City in the Internet 1: Geography Imagined (Part 1)

Posted by Prasad Krishna at Oct 19, 2010 12:00 PM |
“The estuaries that flirt with the land mass before they finally perish in the vast deep blue ocean beyond were perfect in their shape and grace. And you know what; from top it appears like a surreal landscape that is so restive and peaceful, almost heaven. The countryside is actually very beautiful”, says Pratyush Shankar in his latest blog post. A random conversation between two person discovering the joys of seeing our existence through Google Earth!

The use of maps through the Internet has seen a many fold increase in recent times. With availability of satellite information to anyone through various websites we are witnessing a sea change in the manner in which our space (cities, countryside and landscape) is being gazed upon. This is an important time historically, as it has the potential to fundamentally alter our imagination of space; right from the scale of a country to our neighbourhood block.

The Internet today is perhaps right in the middle of such mediation of the city and people. The Google maps, satellite imagery, road maps, place markers, are leading to a re-imagination of our own environment. Let us try and explore some of the key concepts that gets raised in the process of such expressions of space and its mental constructs. This is the part one of the essay and by the end of the next post I will try and speculate its impact on city spaces (yes the real space!)

Story 1: Geography is sensed and lived in

As a child growing up in a not so small town of Kota, Shailendra and his group of friends  swore allegiance of silence and if needed deceit when it came to their weekend forays outside the city; a swim in the river Chambal. The swim was a big no-no for kids, as stories of people being washed away in the strong current of the merciless river that had steep banks, were drilled into every potentially aberrant child of the town. If not the force of the water it definitely had to be the crocodiles that wait for days together, at the dark bottom of the river for that one sweet sound of a child swimming above. After that it is only gore and blood. But Shailendra and his friends could not resist the temptation of a good swim in the cool water. He often boasted about his dives and his long swims and that he saw a crocodile come his way but  swam faster than that wretched creature. And some time during a leisurely mood as he and his friends sat on the banks of the river, smoking Charminar with the Chambal swiftly passing below, he spoke about his dream of leaving this small city of aunts, cousins, family festivals, marriage, river and crocodile for the “big city”; the city of lights, new friends and endless possibilities. This is how he understood his city; small, protective and the big river on its periphery. The city was compact, the river dangerous, the slopes of the city lead to a valley which had rich but soft soil; not so perfect for foundations of buildings but great for mango orchards they frequented last summer. The orchards were owned by the Garasia’s, the land owning class of the villages around, and they made good money. They could marry off their daughters to neighboring villages and throw a lavish dinner for the community. Not bad at all, he thought considering the fact that this community had small land holding and almost no access to credit . Further downstream the villagers were much richer. The Patidar community here had access to capital from their ancestral assets and strong community networks as they used the river water for intense irrigation; they grew basmati rice, export quality very much “Made in India”. Their sons studied in boarding school at Mt. Abu and would often show0ff their recent shopping booty from Mumbai or Delhi.  Enough land and plenty of water can do wonders he thought!

Shailendra and his friends understood the geography as much as they understood the economic processes that are associated with land and water all across the length and breath of the country. The agricultural modes as linked to the geography of land is as common a knowledge, as the fact that one has to remove slippers before entering the temple premise. The geographical understanding of a place or region is necessarily  one of soil, surface drainage, river, canals and how it impacts building and agriculture activity. This is true for most souls of the large number of villages and towns of India. The geography taught at the local school’s is as abstract and distant as Galelio’s invention of telescope or closer home the 1857 mutiny against the British. Land is understood through immediate examples that affect and lets us understand the structure of space around; the relationship of land, its water bodies, forest, its produce, livestock, agriculture and people. It is this web of relationship that provides the primary reading of landscape. A reading emerging from survival and dreams. An understanding that is bodily and involves all sense.

Story 2: Geography is contested

The push and the subsequent fall was bad, considering the fact that it was only suppose to be a friendly game of football with the boys from the municipal school. Pyjama chhap; that’s what Ajay used to call these boys. Ajay knees were badly bruised, something he had got used to since he joined the school football team. But the injuries and the resultant bandage were in fact trophies he did not mind showing off in his neighborhood. Sweet pain eh! But today his encounter with the boys from Municipal School no -32, Kandivalle in the football match left him a bit shaken. There was something about that push, something strange in the eyes of the boys who did him in. No apology, no shake of hands but a brutal look as if that bunch might kill him if he come anywhere close to them. Ignoring the skirmishes, he soon carried out with his show of bandages in the knee and slight limp in school; a typical John Travalto one. This had been a regular ritual he performed often to woo the girls of the class, a show that said “I am the Alpha male and have just returned from a battle where I proved my supremacy. I am broken here and bruised there. Some sympathy, some support, some sweet nothing talk or maybe a gentle caress might help”. And life goes on. A daily ritual of updating the facebook profile, completing the homework, sourcing the “ultimate porn”, avoiding dad, recharging the sim, football practice and girls. 

Life rolled on till the day Ajay was again confronted with the same pyjama chaap kids of the Municipal school. This time it was beyond the security of his school compound in the market street exposed to the elements. The same dirty look and menacing stare. He tried to smile but before he could realize the one in the center with a dark face and curly hair shouted “matherchod bahut shaana ho gaya hai tu” (mother fucker you have become too smart these days). Now this one was a pure googly. Ajay was stumped, confused and more than anything else he was sweating with fear. Why me and why here in full public view. But..but what is the matter boss, he said? Matter is very clear, said the other one with a squint eye; your dads behind eviction of two shops, one house, three families and four dogs. You assholes have brought these families to street because your dad brought the municipal bulldozers to clear the plot in front of his clinic so that he can plant trees and have a nice parking for his clients. Now this was heavy… very heavy. Ajay just could not fathom why it had to be him. And.. and what is in that piece of land anyways. A large neem tree, dusty rough surface, some shanty and a nullah flowing with the exposes water pipe.

The encounter lasted a few seconds but it was devastating. He ran to the comfort of his house and immediately asked for hot masala maggie. Oh sweet home; it felt so good to curl up on the couch, switch the channels of the television, check the emails; all so personalized and predictable. He wanted all the familiar comforts that day…

Ajay soon outgrew the incident and went about planning his daily inaction’s, weekly bunks and occasional dates. But that incident also changed him. He had a keener eye now, for both sensing trouble and also to things around him he earlier had failed to notice.

He understood how the rivulet that flows from the ghats to the sea, actually is the life line of some twenty thousand families that stay there with their dogs, cats, shops, scooters and some even cars. He knew that the mangroves of the city are now piece of trophy used by the environmentalist to rally for protection and stop the International Airport project. He knew how the Mumbai floods were actually man-made as subsequent corrupt municipal officers choose to ignore the fundamentals of topography and water. That is how he learned about the geography of his city; from being absolutely ignorant about his surroundings, he suddenly knew how his city is the space of conflict, of emancipation, deceit, opportunity and corruption. The fractured geography of his city told the story of survival, human ingenuity and violence.

 The “image from top”

“The view of the Earth from the Moon fascinated me—a small disk, 240,000 miles away. It was hard to think that that little thing held so many problems, so many frustrations. Raging nationalistic interests, famines, wars, pestilence don’t show from that distance”

Frank Borman, Astronaut aboard Apollo 8, ‘A Science Fiction World—Awesome Forlorn Beauty,’ Life magazine, January 1969.

The view of the earth from moon and satellites in the late 50′s and 60′s contributed to imagination of the planet as an artifact that is small, vulnerable and alone in space. It fed a whole generation of activists, scientist and media to speak about the earth as a unique place. The image of earth with its deep blue surface, clouds and spots became the single most important symbol that fueled the the hearts and minds of the generation, that questioned the development model of the western world. It attacked the core values of modernity and growth that was drunk on technology, performance and confidence to master the elements of nature. But at the same time, it hearled a very different way of reading space. Riding on the growth of both print and visual mediums it led to an explosion of imagery that showed the “God’s view of the earth”. A fantastic collage of calm blue oceans, neat forests and swirling clouds streams. The good old map that existed in Geography- II textbooks of schools were so boring now; way too abstract and almost a diagram.

That old maps did not inspire any spatial imagination but it did have these lines where none existed. The straight lines of longitude, the dark red meridian, the political boundary of nations, the dark circular one of the capital city. And yes the arrows; the ones showing the direction of the ocean current, swirling all around the blue waters. Maps are much maligned lot these days. Often seen as expressions of the  intent to document, control and exploit the land that was colonized by them, maps were instrument of power struggle in India and elsewhere. But they do exist amongst us like many other colonial legacies. Maps are provocative, they express an opinion and engage with the user to form a dialogue of questions and answers. For example the map of Delhi metro is statement of origin-destination possibilities of the large city. A statement of the state of flows and possibilities for movement of one self in the space.

Maps are a statement of processes of space which may or may not express visually. For example the map showing the per-capita consumption of  cereals in a district, may or may not manifest as a form. It is the story of the people, their ability to access food supplies etc.

The map is telling a story that made you develop an imagination of space. The satellite image leaves nothing for imagination.

But the view from top has often been perceived to be the real space;  as it actually  exists. Unlike maps that are either surveyed and drawn, Google Maps and such derivatives on the internet today use an “image from top” as a basic conceptual ground to explore space. Let us now try to deconstruct this phenomenon further.

The image of space below taken from top is important from the point of view of creating grounds for further information. The image pretends to be complete, authentic, accurate and real. There is no possibility for error. The camera are special, there lens accurate, the satellite is state of art and the image is not “photo-shopped”. This portrayal assumes that the visual image is the baseline reality to be recognized. The image then claims to be “the” window to reality and becomes the mediator between the person and his/ her imagination of the surrounding space. Unlike maps wherein the first cut documentation is a bodily involvement of people with space while conducting physical surveys, it is the snap of the camera in case of satellite images. Whereas it is common knowledge that ground physical survey are way too accurate in terms of their dimensional characteristics, the “image from top” are seen to be more closer to reality. This raises interesting questions from the point of view of our understanding of space be it the forests, oceans, rivers, countryside or cities.

Will the dependence on the image (satellite pictures) and its derivative maps that we are witnessing through the internet today for visualizing space lead to a viewer that is satisfied with the “happy” image of his surroundings? Does it mean that the visual (image) becomes more important than the “process” (be it processes of nature, human survival, achievement etc) when imagining space. In short are the meanings attached to the image limited now than before.

So are we headed towards a more homogeneous imagination of our space and its parts due to the mediation by the same image through the internet? The forest are dense, the plantations greens, the coastline smooth, the old city organic and water bodies are deep blue.

Wait! The story has a new twist

But there is something also happening to the image on the internet. There are place markers, text, suggestions, stories, links to other site and even pictures overlaid on the satellite images or its maps. The story is getting interesting now; the technological possibility of user participation is creating a new layer of information and opinions on the maps. Far from being a specialized cartographic exercise, maps are being now created by people. It expresses their impressions, choices and preferences about their space.

This phenomenon of the individual expressions over the expanse of the vast space is new and needs to be further understood. More about it in the next post…..

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Prasad Krishna

Prasad Krishna previously worked in a newspaper and some reputed publications. He is MA in English, PGD in Journalism and LLB from the University of Delhi.