Photo by Colin via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Iain Sinclair, in the London Review of Books, mourns his constantly-transforming city. There was never just one London, but for Sinclair, London as he understood it is crumbling, and his essay is a loving, fascinating, melancholy, rollicking look at how technology and globalization are transforming urban spaces.
Drifting in a lazy, autopilot trajectory, my own cloud of unknowing, down Bethnal Green Road towards the pop-up shopping hub by the London Overground station at Shoreditch, I register a notice in a window that says: ‘No coffee stored overnight.’ Once upon a time, white vans (for white men) were nervous about their tools and ladders, but now the value is in coffee, barista coffee, gold dust: the marching powder of the shared-desk classes who are hitting it hard in recovered container stacks and bare-brick coffee shops glowing with an occult circle of pale screens and fearful concentration. Why do these digital initiates always look as if the screens hold bad news, as if the power is on the point of shutting down permanently, leaving them disconnected in outer darkness?
That coffee sign was a border marker, preparing me for a series of designated smoking areas, puddles of stubbed-out cigarettes, and a chain of opportunist businesses promoted by oxymorons: FREE CASH, IMPERIAL EQUITY, CITY SHEEPSKINS, RESPONSIBLE GAMBLING, TAPASREVOLUTION, PROPER HAMBURGER. And of course Sainsbury’s Local. When, in truth, there is no local left. Those signs confirm the dissolution of locality. The last London, Smart City, is nervous about unreformed localism, nuisance quarters with medieval borders clinging to outmoded privileges, like schools, pubs, markets or hospitals hungry for funds and resistant to improving the image of construction.
In Real Life Mag, information accessibility and data use expert Zara Rahman explores the limits and coercive power of a ubiquitous internet interface: the location drop-down menu. Aside from forcing people to make artificial choices, location drop-downs also assume a stable location, something that many people don’t have, and never did.
Digital technologies seem to have ignored how people actually move around in geographic space: It’s relatively new that some of us have fixed locations or even addresses at all, and in some regions, nomadic cultures still exist. In Somalia, over a quarter of the population is nomadic; in Mongolia, just under a third are still nomadic, moving from place to place with their herds. Seasonal migration from rural areas to urban ones is a way of life for many, or from poorer countries to richer ones, as Bangladeshi migrant workers who find work in countries in the Gulf do. For millions, location is and always has been fluid and complex, dependent upon a myriad of factors, from climate to the economy to geopolitics.
At the Winnipeg Free Press, Bill Redekop profiles Des Kappel, the toponymist in charge of naming the 90,000 remaining land features and lakes in the Canadian province of Manitoba. Currently tasked with matching land features to casualties of the First World War, Kappel’s work is often an emotional tour through history as he collects letters and photos of the fallen for inclusion in his database.
The commemorative project was about more than just naming. The province also asked for photographs, biographical information and any other documentation from families who suffered war casualties. These are included in a database. Kappel communicated with many of the families during the process.
“For some people, (the commemorative naming) is closure because the person died overseas, or right in the sea, and are buried overseas, if formally buried at all. We have families go up to the commemorative lakes and build cairns or put down plaques.” And some family members request that their ashes be spread on the lake that bears the name of their loved one.
The compilation of people’s stories brings home the insanity of war. It includes names, photos, biographies, the geographical features commemorated in their name, and very personal information, such as their letters home.
Take the example of Pte. Ralph Aandal of St. Vital. “I had a nice trip out here. We rode on the train for quite a ways. Then we got off and rode on camel for miles and miles.” He was joking. He had arrived in the Carberry desert to train at the nearby Shilo military base.
His last letter was postmarked the day he died: “We are still on the German border,” he wrote. “I haven’t been sick at all out here. It’s funny we all haven’t gone to the hospital. We are laying in water day and night… Love Ralph (14 December, 1944).”
That’s just the first name in the commemorative edition. Aandel Lake, northeast of Reindeer Lake in northern Manitoba, is named after him.
“I like maps,” Gayton says. “But really what I care about is equitable distribution of health care. As long as 1 billion people don’t have it, sooner or later it’ll come bite people in rich countries.” He scoffs at the idea that there are no blank spaces left on Earth. “Anyone who says the world is mapped, ask them to show you where the population of Congo are living. Ask them where the villages are. If they can do it, please let me know.”
To Gayton, it’s not an idle distinction. “When you have a place like South Sudan, where millions of people live and die without ever figuring in a database anywhere, their names will never be written down. There’s not a lot of dignity in that—to not be on the map is quite a powerful statement of uncaring.” That’s what Missing Maps is about. “We still don’t know who they are, but at least we know where their house is. At least the map actually contains them, rather than a blank wash of green,” Gayton says. “I tell people at mapathons sometimes, ‘That house you’re tracing right now, that hut—that’s the first time in the history of humanity someone cared enough about them to take note.’” Things don’t exist because we name them, but giving them a name engenders new meaning. At its most basic, to exist on a map is to have value.
A study by neurologists at University College London found that the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for spatial navigation, of a London cabby is significantly larger than those in the rest of the human population—a result of the intense memorization and route-finding undertaken while doing The Knowledge.
The study involved taking regular brain scans of Knowledge-seekers undergoing their training and comparing them with scans taken of a control group of people who had no interest in becoming cabdrivers.
At first, the hippocampi of all the study subjects were of similar size, and all subjects performed similarly on routine memory and route-finding tests. By the end of the study, though, those who’d passed The Knowledge had larger hippocampi, and the longer they worked as cabbies, the larger their hippocampi became.
“We don’t know what is changing in the hippocampi of taxi drivers,” says Eleanor Maguire, who led the study. “Whether it’s new neurons that are being produced, new connections between neurons, proliferation of other cell types, or all three.
Matthew McNaught | Syria Comment | June 2013 | 18 minutes (4,615 words)
Matthew McNaught taught English in Syria between 2007 and 2009. He now works in mental health and sometimes writes essays and stories. This piece first appeared in Syria Comment, and our thanks to McNaught for allowing us to republish it here. Read more…