Saturday, April 29, 2006

Inconclusive Ramblings about Geography

A fellow faculty member at the high school where I teach informed me today that he'd come across my site on MySpace. One of his posts explained his reason for creating a MySpace site: He is studying the behavior of his students on MySpace as a kind of anthropological research experiment. He describes MySpace as a gathering place within their "sociological jungle". Combine this with the fact that Paige, Noah, and I are moving, so I am sitting in a room filled with labeled boxes, and a conversation I had with Joel yesterday about how the new NYTimes website is more navigable, and it's all got me thinking about geography. I'm acting out the R.E.M. song "Stand". "Think about direction/ wonder why you have it now."

MySpace isn't Space, strictly speaking. Given time and processing speed it could all be shoved through a single fiber-optic cable, right? I mean, in theory, given a powerful enough blender, enough pressure, and enough added liquid my apartment and all its contents could all be shoved through a piece of normal PVC pipe, but that doesn't sound very pleasant. But there is something quantitatively different about navigating a website as opposed to navigating this room filled with boxes full of books. I'm not just referring to the two dimensions of my computer screen as opposed o the three of the room, either. Data doesn't have to be spread out and navigated like space. What does it say about our ability to comprehend information that we like to have it defined in terms of space, even when it isn't, so that we can... well, navigate it?

This question is more vexing for someone like me who prefers to write in prose rather than poetry. Poets manipulate space when writing all the time.
on the page. Instead, I follow the rules of paragraphing and alignment. And yet, seen in the context of the "gathering place" in the "jungle" post, the new NYTimes site, and this room filled with boxes, I'm forced to consider the fact that any one of the books I've written could be read as a continuous line in a text file, with some editing marks to denote paragraph breaks and the ends of chapters, and no information would be lost. But I recoil in horror at the thought. Why? Is it merely because no one would go to the trouble of reading a mile of text stretched out rather than printed in block form on individual pages? I think there's more to it. I think that formatting itself might be a facet of this Witgensteinian language game all writers play without careful consideration. Sure, writing in Arabic of Japanese seems odd to me, because the text is navigated in the opposite direction, and I've heard that Chinese can be navigated in multiple directions (though my mind boggles at the thought) but I've never questioned why text must be presented spatially in the first place. Is this an outgrowth of our need to anthropomorphize ideas so that they relate to our physical world? Is it just convenience (at best pragmatism in the sense of Richard Rorty's?) Is it something else, some Kantian mechanism within the mind that Kant himself didn't explore? Is it a manifestation of a Platonic reality; true ideas being manifest as a navigable world like ours but better? I seriously doubt the latter, since we can all recognize that the arrangement of ideas is



So what does it mean? I don't know. But think about it: You, dear reader, didn't read this backwards. Even if ideas have a logical, sequential order, we could express them in a linear fashion in whatever direction we might choose. If our technology were capable, would we make use of a third dimension to express ideas? Would we pull important ideas towards us, to get our attention, or push them away to relate the fact that they are "deep"? I wonder.

As I advertised in the title, I have drawn no conclusions. What are your thoughts? When you stand in the place where you live (now face north) and you think about direction and wonder why we have it, what do you think?

P.S. Don't write your reply backwards or vertically. I am clever enough to appreciate the idea, but not clever enough to actually sail through un-navigable waters, so don't waste your time.

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