I read E.M. Forster's “The Machine Stops” in high school.
Written in 1909, the story opens underground, in “a small room, hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee.” The sole occupant, Vashti, can get anything she needs, or speak to anybody she wants, by pressing a button.
“The room," writes Forster, "though it contained nothing, was in touch with all that she cared for in the world.”
Vashti never has to move. All other rooms—all the meaningful places on Earth, as far as most people are concerned—are identical. But as her rebellious son, Vashti, recognizes, the people in this world are chronically impatient, alienated from themselves and each other, and isolated from the world.
“We say ‘space is annihilated,’” he says, “but we have annihilated not space, but the sense thereof. We have lost a part of ourselves.”
“The Machine Stops” describes a culture that’s lost its sense of narrative, connection, and curiosity.
Storytelling can feed this hunger; by contextualizing, generating empathy, identifying patterns and all that, storytelling fulfills our needs for binding narratives. Stories can also describe safe pathways through hostile or unknown places. They have for hundreds of thousands of years. They still can.
The same dramas that propel stories—hunger, curiosity, conflict—are the same forces that compel people to explore and migrate to unknown worlds.
For most of human history, the world beyond your home was terra incognita. If you walked long enough in one direction without a map, there’s a good chance you weren’t going to make it home. In essence, what existed beyond your direct experience was unimaginable. But if you’re curious, hungry, or fighting for resources, you’d better start imagining, because your life and your culture depended on it.
The oldest maps in the world are Aboriginal Australians’ stories.
The geological and astronomical forms of Australia are these songs' characters, plots and settings.
Historically, when Aboriginal Australians migrated to a new place, the first thing a clan would do was name everything in it: water holes, landmarks, food sources, hunting grounds, places of shelter, sources of ochre for painting.
Names became relationships.
Relationships became songs.
By singing songs in the right sequence, people could navigate vast distances through Australia’s deserts.
Each song links with other songs to describe whole landscapes and the routes through them.
These networked stories are called Songlines.
Single Songlines can run for hundreds of miles, forming massive Song Cycles that crisscross Australia and transmit spiritual, ecological, economic and cultural knowledge.
They’re not myth. They’re orally transmitted geographical maps.
These living, breathing stories dynamically connect landscape, human relationships and everyday life in a way that most contemporary Western stories don’t.
When the British colonized Australia, they overlaid their own grid map over the land, ignoring the Songlines, renaming sites in English, and replacing existing stories with new ones.
This is a map of the Canning Stock Route, a 1,150-mile path used to drive cattle through western Australia. Built in the early 20th century, it cut through the ancestral Country of 15 distinct Aboriginal language groups and divided Songlines that have existed for tens of thousands of years.
The Canning Stock Route story illustrates two points:
1. Songlines both describe and bring Country to life.
That’s literal. Country doesn’t exist until you sing it into being.
2. Mapping isn't neutral.
James Corner is a renowned landscape architect who helped transformed the way spatial designers use maps. His work, among many other things, equates mapping with storytelling.
He wrote: "The function of mapping is less to mirror reality than to engender the reshaping of the worlds in which people live."
Replace "mapping" with "stories," and you might as well be describing fiction.
Storytelling and place-making are related.
Stories help us locate ourselves—in our lives, in relationships, in physical space, in concepts—exactly like maps.
If stories reshape the worlds we live in, and if mapping is never neutral, probably the best we can do is build better maps.
Memories have a strong spatial component.
Think of your strongest childhood memories. Many are probably as much about the place as people and events.
Ancient Roman and Greek orators used the method of loci to memorize speeches.
This is kind of a distilled, individualized version of Songlines. By mentally linking data to specific physical (or conceptual) locations, method of loci helps you organize and recall information. It’s also called memory palace, based on the method of building a mental structure whose architecture links to data.
Practitioners can do crazy things like memorize pi to 65,536 digits or memorize 1040 random digits in 30 minutes.
By the way, the guy who purportedly invented MOL—a Greek poet named Simonides—shared it with the world when a house collapsed on a huge dinner party, after he stepped outside for some fresh air. He used memory of loci to identify the mangled bodies.
Except, you know, computers.
People are now writing data-driven narratives onto a geographic representations, giving life to raw numbers.
ArcGIS (geographic information system) blends data analysis with geographic mapping.
It’s used in architectural and spatial design applications, obviously, but also in government, education, banking, marketing, intelligence, mining, telecommunications, conservation, defense, epidemiology, you name it.
ArcGIS is rad because of what happens when you ground abstract data in specific, physical environments.
Data patterns become possible causes of colony collapse disorder or arsenic poisoning. Numbers become grounded.
My other spatial-design hero is Kate Orff, founder of SCAPE Studio.
She used ArcGIS to write Petrochemical America.
In it, Orff and photographer Richard Misrach describe Cancer Alley, an area of intense petrochemical production along 150 miles of the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge to New Orleans.
Petrochemical America displays a new visual language, developed by Orff, called Throughlines.
These overlay nonlinear data and linear narratives, often cultural, environmental, and economic, onto depictive images, often drawings or photographs.
Throughlines are functional images whose messages are focused, specific, and complex, but also really beautiful.
The Legend of Zelda game designer, Shigeru Miyamoto, grew up outside of Kyoto, playing in the wooded mountains surrounding his home.
One day, he discovered a hole, which led to a bigger hole, which led to a cavern. He spent the whole summer exploring the cave.
Miyamoto says he spent most of his adult career trying to recreate that original sense of discovery.
Miyamoto’s fans made pilgrimages to some of the larger limestone caves near Sonobe.
They’ve installed electric lights and permanent stairways and are open to tourists.
What’s so poetic about this: They’re using the same geological structures that inspired Miyamoto’s stories to preserve these same stories.
I love these examples of stories-as-maps. They’re creative and generative responses to the unknown.
But creativity isn’t enough to build better maps.
Almost everything we rely on to work and live and entertain ourselves—our stories—are built on the thinnest architectures.
This is Pripyat, in northern Ukraine, a ghost town since the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
But geology is archival.
This stone is one of hundreds dotting Japan’s northeastern coast. “Do not build your homes below this point,” it says.
These so-called “tsunami stones” record previous tsunami stories and delimit safely habitable zones along the shore.
They work because people hundreds of years ago thought of their descendants.
We need maps and stories that are not only more creative and longer-lasting, but more resilient.
For nearly 2.5 million years, we lived without maps. Today, we’re finally able to observe the world as it is. We have maps. Yet at the same time, we’re physically and ecologically changing the world.
We need resilient responses to the known and unknown world. It's past time to design systems that thrive on environmental stressors.