LeAnne Teruya (shebangsrocks@yahoo.com)

San Jose State University (Dept. of Geology)

42nd International Congress on Medieval Studies, May 2007

Western Michigan University

BABEL Panel: Premodern to Modern Humanisms

Mapping Humanism in the Age of Global Positioning Systems

Somewhere in up in the sky, global positioning satellites are reading data from ground units set up in Yellowstone National Park.  The ground units are recording minute upwelling in the ground—a kind of almost imperceptible swelling of the ground, produced by molten rock moving upward within this geological hot spot.  This technology is saving grateful graduate students from having to tediously map and remap the same areas, checking for minute changes in elevation, which could signal the birth of a giant volcanic explosion like the one which originally created the this area of hot springs, geysers, boiling mudpots, and travertine stairs.  Elsewhere in the sky, other satellites are tracking the movements of millions of cars with GPS units installed in them, so that computers can send directions to drivers navigating unfamiliar roads.  And somewhere, someone peering forlornly at the keys inside a car is having his or her car door unlocked by satellite, thanks to GPS.

Technology is a wonderful thing.  For me, it means playing “coloring book” with Photoshop in my friend’s office, instead of laboring for months at a microscope, measuring angles of minerals by hand.  Technology eliminates work, closes time gaps, provides leisure activities for all the hours saved.  It aids us in virtually every aspect of our lives now, allowing us more interaction, more speed, more efficiency (the Holy Grail of American Culture) than ever before.  Technology is about improving our quality of life.  It offers us the opportunity to choose, customize, and control more of the world around us like nothing before.

The ability to choose and customize, means that technology gives us more ways to express our individuality.  We no longer have to buy a CD of music that someone else has compiled; we can purchase just the songs we like, and make our own compilations.  We can individualize our ubiquitous cell phones with special ring tones, covers, and cell-phone jewelry.  We can even design our own photo checks, stamps, and return address labels.

The ability to choose and express individuality is central to being human, because the choices we make, define us.  In one sense, human history is a record of the results of people having or not having choices. Without choices, we feel denigrated and invalidated as individuals.  We are willing to go to war to overthrow what we call “human rights” violations—typically, situations where people’s right to choose and act as individuals has been taken away--because having choices means having freedom (individual autonomy).

On the other hand, human history has also demonstrated time and time again, the importance of community.  Within this structure, is safety and security.  While some of the worst human atrocities have been committed by individuals who have felt excluded from a community and/or used the sense of community to turn neighbors against each other (think: Hitler, Bosnia, Rwanda, Columbine, and to some degree, Virginia Tech), some of the most incredible stands against injustice, have also come in the from forming communities, and enlarging them (think: 13 diverse colonies becoming one United country; think abolitionists, suffragettes, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement, and the breaking down of the Berlin Wall).  Even in science, where supposedly the data speak for themselves, it takes a revolution by a community of believers to overthrow an old paradigm.

We live in a dichotomy of conformity and nonconformity.  We yearn for community, yet intensely defend individuality.  We want structure for stability and peace, but we don’t want our choices to be limited or to be bound by rules.  These patterns recur cyclically throughout human history and are reflected in literature, art, and music.  Every period is marked by a reaction to a dominance of structure (lack of choices or individuality) or lack of structure (too much individuality/too many choices).  We drive forward into individualism, and then retreat back into the security of community, again and again.

I wonder how today’s rapidly expanding technology fits into the dual need to be part of a community, yet stand alone individually.  More and more, technology provides us with an explosion of ways in which to express ourselves as individuals. We live in a customizable world.  This level of choices and customization leads us to view ourselves as highly entitled.  We’ve now come to expect individualization on every level.  There are no rules that can’t be broken, or bent, for the benefit of an individual.  We desire “Semi-conformity”—conformity with a choice, conformity on our own terms.

We have this sense of entitlement, because technology gives us a sense that we are in control--control of the minute details of our lives and control over our future (not being told what to do).  We see ourselves as entitled to everything, because pretty much, technology can enable us to get whatever we want.  We can have whatever we want, because we are all equal through technology (if you know how to use it) and we can be whoever we want to be, because technology removes barriers, both physical and intellectual.  Through the internet, for example, many more people are able to own businesses, because advertising is much easier, there are no physical properties to rent or maintain, fewer employees to hire, etc.  Technology broadens the spectrum of who we can be.

With these opportunities technology provides us, we are not only able to express ourselves in more ways, expect to.  We feel entitled to participate in everything.  It’s like a dream come true!  We can insert our selves into everything.  National television networks now court our participation, by encouraging viewers to log on and express views on news stories, send in videos and phone photos. Through the internet, we can participate nationally, globally, or locally.  The internet provides the ultimate liminal space.  We can travel to different places, participate in different events, do whatever we like.  We can create personas and live entirely different, albeit, virtual lives.

The beauty of all this new technology is that we can participate, but still be individuals.  We can be employed, but work at home.  We can have an iPod, but make it look different from everyone else’s.  We can be expressly individual, but at the same time, connected.  The startling thing is, that this is nothing new. The hairstyles and clothes have changed, the technology continues to change, but human nature does not. Humans are individuals who need both community and individuality at the same time.  We’ve seen this before—in Chaucer—and this is part of the eternal appeal of The Canterbury Tales.

The Canterbury Tales uses the structure of conformity—the premise of the mecca to Canterbury—to express a variety of stories/viewpoints.  This is a community of travelers who are quite certainly individuals, as their individual tales express.  The pilgrimage itself is more than a religious or personal ritual.  It provides a community for a diverse group of individuals whose paths would not normally cross without the occasion of this journey. This is a uniquely unstratified community, allowing interactions between people who in normal life might never meet, nor ever converse.  Each tells his or her tale equally—no tale is more superior or important.  Each person has a unique voice and a unique perspective to share.  With these stories, the characters invent themselves and enter into this community where social constructs do not really apply. This is their internet chat room. 

In geology, our pilgrimages are called “fieldtrips.”  Whether with a group of undergrads just trying to fulfill a science requirement, or a handful of hardcore geologists doing fieldwork, the scenario is the same. On the way to and from the fieldtrip destination, the students talk.  They talk about themselves and share stories (believe me, they aren’t talking about the geology!). At first, loosely bound only by weekly classroom encounters, they return as a community connected, not so much by the journey itself, but by interactions they’ve enjoyed with each other. For the hard-core geologists, this same thing happens every night around the campfire. Every night, we tell stories.  We never discuss facts or figures; we tell of tell of harrowing drives down steep mountain switchbacks on slippery mud roads, or of a famous geologist using duct tape over his blisters, or of a field assistant who was pathologically afraid of flies.  Everyone has a story to tell, and no matter who you are (revered or unknown, liked or disliked), and no matter what happened in the field that the day (heated arguments and debates, theories praised or shot down) all are equal at the campfire.

Just as geologists are drawn to each other’s stories around the campfire, readers are drawn to the Canterbury Tales because the interactions are fresh, interesting and transformative.  The storytellers are both united, yet defined by the act of telling of stories.  This is our ideal society, where we can all be a community, but maintain our individuality, be equal, and be heard.

Alas, for Chaucer’s pilgrims, the journey is but a liminal space.  In the end, they must return to their typical lives in a less ideal reality. We fieldtrip participants, however, are much more fortunate, because we can continue the conversations begun around the campfire, using the technology we have today.  The listserve, website, or blog becomes the campfire to gather round, debate ideas, and plan the next fieldtrip.

In geology, the term locate can either mean “to find” something on a map, or “to place” something on a map.  Without technology, we must just “find” ourselves somewhere on the map of humanism that society has created for us.  With technology, however, we can actually “place” ourselves where we want to be.