Personal Geography in a Digital Age

UPDATE: Commented on David’s blog.

I greatly enjoyed Katherine Harmon’s thought-provoking book on personal geographies.  Harmon argues in her introduction that mapping may be part of human nature, which, in a way, goes against all we’ve read about the history of mapping which grounds the practice firmly in a historical context.  Harmon’s idea of mapping, however, is so inclusive of so many kinds of representations that it was easy, for me anyway, to let the ahistorical assertion slide.

The notion of a “personal geography” also put in me mind of the discussion we had in class as to whether modern GPS-enabled technology has made individuals more or less likely to think geographically.  My instinct at the time was to reject “more or less” and simply admit that it has changed.  It seems to me that younger people than me who have social lives (my excuses are 6 and 3 years old ) live in a world where geography plays a much different role than it did for me.  If I wanted to go out with friends I would call them, and we would plan on what to do, where to meet, and when.   If someone was late, you had to wait and wonder and ultimately decide if and when it was time to go on without them.  Now, it seems to me, with almost everyone armed with a smart phone and a variety of GPS-linked social media accounts, an individual can leave the house and immediately get a rich sense of his or her social geography.  You can see where your friends have checked in and decide who you might want to meet up with after you leave.  Being social doesn’t depend upon every group member understanding and executing a pre-arranged plan.  Certainly something is lost in this shift, but I have to think that something is gained too.

It reminds me of the maps in Harmon’s book, because like them, these social maps must be highly personal and individualized.  Rather than working from a standardized map, GPS-enabled devices allow individuals to impose their own meaning on geography.  Some might very reasonably object that this will lead to an over-reliance on technology and less interaction with the environment, but I think there’s an equally good argument that the same tools will be used to explore and communicate the kinds of personal geographies that Harmon has collected.

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3 responses to “Personal Geography in a Digital Age

  1. Nate–I fully agree that even if we have lost some things with GPS and mobile technologies, we have gained–perhaps a lot more. Nancy Proctor, who leads mobile initiatives for the Smithsonian, argues that mobile technology is restoring a sense of place that we may have lost with digital technology, and for that matter even enhancing the sense of place. Here’s a Slideshare of a presentation she did on that topic for students and alumni of GWU’s Museum Studies program earlier this year: http://www.slideshare.net/nancyproctor/being-there-on-innovation-revolution-and-radicalism-in-the-museum. As we discussed in our 804 this summer (and I’m posting for other classmates to learn about), increasingly public historians are turning to mapping technologies (like CHNM is doing with NPS, and like HistoryPin is doing with tons of institutions) to convey not only a sense of place but a sense of time. So, I fully agree that mobile technology is allowing us to enhance a sense of place.

    • Yes! Excellent point. I don’t know how familiar you are with the Mobile Mall project that the center is developing, but it does exactly this. By accessing a website on your smartphone you can explore the National Mall and learn about the history associated with different areas and the Mall as a whole. To my mind it turns the Mall into a giant open air museum. Definitely an example of the potential for technology to shape how people interact with and interpret the space around them.

  2. I hadn’t thought of her assertion about mapping being human nature as ahistorical, because I also cut her some slack as far as what “mapping” means as a verb. I decided she means it in a broader sense, somewhat divorced from actual maps and cartography.

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