Reflections on "Time versus Space: The Geographies of a Digital World”

Reflections on "Time versus Space: The Geographies of a Digital World”

First published on Interintellect host Lukas Rosenstock‘s blog.

Dominic Duffin’s recent Interintellect salon had the title “Time versus Space: The Geographies of a Digital World”. After having a good time at Dominic’s previous salon about our spaces on the Internet, which I summarized on my blog, I wanted to participate in this follow-up conversation. Once again, it was a smaller group of participants, which I found astonishing, considering how important the topic is, in my opinion. The pandemic has driven us to spend more time in digital spaces. As the world, or at least parts of it, slowly return to normal, it will be fascinating to observe the next transition.

Before writing about the salon, I want to mention another conversation I recently had with members from different effective altruism local groups in the GSA/DACH region. Group events had moved online with COVID-19, and most members can’t wait to meet in person again. On the other hand, there are certain benefits to virtual meetups. You don’t have to find a space, you save time going there, and it’s much easier to bring in guests and speakers from different places. The theory is that interest-based groups will eventually operate in a hybrid model, with events focused on working and learning happening online and social get-togethers happening offline. We see that happen with Interintellect as well. Most topic-based salons and series are still online, and the first IRL meetups are less topic-bound and more social. Since some salons are very niche, it may be hard to find enough interested participants in a single location, and you’d lose the benefits of international exchange.

Now back to Dominic’s salon on virtual geographies. His intro question was: “How relevant are your physical location and your timezone to your online life?” Timezones are the big differentiator and remind us that we don’t live in a single global village but on a round planet, even online. A participant from the US west coast remarked that the big political news of the day has always already happened by the time he wakes up. However, timezones can be an advantage, too, by distributing work shifts around the globe and providing 24/7 support even in a small team with everyone having regular workdays. Big global business used to be 24/7 for a while, and now it seems that it’s happening for all, leaving us to wonder why stock markets still have opening hours.

Even though the salon description used the analogy of a city where many activities happened, interestingly, most of our discussion at the salon focused on remote work. The pandemic has accelerated the information age. The upcoming significant difference after remote, on-site, and hybrid work is synchronous versus asynchronous work. Not every company can work in either model, but it can have vast advantages to implement the asynchronous model. Pieter Levels described the benefits for individuals in one of his articles, and we talked about hand-off between different timezones, which suits the asynchronous model well. It requires other tools and a distinct skillset, mainly writing. That leads us to the next topic, language.

Regarding languages, a participant from India gave us fascinating insights into their country. India has many local languages, and people are proud and protective of their native tongue. That makes it difficult to establish a shared Indian identity, for example, when the prime minister gives speeches in Hindi, a language that not all of his citizens understand. English is the standard business language in metropolitan cities, but language creates a division outside of them. As India’s relevance as a market for international companies grows, they’re increasingly localizing their products in Indian languages instead of just English.

Culture is another crucial aspect. For those spending a lot of time online, the global Internet culture can override local culture for the individual, especially younger generations. It can also influence local culture in general. Currently, global Internet culture’s strongest influences come from the US, but that’s changing as more people from other countries appear online. That change comes from countries with large English-speaking populations, though, like India and Nigeria. So far, we don’t see any attempts from China to push Chinese culture into global culture. They appear more focused on isolating themselves.

Is the Internet a single digital megacity or multiple cities? While there are overlapping spheres, filter bubbles are a real thing. The Internet influences what happens offline, for example, when a Facebook post causes people to form violent mobs in the real world. The division itself isn’t an online thing, though. In the US, self-division happens, and people choose to live in either conservative or liberal areas. How important is it to have diversity, though? Just bringing in different people is not sufficient. They also have to be willing to listen to each other. Something you always have to be aware of is that the loudest voices aren’t necessarily representative.

Later in the salon, we went back to COVID-19 and how it will change things. We believe that the “genie is out of the bottle” for remote work, and nobody can put it back in. There will be more options and more flexibility. However, remote work may affect those who can’t work remotely as well. If white-collar work happens remotely within the same organization, whereas blue-collar work happens on-site, it can create a divide between these groups. However, if we’re honest, often this divide already exists. Outside of work, we believe that arts and culture will go back to taking place in the real world, but movie theaters may no longer be the only place for the first screening of a new movie.

One participant mentioned that he wouldn’t have joined Interintellect salons offline. The online events allow for a broader range of backgrounds and viewpoints, and some conversations and connections probably wouldn’t have happened outside the Internet. However, there is still some division between digital natives and those who feel less comfortable using digital technologies.

At the end of the salon, we briefly mentioned relevant topics that we didn’t touch. Remote worker compensation and digital tools in government are just two of them. Maybe Dominic will host another salon for them. For now, he has planned “Digital Collectibles: Ownership and Scarcity; Infinity and Ephemerality?”.