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DIGITAL CARTOGRAPHY

January 13th, 2021

 

We are spatial animals, not encyclopedic.  It’s no surprise that physical health - specifically, how we move or don’t move our body has a tremendous impact on brain health, and these effects only become more and more exaggerated in later years.  The brain is not an island, as much as it can sometimes feel like that: a cage for the mind, strangely separated from the outside world.  We remember the dance but fail to recall the instructions.  We know where that lovely hole-in-the-wall is but the address escapes us.  We operate through narratives of space and its geography.

 

Oddly, and probably sadly, the internet has no geography, at least not in the sense that it can be visualized and navigated.  This is despite the language we use around the internet:

Where do I go to see that?

How do I navigate this site?

 

On an actual website, the problem is concrete, and therefore less of a problem.  Webpages have actual geography because they exist as shapes on a screen.  The literal analogy to geography is all the more appropriate when the occasional problem of redesign is encountered.  Few things are more obnoxious than looking for a button that is no longer where we remember it to be.  Just imagine trying to commute to work via a different route everyday.  In fact, that scenario doesn’t even encapsulate the problem very well because the point of departure and the destination are still in the same absolute relative position.  More appropriate would be: imagine commuting to a different place every day… without directions.  

 

This is why changing an icon or an app or webpage layout can be so infuriating for people who visit regularly.  There’s another vestige of our geographical minds: we do not see websites, we visit them.  But answer this question:  Where is Reddit in relation to Wikipedia?

 

This is an impossible question to answer.  Describing the spatial relationship between two words in a dictionary is easier despite the oddity of the task.  There is no way to see the internet as a whole as it relates to itself, the way we can overlook a city from the top of a tall building.  The internet is encyclopedic, but it’s an encyclopedia that has no definite order.  It appears only in the order that we stumble through it.

 

There is one area of life that has a similar geography or non-geography that is identical to the internet, and that is the mind itself.

 

Thoughts have no order or spatial relation to one another.  One thought might remind us of another related thought, but this isn’t an explicit spatial relation.  It’s the equivalent of a hyperlink on a webpage.  The two are associated but the association is dimensionless.  

 

If time is taken to watch the manner of thought closely, the experience of moving from one thought to the next isn’t like moving at all, it’s straight up teleportation.  Even the Television has more spatial structure than the internet.  Everything exists on a channel and those channels have a numerical order.  But the internet is a sea with no bottom and no surface.  We can easily forget that a website exists just as we can fail to remember that great idea we had while waking up but which now escapes the conscious gaze.

 

Imagine, however, if every time you visited Twitter you had to pass by a meditation app in order to get there, because it was just on the way.  (This might sound like an advertisement, but advertisements are far more fickle and prickly.  If there’s any mental equivalent of advertising, it’s probably that negative self talk, or that evil demon trying to lure you back into bad behavior.). The closest thing we have to this is the placement of apps on a phone.  Notice how we rarely forget where  on the phone a particular app is, but we can forget about a favourite blog that was never bookmarked.  One exists in space, the other only exists in time, and time has a geography more akin to thought than the linear order we try to associate with it.  As much as things may proceed one after another, we don’t remember them that way.  The past is mostly relegated to the same soup as most thought.

The irony of digital geography is that all of this stuff does actually exist within a complicated set of relationships that even do exist spatially, in the physical world, but these microscopic configurations are meaningless to us, meaningful only to the innards of a computer.

 

As the power of hardware increases and areas like Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality become more of a…. reality, It’s worthy if not just merely fun to imagine the entire digital world spatialized.  What if Twitter were suddenly a landscape of hills and mountains, each representing it’s own niche as with Money Twitter or VC Twitter or Tesla Twitter.  Those with the most followers in each of these niches have clambered their way past others by communal merit to top so they can be seen and heard by all who gravitate to that highpoint.  

 

Scrolling then is a bit like a high-speed flyby through the valleys and canyons created by these voiced peaks.

 

Perhaps it should not be a surprise that it’s so easy to get lost in these digital realms.  Like an IKEA which has specifically designed their store to be a maze that requires seeing everything in order to escape, the digital world is a place with no landmarks, and no exit signs.

 

Putting down the phone or getting off the computer is a bit like trying to wake up from a dream on command. It’s a skill more than it is a reliable set of directions, and perhaps this is because - like a dream - there is no definitive and reliable spatial geography.  The “way out” entails a wholly different reality.  It’s not just teleporting, it’s more akin to sobering up at will or remembering that good idea that escapes the mind.

 

In the absence of landmarks and exits, the experience of the digital world highlights more than anything, the importance of attentional navigation.  Like a compass that orients itself based on something that exists on a far larger magnitude than trees, rocks and other landmarks, our attention can be trained to orient in relation to itself, examining it’s own direction and content and placing on offer the chance to choose, something different.


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Podcast Ep. 1004: Digital Cartography

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