A Geography in Every Living Room

Poor grammar of this article’s title aside, a post by the Random Geographer at Fantom Planet spoke to an issue that I have been thinking about for the last month or two.

As musicians, my wife and I are fairly strongly opposed to the message that the American Idol shows send to the world (Yes, I am actually a musician. I have played a number of instruments since childhood. Why is that so surprising? And yes, this does actually relate to the topic at hand, which I would be able to get to if I didn’t have to explain myself to…). The shows sell the idea that anyone can be a musician, as long as the can wiggle and look cool: it doesn’t matter that they can’t sing, read music, write music, play a musical instrument, tune a musical instrument, recognize a musical instrument 3 out of 10 times… Anyway, our dislike of the show doesn’t come from some of competition with the picked-off-the-street, untrained wallowers in nicely-fattened suits of 15-minutes. Our dislike is of the false perception it gives the world that there is no need for professional musicians, and no need for music education, because “anyone can walk in off of the street and be a musician.” It’s not the competition that is a threat, but the public perception.

I faced the same issues as a Japanese translator (Yes, I do speak Japanese. I’m very fluent. I can read it too.). Machine translation has finally gotten good enough that it can correctly translate a couple of sentences on every page. But do business managers care? What they see is that at $0.25-$0.95 a word (!), professional human translation is much more expensive than having a machine do it. Why, in the world of contracts and such, where the very wood-pulp pattern of contract paper seems to have some kind of fine-print meaning, would two or three accurate sentences a page be good enough? No matter what the savings? The answer, again, is a false perception. How long before advanced foreign language training is dropped from universities because of a perceived lack of need for translators? (Hang on now, I’m about to get to my point)

With a battle of global proportions waging between Google Earth, World Wind, Virtual Earth, TerraExplorer, and the new ESRI offering expected next year, there seems to be, almost literally, a geography in every living room. As the Random Geographer asks in his article, such programs have brought new awareness to the field of geography, but at what cost? Is it possible, that instead of creating a flood of new applications for geography departments, it will result in the Picasso attitude towards geography of “My 3-year-old can look up maps on the Internet.” (An extension of the common response to Cubism that “That isn’t art. My 3-year-old could paint that.”) Will Google Earth do what false perceptions about machine translation have done to the translation industry, and what American Idol could do to the world of serious music? Will it make us irrelevant?

Perhaps in a future day when Google threatens my career, my answer to the Picasso haters and critics of geography alike will be: Just because you lack the training to understand the difference between a translational slide and a rotational slide doesn’t mean that your house isn’t going down the hill.

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