Monday, November 25, 2013
Paul Salopek is walking in the path of the human diaspora, starting in the birthplace of homo sapiens and traveling to Tierra del Fuego, at the tip of Argentina. This is a long walk -- he expects to finish in 2020, after seven continuous years of walking. So far, he has walked 1,700 miles of the 20,000 he will eventually cover. He wrote in the New York Times, on Sunday 11/24/13, that, cars "...keep roaring into my awareness." Cars, he observes, have shifted our consciousness and we have lost track of what they did to us. In sum, comparing peoples in Ethiopia who still walk, to those in Saudi Arabia, who drive in cars, he finds that cars insulate us from each other and from the places we inhabit. We expect speed rather than connection, if I may paraphrase his essay. He writes, "I call it Car Brain." In studies of the psychology of place, "place orientation" emerges repeatedly as a key part of our psychological connection to the world. In fact, if we fall unconscious, when we awake a doctor will ask questions to find out if we are oriented to person, place and time, ie, "Do you know your name? Do you know where you are? Do you know what day it is?" In presenting us with his finding of "Car Brain," Salopek is offering us a profound contribution to the literature on place orientation. We may hypothesize that we are not oriented to place by where we are but rather by how we are moving through it. This has everything to do with Main Street. Main Streets in the US emerged before Car Brain. They were places that we walked to and around. They lay comfortably close to home, and made gathering possible, both gathering together and gathering the stuff of life, from vegetables to bed frames. As the car ascended, Main Street became something else -- one of the possible destinations of the car. The mall was another. One of the findings in my MainStreetNJ study is that Main Streets are a set of destinations, as likely as the mall to call us to come see and enjoy and gather stuff. Yet when we whisk away to the mall or to Main Streets not our own, we can lose the gathering that has to do with meeting our neighbors and getting to know strangers. Salopek describes waiting at the edge of a set of huts to be acknowledged before entering. We do not have to ask to stop at a MainStreetMall, but we don't meet anyone either. We are living in a time and place dominated by the car. For reasons of physical and mental health we need to get out and walk, but we don't exactly know how. Paul Salopek has given us a remarkable diagnosis: we have Car Brain.