Putting Space in Its Proper Place

Morning read in the train: "Toward a Geography of a World Without Maps: Lessons from Ptolemy and Postal Codes" by Michael R. Curry. In this paper, the author describes the implicit and widely accepted history of space:

"the world (and, indeed, the universe) was, once upon a time, seen as vast, too vast to be grasped in its entirety. While knowledge of the world was limited to knowledge of the local, the local was imagined as situated within this vastness. Through what might best be described as an evolutionary process, people gained an increasing knowledge of the local, of places, but began, too, to be able to situate those places within an increasingly comprehensible whole, which came to be called (but had always been) ‘‘space.’’ By the time of Ptolemy, a sophisticated—and familiar—geographical ontology had developed, wherein there was a hierarchy from place to region to space and wherein knowledge of places tended to be tinged with subjectivity, while that of space became increasingly amenable to more rigorous, mathematical understanding. On this view, the situation today, where geographic information systems, global positioning systems, remote surveillance systems, and related technologies are increasingly parts of everyday life, is continuous with that past, and is in a sense an expected step in that evolutionary process. "

And then shows us the flip side of the coin, describing how this is a "telic fantasy" using the postal code example:

"there are good reasons for believing that a more empirically grounded account of the relationship between the concepts of space and of place will indicate that that relationship has been, and remains, far more messy than on the ‘‘standard’’ account. (...) such an analysis will show that prior to the invention of written maps and lists, the means for the storage of information were far too feeble to underpin anything resembling the homogeneous and metrical idea of space that we find in, say, Ptolemy; ‘‘space’’ was, in fact, invented rather late in the day, in societies that offered the appropriate affordances. (...) People do not, on the whole, walk around with anything that could seriously be termed ‘‘maps’’ in their heads, and to attempt to resuscitate that idea by redefining maps as ‘‘sets of directions’’ (to take just one example) is to be dishonest."

Why do I blog this? I am more and more interested in human geography and the way they deal with space and the individual as it is far more interesting than what has been done in psychology recently. Furthermore, there are important conclusions to be drawn for ubiquitous/urban computing as it describes people's representation of space and place.

Curry, M. R. 2005: Toward a geography of a world without maps: lessons from Ptolemy and postal codes . Annals of the Association of American Geographers 95, 680-691