How Do We Understand Space? Jamming, 13/02/2015

I’m rather notoriously bad at giving directions. When my friend Lobo threw my 30th birthday party at his place in Hamilton, everyone I knew who had never been there before chastised me for my terrible directions to his apartment. It’s at a clear intersection, you just have to use the back door because it’s above a storefront.

Anyway, a recent incident of my giving a friend mediocre directions to get back on a highway to Vaughan (turn right onto the Queensway, then right when you see the highway crossing by East Mall), started me thinking the other day of how we think about space. The McLuhans touched on this in Laws of Media, when they talked about the boundless infinite. But I also remembered a more prosaic conversation with a friend I had a couple of years ago.

Walk with me to the edge of the world.
“If I go to the edge of the universe and throw a baseball out into space,” asked Ballsy, “what am I throwing it into?”

“Nothing,” I said. “You’re just throwing it.”

“But I have to throw it into something!”

“No, you don’t.” Really, you don’t. “Just throw the ball.”

“But where does it go when I throw it?” he asked.

“Farther away.”

I don’t know much about the history of cartography, but I know that we’ve used maps to describe space and give travelling directions for a very long time. The invention of Cartesian coordinate mathematics and accurate clock mechanisms to measure longitude accurately helped us improve our maps considerably. We’re long accustomed to thinking of the universe as a big plane of space, and objects existing in that plane at specific points. 

Space exists, and objects are things that exist in space. But that’s not the way the world really is. It’s only the way maps are, and maps are useful tools for navigating space. Maps simplify directions, positions, and relative distances by assigning specific coordinates to the locations of objects. 

But objects are real. Things that fly around. Most of our maps that we use in daily life represent the Earth, but Earth is an object too. It’s just so huge relative to us that we can represent its surface as a flat space. Distances between points aren’t real, only lines on maps. Real distances are between objects in the world. 

The earliest posts on Vaka Rangi described Polynesian navigators who found their way around the world based on subtle clues of ocean currents and mapping their movements relative to the sky. The modes of knowledge they need for that kind of navigation offer us an alternative to our own popular conception of space. 

I’m always hesitant to discuss indigenous cultures in these terms because of the terrible danger of what I call Magical Red Man syndrome, when a Western person takes a foreign indigenous culture to embody an ideal, or their contingent cultural creation is deified as somehow more in touch with nature or God than the inherently corrupt nature of the Euro-American perspective. 

But one culture’s ways of knowing the world can hit closer to the way things are than others. And I think when it comes to understanding space, the Western perspective makes a serious mistake when we reify our maps, and imagine space as already existing so that objects can have a place.

Really, objects create places, and the relation between those places constitute space. So a more authentically truthful way to understand directions and navigation than absolutely measured distances between points, is to imagine paths from one landmark to another, hopping from place to place on your way to a destination.

Think seriously for a moment about how a Time
Lord would understand spacetime and objects.
When you also consider that places shift their relations, change, and disappear over time, there’s a dynamism to the process that makes it difficult for humans to understand. I sometimes wonder what a species with genuinely superior intelligence would think of us. Superior in the same sense that humans have a superior intelligence to cats or koalas. 

What if they’re able to do dynamic non-linear mathematics as easily as we can add? Most humans will be utterly mystified at how they think. But trippy philosophical investigation can give us a kick toward actually progressing our powers to think. Here's an example, drawn from popular science fiction. 

Another blogging hero of mine, Phil Sandifer, suggested an explanation for why Robert Holmes kept referring to Gallifrey as located in the constellation of Kasterborous. But this didn't really make sense. Constellations aren’t actually astronomical bodies, they’re arrangements of stars as seen from a particular perspective.

But the Doctor is always explaining the location of Gallifrey in a constellation to humans, and in a meta-fictional sense, Doctor Who is a show for human television. The Doctor is saying what arrangement of stars Gallifrey appears in, relative to the Earth’s position. For a creature with the advanced intelligence of a Time Lord, their coordinates wouldn’t be anything like coordinates in our sense, a location on a representative map.

Our representative maps are just abstractions that let us easily navigate. Time Lord level intelligence wouldn’t need these simplifications of the universe. A creature that advanced would think about space and time entirely in terms of relative dynamic locations and paths. 

Time Lord coordinates would be vectors, showing the path from where we are now to the destination. They’d see the universe not as a static space with stuff in it, but as arrangements of objects through which we navigate paths. When we learn to think this way about the world, we'll literally advance as a species.


  1. The relationship between Vaka Rangi and Polynesian wayfinding has always been a complicated one. Originally, the idea was to subvert the traditional (i.e. colonialist European) narrative surrounding exploration: In essence, to redeem the concept of exploration by explaining it through the lens of a different situated knowledge space and to then use that as a metaphor for what I thought the underlying value of Star Trek is and what its ethical underpinning *should* be. This also ties into my argument that Soda Pop Art is the mythology of Westernism, and I had the admittedly rather far-fetched dream of being able to bridge some cultural boundaries this way by talking about Western media with a different sort of media literacy than has been the norm. To, in essence, use a form of comparative mythology to unite oral storytellers and help foster a new way of looking at our media.

    I'm not sure I was entirely successful with this and I'm also paranoid about cultural appropriation even though anthropologically I like to draw comparisons. And so, Polynesian wayfinding has kind of been phased out of the blog. But then I also worry I've thrown out my thesis statement.

    Not sure if I've ever asked you this, but have you read Joseph Turnbull's Masons, Tricksters and Cartographers? I used to cite it on Vaka Rangi, and this post reminds me of it a lot. There's a whole chapter on Polynesian navigation there too, though it's a bit dated at this point.

    1. I think you may have mentioned Turnbull's book before, but I still haven't gotten around to it.

      I totally understand why you'd be hesitant to centre too much of your blog in Polynesian culture. I'm not the type who'd say that being inspired by ideas from a different cultural heritage than the one you were raised in is automatically a problematic appropriation. I'm of the view that inspiration is legitimate: it's the attitude of a seeker after a new way to engage with and live in the world.

      There are gradations of problematic appropriation to me. The most well-known version is just picking up random bits of a culture for your own superficial use. I'm thinking of moronic suburban yoga classes and hipsters wearing Amerindian headdresses at music festivals. This is just being generally ignorant, which isn't good, but doesn't assault a culture intentionally. It's just being a fucking idiot.

      Then there are the people who think of indigenous people as these perfect Edenic souls in total harmony with nature, whose perfect virtue could rescue us poor self-destructive Westerners from ourselves. That's what I call the Magical Red Man (something like the black character in fiction who exists solely to help a white man enlighten himself, what Spike Lee called "the super-duper magical negro"). I found a fair number of these people in environmentalist moral philosophy, who didn't realize that valorizing indigenous people to such an extreme degree was just as dehumanizing as the old Western perception of them as violent savages.

      So when it comes to your being inspired by the practices of Polynesian wayfarers/navigators, you do so with far more nuance than a lot of the idiot writers I've come across over the years. We don't appropriate from simply being a fellow traveller.