The View From Your Window: the Best Geographic Reasoning on the Web
by Brian Timoney
“Sometimes I think the education we dispense is better suited to a fifty-year old who feels he missed the point the first time around. Too many abstract ideas. Eternal verities left and right. You’d be better served looking at your shoe and naming the parts.”
–Father Paulus confesses to Nick Shay in Don DeLillo’s Underworld, pt V, ch 3
Or, alternatively, looking out your window and cataloging what you see.
I started this blog invoking Halford Mackinder, discussing his evangelization efforts on behalf of an analytically robust Geography that would no make apologies for standing astride the physical sciences and the liberal arts. However being neither-fish-nor-fowl has not served Geography well as it has been found ill-suited for both the abstraction-heavy model of education imported from aristocratic Europe as well as the hyper-specialization of academia. In one of those ironies in which the Internet excels, geographic reasoning has its own platform on one of the web’s most popular blogs.
Blogging politics, religion, and pop culture, Andrew Sullivan began posting reader photos of the view from their window as a mere diversion, which led to a book , which in turn led to a “where in the world” contest to give away copies of the book. And people got into the contest.
Way into it.
And a much-anticipated ongoing weekly ritual was born.
Architecture, landscape analysis, license plate styles, and sun angles are all grabbed in an effort to piece to together the riddle of Where. The best part are the excerpts of user submissions and their line of geographical reasoning. And boy can that reasoning be wildly off-base. Take this scene: people forthrightly place it continents away. At the other end of the spectrum are the Google Maps commandos who are 3-letter-acronym levels of scary in their ability to track down exact buildings and windows using familiar consumer mapping platforms. (Ed. note: author has only guessed correctly once, a scene from Cartagena, Colombia).
But what makes it particularly fun are the personal stories people share that are attached to their memories of place, accurate and otherwise: Geography as a trigger of memory and the sharp edges of lived experience too easily dulled by the passage of time. While there is indeed an intellectual rigor to piecing the clues together, the peculiar connection of location with emotion–which we all feel intuitively–is less categorizable but no less powerful, terrain navigated by few but most compellingly by Yi Fu Tuan.
At the risk of killing your productivity for the next couple of hours, here is a link to the Google Search page for past View From Your Window contests.
Returning to DeLillo, let’s give Father Paulus the last word:
“Everyday things represent the most overlooked knowledge. These names are vital to your progress. Quotidian things. If they weren’t important, we wouldn’t use such a gorgeous Latinate word. Say it,” he said.
“An extraordinary word that suggests the depth and reach of the commonplace.”