E.M. Forster's “The Machine Stops,” written in 1909, eerily predicts our own increasingly technocratic, atomized world.
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, Kuno, recognizes, people everywhere are chronically impatient, alienated from themselves and each other, and isolated from the world.
“We say ‘space is annihilated,’” Kuno 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.
A map would come in handy.
The oldest maps in the world are Aboriginal Australians’ stories, told in song.
Their subjects—soil and water, plant life and animal migrations, seasons and starlight, the living geological and astronomical forms of Australia—became 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. And by singing songs in the right sequence, people could navigate vast distances through Australia’s deserts. Each song links to other songs, describing whole landscapes and the routes through them in networked stories 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. Critically, especially to non-Aboriginal Australians, songlines and song cycles are not myth. They’re orally transmitted geographical maps. They’re living, breathing stories that 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.
Country, the sum total of a person’s community, culture, and environment, literally doesn’t exist until sung into being. Without the song and without the singer, conceptual and physically coherent worlds cannot form.
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. In his 1999 essay “The Agency of Mapping,” he writes that "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.
This is because storytelling and place-making are related. Stories help us locate ourselves—in our lives, in relationships, in physical space, in concepts—exactly like maps.
How does knowing this serve our day-to-day lives? Consider songlines as praxis: If stories reshape the worlds we live in, if mapping is never neutral, the best we can do is build better maps.
Now consider how.
By mentally writing stories onto the physical world.
Memories have a strong spatial component. Think of your strongest childhood memories: your first bloodied knee, bee-sting, birthday party, broken heart. Many are as strongly linked to place as to people and events.
Ancient Roman and Greek orators used a practice called method of loci to memorize speeches. A sort of 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, and its practitioners can do crazy things like memorize pi to 65,536 digits or 1040 random digits in 30 minutes.
(By the way, the purported inventor of 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.)
By digitally writing stories onto the physical world.
Take, for example, ArcGIS (geographic information system), which blends data analysis with geographic mapping. People use it to write data-driven narratives onto a geographic representations, giving life to raw numbers. ArcGIS is used in architectural and spatial design applications, obviously, but also in government, education, banking, marketing, intelligence, mining, telecommunications, conservation, defense, epidemiology—you name it—to ground abstract data in specific, physical environments. Data patterns become possible causes of colony collapse disorder or arsenic poisoning. Numbers become grounded.
Kate Orff, founder of SCAPE Studio, 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 and redolent of songlines, 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, complex, and truly beautiful.
By reinterpreting the physical world through stories.
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.
Later, Miyamoto’s fans made pilgrimages to some of the larger limestone caves near Sonobe, installing electric lights and permanent stairways and opening the caves to tourists. The same geological structures that inspired Miyamoto’s digital stories now preserve these same stories in cement and earth.
But creativity isn’t enough to build better maps, and while geology archives our desires, physical places can warn as well as invite. 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.
And this stone is one of hundreds dotting Japan’s northeastern coast. “Do not build your homes below this point,” it says. Such so-called “tsunami stones” record previous tsunami events and delimit safely habitable zones along the shore.
They work because people hundreds of years ago wrote stories in stone for their descendants. For us.
Finally, by writing more resilient maps and stories.
We need 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. We tread water in unimaginably vast oceans of raw data: in 2017, we produced 2.5 quintillion bytes per day. At the same time, humans are physically and ecologically changing the world, and paths to stopping these changes have long since disappeared. The old songs are silent.
To navigate the imminent ecological pressures our species now faces, we need resilient responses to the known and unknown world. It's past time to design systems—stories—that thrive on environmental stressors. We need more resilient stories that start not with “once upon a time,'“ not with conceptual, annihilated, or homogenized space, but within rational and grounded data, clarity of vision, and an understanding of both the existential damage and stewardship we’re capable of. We need resilient stories—our maps through this new terra, and tempus, incognito.