In the age of Google Maps, what’s left to dis­cover?

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - by Kate Har­ris

All the ex­plor­ers I wor­shipped in high school turned out to be hacks. The Po­los, the Colum­buses, the Franklins of the world were less seek­ers of truth or beauty, as I’d naively be­lieved based on ro­man­ti­cized ac­counts of their ex­ploits, than ser­vants of com­merce or con­quest. These men — they were al­most al­ways men — “dis­cov­ered” lands that ex­isted quite vividly for those al­ready liv­ing in them, and they evan­ge­lized the sort of “progress” that over­runs ev­ery­one and ev­ery­thing in its path. I used to want to be an ex­plorer when I grew up, hav­ing mis­un­der­stood what that meant. The iden­tity cri­sis was mine, but ex­plo­ration it­self is over­due for an ex­e­ge­sis. Does an en­ter­prise with such a trou­bled past de­serve a fu­ture? Ex­plo­ration has al­ways been about the ex­trac­tion of re­sources: gold, spices, fur, oil, or fame for be­ing “first.” As such, the most com­pe­tent ex­plor­ers at work to­day are robots: the satel­lites, space probes, and rovers mind­lessly chart­ing the places hu­mans can’t go and, in some cases, the places we can — and al­ready have. Head­lines re­cently trum­peted the dis­cov­ery, based on a vast guano stain spot­ted from space, of an Adélie pen­guin su­per­colony. The pen­guins were hardly a rev­e­la­tion to those who fre­quent the Dan­ger Is­lands of Antarc­tica, in­clud­ing Cana­dian Geoff Green, founder of the ed­u­ca­tional foun­da­tion Stu­dents on Ice. As proof, he shared a video, from seven years ear­lier, of stu­dents tak­ing pho­tos of the teem­ing, tuxe­doed birds. Prece­dent only counts, it seems, if doc­u­mented in a cer­tain way and by cer­tain sanc­tioned elites. In 2013, some mem­bers of the Moose Cree First Na­tion in north­ern On­tario were sim­i­larly in­dig­nant when me­dia an­nounced that Adam Shoalts, a “pro­fes­sional ex­plorer and ad­ven­turer,” as he calls him­self, “dis­cov­ered” wa­ter­falls in their tra­di­tional ter­ri­tory (when he ac­ci­den­tally ca­noed over them, no less). In his bi­og­ra­phy for talks and events, Shoalts as­serts that he “has, lit­er­ally, changed the map of Canada,” re­fer­ring to how charts of the Again River were mod­i­fied to in­clude new sym­bols for wa­ter­falls and to ad­just the place­ment of some sym­bols for rapids. But is up­dat­ing maps with mi­nor land­marks re­ally the ex­alted end of all our ex­plor­ing? Does a more de­tailed chart of a place, as T.S. Eliot fa­mously put it, let us know it for the first time? Jorge Luis Borges’s short story “On Ex­ac­ti­tude in Sci­ence,” which elab­o­rates on a con­cept from a Lewis Car­roll novel, de­scribes a civ­i­liza­tion so ob­sessed with car­to­graphic ac­cu­racy that its maps pul­lu­late in scale and res­o­lu­tion un­til they co­in­cide, de­tail for de­tail, with the world. “Suc­ceed­ing gen­er­a­tions,” Borges re­marks, “came to judge a map of such mag­ni­tude cum­ber­some.” Lit­er­a­ture of­fers epipha­nies no ex­plorer’s chart can yield. If in­dus­trial ge­ol­o­gists and other pro­fes­sional ex­plor­ers have de­fined mod­ern-day ex­plo­ration on their own terms — as the sci­ence of ac­qui­si­tion or an ex­er­cise in nos­tal­gia — noth­ing pre­vents you and me from en­vi­sion­ing it in­stead as an art, a pur­suit whose out­comes are ap­pre­ci­ated not for tech­ni­cal pre­ci­sion so much as beauty or emo­tional heft, the change in con­scious­ness they pro­voke. By this mea­sure, the Voy­ager space­craft mis­sion, launched in 1977, is mean­ing­ful less for the new facts it has amassed and more for the “pale blue dot” pho­to­graph of the Earth made puny by its cos­mic con­text. “In our ob­scu­rity, in all this vast­ness,” ob­served as­tronomer and writer Carl Sa­gan, “there is no hint that help will come from else­where to save us from our­selves.” The world is worn thin with our look­ing, our want­ing to know, which is too of­ten a pre­text for want­ing to pos­sess and con­trol. So for­get plant­ing flags and leav­ing foot­prints. Let ex­plor­ers, in the his­toric sense of the word, go ex­tinct. The fu­ture of ex­plo­ration re­quires strip­ping the en­ter­prise of its ego, its colo­nial cru­el­ties, its com­pul­sions to name and claim — strip­ping it of ev­ery­thing but a sense of won­der. Con­sider Eliot’s other, less quoted, take on the ven­ture: Old men ought to be ex­plor­ers Here and there does not mat­ter We must be still and still mov­ing Into an­other in­ten­sity For a fur­ther union, a deeper com­mu­nion. The end of all our ex­plor­ing, then, is not knowl­edge but kin­ship — a deep­ened sense of con­nec­tion to the planet and to each other, earth­lings ev­ery one, even the pen­guins. At stake is not sim­ply the soul of ex­plo­ration but the well­be­ing of our world. If we don’t col­lec­tively wake up to our shared fragility and fate, and change our ways, none of our maps will mat­ter.

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