Thursday, January 15, 2009

Wherever you go, there you are . . . but where is that?

From top: A "T-in-O" map from a 1472 edition of the Etymologies of St. Isidore (7th cen., Seville) (image found here; a map created by Muslim geographer Al-Idrisi from the 12th century (image found here; a copperplate facsimile of the Western Hemisphere of a globe by Johann Schöner, 1520 (Image found here); a Tom-Tom One XI (image found here)

As I blogged about at this same time last year, I'm interested in the relationship between technology and my students: to put it a bit crudely, whether they really use it or it seduces them into thinking they're really using it. And during our in-service this week this issue got raised for some of us, this time from the faculty/administration side of things. In the past couple of years we've made enormous investments in that big thing called "computers"--not just new hardware and software, but in the "meta" side of things: course and equipment intended to teach students how to set up and manage databases and servers, and how to keep them secure. We've also spent a lot of money acquiring technology for classrooms that teachers can use when presenting material.

So, there was this gee-whiz haze that my English department colleagues and I walked through on Tuesday as the entire college's faculty took a morning tour of all that. But in our department meeting that afternoon, one of us spoke to something I'd been thinking about that day and yesterday, too: There for a little while, Wichita seemed to have escaped the worst effects of the recession, but this week Cessna announced that it would be laying off 3,000 workers in March at all salary levels (for some perspective, the metropolitan area has around half a million people). Given the general downturn in aircraft manufacturing, other layoffs or work slowdowns are sure to come. And as goes aircraft, so goes this town. So my colleague's question was, in effect, how do we in the very un-sexy English department make or keep ourselves relevant to our students, many of whom are already living at or below the poverty level?

Good questions. And here's my answer: On the first day, I think I'm gonna talk about really old maps and GPS units.

I got to musing about GPS units during that tour, for some reason, and it struck me that at some essential level the user doesn't have to know where s/he is relative to anything else. If you can turn left and right when told to do so, that's all you need to know. There's no assertion of the user's will on the device once the coordinates are entered--you don't get to choose from multiple routes; you get The Way, the One True Route ("No one comes to the Grocery Store (or wherever) but by me"). Most of the time, that's not a problem, but we've all heard of instances when one of these devices has given directions that don't correspond to the physical world: "You can't get there from here!" Also, I've already mentioned that the device doesn't propose alternative routes. In either case, if something goes awry and you truly don't know where you are in physical space and you either don't have a conventional map or can't locate where you are on it, well, as I am fond of saying, You can only know what you know.

Enter the old maps. As I wrote about this past summer, the top two maps' depictions of space are determined at least as much by ideology--specifically, religion--as by a desire to represent the earth's surface in a useful manner. It's easy enough to see that these competing ideologies produce two very different maps of the same geographical space. But, at least for the pre-Renaissance Christian, there was no distinction between between sacred and secular knowledge. The Bible did more than reveal God's Will for His people; it was also the one accepted source of knowledge about the world--"world" in those days referring specifically and only to the then-known landmasses referred to in the Bible. That which was not in some way accounted for in Scripture either could not be or was in error or simply dismissed because of its (pagan) provenance.

That was the cultural world Columbus lived in and under whose assumptions he undertook his voyage to Asia in 1492. Add to that the complicating factor that he thought the world's circumference was actually 1/3 that of what most people estimated it was, and it's easy to understand why he died, in 1506, insisting he had found Asia, even though by that time most people realized that he had found something else instead. In a sense, the presence of these landmasses was no problem for Columbus: he simply said that what he had found a part of Asia that no one had known about before. But for the growing number of people who realized otherwise, they had a very real problem: how to talk about this Something Else--something clearly NOT accounted for in the Bible--without calling the Bible's accuracy into question? Simply saying the Bible was mistaken was not an option--these were the days of the Inquisition, recall. And consider that the problem created by this other land mass was simple compared to the problem posed by the people found there: Who were they? What were they?--that is, they appeared to be humans, but were they fully human? (read: Did they have souls?)

This was a problem that neither simple observation nor technology could solve--indeed, technology (here, the ability to sail across an ocean) had created this problem. The problem was more than one of simple ignorance. It was a problem of conceptualization, of coming up with a new way of thinking about not just this new place but about the place we had come from (something often forgotten is how Columbus' voyages changed Europe's understanding of itself, too). In other words, this was a problem that only language could solve.

Language is a tool, too. The work it performs is the most important work of all: the work of explaining and making sense of our life and our place in the world--and, if we're both good and lucky with language, shaping and influencing our respective corners of the world. Seen in this way, the term New World, coined by Peter Martyr, is one of the most powerful tools ever made.

Mastery of machines is a crucial skill to have. But more important, if we don't want to feel like people who knows no more about where we are than the fact that our GPS unit has guided us there, is looking up from our machines and seeing how what we do fits with the world beyond our machines. A map is (still) pretty useful for doing that sort of thing, and writing--another sort of map-making--is, too. In Comp I, we'll work on learning how to make better maps than the ones we're making now.

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