Thursday, November 26, 2009


Where are you? It seems like a simple enough question at first. I’m here writing at home. I’m at work. I’m in a meeting. In LA. In the USA. In my hometown at First and Main. And if in doubt, there’s always GPS. But, are any or all of these answers really accurate ways of describing place in space/time? We may have come a long way locating ourselves in the last several centuries. Amazingly enough, it had been in estimated in 1740 that there were as few as 120 countries that were actually mapped in the entire world according to David Grann in “The Lost City of Z.” That left enormous regions of its landmass labeled with the captivating, but elusive description as “unexplored.”

Not only were there famously areas of the sea that were illuminated on early maps with dragons, sea serpents, and other monsters, but most people—whether navigators or just ordinary landlubbers—believed that if you ventured too far into the unknown, you would fall off of the edge of the world. The invention of the chronometer in 1773 did a lot to help maps along by providing the key measure of time.

Prior to that, the so-called Age of Discovery and Exploration may not have seemed so grand to the “discovered” tribal peoples who were doing quite well, thank you, without the intrusion of the conquering, gold and spice seeking boat peoples. It did much, however, to cure the notion that you’d fall off of a flat earth into the abyss. But, it wasn’t until the expansion of the British Empire in the 19th century that the lands and wild countries of the planet were finally mapped.

Google Earth has recently “mapped” areas that persisted as “unknowns”—like an area the size of Texas described in the best-selling, “Morning of the Magicians”, between Amazonian tributaries, the Xingu and Tapajos Rivers that was unmapped going into the 1950s—or the infamous location of Area 51, the top secret test facility whose existence has been denied by the US Air Force, now “mapped” using handy Soviet Spy photographs. Still, our recent sense of security in thinking that we know where we are with such tools as Google Earth and GPS may turn out to be false.

A recent NY Times article about a new scientific study indicated that the increased use of GPS is having a deleterious impact on the spatial abilities of humans. It may be one more example of how McLuhan’s celebrated perspective that saw media and technology as “extensions of man” extending the senses, are having quite the opposite effect. Could it be that sensory systems developed thousands of years ago are being deadened by the use of technology?

The difference between men and women’s sense of direction, for example, is the subject of many jokes and popular culture. Evolutionary biologists offer theories that there may be a basis in truth to differing navigational abilities of the sexes. They have theorized that women--who were stuck back in the cave raising clans and cooking--did not need to develop the same spatial acuity as their hirsute, club carrying mates who needed to remember geographical features for hunting purposes.

Our world--where we may be losing our compass, so to speak--is sharply contrasted by the tribal world. Take for example, the American Plains Indian ceremony known as the “smoke sacrifice.” First of all, the so-called “peace pipe” was the real deal. The tobacco that filled those pipes was the uncured variety, a highly potent hallucinogen. This is precisely why it spawned so many peace treaties that were not remembered by white men in the hungover hazy light of the following day. It is also the reason why tobacco was used ceremonially by native smokers in contrast to its convenient, addictive commercial form today.

The Smoke Sacrifice is illustrative of an orientation in the world and cosmos that tribal peoples have shared throughout time. The cardinal directions were not just points on the compass, but sacred points of origin which were associated with spirits, colors, animals, and other significators that defined the human world as allies. Anthropologist Dennis Tedlock has aptly called this orientation, specifically with respect to the Maya as “finding the center.”

The first puff of smoke that a modern cigarette, cigar or pipe smoker takes is usually pulled greedily into the mouth and lungs. The Smoke Sacrifice is initiated when the smoker blows six puffs of smoke in an offering toward the cardinal points on the compass and to the axis described by the nadir and the midheaven which runs up the spinal column. When this has been accomplished, the final puff is inhaled, thereby completing the ceremony by establishing the smoker as the center of the universe circumscribed by the sphere of smoke. In effect, one’s heart becomes that nodal, essential point of being. The ceremonial smoker is centered by paying respect to the sacred directions and is ready to move out into greater world of creation that always surrounds us wherever we are. Now that is GPS!

So, the next time someone asks, “Where are you?”, think on how many responses a truly accurate answer might have—because even without the smoke, the heart is our only guide in finding the center which is everywhere that we find consciousness.


Anonymous said...

If the universe if infinitely large and infinitely small, the center of the galaxy, for me, is my center of gravity. In aikido, we call it our "one point" and answers the question my mother used to ask, "What? Do you think the whole world revolves around you?"

McLuhen's autoamputations of the senses by technological extensions is very Lamarckian. People who travel have a different experience of the world than people who live within the frame of a tribe. Showing the tribesman a GPS and showing the traveler a GPS is the same physical act, but cognitively, the processing is different. I could see McLuhan's point that a GPS to a traveler is a convenience but, for the tribesman, it is a catalyst, his view of the universe changes and he can never go back to thinking the same way again. Still, the traveler is the only one who knows the difference by experience, not through a proxy server. As the world has been mapped and as education goes into virtual experience, I believe it is still a choice as to whether the tribesman or the traveler extends one sense at the expense of the others.

There's a story you would know, K.S., of the tribe that could not "see" the European ship arriving to their island, that only the shaman of the tribe noted its arrival. I've heard this story interpreted that the tribesmen couldn't visually "see" the ship as it was completely outside of reality as they had known it (think of the GPS). I don't know if you would agree that the tribesman had some cognitive deficiency, that they never developed a neural network for things with big, white sails. Rather, I believe it was that they all saw the ship, but only the shaman was allowed to interpret this new arrival from the unknown to his kinsmen.

Back to the center... if your center is always at your center of gravity, the enlightenment doesn't change your circuitry. You are always both coming in and going from the cave.

An environmental writer for the L.A. Times told me that he hated to write stories on the "hidden, unspoiled places left," because he would immediately get bombarded with readers interested in finding, and then exploiting those places.

I hope you had a great Thanksgiving and don't wonder if the tribesman wouldn't have extended themselves to help the Puritans if they knew what would be amputated in the end.

Anonymous said...

It is why I wear the navajo prayer "I Walk in Beauty" and pray that my words will be beautiful.

Kevin Henry said...

While traveling across Florida a few weeks back, I had the opportunity to experience the GPS that came with my rented car. Having traveled across Florida many times and for many years, I felt I know my way around the state like a native, but once I turned on the device that had been taunting me for several hours on the road, it was like crack cocaine...I was hooked...there was no turning back. I gave up everything to my new friend...I trusted her with out question...even when I knew she was taking me in the wrong direction. Maybe it was the long drives across the pan-handle in the middle of the night...maybe it was the hypnotic effect of the passing white line on long stretch of Florida back road…but at some point we began to bond…the boundary between man and machine began to blur…I found myself having full length conversations, as well as deep discussion on life, including issues regarding my wife and children…her voice was soothing, confident and so self-assured…but then like all relationships…things began to break down and as quick as I fell in love, it was as quick to end. In the middle of no where we lost the satellite feed…how is that even possible? And then the mis-directions and wrong turns…I started to ask myself…where is she taking me and why? I knew it was over when she began to mock me…I missed my turn, even though she had given me plenty of warning…and there it was…tone… she said “you missed your exit…re-calibrating”. You could hear it in her voice…and that was it…neither of us spoke for the rest of the trip to the airport…I even went so far as to turn the volume down and followed the signs to the rental drop off. On the bus to the airport, I began to think I may have been a little to rough on her and began to miss her voice and guidance and come to think of it her advice about the kids was pretty sound.