With globalization, virtualization, and all those things supposed to have been making the world a flat global village in which places don’t matter because it’s all the same everywhere, we’ve been seeing the return of geography, with a vengeance. We supposedly know everything about every place, can go everywhere virtually – and aren’t really there anymore.

Map services are big announcements (like the changes to Google Maps announced in the Google I/O conference 2013) or big disappointments (Apple’s new maps that were meant to replace Google Maps).
GPS devices have become common enough that geographical coordinates have been finding their ways on many a business card or website.
Traveling and moving for work have both become rather more commonplace than they used to be ever before – but people have also been re-discovering local roots.

Old Globe, Vatican MuseumRegional differences, localness, and various kinds of tribalism (though the latter, typically related to topics rather than blood relations, and thus rather more virtual than place-bound) have more strongly emerged into consciousness, as selling points to the ‘other’ and as salient barriers that separate.

With all the importance of places and in all the fascination with the novel ways of discovering them, a separation often gets overlooked, however.

Where maps and globes had, by and by, given us a better understanding of what the world looked like (even as some of the usual projections of the spheric world onto the flat maps have been misleading us), the latest technologies increasingly virtualize reality and infantilize the traveler – and we hardly ever even notice.

It is true that map services and their connection with “street view” and views from street photography, let alone webcams for the public, allow some perception of far-away places, and that more or less instantly.

Seeing some impressions of a place is not the same as being there, however; the mediated pictures often enough follow their own logic and agenda.

Even when we are in a place, in person, however, we are all too often not quite there – and the less so, the more modern technology is used. The allure of augmented reality is still (supposed to be) strong, with mapping and information services arguably contributing to our knowledge and understanding, giving us instant information about the things we’re seeing.

We’re not even seeing the people we’re around when we focus our attention on the little screens around us, instead, though:

With all that, we’re more likely to end up like the children who are carted around everywhere by car and never get a chance to develop a coherent mental map of these places they ostensibly live in (and are less happy with their environments than they could be, because of that).

Rather, what should be a mental map is just a disjointed jumble lacking in connections other than that some time in a car (let alone, airplane) lies between them.

For somewhat unfamiliar places, their parents – we – are now likely to look towards mapping services, too, thanks to GPS navigation devices, whether dedicated or, by now, in the form of smartphone apps. Our engagement with the place is limited, by the very technology that purports to help us find our way – to be? – in a place.

Sure, we still need to watch where we’re going – but even that is put in question by how often drivers end up in situations in which they didn’t really want to be when the navigational system tells them to go a certain way, based on wrong or simply outdated information…

It would be too easy to just say that we should do without that tech, though – and it wouldn’t really be a solution. Sometimes, you just find yourself in a place you haven’t been before, and in need of guidance. Sometimes, it is a tremendously interesting and helpful activity to just play around with all the geographical data available for a place where you will be going. Or just to play around with it, looking at the antipodes or going for a round of geoguessr.

It makes a difference, however, whether we approach the places we live and the places we go actively and awarely, with attention to where we are and how the lay of the land is, on the maps and in StreetView, etc., as well as in the reality of our being there – or if we aren’t really there but just pass through, guided by GPS, floating over a landscape like a virtual ghost that doesn’t care and doesn’t notice what’s really going on around it.

Let’s open our eyes and see, measure the world in steps, and get at home in the places of our lives.