A long time ago, St. Augustine wrote that while we’re to love all men equally, it’s impossible for us as limited individuals to do equal good to everyone in the world. So, he wrote in On Christian Doctrine, “you are to pay special regard to those who, by the accidents of time, or place, or circumstance, are brought into closer connection with you.” If you can only afford to give away one coat this winter, he says, then give it to your neighbor before you give it to a stranger.
I get squirmy thinking about this completely common-sense exhortation, because the practical extension is that if you can only feed one hungry kid, feed the one in your town, not the starving kid in a slum halfway around the world. Why does that make me feel uncomfortable? And what do I do with that?
I have an answer to the first question, which is that today I can sit in front of my TV and be brought by an “accident of circumstance” into at least feeling a closer connection with the kid halfway around the world. That is what film and television does for us, and it’s what makes the time we’re living in unlike any other. In his 1989 book The Condition of Postmodernity, David Harvey called this phenomenon “time-space compression.” Our natural relationship to physical things we experience, like space and time, have been altered today, he says—mostly by our technologies.
Other theorists have taken this idea and said that it’s actually an essential facet of contemporary life, what makes living today different from living at any other time in human history. Media, telephones, fast travel, globalization—all these things mean that the world has gotten if not literally smaller, ...1