Geography Telecommunications
by
Barney Warf
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 May 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0001

Introduction

Telecommunications—the electronic transmission of information over long distances—has a long and fascinating history stretching back to the invention of the telegraph in 1844. Since then, numerous technologies, from the telephone to the Internet, have exponentially increased the speed with which an ever larger number of people can share voice, data, and video data. However, telecommunications, which by definition permit two-way flows of information, should not be confused with the media, which generally allow only one-way flows. Geographers have long found telecommunications of interest because of the importance of such technologies in the folding of space and their impacts on various economic, political, and social phenomena. The earlier literature, often by nongeographers, pointed to the “death of distance,” a view that oversimplified the impacts of telecommunications and ignored other forces shaping geographical spaces and relations. Later works delved into the political economy of telecommunications in light of globalization, as well as the vast realm of cyberspace, which has had innumerable economic, political, and cultural effects.

General Overviews

Given the diversity of types of telecommunications, comprehensive introductions are surprisingly scarce. The rapidity of change in this industry means that often such attempts rapidly become out of date. Many focus on the technologies of the industry at the expense of more nuanced views of their social origins and consequences. Akwule 1992 is a good place to start, but is dated and does not address the Internet. Some overviews, such as Cairncross 1997, aimed at the business community, celebrate the ostensible “death of distance” or “end of geography,” overlooking how the consequences of telecommunications are often unevenly distributed among places and spaces. Brunn and Leinbach 1991 is a classic for all who are interested in how information technologies shrink the world. For readers interested in theorizing how telecommunications reflect and alter contemporary capitalism, Castells 1996 offers a comprehensive overview, although it tends to get bogged down in many other, marginally related topics, such as neighborhood formation or gay spaces. Hillis 1998 laments geographers’ lack of sustained interest in communications, although this conclusion carries less merit today than it used to. Warf 1995 points to several examples of the new geographies spawned by telecommunications in the world of finance (see Finance) and producer services. Finally, Wilson and Corey 2000 offers a broad survey of the impacts of cyberspace on the world’s places and peoples.

  • Akwule, Raymond. Global Telecommunications: The Technology, Administration, and Policies. Boston: Focal Press, 1992.

    E-mail Citation »

    Comprehensive introduction to major telecommunications technologies and modes of international regulation such as the International Telecommunications Union and Intelsat, the world’s body for governing satellite traffic; but the book was written before the Internet exploded in popularity.

  • Brunn, Stan, and Thomas Leinbach, eds. Collapsing Space and Time: Geographic Aspects of Communications and Information. London: HarperCollins, 1991.

    E-mail Citation »

    A series of essays, not all of which concern telecommunications, which address the time-space compression of contemporary capitalism. Some essays explore satellites. Dated now, but still a useful overview.

  • Cairncross, Francis. The Death of Distance. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1997.

    E-mail Citation »

    An influential and much-cited volume that claims geography has become irrelevant because of the ostensible ability of people everywhere to access information technology. While it makes a good case, it succumbs to the technological fetishism and inattention to political economy that often plagues this literature.

  • Castells, Manuel. The Rise of the Network Society. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.

    E-mail Citation »

    In one volume of a trilogy by a famed sociologist, Castells paints a picture a picture of contemporary society as a space of flows in which information technologies figure prominently, including the transportation and communication infrastructure, the cities or nodes that occupy strategic locations within these, and the social spaces occupied by the global managerial class.

  • Hillis, Ken. “On the Margins: The Invisibility of Communications in Geography.” Progress in Human Geography 22.4 (1998): 543–566.

    DOI: 10.1191/030913298669028680E-mail Citation »

    Laments the dearth of geographic works concerning communications, which pale compared to those studying transportation.

  • Warf, Barney. “Telecommunications and the Changing Geographies of Knowledge Transmission in the Late 20th Century.” Urban Studies 32.2 (1995): 361–378.

    DOI: 10.1080/00420989550013130E-mail Citation »

    Summarizes several ways in which information technologies are reshaping the global economy, including electronic funds transfer systems, back offices, and global cities. It contests the common assertion that telecommunications only lead to the dispersal of economic functions; rather, they simultaneously promote the centralization of some activities and the decentralization of others.

  • Wilson, Mark, and Ken Corey, eds. Information Tectonics: Space, Place, and Technology in an Electronic Age. New York: Wiley, 2000.

    E-mail Citation »

    Offers a collection of essays of varying quality that describe the diverse impacts of information systems in a variety of geographic contexts; some are useful antidotes to the prevailing technological fetishism, while others include useful case studies of East Asia.

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