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You Are Here

by Colin Ellard

About.com Rating 3.5 Star Rating


You Are Here by Colin Ellard

© Knopf

Knopf, July 2009

You Are Here is a compelling plunge into the realm of orientation or way-finding in which experimental psychologist Colin Ellard questions why modern humans, with our big brains and technological advances, seem to be comparatively inept at navigating through our world.

The book begins with what amounts to a survey course in the navigational abilities of a variety of animals. Ellard's subjects include Sarahan Desert ants who travel circuitous routes across a terrain devoid of any landmarks in search of food, and will, upon securing their dinner, bee-line straight back to their nests with complete confidence as to their destination though it be up to 200 meters away; carrier pigeons, used since Roman times to convey information across great distances, appear to be able to navigate using the Earth's magnetic field; and the scout bee, sent out in search of food, returns to the hive and performs a set of movements known as the waggle dance in order to convey to his brethren the whereabouts of the nectar he has found.
The variety of methods by which animals display their way-finding prowess serves as a foil to Ellard's discussion of modern man's seeming lack of ability. Throughout history, man has found unique and varied methods of navigating his world -- Australian Aboriginals created oral landmarks, Songlines, with which to sing their way through the environment, and Inuits have linguistic modifiers for location and orientation and names for even the very smallest features of their landscape. Why then, Ellard questions, is modern man so challenged by the simplest of way-finding tasks? Where have we lost our way, and how do we get it back?

In answering these questions, the author traverses a broad range of fascinating topics, from the evolution of our built environments -- our homes and workspaces, including the ubiquitous office cubicle farms, and competing theories of urban planning -- to the environments we've created in virtual worlds such as Second Life. Here, Ellard discusses our relationship to spaces, how they influence our feelings and movement, and how our preference for locations with broad vistas arose evolutionarily, among other ideas.
You Are Here is a riveting and wide-ranging book. Eventually, Ellard comes around to the question of how man can regain his connection to the natural world and recapture some of the orientation we've lost in the course of modernization. Interestingly enough, the technology that helped to isolate us has recently fed our innate interest in place in such forms as geo-tagging, geo-caching, and Google Earth. Such technology has even been shown to have some unforeseen benefits. For instance, immersion in a virtual natural environment, i.e. a forest within Second Life, has proven to relieve stress much as a real walk in the forest might. As a suburbanite myself, I found the author's discussion of the deleterious effects of suburban sprawl and the resulting automobile-centrism to be wonderfully pointed and sardonic:

"The most prominent part of the house facade is usually the garage door, complete with a remote-controlled power door opener so that commuting homeowners can drive directly from the office parking lot to the interior of their living space without once making contact with the outside world."

Though Colin Ellard's path is meandering, You Are Here is ultimately an engrossing journey that will delight readers with inclinations towards pop science and sociology.

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