September 01, 2003

Maps and Place: To Boldly Go

This week's Ecotone Biweekly topic is Maps and Place.

The other day I picked up a National Geographic map from a back room shelf and sat in a quiet place and traveled to Indonesia. It is a place I have never been, and yet, I am there, in a sense, knowing from the map about the vegetation types and terrain, following the courses of meandering rivers within watersheds, tracing contour lines that hint of the texture of the place, of its geology and age. I walk along trails and roads past orchards and quarries and swamps and skirt around the perimeter of villages and cities. To possess an accurate and detailed map and see the world through its symbolic language of place is perhaps the next best thing to being physically in the place depicted. And yet, at least today, there still remains a vast gulf between map and territory. This may not always be so, and the best maps and the places they symbolize may someday be difficult to distinguish from one another.

The computer "games" that grow in synergy with government-sponsored technologies like war are already closing the distance between map and territory. The average civilian like you and me sees glimpses of this in computer-enhanced reenactments of actual bombing runs from our recent spate of "regime changes" around the world. The camera, in a CNN glorification of the war du jour zooms down from orbital to suborbital to upper atmospheric, pulling into range over a middle eastern desert, flying lower, down between dunes, showing wadi and oasis zooming past, with realistic shadows, texture, signs of life. Then we follow 'ordinance' as it annihilates the target: a baby formula factory or palace, perhaps. I could have been in the cockpit with the pilot, so realistic were the images racing past as the computer recreated the map in three-dimensional reality. It seems so sad to me that our most advanced maps are not for exploring places but for incinerating them with our gamers-thumbs or our bunkerbusters. And yet, the day will come when we can travel virtually anywhere, perceptually if not physically, by state-of-the-art "maps".

Arising from this same game and war technology and augmented by others we've yet to imagine, the day will come when I (or more likely, my children or theirs) can don a map-helmet and view-visor and walk the trail up old familiar places I have loved-- I can hike up Henley Hollow once again, or climb to the top of Massey Gap or peer out from a floating island in the Okeefenokee by merely saying the name of the place. In those pseudo-real places there will seem to exist 'real' trees and rocks, and perhaps simulated wind and water noises and one may see from time to time the common creatures of those coordinates (or the ones that used to live there decades earlier, when the ecosystem was healthy and whole). These computer generated maps of the future will be as much like being there as one can get without literally being in the place. Still, the map will not unite us with the place, even though viewing it may evoke some of the feeling of having visited places I used to go easily and often.

There are so many alluring features that I see on my topo maps or out my windows as I drive the back roads of rural Virginia. And yet more and more of these places that I can see I will never visit as my physical strength and vigor diminish over the years. I have already had to say goodbye to distant wilderness valleys and mountaintops-- in the Smokies, or up in Cranberry Glades in West Virginia-- that I once experienced but will not likely have the opportunity or physical resources to visit again. And yet I would love to be there, in that place I remember or see in my mind's eye out my car window, just beyond the farthest ridge in the distance through the blue haze.

If there is indeed a God responsible for creating all of this that our senses and instruments have revealed to us about the Universe (as I believe) then He is not likely to think us content for eternity to ride on clouds and play harps in our pajamas. So while mortally bound to a failing chassis I daydream of heaven. I imagine that I inhabit a new body and am not bound by either time nor space-- and am in some sense omnipresent, a trait 'inherited' from God himself. In this eternal incarnation, the newly-corporeal thing that I call self can actually be present in those cherished earthly places I have remembered or in the tropical rain forest or tundra or steppes and places I never experienced in this body. I could fly away in the 'twinkling of an eye' to any place within the boundaries of the Universe, exploring galaxies and perhaps even Time itself. Then there would be no need for maps because the physical-temporal place itself would need no reduction to symbol or representation or picture-thinking. Eternity would not be a terror or a bore as some imagine. I would never tire of exploring without limit, without fatigue; and I'd never have to stop and ask directions again! And rather than the perpetual tedium of cloud-riding and harp-playing forever, over the eons I would only find ever greater wonder and awe in the things and places I would be and know within this largest place we call the Universe.

Posted by fred1st at September 1, 2003 07:07 AM | TrackBack

I read recently that Porsche (or maybe it was BMW) was in the development stage for a helmet for mechanics that would project content of repair manuals directly onto the retina. Mechanics could compare diagrams to reality and read instructions while actually working in the engine compartment. Augmenting relaity instead of replacing it.

Posted by: bill at September 1, 2003 01:50 PM

It is amazing what maps can fire in the imagination. I wonder if that isn't an experience that may diminish as younger generations have different expectations - of a landscape that can be simulated and "travelled" through, virtually. Will they realise that it is only virtual? I have also enjoyed pouring over maps (where does that expression come from?) and puzzling over the meaning of those damn colonising colours assigned to countries. An arm outstretched and pointing.....

Posted by: Coup de Vent at September 1, 2003 04:58 PM

About 50 years ago I read a book where nearly each human had his/her brain disconnected from the body and installed into a bell-jar, awash in nutrient. The brain was connected to electronic nodes that allowed etermal life, lived in dreaming and pleasurable sensationing (is that a word??). The only "real" humans were those who tended the bell jars. We are closing in on this nightmare.

Posted by: Cop Car at September 1, 2003 06:45 PM

I love the idea of the eternal incarnation where we can revisit cherished places from our past and we are not limited by time or physical boundaries - thanks Fred!

Posted by: Jenny at September 2, 2003 12:59 AM

The ability to fly -- to lift my arms and soar into the air, Superman-like, and go wherever I wish, at whatever speed and altitude -- has been a recurring, persistent daydream of mine for many years. Longing for the eternal state, I suppose...

Posted by: Curt at September 3, 2003 12:46 PM

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