Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Psychogeography? What's that? An enormously rich worldbuilding topic

I attended a fascinating panel at WorldCon in Reno about Psychogeography, featuring David Cake, Cory Doctorow, Ian McDonald, and Renée Sieber - and I was amazed at how well it fit my worldbuilding interests, so I thought I'd share a few thoughts about it. Here's a (rather daunting) quote from the convention program: "Psychogeography is variously defined as 'the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals' or where psychology and geography meet in assessing the emotional and behavioral impact of urban space."

Think about it this way. What kind of physical spaces do you move through as you go through your day? How many of them have been planned by you? If it's the furniture in your home, you've probably been able to decide where it went on your own. But how about the layout of your house? How about the layout of your neighborhood, or the neighborhood where you work? The public spaces in your town, or in the towns you've visited as a guest? Each of these physical layouts will influence the way you move and potentially the way you think.

Here's an example from my local area. I have a mall nearby - within walking distance of my house, if I care to take the twenty minutes required. But do I walk there? No... not unless it's Christmas season and I don't want to get involved in the traffic (in which case I have walked there on principle). The way the place has been laid out is inimical to pedestrians. It's an indoor mall surrounded on all sides by broad parking lots which add a full five minutes to the walk even when I'm going quickly. There are no pedestrian entrances to the lots, and no pedestrian walkways leading across them. You have to walk right through all the car aisles to get to the main entrances. Is it any wonder that nobody walks there?

In the typical medieval town, there was always a market square. This was a central open space where people could gather to sell their goods, and gather they did. Those squares could also potentially be a place where unhappy people could gather to protest. If there were a ruler who didn't want unrest, he might crack down on the people, but it would still be hard to get rid of that central gathering space.

One interesting example mentioned by Cory Doctorow about London was that a lot of the London buildings had been destroyed by bombing after the second world war, and the planners of the city had to rebuild them, so they were thinking about making the streets easier to navigate by straightening them and making the streets rectilinear. However, the people refused to go along with this, and insisted on moving markers and traveling the paths they remembered of the old tangled road system, and in fact in the end the old roads were restored almost precisely as they had been.

Think about the cities you know, and how different they "feel" based on the way they're laid out. I think of Kyoto, Japan, where the north-south-east-west grid layout meant I never felt entirely lost even when I didn't know where I was, and where I learned my cardinal directions in a way I never had comprehended at any previous point in my life. I compare that with Tokyo, where you have to follow directions with absolute precision because the streets are not on a grid and a single wrong turn can diverge you into a totally different neighborhood where side connecting streets are not certain to deliver you back to your previous path. I compare each of those cities, with their narrow streets and tightly packed neighborhoods, with the wide-streeted towns of California where the lack of density means it takes twice as long to get anywhere and walking to the grocery store is an impractical neighborhoods are larger and people who live near one another are less likely to encounter one another in the street unless they happen to be walking to the local school (the local school being a very interesting "meeting point" and a huge creator of solidarity across the surrounding neighborhoods).

I'm sure you can already see the worldbuilding opportunities bursting out of this topic at every seam. What are your spaces like in your world? How wide are streets? Where do people gather? How easy is it to travel using various modes of transportation? My underground city of Pelismara is five levels deep and organized on a radial system, which means that it's actually rather compact and easy to traverse, especially at the deeper levels. People who use vehicles can cross it very quickly. People who walk have to be in excellent shape (for all the stair-climbing), but can get across town in relatively short order.

The panel at the convention also talked about technology and how it influences the use of space. Surveillance was one of the major discussion points here. The sense that one is being watched and recorded in any given public area can totally change behavior... but won't always do it the same way. During the discussion we also talked about the perceived "space" of the internet, Twitterverse, etc. Clearly, as seen in many instances of unrest across the world including China, the Arab world, and other places, the texting arena, and the Twitterverse, have become hotly contested virtual spaces where people can "gather" and their governments in response try to exert control over them by controlling the "space." In a city, these real and virtual environments lie side by side, and augmented reality can potentially blur the boundaries between them so that two different people can experience the physical spaces in entirely different ways. Mind you, our own subjective judgments of spaces can already cause us to experience spaces in vastly different ways, as I have previously discussed, but the possibility of augmented reality will only magnify that effect.

This is an enormously rich opportunity for worldbuilders, as you can see. I hope this very brief and cursory introduction gives you plenty of ideas for going back and considering the links between spaces and thought in your own stories. Have fun with it!