Exploring how relationships are established across geographic and temporal boundaries through the utilisation of technology – Jess Ennis

Jess Ennis is a graduate from the University of Birimingham, film and culture writer for tmrw magazine, and marketing assistant who is interested in film, journalism and photography. 


Exploring how relationships are established across geographic and temporal boundaries through the utilisation of technology

In geographical research, the idea of the shrinking world has been a topic of discussion for many years. Scott Kirsch argues that ‘the dramatic restructuring of time and space in recent decades […] has been theorized against the backdrop of a ‘shrinking world’ – an increasingly interconnected space in which distances can be transcended at supersonic speeds’.[1]

Technology has played an integral part in this restructured world, allowing communication to become quicker, to be established ‘at the push of a button’, and one of the primary ways in which this can be marked in recent fiction is through the way technology enables people to maintain relationships across geographical and temporal boundaries. [2] They effectively transcend them, creating what Ken Hillis refers to as a ‘time-space convergence’ – a collapse in traditional ideas of distance and time due to technological innovation.[3]

In fiction, we see this through the way in which characters utilise technology that brings separate temporal zones together, sometimes creating narrative confusion, and associating people with the places that they exist within. If we see technology as a point of interaction between people and the environment, we begin to ‘see attachments and connections between people and place’, in which the act of interacting with people with occurs through the act of locating place and, by extension, time. [4]

This essay aims to explore the effectiveness with which How to be Both (2014) by Ali Smith, The Night Guest (2013) by Rachel McFarlane, and The Dig (2014) by Cynan Jones employ technology by placing them along a spectrum of sorts. In How to be Both, the protagonist of one half of the novel, George, is the embodiment of the modern teenager, and continually uses technology to form attachments to her late mother, navigating both the present and the past through this modernity. In The Night Guest, the aging Ruth displays an ability to understand time and space through technology, allowing her to hold long-distance relationships with her family, but it quickly becomes apparent that outside of this, she has no way to make sense of the geographical and temporal moment that she exists within.

Conversely, in The Dig, Daniel seems to reject technology in favour of holding onto the isolated Welsh landscape that he resides in, enabling him to preserve the memory of his family, perhaps marking him as what we might refer to as ‘the local’, rather than the globalised individual which Smith’s George represents.[5] Overall, then, the essay hopes to apply geographical theory and the idea of time-space convergence, something already of literary interest, to instances of close-reading from the three aforementioned novels. Technology is something which can be categorised in different ways; in this essay, technology is constituted and framed by advancements in ‘telecommunications, information, and transportation’.[6]

In How to be Both, George’s narrative is constructed by and filled with all three of these modes of technology, but from the very opening of her story, her relationships to technology and time are quickly affirmed through George’s memories of travelling by car. The slips in tense, the movement from ‘George’s mother says to George who’s sitting in the front passenger seat’ to ‘not says. Said. George’s mother is dead’ immediately establishes a compounding of time, a narrative confusion of sorts that looks set to permeate the present-day half of the novel.[7]

Bart Keunen argues that ‘time and again, the past is integrated in the current moment of consciousness’, and this is shown through George’s lapses into memory: here, the transitionary nature of transport technology can be seen not only as a metaphoric connection between the two time frames, but as a narrative device too.[8] The car in the opening acts as a point of oscillation between past-George and present-George, connecting the temporal moments, as demonstrated when Smith writes ‘okay, I’m imagining, George in the passenger seat last May in Italy says at exactly the same time as George at home in England the following January’.[9] Not only is this temporal connection affirmed through the mode, but place is also established. The clear stresses upon ‘in Italy’ and ‘in England’ allow us to understand the importance of place to George’s memory, and also helps signify the relationship between these two places that the very form of the novel will come to represent.

The car is the link in Tim Cresswell’s ‘increasingly mobile world’, not only physically serving to connect past-George to the locations of travel, but also working on the level of George’s memory to tie her, however unconsciously, to both England and Italy, to both her present moment and her past, in which George’s mother is still alive.[10] By extension, then, the technology of the car is a figure which, from the outset of Smith’s novel, interweaves time and space in order to help maintain relationships. The first of George’s memories that are shared in the narrative are inspired or constructed by travel, by a ‘mobile world’, thereby establishing that movement across boundaries will continue to construct George’s experiences. Indeed, she moves frequently between her home and London by train in order to view Francesco del Cossa’s work, framing herself once more as being tied to both England and Italy – and her mother.

George, as the 21st century ‘millennial’, the post-1982 digitally-aware young adult, is continually surrounded by technology, and Anthony Giddens argues that ‘modernity is inherently globalising’.[11] As the globalised teenager, then, it seems apparent that George’s memories, their place and time, would be quantified and encapsulated through the lens of technology. One such instance comes from the recurring figure of her mobile phone: ‘her mother is looking down for where her phone is […] (George’s own phone is not a smartphone though she will be given one of her own in less than a year’s time […])’.[12]

As with the car, the mobile phone is another mode of technology that acts a centrepiece tying George to the memory of her mother. Smith’s narration in the present tense, despite the jumps between past-George’s memory and present-George’s now (which is constructed almost as though it were a prediction of the future), compounds time and place, using the phone as another point of convergence for the time streams. The mobile phone therefore comes to hold not only a memory of place, but of George’s mother, embedding it with a future significance for present-George to hold onto.

In the narrative’s present moment, George continues to use the phone in the hopes of maintaining her relationship with her late mother – not only does it hold power in its ties to memory, but its everyday function is expressly to ‘make it possible to ‘reach out and touch someone’ anytime, anywhere in the world.’[13] She uses it most notably whilst in counselling with Mrs Rock, where she sends ‘Semper is always, […] Or there is a good word, usquequaque. It means everywhere, or on all occasions’ to her mother’s now disconnected phone number.[14] Her words speak of Ken Hillis’ aforementioned time-space convergence, of a continuation outside of her current moment. George attempts, through technology, to communicate with her dead mother and create some perpetuation of time, of ‘semper’ that works outside of linear temporality.

However, given the now one-sided nature of George’s relationship with her mother, her attempts to connect literally through her phone to her mother ultimately fail. She notes, with a relative degree of clarity, that ‘there is no way you can send a message to a phone number that no longer exists.’[15] Her connectivity has failed her, her technology is incapable of transcending the final boundary lying between her and her mother. Whilst, less literally, technology is able to tie her to the memory of her mother and of Italy, it cannot in the present moment recreate it physically: she is not able to ‘reach out and touch her mother’ because her mother is no longer ‘reachable’.

Unlike George and her metaphorical connection to her mother, Ruth in The Night Guest actively succeeds in using her telephone to communicate with her family on a regular basis, and MacFarlane quickly demonstrates that her life is somewhat constructed around it. Nele Bemong notes that ‘time and space are in essence categories through which human beings perceive and structure the surrounding world’, and it is certainly apparent that the combination of these two through the telephone provides Ruth with a routine of sorts.[16]

One such instance of this is the moment when Ruth believes there to be a tiger in her home, and she ‘press[es] the button that was programmed to summon her son Jeffrey, who would, in his sensible way, be sleeping right now in his house in New Zealand.’[17] Telecommunication is commonplace for Ruth, is ‘programmed’ into her in the same way as her speed dial: when she feels uncomfortable or ill at ease, the use of a single ‘button’ enables her to manipulate the geographical boundary between herself and her son in New Zealand, compounding the time difference and physical distance with immediacy through her use of technology.

The importance of this technology-based routine for Ruth is affirmed again slightly later, when it becomes obvious that her entire life is constructed around when she can talk to her family. She quantifies it, noting that ‘Sunday was the day they usually spoke, at four in the afternoon: half an hour with Jeffrey, fifteen minutes with his wife, two minutes each with the children.’[18] For Ruth, her Sunday is built around communication, around the compounding of the physical distance between Australia and New Zealand in order to feel close to her family.

Arguably, however, the regimented nature of this routine reinforces the sense of emotional distance despite their immediacy, something not seen with her other son, Phillip. His calls from Hong Kong are less routine but more emotionally genuine, and he spends ‘two or three hours on the phone’ to Ruth, though not as regularly as Jeffrey.[19] She utilises her technology differently according to who she is speaking to, manipulating temporal and spatial boundaries in diverse ways that suit her relationship to each of her sons. Jeffrey represents stability and order and so takes precedence on her speed dial, whereas her phone calls to Phillip are less common but more intimate. The differences between the two demonstrate the way in which telecommunications transform how Ruth ‘understand[s] and interpret[s] the world’ and, specifically, her relationships with her family through technology.[20]

But Ruth’s need for technology as a structuring factor also has a darker, more dependent nature, as it becomes apparent that she can no longer navigate her actual temporal and spatial reality without it. Whilst she is able to connect to New Zealand, an entirely separate country, with the touch of a ‘button’, she is oppressed within her very environment – she cannot go to the sea that lies ‘waiting below the garden’ because ‘the dune [is] too steep’.[21] She is trapped by the geography of her immediate moment, stuck in her home and unable for the most part to go further than her garden, and so her dependency on technology becomes more understandable. Without it, she would have little contact with the world beyond the sea she cannot reach, and so her entire present global experience is constructed by these moments on the phone with her sons. Her interpretation of the world is now almost completely built on how she interacts with it through her use of technology.

David Harvey argues that ‘time-space compression always exacts its toll on our capacity to grapple with the realities unfolding around us’, and this is most apparently true of Ruth when she takes a bus into town alone.[22] Unlike George, for whom travelling becomes an experience of connection and transcending boundaries, Ruth’s journey proves that she is unable to function in a world that she doesn’t construct herself through telecommunications. When she first arrives in town, she locates herself ‘on a hillside street where she expected shops and the railway station – and found only houses.’[23] Immediately, then, Ruth is presented as disorientated and lacking in spatial awareness when she is outside her home, even when the town is a place tied to her past, as she later hazily remembers walking there ‘with Jeffrey, when he was a boy.’[24]

In addition, her inability to understand the reality ‘unfolding around’ her extends to the relationships she has with other people, and these too seem to suffer from her lack of technological connection. On encountering Ellen Gibson, the woman present at her husband’s death, she refers to her as ‘the person, a woman’ who ‘turned out to know her.’[25] For Ruth, the relationships that she ties to place disintegrate when she is unable to figure them through technology – if she cannot make sense of the place, she is unable to make sense of the people that exist within it. Ruth, through a combination of old age and a physical lack of closeness to her family, comes to value ‘conceived space over lived space’, recognising the compressed temporal and spatial dimensions that telecommunications offers her as more structured and important than the actual world around her.[26]

Daniel in The Dig is presented as very much the opposite, valuing his land, for the majority, over any interactions with technology. As mentioned in the introduction, Daniel can be perceived as the figure of the ‘local’, a man ‘untouched by the modern conveniences of civilisation.’[27] Whilst we must take certain allowances with Daniel – he has a television, and a car – his lack of desire to use these to access anything outside his immediate circumstances certainly put him in line with the idea of the locals who are far more ‘geographically bound’.[28] With Daniel, unlike many of these locals, his lack of spatial movement is seemingly by choice, as he chooses to remain close to his home rather than construct any relationships further afield. He doesn’t ‘even want the telly on’, actively denying himself the globalising forces of technology for a number of reasons.[29]

Primarily, Daniel’s tie to his land can be seen as way to maintain a form of connection with the farming tradition – in a sense, his cultural ancestors. He notes that ‘in this quiet night, he feels briefly, as if something unseen touches his face, the ancientness of this thing he does, that he could be a man of any age.’[30] Working the land provides Daniel with a lineage: not one necessarily tied to his family, but one that immediately establishes relationships between him and any other farmers of any other time. Essentially, his rejection of modernity to embrace the ‘ancientness’ of his profession links him to a multiplicity of temporal moments, to ‘any age’ of farming, solely by working outside of technology. Where it ties Ruth to society, modernity would remove Daniel from his own ‘ancient’ context. Kirsti Bohata argues that ‘land itself conserves the essence of the human communities which have inhabited it’, and this is what Daniel’s thinking falls in line with: by rooting himself firmly inside the farm, by effectively isolating himself, he ‘conserves the essence’ of his cultural past.[31]

Jones labels Daniel’s land as ‘his parents’ farm’, explicitly placing him within a familial line of succession to the ancient work of farming.[32] The land, then, actively establishes a physical temporal connection – a literal inheritance – between Daniel and his family, as well as the aforementioned metaphoric connection to his agricultural ancestry. However, rather than taking ownership over the land, he embeds himself within it and effectively allows himself to be controlled by it. As Ruth and George manipulate space with technology in order to exercise power over it, moulding temporal and geographical boundaries around them and their relationships, Daniel avoids it and notes that ‘he had grown up here and belonged to it and it was not like some property external to him.’[33] Daniel himself is absorbed by the geography of the Welsh landscape and, in contrast to Ruth and George, has his experiences and relationships shaped by it.

The geography of the farm is what dictates the relationships that Daniel constructs, and his wife seems to be approved of by his home. He notes that ‘the house took her just as the family had […] it was as if the house remembered her and accepted her’.[34] Here, place is integrally tied to relationships as in both How to be Both and The Night Guest, but in The Dig, the surroundings are what perpetuates these relationships, rather than existing as a spatial dimension needing to be overcome by technology in order to maintain connections.

Daniel’s farm becomes as important a factor in his relationship with his wife as his family does, allowing us to pinpoint Tim Cresswell’s ‘attachments and connections between people and place’ and providing reasoning for his need to exist so strongly within the same environment as was in his past. Not only should the land be maintained in the same way in order to tie Daniel to his ancestry, but modernising it would also mean placing the power to alter the well-established boundaries of the ‘wild hills’ in Daniel’s hands, potentially dissolving the link between his past and present.[35]

As has been suggested above, Daniel denies himself the ability to establish relationships outside of his farm in order to preserve the memory of his wife. Before the reader even learns of her death, Daniel notes that ‘they had both grown up on farms and knew what to expect, but often it was the modernisation which wearied them.’[36] With this, then, Daniel’s rejection of technology takes on the form of a perpetuation of his relationship with his wife: just as neither of them had wanted to embrace modernity over ‘ancientness’ in their time together in life, Daniel continues to hold, however subconsciously it may be, the same beliefs after her death. In the moment of her death, her love for her pastoral home is affirmed – ‘beyond the pond, over the trees, the rooks were circling into a ministry and she […] stopped and looked for a while at the farm’.[37] While she is ‘wearied’ by modernity, there is a sense of peace communicated by her adoration for the landscape.

For Daniel, becoming globalised or altering his lifestyle in any environmental, social or economic ways would mean moving on from his wife’s principles and simple joys, thereby severing his tie to her for good. Keeping the geography without manipulation or transcendence through technology preserves Daniel’s relationship in the same way that Ruth and George attempt to emulate similarly by embracing modernity: his farm ‘embodies the qualities of a close human relation’ in the same way that New Zealand, Hong Kong, and Italy do in the other two novels. The difference between Daniel, Ruth and George, then, is that he does not need or want technology to create or maintain this temporal tie.

It is clear that these three characters exhibit complex relationships with technology and their respective environments. It would be easy to argue that Daniel is the definitive local: everything about him at first glance is ‘geographically bound’, and it seems predominantly apparent that he adopts the traits of the local in order to hold onto his wife and his agricultural lineage. He is potentially, however, more like Ruth and George than is clear from the first reading: he believes himself to be ‘trapped between the trough and hurdle’, to belong to his environment perhaps more than he would like.[38] He begins a slow resolution towards acceptance of globalisation, noting that he cannot see tourists visiting the farm – ‘at least yet’, insinuating a move towards modernisation in the future.[39] He uses his car, and although his trip is as uncomfortable as Ruth’s, it begins to speak of a movement, a progression towards manipulating boundaries and, eventually, new relationships.

Daniel shows early signs of beginning to accept the ‘shrinking world’ that George and Ruth are so familiar with, but ultimately their varying successes and failures in utilising technology reveal a far more complex understanding of relationships and the digital age than could be expressed in this essay. George can be read, with more time, as suffering from ‘placelessness’ – ironically, as she uses technology to assign meaning to both Italy and England, to give location importance.[40] She flits between past and present, unable to settle in either, and so she remains caught within the memories of her mother whilst half-existing in her own temporal moment. Were we to include sea travel within the boundaries of ‘technology’, Ruth’s entire past in Fiji might be read as being shaped by technology as well as her geographical experiences in Asia and Australasia – her life might be assigned new meaning by how we read her exposure to technology.

With further application of geographical research and additional unpicking of the three novels, even more nuances may be added to the already complex interpretation of globalisation, communication and technology. Regardless, though, it should already be apparent that ‘our world is in constant evolution’, and the ways in which characters and narratives choose to negotiate this world, through either embracing or rejecting the technological development that comes with this evolution, fundamentally alters their relationship with time, space, and – most importantly – people.[41]



[1]Scott Kirsch, ‘The Incredible Shrinking World? Technology and the Production of Space’, in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 13 (1995) <http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=; [Accessed 10/11/15] p. 529.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ken Hillis, ‘On the Margins: The Invisibility of Communications in Geography’, in Progress in Human Geography, 22.4 (1998) <http://citeseerx.ist.psu.eu/viewdoc/download?doi=; [Accessed 10/11/15] p. 547.

[4]Tim Cresswell, Place: A Short Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004) p. 18.

[5] Melissa L. Caldwell, and Eriberto P. Lozada Jr., ‘The Fate of the Local’, in The Blackwell Companion to Globalization, ed. by George Ritzer (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007) p.501.

[6] ‘The Incredible Shrinking World?’ p. 531.

[7] Ali Smith, How to be Both (St. Ives: Penguin Books, 2015) p. 3.

[8] Bart Keunen, ‘The Chronotopic Imagination in Literature and Film’, in Bakhtin’s Theory of the Literary Chronotope: Reflections, Applications, Perspectives, ed. by Nele Bemong, Pieter Borghart et al. (Belgium: Academia Press, 2010) p. 39.

[9] How to be Both, p. 7.

[10] Place: A Short Introduction, p. 19.

[11] Anon, ‘What is a Millenial?’ (n.d.) The Millenial Legacy <http://themillenniallegacy.com/the-millennial-generation/&gt; [Accessed 28/12/15]; Anthony Giddens, ‘The Globalising of Modernity’, in Literature and Globalization: A Reader, ed. by Liam Connell and Nicky Marsh (New York: Routledge, 2011) p. 18.

[12] How to be Both, p. 60.

[13] ‘The Fate of the Local’, p. 500.

[14] How to be Both, p. 132.

[15] Ibid, p. 133.

[16] Nele Bemong, and Pieter Borghart, ‘Bakhtin’s Theory of the Literary Chronotope: Reflections, Applications, Perspectives’, in Bakhtin’s Theory of the Literary Chronotope: Reflections, Applications, Perspectives, ed. by Nele Bemong, Pieter Borghart et al. (Belgium: Academia Press, 2010) p. 4.

[17] Rachel MacFarlane, The Night Guest (London: Hodder & Staughton, 2014) p. 2.

[18] The Night Guest, p. 12.

[19] Ibid, p. 13.

[20] Douglas Kellner, and Clayton Pierce, ‘Media and Globalization’, in The Blackwell Companion to Globalization, ed. by George Ritzer (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007) p.385.

[21] The Night Guest, p. 5.

[22] David Harvey, ‘Time-Space Compression and the Postmodern Condition’, in Literature and Globalization: A Reader, ed. by Liam Connell and Nicky Marsh (New York: Routledge, 2011) p. 17.

[23] The Night Guest, p. 186.

[24] Ibid.

[25] The Night Guest, p. 187.

[26] ‘The Incredible Shrinking World?’, p. 259.

[27] ‘The Fate of  the Local’, p. 501.

[28] Ibid, p. 502.

[29] Cynan Jones, The Dig (London: Granta Books, 2014) p. 17.

[30] Ibid, p. 9.

[31] Kirsti Bohata, Postcolonialism Revisited: Writing Wales in English (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2009) p. 80.

[32] The Dig, p. 47.

[33] The Dig, p. 47.

[34] The Dig, p. 47.

[35] Jane Aaron, ‘Twentieth-Century and Contemporary Welsh Gothic Fiction’, in Literature Compass, 7.4 (2010) < http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1741-4113.2010.00702.x&gt; [Accessed 20/11/2015] p. 287

[36] The Dig, p. 18.

[37] Ibid, p. 22.

[38] The Dig, p. 10.

[39] Ibid, p. 18.

[40] Place: A Short Introduction, p. 19.

[41] Eric Prieto, Literature, Geography, and the Postmodern Poetics of Place (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012) p. 8.

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