The Real World

Thirty years ago, Marshall McLuhan was proclaiming the obsolescence of “linear thinking.” Received opinion has tended either to discount his claims as bosh—“what other kind of thinking is there?”—or to go to the opposite extreme, invoking wildly various “ways of seeing”— Derridean, feminist, Native American, Eastern mystical, hypertextual, to name a few—that supposedly supersede linear, logocentric, Eurocentric, patriarchal thinking. In fact we’re in a muddled transitional stage, grappling with new means of organizing experience, new ways of telling what we know.

That muddle is perfectly exemplified by THE REAL WORLD. Extravagant claims are made immediately: “These pages present better explanations for the state of the world around us than can be found in any other single source.” Is the reader about to protest? Take heed: “This is not an immodest claim on behalf of this book. It is a confident commendation of the power of geography to inform and explain the biggest questions about life on Earth.”

McLuhan himself couldn’t have bettered that imperturbable hyperbole. What the “new geography” amounts to, at least in this experimental coffee-table book, is a very McLuhanesque project. There’s no narrative here—rather a sequence of loosely connected close-ups on an extraordinary range of topics: Africa’s effort to feed itself, the reclamation of Holland from the sea, the Islamic city, urban renewal and gentrification, and many more. Typically each topic gets a two-page spread, integrating text with stunning graphics.

At their best these quick glimpses open new vistas and spark a desire to learn more. At their worst (as in treating the issues involved in the federalization of Europe) they have all the glib superficiality of a glossy magazine story. In addition to gross oversimplifications, there are plain errors, as when the Silicon Valley gets identified as a satellite community of Los Angeles. (Elsewhere the Silicon Valley’s location is correctly identified; the incorrect reference is indexed, while the correct one is not.) Errors and shortcomings and hyperbole aside, what’s apparent here is a laudable effort to make use of new ways of presenting information.