The shape of the horizon

"Man does not weave this web of life. He is merely a strand of it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself."
They've started tearing up the countryside near where I work. It's ostensibly to provide a new access road for Stanmer Park and the University of Sussex, but in the long run is preparing the area for the new Falmer football stadium and forthcoming Saturday invasions of the area by the associated hordes.

No, I've no idea why all must give way to the Great God Soccer either, but that's apparently the way it has to be, despite the South Downs having recently been made a National Park. I don't know who was involved or when but am suspicious of what might have gone on behind the scenes for this expensive yet frivolous building project to have become a reality. But then again as an odd boy (who doesn't like sport) I would say that, wouldn't I?

There's something very unsettling about the landscape being changed to this extent; a feeling that's at its most intense down at ground level. It just feels wrong that people are altering the shape of the scenery willy-nilly for no real benefit. Actually it would feel wrong even if there was a tangible benefit. This is probably to do with the way the human mind builds up an internal model of the world around it.

If the physical world around us doesn't change for a while, this model gets deeply embedded in our heads. This virtual model is reinforced on a daily basis by repeated data about the landscape entering the brain again and again. Our personality and individuality is shaped by, some would even say is, the data in our heads. In a way our minds are the models of reality we keep in our brains; as Carl Sagan said "We are a way for the universe to know itself".

No wonder it feels so disturbing when there's a sudden mismatch between this internal model and the "real" world. Our selves feel out of kilter. We expect small objects and living beings to move about but not the landscape which is the foundation of our world and psyche (seasonal changes notwithstanding).

You can get a taste of how the brain-world interface works by visiting somewhere new, somewhere you've never been before. As you step off the train and exit the station you're faced with a gigantic unknown quantity of raw place. No matter how many maps you've printed out and studied, nothing can prepare you for the first time you undertake a journey. It's slightly alarming, and you can't help but wonder if the maps have got it wrong or whether you'll be misled by a Trap Street.

It also seems to take far longer than it should.

If the brain was a hard disk you'd probably hear it whirring and clicking madly during your first journey. It's not just performing the myriad second-to-second operations it normally does, it's recording the layout, dimensions and appearance of a new venue and adding it to the brainscape. The next time you visit all the information will already be there and the journey won't seem to take nearly as long.

There are additional complexities, perhaps due to the multi-dimensional way in which memories may be stored. Have you ever noticed how the journey there and the journey back often feel like completely distinct and separate entities? It may well be because they're stored that way in the memory, which is why one can seem to take longer than the other.

And occasionally, two locations that are distant from each other both in time and space can feel as if they're somehow both aspects of the same ur-place, superficial similarities reinforced by the method and the address space in which they're stored. To me, Vogue Gyratory in Brighton and Archway in London feel the same even though visually there's only a very superficial resemblance (if any).

It makes the Native American respect for the land obvious really. They don't indulge in building works or landscaping. Barring earthquakes, the land they live in is constant and eternal and the mental models they have of it in their heads reflect this.

Until people turn up and start building on it.


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