Geography of Communication Research Paper

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1. Defining The Field

Communications geography, which includes mass communications and telecommunications, considers the movements or flows, directions, and volumes of information between and among persons and areas. The communication may be within households and neighborhoods as well as firms, organizations, and states. While elements of information transfer have always been inferred components in human geography, for example, in the diffusion of religion or the diasporas spreading colonialism, it was during the 1960s and 1970s that the spatial components of communication began to receive serious attention. These decades, at least in the wealthy and industrialized worlds, experienced rapid urbanization and growth in tertiary sector employment and growth. They were associated with a postindustrial economy and society. The key employment categories in the services economy were retail, wholesale, and international trade, transportation, government, finance, health care, and education. Also leisure activities, telecommunications, printing and publishing, education, and the media experienced growth. For those social scientists studying these services, a refinement was needed; the term quaternary sector identified those in information and communications industries and services. Sociologist Daniel Bell in his 1973 The Coming of the Post-Industrial Society used this term in describing the economic social transitions that were occurring in American society.

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2. An Emerging Field Of Inquiry

Those early geographers who developed this specialization came from backgrounds in economic, social, and urban geography. Some were interested in transportation networks, others in urban social behavior, and still others on the social impacts of Information and Communications Technology (ICT). During this same time geography was experiencing disciplinary shifts, including the emergence of social-behavioral geography, which utilized some concepts, models, and theories from psychology and sociology, and then humanistic geography, with close ties to history, literature, philosophy, and the arts. Human geographers in both spheres were interested in the ways people communicated, media producers, the diffusion of information, power issues associated with information production, how places were presented, and the ways information geographies might be mapped. Some of the initial work by behavioral geographers applied the Shannon–Weaver model to geographical contexts. This model dealt with the flow of electronic information from its source to its destination. That flow could be person-to-person (face-to-face) or person-to-area (television reporter transmitting news to national or global audiences) or area-to-area (from a government to major trading partners). Many channels as well as barriers or filters could influence the transmission of information from its source to its final destination(s). The term gatekeeper was introduced and could be applied to a newspaper editor, owner of television stations, or government agency censoring reports to its population. The spatial dimensions of information flows, both interpersonal and corporate, were studied, as were the impacts of mass media. Geographers also mapped information and communication structures, including the newspaper sheds (circulation areas) and the media sheds for radio and television stations.

A major theoretical line of inquiry during the 1960s was the ‘diffusion of innovations’; it was introduced to European and North American geographers by Swedish geographer Torsten Hagerstrand (1967) who used the concept to describe and predict the adoption rates of agricultural innovations. Rural sociologist Everett Rogers (1962), with his work on the social dimensions of diffusion, also influenced geographers’ thinking. Diffusion research identified individuals as being innovators, early and late adopters, or laggards. Geographers examined the diffusion of crops, diseases, institutions, revolutions, and consumer purchases. Maps at varying scales depicted adoption rates. Some studies described patterns; others used sophisticated mathematical models to predict adoption rates.

One of the first publications in communications geography was Human Geography in a Shrinking World (Abler et al. 1975), which included discussions on space-adjusting technologies, tyrannies and human freedom, monocultures and minicultures in the media, bureaucracy and alienation, and futuristic scenarios. Several authors discussed how these technological changes affected households, firms, and/organizations. There was also interest in how to display ‘shrinking world’ concepts cartographically. Three additional concepts that formed the basis of discussion were time–space convergence, cost–space convergence, and human extensibility; the first referred to the rate places were ‘moving closer together’ in relative time, for example, with faster transnational phone calling capabilities, and the second, how lower costs reduced the friction of distance in placing calls or mailing items from the US east coast to the west coast. Over time the costs to communicate from place to place became more uniform, that is, distance ceased to be a barrier to communication; standardized postal rates in a country represent a good example of complete cost– space convergence. Human extensibility relates to the networking features of an individual, institution, university, government, or nongovernmental organization (NGO).

Communications geography continued its ascendancy during the 1970s and 1980s with contributions coming from geographers with backgrounds in the social sciences and humanities and with ties to rural and urban sociology, psychology, computer science, but also telecommunications, film studies, literature, architecture, the social impacts of technologies, and future studies. The role of mass media in promoting popular culture, news reporting, the place settings and images in film and television documentaries, state boosterism, travelers’ writings, and landscape representation in the popular literature were common themes (Burgess and Gold 1985, Zonn 1990). The experiences of authors, painters, photographers, lyricists, and film directors were studied to communicate to readers the meanings of places and landscapes.

Cartography was also changing from a technique focusing on how best to display and represent data, whether pen-and-ink methods or automated mapping, to the construction and interpretation of maps, that is, their power, meaning, identity, and interpretation. Maps became more than displays of information, but products in which information is communicated with social meanings and where the author cartographer (whether a scholar, company, or state) conveys different messages to readers. Context was important. The colors, languages, symbols, and projections are all elements of visual ‘communication.’ Maps were also designed for the visually and color impaired. Visualization became a concept associated with the presentation and representation of information, whether maps or graphs. Maps were but one subject of texts and discourses studied by social theorists in geography; these poststructuralists also investigated the constructions of wilderness paintings, landscape poetry, city boosterism, and foreign policy, all examples where power was important in communication (Barnes and Duncan 1992). Social theorists in geography benefited from the writings of linguists, philosophers, intellectual historians, and landscape architects.

Paralleling social theory contributions in communications geography in the early 1990s were case studies on specific countries, firms, communications net-works, and the social impacts of ICT. A volume that highlighted these developments was Collapsing Space and Time: An Introduction to the Geography of In-formation and Communication (Brunn and Leinbach 1991), which contained chapters on telecommunications and regional development, ICT and religious broadcasting, banking, medical services, and distance learning, and the notion of the ‘electronic cottage’ or homeworking. What these authors and others writing in the early 1990s failed to grasp was the blossoming of GIS (Geographical Information Systems) and the rapid diffusion of the Internet and WWW.

3. Current Research

Speed, volumes, networking, and accessibility are the keys to understanding the geographies of the Internet. The net is a medium to send, receive, analyze, store, disseminate, manipulate, and map large amounts of print, sound, and visual data to, from, and about households, firms, organizations, institutions, and states. Developments are occurring in banking, real estate, education, health care, entertainment, and tourism, all of which are information based. The traditional information and communication services such as journalism, broadcasting, and telecommunications are also affected by these high tech developments. While the Internet and WWW have diffused to many parts of North America and Europe, large areas of the developing world remain unwired. An entirely new international lexicon has developed, including virtual community, cyberspace, cyberplace, chat-rooms, all terms relating to communication, place, and identity. Children and adults are learning these terms and how to use the technologies at the same time, sometimes elders learning from youth. Most materials (print or on-line) published about the Internet are in English as Internet communication is dominated by American English. Non-English users are almost forced to learn English if they want to communicate and interact in electronic space. Geographers keep apprised of developments in ICT not only by attending conferences and workshops, but also through GEOGCOMM, a listserv operated from the University of Kentucky, the IGU (International Geographical Union) Commission on the Geography of Information Society, and the journal Netcom (Networks and Communications Studies).

Much of the recent research by geographers addresses issues about cyberspace, electronic commerce, telecommunications, and social impacts. For example, some geographers are investigating the geographies and geometries of virtual places, electronic scholarly communities, the virtual geographies of the military, children’s games, how states are using the WWW to promote themselves to potential investors and tourists, and the uses of GIS by emerging democracies, NGOs, revolutionary and hate groups (Pickles 1995, Geo-graphical Review 1997). Others are examining the meanings of electronic space, human rights in an electronic state, telecommunications and governance, global 24-hour banking, and ICTs in peripheral rural areas to promote grassroots economic development (Wilson and Corey 2000). Urban geographers are investigating how telecommunications are transforming urban spaces and systems, high tech industrial location in an information age, the diffusion of innovations, teleworking, gender and work, and the role of the state (Graham and Marvin 1996, Wheeler et al. 2000). Mapping communications in an electronic age and the meanings of accessibility in the information age are additional topics (Janelle and Hodge 2000, Dodge and Kitchen 2001). E-commerce has been studied with regard to financial services, recruiting, regulatory problems, and diffusion in developing countries (Leinbach and Brunn 2001).

The electronic worlds of the fax, email, chat-room, and WWW are changing the strategies for industrial location, how governments define and regulate public goods, how consumers purchase goods and services, and how individuals behave. High-speed lines move money (itself information) in split-second time around the world 24 hours a day. Time zones lose their meaning. Students, scholars, community organizers, and governments can request information and have it often the same hour or day. Companies, cities, and states can use the WWW to promote themselves almost anywhere (where there are connections) and to anyone (who has an operating machine). ‘E’ services, now existing in banking, health, entertainment, tour-ism, education, and religion, keep carving out niches.

4. Dilemmas And Future Directions

While advances in high tech communications are diffusing rapidly throughout the developed worlds, and rich nodes in the developing worlds, geographers and others remind us that low tech communications and geographies and ‘digital divides’ remain much in evidence for most of the world’s population. Some of these recent innovations have not diffused globally, nor will they, as they may not be desired or welcomed by some societies and individuals. Some states attempt to block these ICT, which is difficult; others cannot afford to construct fiber optic networks or satellite receiving stations, and still others seek to construct filters to screen out undesirable information for their citizens, children, or politically dissident groups. What is emerging alongside rapid advances in communications technologies (toward more wireless communities and miniaturized devices) is a widening gap between the ‘have and have-nots’ within cities, countries, and the world. The long-term social, political, and spatial consequences of these ‘ICT gaps’ remain largely unknown, but they are receiving the attention of geographers and others.

A number of troublesome philosophical and methodological issues surface when conducting research on these topics. They include the availability, reliability, and cost of data from public and private sources, privacy issues when individual household or firm data are sought, and the appropriateness of Western models when constructing theories and describing or explaining results. One also needs to keep in mind the role of the state in gathering the data and publishing them in tabular, digital, or cartographic form. Transnational corporations are also major producers and consumers of information about individuals, groups, societies, and physical environments. Medical, employment, income, and family history data can always be manipulated for evil purposes by rouge states, organizations, or corporations.

Among the questions being raised about the human dimensions of technological change are not only what ICTs tell us about human life and society, but also children and adults, girls and boys, women and men, and those with learning and physical disabilities and impairments (color, visual, dexterity, hearing). These are populations and groups who exist in all societies that merit continued study by those with interests in cartography, visualization, GIS, social theory, E-commerce, geopolitics, grassroots democracy, and teaching second and third languages. We also would benefit from investigating what is happening to humans as we communicate in and outside of cyber-space. What happens to our identity as we become geolimnal selves? And what does this mean? Recent research in communications and information geography is beginning to addresses these practical and philosophical questions.


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  2. Barnes T J, Duncan J S (eds.) 1992 Writing Worlds: Discourse, Text & Metaphor in the Representation of Landscape. Rout-ledge, London
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