Chapter 3 is a bridge set up between the exploration of neuroplasticity (Chapter 2) and the evolution of the written word (Chapter 4). Carr has set up a variety of “tools” that we use in everyday life that we rely on in an unconscious way – our mental maps, our sense of time and punctuality, and what/how we remember. Carr looks at three historic tools in this chapter; the evolution of maps and how they shape our abstract assumptions of the world into an internal understanding of space and placement; clocks and how our sense of time (and timing) went from a publicly organized indicator to a personal one; and how ‘poetry’ from the Ancient Greeks segued into the written word, altering the emphasis from an oral tradition to a written one.
As we go through this chapter, Carr seems to utilize many Eurocentric assumptions regarding the progress of civilization. There is a huge swathe of humanity that does not feature in his historical analysis, which should be kept in mind. We are brought along a specific path that supports the ideals and lived experiences of his largely North American non-academic audience, which given the real thesis of the book, (that we are able to condition our minds and bodies into certain ways of behaving and remembering, and that the Internet is forming much of that behaviour, unbeknownst to our conscious selves) Carr needs to keep his audience with him until he can explore his thesis in totality. Having said that, let’s look at the tools Carr outlines and how they support his argument.
When discussing maps, Carr states that “the map is a medium that not only stores and transmits information but also embodies a particular mode of seeing and thinking.”(pg.41) Here we see a map from the heady days of global exploration, where the oceans seem manageable and full of vessels (and monsters). Although the lands are not accurate, the map has an overall sense of adventure. Later, a new, more accurate map is created by Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator in 1569.
This map allowed for ease of navigation across oceans, but due the fact that the map is flat, but the Earth is round, this map is heavily distorted as it reaches the northern and southern hemispheres making European and North American land masses and the Antarctic absurdly big. Given that this map dominated for over 400 years during which colonization spread across the globe, how does this distortion affect our understanding of countries that seem small? As Carr states, “The more frequently and intensively people use maps, the more their minds came to understand reality in the map’s terms” (pg. 41)
Arno Peters, a German historian, addressed this concern in his 1973 map, the Peters Projection map. Coming out 6 months after the Apollo 17 released their photos of Earth from space, Peters claimed “that his new world map offered the best alternative to the 400-year-old hegemony of Mercator’s 1569 projection, and the supposedly ‘Eurocentric’ assumptions that lay behind it” (pg. 379, Brotton, J. A History of the World in Twelve Maps).
The Peters’ Projection map was adopted by many groups almost immediately, including the UN through UNICEF and UNESCO, Oxfam, Action Aid, and the British Council of Churches with the slogan “New Dimensions, Fair Conditions”, distributing over 60 million maps worldwide (Brotton, 380). But did it go far enough? The video above asks a question about how people would react if the map was shown with the North on the bottom, something that artists like Joaquin Torres Garcia explores in his challenge to view the world with the South at the “top”.
But really, who uses maps anyway? How many of us still have paper maps that we rely on to navigate? Hardly any of us. And why should we when Google Maps has over 10 petabytes of geographical data at our fingertips? (as of 2012, Brotton, pg 406) A petabyte represents 1 million gigabytes! Although there are criticisms about Google maps having a Western bias, and (before 2012) censoring, then (after 2012) not censoring militarily-sensitive sites throughout the world, who is not in awe of the fact that I can type in my Skipton home address and get this:
And we can also look at the moon:
We may need to remind ourselves of the notion that the mapmaker is seeding his/her/its own perspective of the world within and we need to scrutinize our assumptions even as we enjoy the wealth of fast, free knowledge on our phones, computers and tablets.
Maps are also being used in other ways, pushing into the idea that our minds come to understand reality in the maps’ terms. Check out Worldmapper.org to see how they utilize global economic, social and population information to shape maps into representational illustrations of the inequalities of the world:
One more thing, while thinking about how cool it is that we can access 10 petabytes of geographical information via the internet, you might want to check out this animation that shows where internet access is dominant (okay, the data is almost 10 years old, but it shows how not everyone in the world has access to Google Maps. )
The second intellectual technology Carr discusses is clocks.
Humans have had a concept of time way before clocks but this relied almost entirely on the sun either through simple observation of its place in the sky or through sundials. Although they’re mostly used ornamentally, sundials are abundant in our society today and actually surprisingly easy to read – the shadow simply acts as a hour hand on a clock.
Mechanical clocks developed in the 1300s and began the shift in the way people saw time. However these clocks were often public (owned by churches) or owned by only the incredibly wealthy. It’s when these clocks become smaller and more portable that they start changing our everyday lives – this act of measuring time swept us into the enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and new worlds and transportation. This video, sums up that profound impact pretty well.
What this video also notices is how these segments of time now control us. How many things do we do when we actually just want to do them instead of the time to eat, the time to be at work, the time until a shop closes, the time something is due, the time when you can get seven hours of sleep?
Now the mechanical clock that set this ball rolling is no longer accurate enough for our obsession with time, being on it and saving it, as it does actually fall farther behind over the years and it’s user falls behind. Other technologies are pushing the clock to its most accurate so that we can make more exact measurements and calculations.
Our love affair with time is still advancing and with every check of our phones, watches, and microwaves we’re proving that we’re still entirely wrapped up in it.
In this section, Carr discusses the slow, yet inevitable shift from oral to written traditions for Western Civilization. He tells how difficult Hieroglyphics were to learn, having various components, including “logosyllabic systems expanded to include many hundreds of characters…” which was mentally taxing and utilized both hemispheres of the brain (pg.53). Let’s see how hard it really was:
Carr then moves through history to the Ancient Greeks, outlining the arguments both for and against the written language as a usurper of the oral tradition of memorizing long passages of information and relaying them in the form of poetry. As history reveals, and Chapter 4 will expand on, the shift to writing was unstoppable. With it our cultures have been able to retain vast amounts of data that can live on beyond the individuals who wrote them. The price for this has been our personal ability to remember large amounts of information and a cultural skepticism regarding oral traditions in other cultures. A 2014 interview on Day 6 CBC with Dave Woodman, author of Unravelling the Franklin Mystery: Inuit Testimony, explores reasons why the oral legends passed through the Inuit generations were both right and befuddled through translation, cultural context and historical biases. Well worth the listen.
Brotton, Jerry. A History of the World in Twelve Maps, 2012, USA.