Two Maps and 21st Century Exploration

The following text was written for an art installation at the new Skylink Terminal of Vienna Airport. The title of the installation, Zeitraum, is a German portmanteau combining zeit (time) and raum (place), and roughly translates to “period of time.” It’s an apt description to describe the phenomenon of passing time in an airport; at once an integral part of any major city, and yet somehow separate, removed, tied to a global network of other airports that collectively make up their own lattice that floats above our daily reality.

Each of the contributing authors was asked to meditate on the airport as part of this Zeitraum. You can download the ebook for free, which includes meditations from Saskia Sassen, Derrick de Kerckhove, André Lemos, Howard Rheingold and many others.

Zeitraum press 01

There are two maps that have stuck with me ever since I came across them; one represents our physical and the other our intellectual desire to explore. I ponder them both as I sit in Mexico City’s bustling airport, watching streams of people float by with hand luggage, duty free miscellany, and multiple cell phones.

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Where is the most remote location on Earth? Toward the beginning of 2009 a group of researchers at the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre set out to find the answer to what seems like a simple question, one guaranteed to excite the explorer’s imagination. They built a computer model to calculate the journey to the nearest city with a population greater than 50,000 using only land and waterways. Then they fed the model with data from maps of road, rail and river networks, taking into account other variables such as border crossings, land cover, traffic, and altitude.

They found that less than 10% of the world’s land is more than 48 hours of ground-based travel from the nearest city. That is, just about anywhere in the world that you could find yourself is less than a two-day journey away from the nearest city of at least 50,000 habitants. More than half of the world’s population lives less than one hour from a major city.

I found the results of the study to be as intriguing as they were disappointing. On the one hand, all I have to do is take a taxi to the airport and within a few days I could arrive to just about any other point on earth. On the other hand, I never do so. I find myself constantly traveling to the same cities over and over again, a creature of aerial regimen. Furthermore, the exotic mystique of physical isolation — an escape from the connectedness that so defines our time — is rapidly passing into oblivion.

Global en points

The second map was created (also in 2009) by Oxford Internet Institute Research Fellow Mark Graham. As Wikipedia was fast becoming the online authority of knowledge, Graham wanted to know how well it represented the geography of open knowledge. He placed all geotagged Wikipedia articles (that is, Wikipedia articles that specifically describe a location or an event that took place at one) on a map of the world and found “vast deserts of knowledge.” At the time of Graham’s map, in fact, there were more Wikipedia articles written about Antarctica than all but one of the 53 countries in Africa.

Unlike all encyclopedias that preceded it, Wikipedia is not bound by physical space. In theory, it makes sense for a country like Tonga (population 103,036) to have more geotagged Wikipedia articles than Bermuda (population 64,237) or Monaco (population 35,881), but, in fact, at the time of Graham’s article there were only 10 geotagged articles about the South Pacific island.

When we compare these two maps, what do we learn? A geography of isolation still exists. It will take you several days to reach Tristan da Cunha in the South Atlantic Ocean (population 270) or Motuo on the southern slope of the Himalayas. However, with each passing year new roads are paved, new airports are inaugurated, and new cell phone towers are erected. When the scientists at the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre repeat their study in several years, the world will be even more physically connected; it will take less time to reach more cities.

Meanwhile, websites like Wikipedia enable researchers to more easily reveal our geography of ignorance and provincialism. It is possible that in some hypothetical future Wikipedia has more information about Tonga than Monaco, but it’s highly improbable.

The stereotypical explorer of the 20th century — dressed in khakis and a photographer’s vest — will become frustrated by our increasing physical connectedness. But the 21st century has given rise to a new kind of expedition; the exploration of the world’s unmapped intellectual geography. This explorer of the mind makes use of a new toolbox, unimagined by earlier generations: Google Street View to saunter slowly down the streets of Moscow or Manzanillo; Twitter to drop in on the coffee shop chatter of Sao Paulo and Tunis; Foursquare to see what locals have to say about their favorite locales in Maputo and Mexico City; and Wikipedia to both learn about and contribute to our understanding of Brazzaville and Vaduz.

Though many of us use these tools on a daily basis, few of us use them to transcend our daily routine.

Airports are the ideal atmosphere to reflect on where we place our attention and ourselves. Once we submit to the theater of airport security, there is no turning back. We are stuck in a limbo of time and space; having committed to our next destination, but with little control over when we will arrive or what will happen between now and then. Rather than reflect on where we are and where we are not, where we are going and where we will never see, we tend to throw ourselves into our email and social networks, increasingly connected and increasingly reluctant to connect with what’s around us.

In 2011 researchers at the University of Toronto analyzed more than 480,000 tweets and found that the vast majority of interactions on Twitter take place between individuals living in the same city. Those interactions that aren’t local are strongly based on how often planes fly between two places. The researchers found that the best way to predict long-distance Twitter interactions is to look at air traffic between cities.

The Internet, like the airplane, makes the world more connected and more captivating. But it is up to us as individuals to snap out of our physical and intellectual routines; to become 21st century explorers.

1 Comment

  1. I like your thinking amigo. As always, you get me thinking, as you tend to look at things so much differently than anyone else I interact with.

    Are you sure the mystique of physical isolation is passing into oblivion? :) I would say the mystique might even be stronger than ever, at least for people here in the US. The reality? Well shoot, I think it’s still there… I mean as long as you don’t need to be 30 days by mule away from civilization. For me, 2 days by car is ‘good enough’… (and time to start getting nervous in the service about finding a connection)

    Cheers!

    Reply

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