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By Nathan Bierma


Content & Context

The Books & Culture Weblog

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THE WEB AND THE EXAGGERATED DEMISE OF GEOGRAPHY

The Internet is, in theory, non-geographical. It defies the concept of location. To mail a letter, you need to indicate a certain address for yourself and your recipient. But you can send an e-mail—or surf the Web—anywhere you can plug in a computer.

Some have hailed our newfound ability to dissolve our terrestrial bonds, using what Quentin Schultze calls "cyber-rhetoric about conquering space." In his bookHabits of the High-Tech Heart, Schultze quotes futurist Thornton May as saying, "Geography is dead. … By the year 2008, technology will have trivialized the concept of place."

When I registered recently at the site www.geourl.org, I was struck by how wrongheaded May's pronouncement seems to be. Web sites such as this one celebrate, illuminate, and revere geography in a way that was not done before the Internet. Never before have people had such access to such resources to measure and explore the dimensions of physical space. Besides, the awe of our ability to connect digitally requires something meaningful to connect in the first place. If, as May foresees, we evolve into a singular, generic cosmopolitan world, it won't really matter whether we talk to someone down the block or across the globe—everyone will think and act essentially the same. Until then, the allure of sending an e-mail to Paris or dialing up a map of the Amazon River makes global communication enticing.

GeoURL tries to literally map the Web. Visitors register their personal or commercial Web sites according to their latitude and longitude on the globe. For example, I registered my personal weblog from downtown Chicago at 41.9 degrees latitude and -87.6 degrees longitude. These coordinates now appear in the code of my weblog. Now that I've registered, I can view the GeoURL listings closest to my coordinates, or search other cities.

While this is potentially fascinating, the database is very cursory at this point, limiting its appeal. The first few URL neighbors of mine that turn up include an Asian restaurant a few blocks away, a hair stylist, a Web design company, and a dour personal weblog that hasn't been updated in over a year. The listings are merely randomly useful, not to mention randomly proportional; inexplicably, Los Angeles has the same number of listings as my hometown of Grand Rapids, Mich.

Still, finding my latitude and longitude is a rewarding exercise I hadn't tried since elementary school, and GeoURL helps out by linking to several resources that pin down your location. The most reliable is the Acme Mapper, which returns coordinates, a satellite photo and a topographical chart when you enter a zip code. For example, here's a bird's-eye view of my apartment building, and here's Christianity Today's headquarters in the suburbs. Here's Manhattan, the Hoover Dam, and other prominent locations (warning: this is a lunch break killer).

A related online phenomenon is the clustering of personal weblogs around physical regions. NYCbloggers.com and Chicagobloggers.com organize blogs according to subway maps, and similar sites cluster bloggers in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C.Dallas/Fort Worth, and other cities. Rather than blurring the concept of place, in many ways the Web is enhancing it.

Earlier:
-God, Google and geography
        -Towards a new world Atlas
Related:
-Putting Science in Its Place: Geographies of Scientific Knowledge by David  Livingstone (review forthcoming in the May/June issue of B&C)
-"Nurturing Virtue in Community," Chapter 7 of Habits of the High-Tech Heart
-Being Rural by Nicholas Negroponte in Wired

PLACES & CULTURE

From the Chicago Tribune:

KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan film director Siddiq Barmak will never forget the moment he first caught sight of the grubby little street girl who would go on to star in his Golden Globe-winning movie "Osama." … As he scoured the dusty sidewalk for suitable faces, he felt a tug at his sleeve, looked down, and found himself staring into the biggest, saddest eyes he had ever seen. He knew instantly that this was the girl he had been looking for. … "Her eyes told the stories of pain that are the stories of Afghanistan," he said. … Marina Golbahari, then 12 … won worldwide acclaim for her performance as the girl who dresses as a boy to circumvent the Taliban's ban on female employment. "Osama" was Afghanistan's first feature film since the Taliban regime was toppled, and in January it became the first Afghan film to win a Golden Globe, for best foreign film. … For Marina, who had spent most of her life scratching a living on the streets of Kabul, dodging the Taliban police, it was not a difficult role to play. … For the first four days of filming … Marina was terrified of the camera, which she took for some kind of weapon, and she shrank in fear whenever he pointed it her way. "I thought he was trying to kill me," she says, laughing now at the memory as she sipped tea at the one-room mud house she shares with 11 members of her family.

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