Mumford: Space, Distance, Movement (Technics and Civilization, 1934)

hereford_mapCultures can be differentiated by their unique conceptions of space and time. Europe in the Middle Ages understood space and time in terms of arbitrary, religion-based symbolism. For instance, medieval cartography presents land masses and water as arbitrary shapes (see the Hereford Map), related to each other allegorically. Further, time was understood as something fluid, where in storytelling the past is happening now, so that it’s realistic to the medievel mind to transport a story from a thousand years ago into the present, or as in Botticelli’s The Three Miracles of St. Zenobius, where three different times are presented at once. The result of this was the ability to understand what we presently only understand using science–ship’s drop off the horizon, demons drop down chimneys. Things in the world come and go in the same way as adults come and go in the eyes of children–things are all either mysteries or miracles. All things make sense through religion–“the true order of space was Heaven, even as the true order of time was Eternity.”

boticelliBetween the 14th and 17th centuries, space “as a hierachy of values” was replaced by “space as a system of magnitudes.” In painting, horizons, vanishing points, and visual relationships between things replaced symbolic relationships between things. Size no longer corresponded to divine proportions, but to distance, objects in relationship to one another. This meant a need to understand the world accurately. Space would now be measured in the same way time was measured with a clock. To understand something would be to place it, and to time it–how long to get there? By placing things geographically, there was now an incentive to explore and discover the world. And by graphing out the world, even while incomplete or inaccurate, there was now a basis of expectations, rather than the navigationally useless maps of the Middle Ages. Explorers did not need to hug the shoreline, as in the old maps, but could now launch into the open seas and return to roughly where they began. Eden and Heaven were no longer to be found on maps. The concepts of space and time require us to begin, arbitrarily, with here and now–their conquest is through measurement, and through their conquest, scientific advancement. And in conquering space and time, the importance of numbers and counting grew.


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