June 6, 2007

The Google Map Problem

I spend a lot of time browsing over Google Earth, the free program that lets you interface directly with satellite views of the planet. It occurs to me, though, that they have a problem: where to put the dot that represents the location of a city? The more you zoom in, the more indefinite the location of a city becomes. Where is the "real" Istanbul? The satellite view reveals that the other "city" names, like Kadikoy, are really just part of the same sprawl. (My husband Tim suggests that they use the location of city hall, but I note with interest that the "real" Toronto, as identified by Google, is the south side of Cumberland between Bay and Yonge, about 3km from our City Hall. So there, Mayor Miller.)

We have the same problem when it comes to defining who or what a person is. If you ask someone who they are, they usually give a name. But we have lots of names throughout our life. Who are you? A name? — A body? What part of the body? — A behaviour? Which? Surely you don't only have one. — A character or personality? But what's that?

Where is your "me" right now? Are you pointing to the centre of your chest? If so, I hope you can see how that breaks down under analysis. In the novel Perfume, the main character, an olfactory genius, goes mad from the frustration of not being able to smell himself. It's the same problem. You can look at your hand, but can you look at what is looking at your hand? Keep looking!

We live in an enchantment, the enchantment of mistaking our thoughts and words for the real world or experience. To be free, we must continuously break the spell by looking, questioning, analysing, even when you know there is no hope of an "answer" — not the kind of answer that gets a red checkmark on a test and an A on a report card. The true answer, of course, is right there in every moment. It is nearer to you than your own face. It is there for you to experience, right now.

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