A particular book I enjoyed recently is The Spell of the Sensuous by philosopher David Abrams. As an ethnographer, philosopher of phenomenology, academic and writer, Abrams took off during the 1990s to pursue oral cultures and the shaman-mediated relations that those peoples have with nature.
The author lays out a poetic genealogy of how humans have come from an oral culture to a textual culture. From his direct observations and interactions, we find that oral cultures have a deep sense of place. For instance, he recounts Aboriginal oral practices, introducing many concepts, one of which is a topology of time.
For these people, different places on the earth have particular sets of memories intertwined with the events that have happened in their distant past and may be predictive of what could occur again in the future. For example, a cultural tale that indicates a mountain is where a giant lizard is asleep, covered in dirt. This fantastic imagery is indicative of the space. And when retelling about the “giant lizard’s mountain” everyone in a vast community would have a shared understanding of the space.
As well, there would be a dialectic involved with the retelling and performance of these stories. Whether it is the birthplace of famous community members, epic battles, or other significant events — if they occurred on the giant lizard mountain, then the place would gain a sense of character, that is dynamic with the way the community interprets the events and peoples who interact with that space.
So how is this a topology of time?
First, forget everything you understand to be true about the linear nature of time. Forget that time is an account of causes and effects. Forget that time is a flow. Forget that time is something constantly becoming. Not so easy, is it?
Now imagine that you move on foot. You have a strong sense of your ancestors and the events that they engaged in their lifetimes. Imagine you know exactly where every major event occurred. Each time you revisit that space you are struck by the deep sense of everything that happened there. Like a haunted house or a Greek monument, you have a sense of awe at the power of what these places meant, what they currently feel to you, and how you believe they relate to what could become.
It isn’t all that hard if we think in terms of our own lives. Think of how you feel when you stumble across a place you had a romantic encounter with a lover from your past. You may have even forgotten about that person or the moment, however it is something about once again happening upon that place that sparks the moment. It brings the feelings, the jealousy, embarrassment, ecstasy, hope, and everything else that comes with intense, short-lived experiences. And the place suddenly has an aura that radiates. You may even find yourself with a smile across your face — or a brief heartache. This place has a memory that you are engaging with, and it exists in time, though it is not the present. No, it is the past that has been made present to you, in this moment. Time has a topology.
And yet, Abrams goes forward.
We are no longer this oral culture, relating stories of places, being consistently reminded of the rich, deep experiences of the cultures surrounding us from the past, and the way we feel the space around us will be enacted upon in the future. We are no longer a people of omens. But why?
“Once the stories are written down, however, the visible text becomes the primary mnemonic activator of the spoken stories — the inked traces left by the pen as it traverses the page replacing the earthly traces left by the animals, and by one’s ancestors, in their interaction with the local land.” (p. 183, author’s original italics).
Once the concept of place has been removed from those who have experienced it, or recount it, or from the residual memory of the land itself, then the power of imagination is located within our own minds. The earth is removed from the scenario. It is no longer that we interacted, strove for power, begged for mercy, suffered, or celebrated in the midst of nature. Rather, we create stories of humans doing things through a story arch, written down. When we read we conceptualize a beginning, end, some details we can gleam from the text, but the vast majority of the stories are filled in by our own imagination. And our imagination is supplied by the experiences we have in our own revisionist memories.
Why might this be problematic?
If we are abstracted and removed from our sense of things occurring in a real place, then,
“…place is forgotten, superseded by a new, abstract notion of “space” as a homogeneous and placeless void.”(p. 184)
We can easily imagine how science and other abstracted ways of meaning-making thrive under these conditions. We desire a clean, universal way to categorize, predict, judge, and conceptualize how the universe works. And it has lead us to amazing accomplishments. It has also removed us from our sense of belonging in the world.
Abrams makes explicit that the act of reading and writing,
“…as a highly concentrated form of participation, displaces the older participation between the human senses and the earthly terrain (effectively freeing the human intention from the direct dictates of the land).”
As well as,
“…writing down the ancestral stories disengages them from particular places.”(p. 185)
As the author suggests, the abstraction of space, then, is more relatable than the idea of a specific place. The recalling of mundane things are not as powerful as projecting and ideating upon what could be. Time is no longer something that is connected to the cycle of breathing and the different scents of the seasons; it is something that can be calculated, made more efficient, and conquered.
Now I do not mean to suggest this is a bad thing.
No. I mean to illustrate a particular aspect of the reality we live in. We desire efficiency, we displace memories for safekeeping within the magic of written text. We design by means of controlling time and our ability to abstract and project possible solutions and problem-spacing.
But where are we going? And should we proceed with caution? What can the remaining oral cultures teach us about relating to the very physicality of the earth and to one another? What might it mean to rethink what it means to be human, instead of constantly attempting to push the boundaries of our own corporeal existence. Instead of going straight through catastrophes, how can we learn to feel the places around us, respect them, and change our behavior to honor them?
Perhaps, as interaction designers, we can start through an implicit cognitive behavioral approach. We flood the world with new and inventive User Interfaces. Sure, there is ubiquitous computing, but now there is ubiquitous screening. We see the world through blogs, Twitter feeds, Facebook posts, and the jealousy-imbuing travel photos of Instagram. And we are competing. We are making more.
We do so to make use of ourselves, and to prove to ourselves how we can create and push our abilities, even influence others on a massive scale.
We can think of it this way: Designing UIs is the act of writing visual books that carry the physical weight of a smartphone, and encapsulate the libraries of the world.
And how might these screens, which we have externalized, become implicitly internalized? It is not too far to imagine that the UX/UI style of presenting a floating, flat screen, with a feathered drop-shadow is a mistake that we just happened upon. I do not think it is too far to hypothesize that as a people who view screens for hours upon a day, we would be inspired to create things we align with or have interalized.
So what is there to consider? Have we become a screen-thinking people?
If we want to go somewhere we no longer think of the stories of our parents and grandparents, and wander the trails or roadways which would bring us there, recounting along the way the places that hold meaning interspersing our thoughts. No. We look up good maps. Where the the least traffic? What has the fastest route? What music should I listen to? We are adept at finding ways to remove us from the immediate place that surrounds us, and escaping to a space of distraction, contemplation, or somewhere in between.
Can we be brave enough to re-imagine the way it is good to be human, entrenched in a place. Can we learn to cultivate stories and share our feelings and re-establish relationships with the world in our immediate presence?
Or will we picture our world as a blank canvas, ready to be painted and decorated with screens? White, with black text, inviting us to remove our selves in the moment, lost in thought.
In a computer-mediated world, how might we be reminded to design such that humans mediate a relationship once again to the earth and to our own subject, and to one another?
We must recognize the current lens we have created for ourselves in order to see through our placeless spaces.