As anyone who grew up in a generic North American suburb knows all too well, it is possible to hate a place with a passion. So, too, is it possible to love a neighbourhood or find particular city blocks boring, frightening, or titillating. Far from simply being bricks-and-mortar set pieces in the unfolding of our daily lives, the environments where we spend our time have the power to shape how we feel and think and construe reality. While this fact has historically not been lost on architects, planners, and designers (or, as James Scott reminds us in his much-debated Seeing Like a State, politicians and powerbrokers), in Places of the Heart Colin Ellard explores the contemporary neuroscience of human relationships with place and space.
Ellard, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Waterloo and author of Where Am I? Why We Can Find Our Way to the Moon but Get Lost in the Mall, adopts the term “psychogeography” to define his field of inquiry. In the ubiquitous style of much pop-science literature, he serves the reader not one cohesive argument or in-depth exploration of a single topic, but a platter of thematic hors d’oeuvres. Here, such tidbits grow in complexity, beginning with meditations on relatively prosaic uses of architecture to inspire awe, then expanding to encapsulate discussions of the development and implications of mass-market virtual-reality technology and the resurgence of high-modernist technocratic hopes in the form of fully wired “smart cities.” Throughout, Ellard’s focus is on how personal and social perceptions and interpretations of reality react to design – of cities, virtual worlds, or smartphone apps. Indeed, Ellard shows that simple distinctions between nature and culture tend to collapse where many modern technologies are concerned.
In an age in which design and urbanism are fetishized as never before, it is to Ellard’s credit that he manages to write in a register that is both explicatory for a mass audience and nerdy enough for those familiar with the fields he glosses. Ellard’s greatest talent lies in sketching the contours of complex issues without overlooking their rough edges. While he is obviously no luddite, he is also (for the most part) not a naive tech-booster unaware of the potential pitfalls of the emergent technologies he describes.
This is important because many of the trends with which Ellard engages – such as virtual reality technology that would allow individuals to live in a curated, mediated, personalized, and highly commodified bubble – sound as if they were pulled from the pages of Ray Bradburyesque science fiction. Given that much modern technology of space-making revolves around personalization, Ellard is correct to place a cautionary asterisk beside developments that would risk alienating individuals from society, or even reality itself, as they embrace an ever-more-pervasive technological presence in their daily lives.
The one serious discussion missing from this book involves the politics and policies governing the developments to which Ellard calls our attention. Places of the Heart makes it seem that technological developments occur exclusively at the intersection of society and the market, where individuals must tread with caution, leaving the place of governments in promoting and constraining these trends unclear. Perhaps this blind spot is telling, pointing unintentionally to an historical moment in which technological change has outstripped both understanding and regulation.