An Introduction to Interplace

This newsletter is coming to you from Seattle – a city named after legendary leader, Chief Si'ahl (siʔaɫ). But that may be of little consequence to the disgraced and displaced tribes of the Duwamish, Suquamish, Snoqualmie, and Muckleshoot. They called Seattle “Little Crossing-Over Place”. It was a small collection of dwellings at the mouth (ootseed) of the Duwamish river. Ootseed is mouth in Whulshootseed, the local native language that is as alive today as those who speak it. “Little Crossing-Over Place” was a tidal marsh – an ecosystem in itself – where rhythmic interactions were shaped by the moon. For centuries, it was home to the interaction of people and place where fish were caught, goods were traded, and people laughed and lived. It was an interplace.

This newsletter explores the interaction of people and place. It looks at how we move within and between the places we live and what led us here in the first place. I’ll investigate the natural and manmade systems that govern our interactions with the world and how much of it we influence versus being influenced by it. We like to think we’re in control, but our environment alone determines so much about where we can live, how we move, how we thrive, and who will survive. One of my big influences has been Nobel prize economist, cognitive psychologist, and artificial intelligence pioneer, Herbert A. Simon. Simon said,

“The apparent complexity of our behavior over time
is largely a reflection of the complexity of the environment
in which we find ourselves.”

That complex intertidal environment, “Little Crossing-Over Place”, is now home to a train station and a seaport. An interplace on a different scale. And as it grew, the region grew. Plots were plotted, properties allotted, and trees turned into money. Above them flew sonic jets and a needle poked the sky. Dreamers dreamed of gold and riches as schooners traced the bay. Bridges pressed against the shore to span the waterways. Freeways lanced the countryside amidst the fog and rain. Soon the city sprawled and spread like an invasive vine creeping through a meadow. Suburbs sprouted and with them cars, cul-de-sacs, and business parks. One of which was Microsoft. Once a chicken farm where beaks pecked bugs, now it’s geeks pecking keyboards fixing bugs. Seattle’s bustling “Little Crossing-Over Place” was soon displaced by Bill and his Windows interface.

A new ecosystem was born and so was my career. For thirty years I helped shape the interfaces many still use today. Complex interactive ecosystems of software that have in turn shaped how people write, chart, present, and communicate with the world. When I started, software products were sold in separate cardboard boxes. They stood on their own like early settlements, villages, and towns. But just as planners mapped rails and roads to connect people to their destinations, I mapped software with menus and toolbars to connect people to their aspirations.

Whether navigating complex physical spaces or a suite of complex software, we always have a goal in mind. That goal is satisfied by interpreting shapes, signs, and symbols that map to environmental knowledge of space and place stored inside our brain. The more familiar a place becomes, the less we rely on signs and icons to guide our actions. We’ve all experienced the stress of being lost - in the physical world or online. And we seek maps to ground us. Little did you know, your brain is already busy making a map of own. Our brains help us find our way by becoming self-contained cartographers. And as behavioral geographer Reginald Golledge once asked,

“What's more symbolic of geographic thinking than creating (in working memory) and using a map to solve your location problem?”

Golledge was a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) where I studied geography. Having spent his early adult life researching the role of mental maps for navigation, he spent his later adult life relying solely on them. Diagnosed with a degenerative eye disease, he slowly and unmercifully began losing his sight.  A sad, but poignant fate that made his research all that more credible and valuable. He also was an early adopter of navigation software to help him make his way in the world. During my time at UCSB, I had no idea I’d have a career designing interfaces for the world’s most used software. It was only later that I realized interfaces are really just maps that solve the location problem of hidden features and functionality.

My primary interest as an undergrad was computer graphics, so I spent my time with another giant in his field, Waldo Tobler. Tobler pioneered the field of computer cartography. He was a clever and funny man who found joy in addressing envelopes with latitude and longitude just to see if they’d make it to their destination. To his delight, they usually would. He also built one of the world’s first plotters with an Etch-a-Sketch. He carefully wrapped two rubber bands around each little white knob then stretched the bands around two small motors that could spin left, right – up, down. His software (most likely Fortran) would meticulously and obediently plot the map drawn on the computer screen. And you thought drawing on an Etch-a-Sketch was hard enough. Try doing it in Fortran.

Tobler also taught the history of cartography. It was there I learned the political power of maps. For centuries they’ve mapped territories, borders, boundaries, and nations on paper, hides, clay, and caves. Maps have shaped worldly geopolitics, megacities, and politics. Spanning both the physical (geo) and the political (politics) maps are instrumental in mapping our world, cultures, and history. They’ve been used for both good and evil. The oldest map known map of the world, a Babylonian clay tablet from 6th century, details cities, rivers, and swamps but excludes Persians and Egyptians. The Babylonians knew where they were; did they chose to leave them out? Using maps to convey and perpetuate ethnocentrism is not new and is still happening to this day. One look at America’s electoral college, gerrymandering, and redlining and it’s easy to see maps are a powerful thing. As poet, activist, and athlete Muhammad Ali once said,

“Wars of nations are fought to change maps.
But wars of poverty are fought to map change.”

As powerful as maps are, the layers of information behind them can be even more powerful. My senior advisor in college was Michael Goodchild, a pioneer in Geographic Information Science (GISs) - the spatial analysis cousin to Geographic Information Systems (GIS). If you’ve ever wondered how Starbucks’ planners decide where the next coffee shop should go, they start with spatial analysis. Determining where to put a building can mean more than convenient a cup of coffee; properly locating a fire station can be a matter of life or death.

Because mobile devices have become increasingly ubiquitous, we know more about the spatial relations of human mobility than ever before. Armed with mountains of data, the once forgotten field of ‘social physics’ has re-emerged finding patterns in the natural occurring movement and interactions of people through place in a swirling interdependent constellation - an interplace. Every day, we wake up to simple routine interactions – simple acts triggered by biological needs. But as the day unfolds our actions become fueled by wishes and desires as we’re consumed by increasing environmental stimulation. Our interactions cascade into a complex network of exponentially expanding interactions between people and place like a worldwide societal fractal unfurling across time zones. Out of which emerge patterns crystallized in the interactive complexity of people and place - “an essential characteristic of adaptive evolving systems” in what theoretical physicist Geoffrey West calls, “one of the founding cornerstones of the new science of complexity.”

Complexity science is itself a complex adaptive system. But it finds inspiration and meaning in the math and physics that reveal the instability, connectivity, and emergence of the natural world. A world we barely understand. Entwined throughout are our own physiological systems which are synchronized, harmonized, and energized by our host ecosystem in an endless parasitic dance as we strive to be alive. But the pace of the dance is quickening, hedonist consumerism is increasing, technological cycles are accelerating, and our economic and environmental machinery is suffering. Our desire to move about this place - and climb up the rungs of the human race - has led to a different kind of crossing-over place. A climate crisis chasm threatening the entire human race. In the words of Chief Si'ahl,

“Humankind has not woven the web of life.
We are but one thread within it.
Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.
All things are bound together.
All things connect.”

Over the coming year I’ll use this newsletter to explore this web, tugging on the strands that connect. As writer Flannery O’Connor once said,

“I write because I don't know what I think until I read what I say.”

Each season (northern hemisphere) will explore the following four overlapping facets of interplace: Behavior, Cartography, Environment, and Economics.

  • BEHAVIOR | Winter draws on themes of human geography. I’ll reflect on history and pick at the historicity of human migration and mobility, the role human behavior plays in determining our movement and actions, and how spatial analysis helps us better understand mobility.

  • CARTOGRAPHY | Spring expands on spatial analysis into the larger role of cartography and geographic information systems as a means of understanding, influencing, and designing our urban and rural spaces.

  • ENVIRONMENT | Summer shifts to physical geography and the role the environment plays in shaping places and the people in them. I’ll, in turn, look at how we, as a human species, are shaping the planet and the vulnerability of climate change.

  • ECONOMICS | Fall turns to the artificial mechanisms created to determine how and where people interact with place. I’ll explore urban and regional planning and the role economics plays in shaping, nurturing, damaging, and, hopefully, sustaining our people and our places.

Every month will feature a longer essay with shorter topical pieces every week on the subject of that month. I’m doing this newsletter to learn and to make sense of things that matter to me and probably you. Your thoughts, feelings, and opinions matter and I need your help. I barely know what I’m talking about, so I encourage you to help stimulate discussion as we go. Thanks for reading, please subscribe, and tell your friends.

Image Credits: Chief Seattle, Space Needle Construction, Space Needle, Seattle Map