I have become thoroughly convinced more than ever that landscapes are not simply topographical spaces. Shawn Graham wrote of landscapes that “one navigates space not with a two dimensional top-down mental map, but rather as a series of what-comes-next… navigating require[s] socializing, asking directions, paying attention to landmarks.” Landscapes are an experience and each of us shapes our own landscapes everyday, often without being conscious of the fact. Landscapes are thus a subjective and objective experience – that is, at one moment you are shaping your landscape in some way and in another, the actual land has been carved by those in the past to effect you and you are affecting it for future generations to experience. But are landscapes today solely topographical? In this digital age, I argue the undeniable fact that they are not.
If you haven’t already come across it in my other posts, I’ll say it here: I believe that simulations are a great tool for learning history. This is one of the many reasons I love the game Civilization. In this game your objective is to create a successful civilization and can dominate either militarily, economically, socially/culturally, etc. One of the major aspects of the game I realized when first playing it was that you are changing the land in different ways. If I want an economically sufficient civilization, I might dig mines. But those mines may have to one day change to produce arms and ammunition. The land is constantly carved up as the civilization progresses. Such is the way of reality.
Although Civilization represents one way simulations can deal with landscapes and/or students of historical and archaeological studies can learn about the temporality of landscape, it also offers a more meta-notion – the existence of a digital landscape. By this I do not mean simulations (though they would definitely play a role). I mean the very landscape that is zeros and ones. By the time I publish this post, I will have affected the digital landscape (i.e. the internet). In turn, I have been affected by all I have seen or read on the internet. This landscape is made up of blogs, media, social network posts, videos of cats, etc. It is a landscape that each and everyone of us (at least if you are reading this) interact with everyday (sometimes it is the only landscape we interact with in a day).
Digital or ‘physical’, we interact with landscapes in every moment and they are never the same. Change occurs from moment to moment. In one of the great tragedies of history, the intense subjectivity that is historical relativism causes landscapes to be forgotten or take on a very different meaning than they once had. The farmers fields of Western Europe come to my mind. To look at a heart-wrenching photograph of a soldier sitting in a trench years ago, torn up mud and bodies all around him. The land is almost unrecognisable This must not even be a place, we think to ourselves. And then to view the same land 80 years later, green as can be and a farmer going about his day. Though he may dig up artefacts and the memory may be very much alive, he will never know the landscape the way that young soldier did, nor will the soldier know the beauty of those green farm fields.
Thus landscapes play to the tune of life. We are but a note in this passing symphony. But this is our note – our time. As I look outside of my window at the autos, streetlights, apartment buidlings I take a moment to reflect: this landscape is unlike anything anyone has ever seen, or ever will. And to wonder. The symphony is just beginning!