life not being ‘swamped by foreigners’ at the very same time as we have seen the annihilation of distance. Technology-enabled awareness of the other was clearly no guarantor of hospitable reactions. The fight to maintain our identity became even more urgent.

This was framed by the concept of face versus facelessness. The former was the familiar face of a politician or a leader who looked and spoke like us. The latter could be a faceless bureaucrat who ran things from afar or who represented global forces re-shaping economic reality or even the faceless forces of AI. This last factor references impersonal algorithms versus real people. Characteristic then of zoom-sphere is that this is not merely an audio phone call: it presents an array of faces.

Yet what we also find is that this stupendous achievement of late modernity is generating a counteraction; a reaction that is existential. Many late-modern people have been adopting a highly cautious attitude towards the nearness of those that were previously far by urging policies that proclaim: ‘keep your distance!’. Particularly when it comes to immigration, rapid social change that seems to result in the world moving next door is threatening. Identity is in danger of being ‘swamped’ by the outsider who threatens to become the insider.

Modernity constitutes a re-formulation of time and space. Compression followed comprehension. As Giddens argued (1990), “the modern is defined by the way in which prior valences of social life … are reconstituted through a constructivist reframing of social practices in relation to basic categories of existence common to all humans: time, space, embodiment, performance and knowledge. The word ‘reconstituted’ here explicitly does not mean replaced”.

However, it was well before contemporary societies generated such ambivalence towards an interconnected world that George Simmel wrestled in an earlier sociology with the concept of those that are near and far at the same time. Simmel differentiates the stranger both from the ‘outsider’ who has no specific relation to a group and from the ‘wanderer who comes today and leaves tomorrow’. In this conceptualisation, the distance of the Stranger is emphasised more than his proximity (McLemore 1970). Simmel’s theoretical emphasis on spatial and temporal dynamics has relevance for understanding the transcendence of previous binaries by the Zoom-sphere. For Simmel, the Stranger is a social role that combines the seemingly contradictory qualities of nearness and remoteness. This was a key concept for Simmel’s notion of social interaction (Sullivan, Stewart and Diefendorf 2015).

Harvey’s concepts of time–space compression (1990) and space–time contraction (Bretagnolle Pumain and Rozenblat 1997) have also been strong markers to the reckoning of time and space.

Time and space have always been fundamental dimensions of social experience and therefore of considerable interest to sociology. Time matters (Tuan 2007). Space matters (Tickamyer 2000). Social theorists will long ponder how Zoom-sphere reworks notions of time-space convergence (Janelle 1968). The construction of pre-pandemic binaries shifts as life is reduced to a screen, everything is now present — so near, yet so far. Annihilation of geography had already been accomplished and in its wake, evocation of distance becoming more salient existentially as the faceless were pushed away. Those concerned are near, yet far. They could dwell anywhere, in any time zone but here they are proximate, within a small two-dimensional electronic box.

Simmel would have a lot to say about it!

Christopher Steed is the author of We Count, we matter: voice, choice and the death of distance (Routledge 2018)

Bergmann, W. (1992) The problem of time in sociology: An overview of the literature on the state of theory and research on the ‘sociology of time’, 1900–82. Time & Society 1(1): 81–134.

Bretagnolle, A, Pumain, D, Rozenblat, C. (1997) Space-time contraction and the dynamics of urban systems. Cybergeo: European Journal of Geography. 6–11.

Giddens, A. (1990) The Consequences of Modernity, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Harvey, D. (1990) The Condition of Postmodernity, Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Janelle, DG (1968) Central place development in time-space framework. Professional Geographer 20(1):5–10.

McLemore SD. Simmel’s ‘Stranger’: A Critique of the Concept. Pacific Sociological Review. 1970;13(2):86–94.

Steed, C. D. (2018) We Count, we matter: voice, choice and the death of distance. London: Routledge.

Sullivan, D, Stewart, SA, Diefendorf, J. (2015) Simmel’s time-space theory: Implications for experience of modernization and place. Journal of Environmental Psychology 41: 45–57.

Tickamyer, AR (2000) Space matters! Spatial inequality in future sociology. Contemporary Sociology 29(6): 805–813.

Tuan, Y (2007) Space and Place. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.