Where Am I? by Colin Ellard - Excerpt
You Are Here
(Canadian title: "Where Am I?")
Why we can find our way to the moon but get lost in the mall

by Colin Ellard


A BLACK BEAR can find its way home after being displaced distances of hundreds of kilometers using methods that have rebuffed the efforts of scientists to understand them. What do bears know that we don’t? How do Monarch butterflies or migrating songbirds navigate even larger distances, thousands of kilometers in some instances, to targets that they might never even have seen before? How is it that a homing pigeon can be driven halfway across a continent in a lightproof box and then, on release, find its way unerringly back to its loft? How do newborn sea turtles waddle off a beach in Florida and migrate thousands of kilometers through ocean depths to rich foraging grounds near the coast of Africa? Perhaps most interestingly of all, how is it that the only existing animal that has come close to understanding how some of these magnificent navigational feats are performed is rendered helpless by a confusing thicket of woods or an unexpected hallway in an office building? …

You are here. Where is here and how do you know? Although we share much common ground between ourselves and other creatures of field and forest, some stark differences exist between our abilities and those of the many other animals with whom we share the planet. Some animals possess specialized senses and abilities that help them to know where they are. We do not. But we have come to an entirely new type of relationship with physical space. This new relationship, the markings of which are literally written into parts of our brains, not only allows us to cope with the problems of space, but it also liberates us from space in a way. It is as if our prodigious brains have grown to allow us to stand outside of space so that even as we struggle to find ways to survive in it, we can reflect on it at a distance, even reduce it to a set of mathematical formulas and abstract maps. It is this ability to stand outside of real space mentally that has allowed us to conceive, develop, and use the technologies—rapid transit and communication, mass media, virtual reality—that have allowed us to further unshackle ourselves from space. How do these space-bending technologies impact the way we live our lives, from the way we design our homes and cities, to the ways that we work, communicate and play with one another?

How do the sizes and shapes of our dwellings, offices, factories, civic buildings and cities reflect our abilities (or inabilities) to come to terms with physical space? How does our unique conception of space as a topology of connected nodes influence the way that we interact with colleagues at work? How has modern technology, especially instantaneous communication using everything from the telephone to the Internet changed our understanding and use of physical space? Has the fact that our minds are fuzzy about the geometry of the everyday world accelerated the extent to which such technologies have penetrated our lives? Would an animal that understood in its bones the meaning of space have been able to adapt to the hyperspace of the World Wide Web and virtual environments spanning the globe?...

There can be little doubt that our ability to stand outside of real space and look back into it, reflect upon it, and shape it to our own designs and purposes has been responsible for much of the form of modern life. We have used technology to adapt the world to our purposes, and our own ability to adapt to technology is made possible by the way our brains perceive space. At the same time, our ability to step outside of the world’s geometry mentally has resulted in a sad kind of detachment between us and the rest of the planet. This state of detachment may contain some important clues about another of the great paradoxes of human nature: how can a being whose mind is capable of such dramatic acts of understanding and creation wreak such havoc on its own home that its very future stands in some doubt? Perhaps the more pressing question is whether understanding where mental space comes from and what is done with it can help us to find solutions to such vexing problems. Can we rethink our relationship with space to make us more cognizant of the effects of our actions on the state of the planet? Can the artful design of buildings and cities encourage us to make connections to our spaces and places that will help us to take more responsibility for them? Could the secret to recapturing our sense of environmental stewardship reside in recapturing some of the connections with the planet that were possessed by ancient human wayfinders? Can we co-opt some of the same technology that has helped us to conquer space in our personal lives to make us more aware of the wider sweep of space that is beyond the purview of our senses?

It would be sad to think that a species that can produce an Einstein, Mozart, Gandhi, and Shakespeare could short circuit its own future, and the future of its home planet because of a curious cerebral glitch that has simultaneously allowed us to conquer the wide spaces of the solar system but to become lost in a tiny speck of woodland. It seems more important than ever that we recognize that the most important impediments to our future survival and flourishing are not technological barriers, but psychological ones. More than anything else, moving forward in time and space will require that we understand not just who we are, but where we are.


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