Early explorers rarely get credit for a job well done.
Later explorers, well, they’re attention hogs. Everyone knows about Christopher Columbus, Juan Ponce de León, Scott of the Antartic and people of their ilk. They’re show-offs, leaving port with a parade of well-wishers seeing them off, delving into the unknown for glory and gain, the kind of people you could ask “Why do you climb mountains?” and expect the answer “Because they’re there.”
They’re the kind of of people who’d smile as they said it, as if it was the most obvious answer in the universe. They’re not so much explorers as people poking the world in the eye to see what happens.
Early explorers had a different modus operandi. Much less ebullient and much more cautious, they didn’t climb mountains ‘just because’ but because without the wool, milk and meat of the goats foraging at their tops, their families would die of exposure and starvation.
That’s only half the story. Shivering and with rumbling stomachs they started their ascent unaware there were goats on the mountain, but hoping where the rest of the surrounding land had failed them, this last unexplored place, a killer crest of rock no explorer had ever returned from, might prove bountiful They climbed mountains out of necessity, not swagger; unlike Sir Edmund Hilary they would probably have preferred not to.
After seasons of searching they found the home of the mountain goats, and sketched it upon their early maps. The further from their village they travelled, the more the map’s details deteriorated; the map ended up looking like the image of the local world as seen by a myopic god. They pencilled in these distant and fuzzy places with whatever passed for pencils at the time, and brought them home for village hunter gatherers to follow and find bleating bounty half-way up a mountain. In the empty reaches where their world had previously ended now the map stretched into mountainous regions, inscribed with the slogan “Here Be Goats”.
Okay, so that’s a romanticised image of early exploration, which would have been performed by people without a written language, who almost certainly didn’t keep maps. Still, they did a good job exploring the countryside around their slim civilisation. I can leave my house and walk for hours on end without falling off the side of the world, something I put down entirely to those unsung early pioneers.
For most of us the world today is minuscule. Granted there are still people who walk days for water, food and shelter, and who might not find much of any before trundling back to their families camped deep in arid lands. If you’re reading this you’re not likely to be one of these poor unfortunates, and being fortunate are probably inclined to sweep them from your mind and get on with your daily duties not reminded of how dreadful so many other people have it. Twenty-first century technology has tethered the world with constricting lines of communication, narrowing great distances so that I, in England, might communicate with you in Australia without a second’s thought. As those lines tighten, so the parts of the world that aren’t so connected bulge in the gaps, being pressed further outward like the moles of a particularly plump woman tightly wrapped in a fishnet body stocking. We forget about them, these moles–we have to. For our world to continue we must scrape theirs away, so so long third world, who only existed to make our planet look untidy. We’re sorry to let you go, but let’s face it: you were never exactly our type of conversationalists.
The needs of the world are manifested in the garbled output from social network sites–or at least, they used to be. I find myself increasingly annoyed at tweenagers accessing Twitter on their mobile phones, and not just because children of such an age shouldn’t have access too these improbably expensive devices but because they’re cluttering the world in a most perturbing manner. Twitter’s trending topics used to be a good indicator of the current global climate (or at least, the climate of the only part of the word in which we’re interested) with news items rippling through tweets disseminating the information, spreading the word. It’s something I’ve praised in the past as a genuinely exciting news source, and one many professionally paid news organisations have capitalised upon. When something happens–anywhere, anywhere at all–through mobile phones and similar gizmos everyone on the scene has their own voice with which they can report news as it happens.
Trending topics are a great way to stay on top of these incidents as they aggregate hundreds, maybe thousands of voices all talking about a single important event. Some of these voices might dissent or have been led astray, but click the trending topic, read enough of the tweets and the consensus behind them is bound to get through.
Advertisers used to pick up on these global trends, realising anyone seeking them out would also see unrelated tweets hash-tagged with the trend in question. It was annoying, but there were never so many of these piggy-backed false trends they’d drown the message at the heart of the matter.
Because now these impromptu news networks are dominated by the dribbling idiocy of infatuated youth. Justin Bieber fans and similarly under-aged fanatics weaned on the Disney Channel bombard Twitter with messages in an attempt to get ‘their’ hash-tag into global standings. Often, they succeed. I’m sure sociology students find this behaviour very interesting as it shows the passion of these young kids, who can now prove their devotion to ridiculous causes with a single press of the re-tweet button. Through this self-perpetuating re-tweeting they’re choking the real world in favour of one filled with twinkly sparkles and pretty pink hearts; they’re cutting out the world that matters as surely as we’ve ever cut off the third world. To Beliebers, our concerns are as distantly troubling as the families of African droughts, men, women and children with coat-hanger shoulders and paper bag skin, dying malnourished in the sun.
Sadly, the ridiculous world of the Beliebers is as far away from ours as ours is from those AIDS-ridden sacks of bones. I wish I could be so excited about the new album from The Cheetah Girls that I’d want to cry it from minarets; more important than economies, wars, terrorist threats, anything you care to mention, new albums and who’s dating who. Gossip perpetuated in the boundless hope of a generation who sleep so shallowly their dreams always come true. “We can do this, come on!” they say. “Thirteen million Beliebers strong!” And when they make it into the trending topics they proclaim themselves the rulers of Twitter, that no man can dethrone.
They’re toddlers, finger-painting on newsprint. It’s a horrible thing to see such pride in their devastation.
It poses yet another philosophical problem: one of subjectivity and how the world bows to it. To their fans, Bieber and his pals are the suns around which the world turns. We have other concerns, both our own individual causes and those we face together, as a people–the dwindling job market, the global economy, Middle Eastern worries, perhaps–issues that would be dominating the Twitter trends if straight-toothed pop zygotes weren’t already roosting in their place. Every one of us might as well be his or her own planet, our heads clouded in individual atmospheres, that share certain gases with those of the people about us but within which we experience completely subjective worlds.
And these worlds change over time. The things I worried about ten years ago lie ten years into the past. Sure, some worries persist–just what are we going to do when we run out of oil?–but most have either come to pass or never will. I have new concerns now; we all do. The ten years that have passed are a place we’ve already explored, and in minute detail. The land ahead is the task at hand, amorphous and frightening with Here Be Dragons stamped all over it.
In such a small and intricately connected world, we might wonder if those souls on the other ends of the line have better lives than we do. Year after year ,ore of us are emigrating abroad while at the same time immigration rates are increasing. The world’s a Rubik’s cube, with cultures, not colours, shuffling in search of a better way of life. I hope to be one of them soon, though my own reasons for moving are skewed a little beyond the American Tail dream of an land with streets paved with cheese. We take our strange ways with us as we move, our luxuries from home, and countries become melting pots of peoples steadfastly refusing to blend.
Each person has their own perspective on the world: they view their new digs subjectively, as strangers in strange lands. The people there don’t speak our language; their temperaments are different; their food is funny. Don’t get me wrong–I like it here–but everything’s wrong all the same.
The world turns so fast it seems, its landmasses smear together.
Encased in our own atmospheric bubbles it’s impossible to conceive of how big the world truly is. Globes and atlases don’t do it justice; you need modern technology like Google Earth to see it in all its glory. Zoom into the digital planet, turning abstract shapes into countries, counties, cities and streets and find your own home, a little box in the tiniest corner of the map. Do the same at any point the world over and you’ll find so many boxes, each filled with people. Soaring across Russia is breathtaking–it goes on forever. With the world at our fingertips tourist destinations–the Pyramids, the Eiffel Tower–become as insignificant as any of our homes. They’re places, that’s all, places people visit, view and admire but still, only places.
And it strikes you, touring these places, that beneath our communications, our homes and destinations, the maps we draw, the people we know . . . the world is objectively huge and its only our mark on it that’s small. Oceans unmapped, unplumbed; too wide, too deep, too monotonous to bother with. Lands on which we’re insects building anthills, with mountains that will forever exist whether we bother to climb them or not. From deep into cavernous reaches mankind has yet to find, let alone explore, to the atmosphere’s lip touching infinite space, our contributions are meaningless compared to the majesty of this planet. We might as well be Beliebers for all the good we’ve done or will ever do.
This vastness can be overwhelming. It’s far better to sink beneath our individual atmospheres, the subjective reality where people like us matter.
“Why do you climb mountains?”
Whether for adventure or out of desperation, we’ll always have our answers. But the mountains? Well, they need no explanation. Waters rise and fall. Civilisations conquer and are conquered in return. We might one day blow ourselves up with bombs or viruses or tiny grey machines but the mountains won’t notice if we’re here or if we’re gone.
Kings and conquerors, artists and fans, loved and despised, fortunate and unfortunate: since the dawn of our kind we’ve turned ourselves into so many different things.
But the world? The world merely turns.