In the heart of darkness

Lately, I’ve been digging through books, articles and podcasts that examine the places, patterns and pulse of the neighbourhood, measuring the impact of architecture, street design, geography and the history of urban development upon social and economic behaviour.

It’s this dabbling that led me to open a speech last week with a discussion of the Cassini II expedition to map the interior of pre-revolutionary France. In short, one of Cassini’s team disappeared after working his way into the heart of the Massif Central, a previously isolated and relatively unknown area of France.* I cast this incident as an example of how technological innovation can slam head on to social norms and steadfast traditions – notions of privacy included.

Turning back the clock back two or three hundred years, we begin to recognize that our traditional values, habits and practices were  formed as a reaction to contemporary geographic, political and technological pressures.

Even the simplest and most common of urban features — the cemetery — is sited because of economic and physical constraints:

” … In glacial country, all you have to do is look for cemeteries if you want to find the moraine, Anita [Harris] said. “A moraine is poor farmland — steep and hummocky, with erratics and boulders. Yet it’s easy ground to dig in, and well drained. An outwash plain is boggy. There’s a cemetery over near Utica Avenue that’s in the outwash. Most people prefer moraine. I would say it’s kind of distasteful to put your mother down into a swamp …”(“In Suspect Terrain“, John McPhee)

At work, I find myself considering this handful of factors everyday, as we are buffetted by technological change and attempt to take measure of how society is reacting.

* as described in Graham Robb’s “The Discovery of France.”

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