The following is the text of the keynote address by Dr Muthatha Ramanathan, Research Associate, The Institute of Geographical Studies, delivered at the opening of the International Geography Youth Summit (IGYS-2019). You can also download a PDF version of this address here.

Caring for Place through Stories

Muthatha Ramanathan

Good morning, everyone!

Welcome to the 5th International Geography Youth Summit hosted by the Institute for Geographical Studies – or TIGS as we are more affectionately known.

We are very excited to be here and we hope all of you are excited and curious too, to explore what lies ahead of you in the next three days.

Last year when we were wrapping up our conference, we asked our student participants for suggestions for themes for the next conference. We got many many exciting responses. Of all those responses we chose one and that is Stories. So welcome to this year’s conference on the Geographies of our Stories.

What I am going to share with you today is how this theme of Stories fits within the values of TIGS and the kind of Geography learning we encourage.

Now, will you all keep looking at me even though I am not on a screen? Will you all follow what I am saying even though I am not on YouTube right now? (just making sure because nowadays no one really looks at you. They are too busy looking at their phone screens) And at least there are no ad breaks in the middle of my keynote. Just checking with Dr. Chandra – sure, no? No commercial breaks.

Part 1

Now every discipline that you study has a major focus. In medicine the focus is on the body, In Physics the focus is on matter, energy and force, in Math the focus is on numbers that are measurements or quantities… and in Geography the focus is on place. Now how we study place in order to understand place is very important. One of the first points I would like you to remember is it is more humane to study place not as an object but study place as a set of  relationships.

Dr Muthatha Ramanathan, Research Associate, The Institute of Geographical Studies, delivering the keynote address at IGYS-2019.

Let’s take an example of the subject matter of place, from the book we just launched ‘Geography, Everywhere!’. If you take the place ‘Home’ – it is a very important place for each of us, isn’t it? We can understand home in many different ways – we can study how people make their homes a comfortable space – we can look at people who have migrated away from home to live in a faraway place and ask how they keep their homes. Through this kind of a study we can understand people more intimately and understand their cultural practices.

We can understand home in many different ways – we can study how people make their homes a comfortable space – we can look at people who have migrated away from home to live in a faraway place and ask how they keep their homes. Through this kind of a study we can understand people more intimately and understand their cultural practices. Now you can ask the question – but to understand different cultures we can just study it from our textbook – you know look at the chapter on culture, look at pages of people from different places in their national costumes perhaps…

And then you can pause to think – but what if a school child in Japan is trying to understand me and sees the picture of an Indian family in a traditional dress in his or her textbook – does this represent all of you?

This is why studying place as a set of relationships is important. And so when you want to understand culture of migrants – you can go to their home, and understand how they make their home comfortable, what they cook, why they cook what they cook, and what are they currently doing and how are they currently living – by doing this you can develop a realistic understanding of how a migrant culture is adapting to a new environment, rather than assuming something fixed about a culture. When you assume what you are studying is fixed and unchanging you are treating it as an object.

So the point I want to make is that we have to remember that place – the focus of what we study in Geography is dynamic – it is always changing – – so in order to develop a sound understanding of place, and a relevant understanding of place – we must study how place is changing, and why it is changing – and who is most important in changing places? Yes, People – and their actions – so we must include people in our definition of place – if you want to develop a humane understanding of place we must include people and their actions, and their relationships.

Part 2

So now moving onto the second part of my talk – Since I said that in the discipline of Geography our focus is to understand place, and that place is seen not as an object but as a set of relationships amongst people and people-place, and we talked of paying special attention to people’s actions – I’d like to draw your attention to one specific type of action that is rather prevalent today amongst many people. Can you guess?

Now what is this excessive use of mobile phone technology doing to place? In order to think of this, let’s first forget technology and think of ourselves in this place. How do we experience place and time, through our physical presence? Through our bodies and our senses, and through our beings. Just close your eyes and experience this time and place.

When we use technology how do we experience place and time? I would like to share with you the work of a geographer called David Harvey who talked about time-space compression. Let me explain. — – He says that society invented and used technology to overcome the barriers of place and time to aid economic activity. Why is place a barrier? How is place a barrier? If you and I am are both manufacturing cotton and we want to reach it to the market – what is the barrier – the distance to the market – so distance, the place is a barrier – so what technology will we use? Transportation technology and communication technology. We will choose the the fastest technology that each of us can afford to reach the market. And obviously the person who can
make the cotton faster, who can reach it to the market faster has an advantage isn’t it. He can make profit sooner and he / she can compete better. So David Harvey says this time-space compression is what is driving globalisation.

So while a lot of transportation and communication technologies have been devised for purposes of economic activity and war from the early 20th century – technologies such as aeroplanes, automobiles, and radio – – people and cultures have necessarily experienced these technologies – what I mean by that is that – as people, although we invent things for use, we don’t just use them as objects or things, instead we develop a relationship to things – we feel a certain way when we use them, and also we devise other uses too – for our forms of expression not just in the public sphere, but also in the private sphere. Because people are living, feeling beings.

I remember in one of his books David Harvey talks about the horse wagon — how when people started using it to move from place to place they noticed that they felt different – as it altered their place of life – just the quicker movement, the way the scenery moved by – it was a new feeling to their bodies and senses. ..and guess what it made me some people feel a bit uncomfortable and anxious as they were not used to moving so quickly through a place.

Let’s look at sound and picture recording technologies – we recorded sound on gramophones – and we took photographs of people – in the early years it was a novelty – yes only some people could afford it, and it gave people a sense of status, and it made people happy to go to a studio with their new born and take a picture. These technologies were helping people take snap shots of place in a time and freeze it for a later time. But the products were static in a sense – by that I mean the relationships that made our use of these technologies were more or less known to us – people knew how the camera worked, they knew who owned the camera, who ran the store, where they had to go to take a photo and they were given their photo in their hands – it was something you had in your home for you to enjoy if you could afford it — and it made people happy.

Now let’s now speed past to the current period and to the one activity that people most engage in today – yes the mobile phone. Is there any thing that is not in your mobile phone? It uses the internet to make calls, it uses the internet to record sound, to listen to sound, to record photos, to take photos, and it uses the internet to even facilitate the movement of many of your needs – food, transport, anything you want to buy – clothes, except the love of your father and mother – but then Skype provides you that too especially if they are not in the same place as you !

So what is the problem with this one can ask? Isn’t this great?

Let’s go back to place – and the compression of place – and lets go back to the exercise that we did earlier – where we experienced this place through our physical presence – and if you get on the phone, you begin to experience the sounds in another place – while you are doing something here – now with the proliferation of apps, you begin to get your food in 20 minutes after it is produced in a restaurant kitchen, and you get your books and toys delivered on the next day, and you get to walk with your friend who is video calling you when she on a vacation somewhere else so you get to be in more than one place.

And in all of this – you are made to feel that it is just you and the product you want, or whatever you desire. No body else in this world. But is that true ? No, there are many relationships that are actually connecting you to your want / desire. There are many places and people all along the way that are made invisible by digital technology – and there are many hands – and many people whose hands are doing the activity, and many places where those people with those hands are eating and sleeping. So place and people and relationships.

So this year in our conference the theme is stories – a very very old old technology for communication, or rather a tool – a tool that passes from person to person with feeling and with experience, and which is slow. The story too is a human invention – and so we urge use to use it more – and to use it in a format that is more static – that makes less invisible the relationships that hold it all together …

Focus on the hands that make things possible and make it less about you and an end product;

Read a book of stories – where the pace reminds you that somebody’s voice is narrating something and that helps you build pictures in your head;

Listen to a story from your grand parent where you can see their mouth, their form, their expression;

Tell your friend a story;

Ask your mother to tell you a story;

Sit on her lap, feel her presence and feel yourself;

And work with us and enjoy the next few days;

And thereby you make place and make new relationships;

And use these stories and these new practices as material for your presentations for next year’s IGYS.

And one last note, those of you who don’t have access to mobile phone technology and 3G and 4G … don’t feel too bad …y es while I can understand that it is an important piece of clothing or actually an important body part for all in the current generation – don’t feel bad … because firstly, you can’t escape it in your life, your time will come … but more importantly, remember that you are actually lucky now if you don’t have much access to a mobile phone because the more time you spend away from it now,  the richer your life is as you are better positioned to enjoy relationships and place – and it is this richness that will prepare you to use technology in a more humane way when you eventually get access to it.

So. go and enjoy and make IGYS a special place, full of relationships!

All our workshops are gadget free for participants and all of them have a story to tell about place and relationships, where relationships are made visible, not invisible.

Thank you.


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