In 1966, John W. Berry, a psychologist at Queen’s University, published a study comparing the perceptual abilities of Inuit, modern urban Scots, and the Temne, a West African agricultural society. Through a series of drawing and visual exercises he showed that the Inuit generally had superior spatial and visual skills. Their keen sense of physical space has been attributed to the necessity of hunting and traveling long distances over flat, snow-covered terrain – a landscape with few prominent geographical features. Thus the smallest of clues, such as wind patterns etched into snow, are observed. Location and orientation of an object is even embedded in the grammatical structure of Inuktitut, one of the languages of the Barren Inuit.
Similarly, Polynesian seafarers are capable of traveling great distances over the open sea relying on little more than swell patterns created by the interaction of prevailing winds and ocean currents. Bedouin nomads are known to have developed detailed mental inventories of vast, seemingly uniform desert landscapes. Although the Arctic Barrens, Arabian Desert, and the South Pacific are strikingly different environments, their native inhabitants all share an acute sense of space, one that is often reflected in the stories they tell, their spirituality, and their myths. They also tend to have deep connections to the natural world.
These facts are drawn from Colin Ellard’s intriguing book, You Are Here: Why We Can Find Our Way to the Moon, but Get Lost in the Mall, a meditation on navigating and “wayfinding” in the age of GPS and Google Maps. As the title of his book suggests, Ellard, an experimental psychologist at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, is interested in the seeming paradox between our ability to “navigate across oceans, continents, and even the forbidding reaches of space,” and the fact that we “become hopelessly lost in a small forest.” Part of the answer lies in our detachment from the physical world, urban or otherwise, and our inability to read what essayist Rebecca Solnit has called the “language of the earth itself.”
It wasn’t always so, and Ellard argues that the implications may be far-reaching. “Losing such wayfinding skills has helped to propel a dangerous trend whereby our connections to our natural environment have become severely severed,” he writes. “The breaking of such connections has consequences for everything from our attachment to nature to the kinds of houses and cities we live in.”
Rather than dwell on how those connections have been lost, Ellard focuses his attention on how we can rebuild both physical and even virtual spaces to, as he puts it, engage all the senses. Many of the ideas are hard to argue with: Building schools that “promote outside and inside spaces,” creating interior shared greenspaces between homes in suburban developments, and simply spending more time outside.
Yet Ellard seems reluctant to examine how technology itself – GPS devices, mapping programs, and geo-location platforms like Four Square and Brightkite – may be further eroding our already fragile attachments to the physical environment and our sense of place. In fact, he argues just the opposite. Ellard suggests that, “computer-based social networking can be considered the modern equivalent of ancient tracking methods used by desert Bedouins riding camels or Inuit hunters crossing the land on dogsleds. The main difference is that the skill set required of users has changed considerably.”
GPS enabled devices are now available in a staggeringly wide array of consumer products from laptops to cell phones, cars, and digital cameras. It has become nearly impossible to get lost – thus the skills required to find our way in both urban and non-urban environments without such tools have atrophied. In the next several decades, perhaps sooner, map-reading skills are likely to become obsolete, not to mention more subtle forms of engaging with the natural world, such as identifying landmarks and reading the terrain.
Now, this all may seem a bit captious – what could possibly be wrong with using Google Maps to figure out how to get from Point A to Point B? But there is a larger issue at stake. In New York City, it is not uncommon to see people emerge from the subways with their heads buried in their phones. Once they would have looked around, gotten their bearings, and figured out which way was north and which way south, perhaps relying on a familiar building or distant landmark. Today, the physical world has diminished. We may have no trouble plotting our coordinates on a tiny screen or tracking the movements of friends … but we have no idea where we are.
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