20 May 2007

Shifting Places

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Anyone with a digital video recorder (e.g., a TiVO) or a VCR should be familiar with the idea of time shifting: the use of a tool that allows you to change the viewing time of a TV show from its scheduled one to whenever it’s convenient for you, the viewer. By recording the program and watching it on your own schedule, you are said to be time shifting. It stands to reason then that place shifting would be a corollary concept: the ability to watch TV on your own time-shifted schedule but also from a location you choose, i.e., not necessarily in your living room, in front of your TV. That is, in fact, how place shifting is defined in Wikipedia, and a search turns up similar kinds of references in many other sites, some of them offering place shifting technologies.

It stands to reason – but I don’t think it’s completely accurate. The idea of place shifting could also probably be traced to the arrival and evolution of the cell phone, when the whole idea of one’s geography being defined by one’s phone number was turned on its head. This happened in two stages. The first was the arrival of the cellular phone in its own right, when the caller knew that the cell phone’s user could be (almost) anywhere, so that a call to someone theoretically in New York might turn up a person actually in San Francisco. Maybe this is what lead to our societal obsession with always asking “Where are you?” at the beginning of cell phone calls: when we call someone we know, we’re picturing that person. In the old days (which were not so long ago), we knew that the number we dialed was almost certain to ring at a specific location, so our friend might be in their living room or their bedroom, or wandering with a cordless phone but within a limited range. With a cell phone, we cannot conjure those mental images without knowing where they are – New York? No, San Francisco. Oh, where? Standing in line to buy chocolate in Ghirardelli Square – and we get an incomplete picture, which inhibits conversation, we have to ask, “Where are you?”

The second stage was the formal upending of the system of telephone area codes and exchanges. Time was (not so very long ago, either) that calling someone with a “212” area code meant calling a Manhattanite somewhere in Manhattan, and calling someone with a “917” number meant dialing a New Yorker’s cell phone, wherever they happened to be at the time. Now, even the formality of those telephone systems, more than 100 years in the making, has been upended. Some New York businesses have 917 area codes, even though it was originally used only for cell phones; 646 was introduced as the secondary area code for Manhattan, when 212 maxed out, but some people have 646-based cell phones. Friends who used to live in NYC, but now do not, have nonetheless retained their 917-based cell phones, while people who once lived in Washington, DC, kept their 202-based cell phones. The 917’ers living in DC are still a “local” call; the 202’ers living six blocks away are still a “long distance” call. Except that even those terms are rendered meaningless with “nationwide” calling plans that formally remove the whole lexicon built up over the last century; where you are, and where you are calling, now matter only to the caller and the recipient, but not the phone company. In a sense, those two annoying questions – “Where are you?” and “Can you hear me now” – have replaced the whole array of terms that defined our understanding of telephony.

The 20th century is definitely dead, and has itself been place shifted rapidly into ancient history.


It might also just be that all of this is, after a fashion, self-congratulatory hooey: that the origins of time and place shifting rest in the very beginnings of human civilization, when we learned to write and to read, and found different media (stones, or papyrus) on which to put those writings, from which we could then draw later readings, at a different time and even a different place. Our history, so much of which used to be oral (think of Homer, spinning his poetic stories), now transcribed, to be read later by anyone with the skill in any place with the capacity – freed from the need for the author himself, in fact. Painting, too, shifted our understanding of a particular time and place beyond the immediate; we examine cave drawings in Lascaux or Manet’s Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe, but we do so without needing to be a cave man, or to have sat with Edouard as he painted, and we experience a little bit of Tahiti in Gauguin, through his eyes, despite never having been there.

As always, we flatter ourselves, and our nearly boundless (technological) creativity, and boy what a world we live in. In the long run, though, we may be better at the definitions – at creating for ourselves new ontologies that let us believe in our own superiority over that which came before us – than we are at the underlying creativity. If the past is any guide, we can be certain our children, and our children’s children, will time and place shift us into history, too.


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