Section 2.5. Wayfinding in the Noosphere

2.5. Wayfinding in the Noosphere

Have you heard of the hippocampus ? It's one of the most ancient parts of the brain, located deep within the temporal lobes and adjacent to the amygdala. This horseshoe-shaped structure plays a central role in learning, memory, and wayfinding. We know rats rely on the hippocampus for maze navigation. It's essential for both path integration and the processing of cognitive maps. We know neurons called "place cells" are intensely active when a rat revisits familiar locations. And we know animals and humans experience severe disorientation when the hippocampus is damaged.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans have shown an enlarged posterior region of the hippocampus in taxi drivers, and Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scans show increased hippocampal activity when drivers are asked to recall routes around the city. In recent years, researchers have conducted similar experiments in virtual environments. Sure enough, when subjects are exploring a virtual maze or the artificial terrain of a video game, those same neurons light up. Does this constitute evidence of a biological basis for the validity of wayfinding metaphors on the World Wide Web? Not quite. Virtual mazes and semantic spaces are not equivalent. But it does remind us that when we enter the artificial noosphere, we bring our natural instincts and our physical bodies with us.

A Jesuit paleontologist and philosopher by the name of Teilhard de Chardin popularized the notion of the noosphere or "sphere of human thought" back in the early 1900s. Similar to the atmosphere and biosphere, the noosphere is composed of all the interacting minds and ideas on earth. It's a provocative and romantic concept. But is the noosphere real? Or is it just a metaphor, a figure of speech for relating our experience of the physical world to the ethereal realm of knowledge?

Well, there's a distinguished linguistics professor at UC Berkeley who would take issue with its dismissal as just a metaphor. George Lakoff has spent many years researching the subtle power of metaphor to interpret and shape our experience. In the book Metaphors We Live By, he and his co-author explain:

Metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action....The concepts that govern our thought are not just matters of the intellect. They also govern our everyday functioning, down to the most mundane details. Our concepts structure what we perceive, how we get around in the world, and how we relate to other people...the way we think, what we experience, and what we do every day is very much a matter of metaphor.[*]

[*] Metaphors We Live By. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. University of Chicago Press (1980), p. 3.

Interestingly, Lakoff and Johnson dedicate a chapter to orientational metaphors that are mostly spatial in nature: up-down, in-out, front-back, on-off, deep-shallow, and central-peripheral. These metaphors "arise from the fact that we have bodies of the sort we have and that they function as they do in our physical environment." For each metaphor type, the authors suggest a physical basis. For example:


I'm feeling up. That boosted my spirits. My spirits rose. You're in high spirits. Thinking about her always gives me a lift. I'm feeling down. I'm depressed. He's really low these days. I fell into a depression. My spirits sank.

Physical basis: Drooping posture typically goes along with sadness and depression, erect posture with a positive emotional state.[]

[] Lakoff and Johnson, p. 15.

Spatial and orientational metaphors have deep roots in our physical experience, and yet they're forever sprouting in the unearthly terrain of the noosphere. Readers get lost in a good book. Lawyers review landmark cases. Users navigate web sites. We use language to construct worlds of words that are, in a very real sense, navigable. While today's attention is focused on the semantic cities of cyberspace and the Web, language and wayfinding have walked hand in hand from the beginning. In fact, evidence points to the gestural origins of language around 500,000 years ago. It's likely that our first words were actually vocalized grunts and squeals used to draw attention to manual gestures indicating the direction of food, water, home, or danger. Look! Over there! Watch out!

Over time, we developed a sophisticated vocabulary for describing routes, landmarks, and destinations. The Songlines of Australia and the Odyssey of Homer stand testament to the interwoven histories of oral communication and wayfinding. For many millennia, we used words to cooperatively navigate physical spaces, and then, in an interesting metaphorical twist, we began using the concept of space to organize our ideas:

Two thousand years ago Marcus Tullius Cicero used to make two-hour speeches in the Roman Senate, without notes, by constructing in his mind a palace whose rooms and furnishings, as he imagined himself roaming through them, called up the ideas he wished to discuss: ideas were made memorable by locating them in space.[*]

[*] Chambers for a Memory Palace by Donlyn Lyndon and Charles W. Moore. MIT Press (1994), p. xi.

Of course, this mastery of the memory palace was limited to the few. It took the printed word, the proliferation of talking objects called documents, and the invention of libraries for these spatial metaphors to flourish. Suddenly, people found themselves literally surrounded by ideas. Imagine standing in the Library of Alexandria in 150 B.C. The walls are lined with tens of thousands of scrolls containing the best thoughts of the best minds in the world. To find the knowledge you seek, you must rely on bibliographies, subject catalogs, and other finding aids. And you must move through physical space to locate and retrieve information objects. How could you fail to perceive this experience in terms of navigation and wayfinding? Libraries exist at the very intersection of physical and semantic space. They inform and inspire our sense of the noosphere.

So, it's no surprise the library made an appearance in Vannevar Bush's classic 1945 essay "As We May Think," which described collaborative hypertext for the first time:

Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library. It needs a name, and to coin one at random, 'memex' will do. A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.

The owner of the memex, let us say, is interested in the origin and properties of the bow and arrow. Specifically he is studying why the short Turkish bow was apparently superior to the English long bow in the skirmishes of the Crusades. He has dozens of possibly pertinent books and articles in his memex. First he runs through an encyclopedia, finds an interesting but sketchy article, leaves it projected. Next, in a history, he finds another pertinent item, and ties the two together.

Thus he goes, building a trail of many items. Occasionally he inserts a comment of his own, either linking it into the main trail or joining it by a side trail to a particular item. When it becomes evident that the elastic properties of available materials had a great deal to do with the bow, he branches off on a side trail which takes him through textbooks on elasticity and tables of physical constants. He inserts a page of longhand analysis of his own. Thus he builds a trail of his interest through the maze of materials available to him.

And his trails do not fade.[*]

[*] "As We May Think" by Vannevar Bush. The Atlantic Monthly (1945).

While Bush's theoretical memex is widely considered a harbinger of today's World Wide Web, it was later in the 20th century, 1984 to be exact, when science-fiction author William Gibson lit up the imaginations of people around the world with his dystopic vision of a computer-generated parallel universe:

Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts....A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding...[]

[] In particular, Gibson's vision electrified a generation raised on rapidly evolving personal computers and video games. From the textual fantasies of Zork (Example 2-1) to the rich, immersive environments of Ultima , SimCity (Figure 2-10), Habitat , Myst (Figure 2-11), Doom , and Second Life (Figure 2-12), we had stepped through the looking glass of our computer monitor into worlds of adventure and beauty.

Example 2-1. Transcript from Zork, one of the first and most famous interactive fiction games
The Troll Room
You are in a small room with passages off in all directions.
Bloodstains and deep scratches (perhaps made by an axe) mar the walls.
A nasty-looking troll, brandishing a bloody axe, blocks all passages out of the
Your sword has begun to glow very brightly.

Figure 2-10. In SimCity, you navigate a terrain of your own design

Figure 2-11. Myst is arguably the most beautiful of virtual worlds

Figure 2-12. Second Life is a 3D digital world created and populated by its networked residents

We faced the challenges of wayfinding in virtual worlds, learning to count steps, track direction, remember landmarks, and draw our own maps. We experienced Moore's law as a rapid progression from text-based interactive stories to immersive environments with rich graphics. We became excited by the potential of virtual reality and the Internet to breathe life into Gibson's cyberspace. We felt the future was just around the corner. And so naturally, when NCSA released the first graphical browser in 1993, we brought our enthusiasm, our vision, and our spatial metaphors to the World Wide Web .