I first read this in a Robert Heinlein novel (The Moon is a Harsh Mistress), but I think I’ve always known this: people don’t really know where any place is, they just know how to get there. Take any place you know, and tell me, in absolute units, how far and in which direction, that place is. Quite right, I can’t expect you to bring me displacements, human beings measure distances more. It is interesting that the farther the place is, the less you know about its real position in the world. Take, say Beijing. If I had to walk, swim or fly from my house, I would have no idea how to reach there. But with my eyes closed, I can get on a plane that’ll get me safely and easily to the Tian’anmen Square. As the world gets smaller (vis a vis, transport gets faster, or communication becomes immersively instant) it will matter less and less where you really are. (Unless of course you are in the Kalahari and sweating your brains out)
This sense of transportation – the way we get from place to place – is also a fascinating thing to explore. My parents have a very good “place-sense”. Both of them can easily tell another person how exactly to go to another place. If you have to reach the Ferderal Bank, go to such and such a place, and then as you drive down, you’ll see such and such a building and immediately you can take a right and viola! I suspect most of the people in the world are wired this way.
I’m not. Not at all; I do most of my travel on autopilot, and the only way I can really understand and remember a direction is if I’m doing the driving and somebody is telling me exactly when to make a turn, and to really burn it into my head, I have to do it two or three times. I can’t find a place even if you handed me a map and marked a big red spot on it (especially then). I’ve thought about it and I think it’s because my ‘markers’ are more obtuse than the landmarks other people use that I can’t explain them (and I don’t consciously remember them). Most of the time, I make turns without thinking and I just know that the house in question is just around the corner.
Since I’ve now discovered this chink in my armor, I’ve resolved to correct this 😉 – the solution is pretty simple. Just pay more attention =)