Erik Steiner, Co-Director of the Spatial History Project at CESTA explains how COVID-19 is reshaping our consciousness of space.
Amid a Pandemic, Geography Returns With a Vengeance
The coronavirus crisis is forcing us to reconsider physical space and our place within it.
The pandemic is redefining our relationship with space. Not outer space, but physical space. Hot spots, distance, spread, scale, proximity. In a word: geography. Suddenly, we can’t stop thinking about where.
Over the past few centuries, new technologies in transportation and communication made geography feel less critical. The advent of railway and refrigerated train cars in the 19th century, for example, had the effect of blurring distances and differences between locations. “Places lost their particularity and became functional abstractions,” wrote William Cronon in his 1992 book, Nature’s Metropolis. The telegraph, telephone, radio, and television each served to push location and distance further and further to the periphery. Then the internet all but obliterated them. Cyberspace, after all, is everywhere and nowhere.
Of course, geography never really died. I’m here and you’re there—boom, geography. Yet in an era when we can fly anyplace, learn anything online, order just about everything from Amazon, and use Google Earth to zoom in on faraway lands, we can get lulled into thinking that our spatial reality amounts to little more than an afterthought.
“Real-world proximity had been receding gradually from our consciousness,” says Erik Steiner, a senior researcher at the Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis at Stanford. “Pandemic throws the importance of space back into sharp relief.” We’re thinking about it at the smallest scale, navigating supermarket aisles or converting closets into serviceable home offices. We’re dealing with it at the regional scale, moving medical equipment from places with surplus to places with need. And we’re watching epidemiologists working at the national and planetary scale, as they race to comprehend precisely how a virus could travel so far so fast and cause such devastation.