Life on the Grid (part 1)
an essay published in the Praxis Society journal
The physical layout of the environment in which someone is raised impacts their cognitive abilities as an adult. A recent study based on videogame data from 397,162 people across 38 countries found that “people who grew up outside cities are better at navigation.” More specifically, “growing up in cities with low Street Network Entropy (e.g. Chicago) led to better results at video game levels with a regular layout, while growing up outside cities or in cities with higher Street Network Entropy (e.g. Prague) led to better results at more entropic video game levels.”
In plain english: if you grow up in a grid-like environment, then you will be worse at navigating less grid-like environments.
This finding is perhaps not wholly surprising, and at first blush might not seem all that significant. The vast majority of us hardly ever need to truly wayfind IRL anymore. Technology has made our navigational skills all but obsolete. So what does it matter whether certain environments are better or worse at preserving them?
It matters a great deal. To understand why, we will need to take a small detour.
In his appearance on Making Sense with Sam Harris, complexity scientist David Krakauer makes a distinction between complementary cognitive artifacts—technologies that make us more intelligent after using them—and competitive cognitive artifacts (if you can’t guess what these do then maybe you’ve been using them too much). The canonical example of a competitive artifact is a calculator: repeated usage leaves you worse at mental arithmetic than you were before. Contrast this with an abacus, which can have quite the opposite effect: expert users can eventually develop such a high-fidelity mental model that they no longer even need to use the physical abacus, and are able to maintain their enhanced arithmetic skills without it.
The brain is a complex system, full of interconnected representational systems. This is why an abacus doesn’t just help you with math—it helps you with everything. Dr. Krakuer explains, “[the mind] doesn’t have a firewall around it such that the abacus’ functional advantages are confined to arithmetic…it actually has really interesting indirect effects on linguistic competence and geometric reasoning.” Positive global effects, that reach beyond the intended use, are a characteristic of all complementary cognitive artifacts.
On the other hand, the functional disadvantages of competitive cognitive artifacts are also not limited to one domain or skill. Dr. Krakauer goes on to discuss how replacing primitive wayfinding technologies like maps, astrolabes, and sextants with automated wayfinding technologies has had exactly this effect:
Your familiarity with mapmaking and topographical, topological, and geometric reasoning is generally valuable in your life, not just in navigating across the city. So taking away a map doesn’t just make you worse at getting from one door to another, it makes you worse in many ways…A good example of this, which both Einstein and Frank Lloyd Wright depended upon, was wooden cubes. Early in their youth, they both became very enamored of these cubes and would construct worlds out of cubes, like Minecraft. And both of them claimed—Frank Lloyd Wright in the case of architecture, and Einstein in the case of the geometry of the universe—that the intuitions they built up playing with these cubes were instrumental in their later lives. I would claim the same is true for maps. If you know how to navigate through a true space, like a Euclidean space or a curved space on the surface of the earth, that allows you to think about different kinds of spaces, relationship spaces, idea spaces. The notion of a path from one idea to another, as a metaphor, actually has an immediate and natural implementation in terms of a path in real space.
That our cognition (reasoning, memory, creativity, etc.) is akin to a kind of mental navigation is betrayed by our conceptual metaphors: “a field of knowledge,” a subject that is “unexplored,” “a train of thought,” “a trip down memory lane,” “jogging your memory,” “a flight of fancy.” The neuroscience is moving quickly here (metaphor intended), but emerging evidence supports this claim: “the brain encodes abstract knowledge in the same way that it represents positions in space, hinting at a more universal theory of cognition.”
This is also why the ancient memory enhancement technique, the Method of Loci—the memory palace technique—is still used by memory champions today. According to The Art of Memory, “The method of Loci involves memorizing information by placing a mnemonic image for each item to be remembered at a point along an imaginary journey. The information can then be recalled in a specific order by mentally walking the same route through the imaginary journey and converting the mnemonic images back into the facts that they represent.” The connection between walking and creativity, long known to intellectuals and artists and supported by recent research, is also of note here—it is as if movement through the physical landscape primes one for greater ease of movement in the more abstract landscapes of ideas (see the wider literature on embodied cognition for further discussion of this theme).
The rhythm of walking generates a kind of rhythm of thinking, and the passage through a landscape echoes or stimulates the passage through a series of thoughts. This creates an odd consonance between internal and external passage, one that suggests that the mind is also a landscape of sorts and that walking is one way to traverse it. A new thought often seems like a feature of the landscape that was there all along, as though thinking were traveling rather than making. And so one aspect of the history of walking is the history of thinking made concrete — for the motions of the mind cannot be traced, but those of the feet can.
— Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking
We also use spatial metaphors to talk about the socio-economic landscape, or life itself: “life’s journey,” “broadening your horizons,” “finding myself” or “soul-searching,” “career paths,” “walks of life,” and so on. This makes sense when we consider our deep evolutionary history: many of the most important things we had to know for survival were spatial in nature—the wildebeest migrate through this valley, we can gather berries in that patch of forest, someone was killed by a saber tooth tiger over there, etc. We sometimes even conceptualize knowledge with an arboreal metaphor (“branches of knowledge”)—a vestige, perhaps, of our ancestral tree-dwelling lifestyle.
Our lack of wayfinding ability is present also in our physical, cultural, and metaphysical landscape, which has also become regular and grid-like. The consequence, which I believe we are now witnessing, is a lack of resilience and resourcefulness, an unwillingness to “blaze trails”, an inability to produce “path-breaking” innovations, and numerous other deficiencies which are leaving us altogether worse off than we were when the world was a bit more chaotic and idiosyncratic. The social and intellectual “technologies” (e.g. the educational system, norms around child-rearing) that we’ve put in place have increasingly become competitive cognitive artifacts rather than cooperative.
The excessive “gridification” of the world can be seen most clearly in the physical domain. For a variety of reasons (economic, environmental, changing aesthetic preferences), newer cities tend to have simpler layouts.
The same is true of architecture. More ornate and culturally distinct forms have been replaced the world over by drab monoliths. The result is an oppressive standardization and homogenization, a loss of the quirks and eccentricities that give places their unique character.
The loss of irregularity and variation is one aspect of the physical gridification of the world, but there is also the sheer number of roads and tracks crisscrossing the globe. It has become nearly impossible to “get off the grid.” Virtually nothing and nowhere escapes the techno-social net which we have cast over the planet. Uncharted territory has become a thing of the past.
And even if you wanted to drop out nowadays, could you? You are identified, tracked, networked, and classified everywhere you go, at every moment of your day. Never in history has it been harder to find a fresh start, a clean slate, or a place to march to the beat of your own drummer. There are no Walden Ponds or hermitage retreats anymore—even the off-the-grid spots are now on the grid.
If you grew up in the 18th century, there were still new places to go. After hearing tales of foreign adventure, you could become an explorer yourself. This was probably true up through the 19th and early 20th centuries; after that point photography from National Geographic showed every Westerner what even the most exotic, under-explored places on earth look like. Today, explorers are found mostly in history books and children’s tales. Parents don’t expect their kids to become explorers any more than they expect them to become pirates or sultans. Perhaps there are a few dozen uncontacted tribes somewhere deep in the Amazon, and we know there remains one last earthly frontier in the depths of the oceans. But the unknown seems less accessible than ever.
— Peter Thiel, Zero to One
Peter Thiel has argued that the innovative spirit has degenerated in part because we no longer believe in secrets, and that we no longer believe in secrets because there is no longer any accessible frontier. This is a truly unprecedented state of affairs for humanity. For eons, our minds and cultures have evolved in delicate symbiosis with the Unknown, that place on the map labeled “Here Be Dragons.” Without this Unknown, that place where there may be cities of gold or fountains of youth, the heroes (but not just the heroes, all of us) have nowhere to journey, and all of the things which can make us into heroes—bravery, fortitude, ingenuity, daring, and the like—begin to atrophy. Without this Unknown, we begin to feel confined—trapped—like a beautiful and dangerous animal in a cramped cage: we develop a claustrophobia; imagination and inspiration wither. We aren’t as hopeful as we used to be, but we don’t know why.
Life on the Grid begins at a young age, when you are given a job at the factory of tears and tedium that is the modern education system, where you will sit at square desks in square rooms in square buildings reading from square books and writing on square pieces of paper for countless hours of your childhood (in most cases I guess they will be rectangles, but you get the point). You will level up from one grade to the next by demonstrating that you can follow arbitrary rules and regurgitate knowledge that is spoon-fed to you in clearly-defined subjects, units, and chapters. If you are even remotely good at this game, they will insist that you do it for the first 22 years of your life, but even that’s not enough anymore.
At some point, god willing, you will enter “the real world,” that mystical realm your parents and teachers always spoke of. However, you will quickly come to find that “the real world” is another vast bureaucratic system which isn’t really all that different from “the fake world” of school. Sure, you have a little more freedom and some things are slightly different (bosses instead of teachers, cubicles instead of desks), but the basics are the same: just stay on the straight and narrow, keep your head down, and keep leveling up.
As for our post-education lives (what little remains of them), many enter Corporate America or become Public Servants. Some of us become artists or entrepreneurs, but even that is no escape: these career paths have also been engulfed by the Grid. Erik Hoel writes of how there is one indisputable difference between contemporary writers and the writers of even the recent past (early 2000s): pretty much everyone now has an MFA.
But a majority of people under the age of 50 successful in publishing today literally got A+s. They all raised their hands at the right time, did everything they needed to get into Harvard or Amherst or Williams or wherever, then jumped through all the necessary hoops to make it to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop or Columbia University, etc.
Faulkner didn’t finish high school, recent research shows Woolf took some classes in the classics and literature but was mostly homeschooled, Dostoevsky had a degree in engineering…Not one of these great writers would now be accepted to any MFA in the country. The result of the academic pipeline is that contemporary writers, despite a surface-level diversity of race and gender that is welcomingly different than previous ages, are incredibly similar in their beliefs and styles, moreso than writers in the past.
As for entrepreneurs, it’s more of the same. Gone are the days of Gates and Zuckerberg when advanced degrees were optional and the digital frontier was wide open. Now, everyone reads the same essays, follows the same guides (“8 Steps to Becoming a Tech Entrepreneur When You Know Nothing About Technology”), and applies to the same programs, incubators, and combinators.
Here was Tyler Cowen writing in 2007 (“The Loose Reins on U.S. Teenagers Can Produce Trouble or Entrepreneurs”):
The new ideas and business principles behind the Web have carved out the ideal territory for the young. A neophyte is more likely to see that music can come from computers rather than just from stores or radios, or that it is best to book a flight without using a travel agent. Clay Shirky, an associate teacher at New York University, notes that many young people are blessed by an absence of preconceptions about Internet businesses. Years of experience are critical to refining and improving a long-familiar product, like bread. But completely new, outside-the-box ideas — which typically come from the young — are more important for founding Napster or YouTube.
Sixteen years later and literally all of this is false now. The young don’t even know how to use computers anymore.
To review: growing up in simplistic spatial environments and using GPS has given you brain damage and life has become a soul-crushing video game utterly devoid of mystery or adventure. We are trapped in the Grid like an insect in the spider’s web; vigorous struggle will only serve to entangle us further. To extricate ourselves, we must, as individuals, gently subvert the very foundations of the Grid, which is nothing external but a facet of human nature: the impulse towards control, the systematizing instinct, the part of us that abhors anomaly and ambiguity and seeks to eradicate them. What begins as an earnest attempt to break free can so easily slip back into a self-imposed system of rules and practices with standards to be met and schedules to be followed. For that reason I am hesitant to provide any concrete suggestions—they will only serve to constrain your thinking. For now, there is perhaps only one thing that can be said: if you want to get off the grid, then get lost.