Winner of the Summer Geographies Prize – Annabel Morgan

Is Granny’s Geography Degree Outdated?

Over summer vacation I visited my granny in Dorset, who studied Geography herself at University (centuries ago). Catching up over tea and biscuits, she was naturally curious about the course content in my first year. I walked her through the core elements; mobilities, climate, geomorphology and so on, to which she nodded along to before pausing and asking: “..and what about the study of cartography?”

Immediately ‘Space and Place’ alarms rang in my head. My mind flashbacked to reading Toffler’s 1970 concept of the ‘death of Geography’, which states how the importance of maps, physical space and location are increasingly insignificant in the contemporary age of technology and rapid transport. Granny went on explaining her frustration with the “youth these days”, lacking any ‘genuine engagement’ with maps or routes, and instead just “punch in a postcode and follow the blue line until you arrive” – referring to the ubiquitous SatNav/Smartphone map usage.

Of course, she makes a fair point in reference to the general trends of contemporary society. Paper map sales declined 25% between 2005 and 2012 (Kelly, 2014.) A-Z map books were once essential, studied rigorously before the urban dweller could go anywhere. Shoved into pockets and handbags, they were often left battered and crumpled to be renewed on a regular basis. While sympathising with her observations, I also defended “us youths”- discussing how imperative these devices are in the incredibly mobile current society, so much so UK driving tests have been updated to test the budding driver on their SatNav usage abilities (Wilson, 2017). The study of geographic location becoming less prevalent within geography coincides with Relph’s suggestion of increasing ‘placelessness’ due to heightened interconnectivity and homogenisation across space (2008). Granny was utterly shocked how seldom cartography featured on my Geography course and just how much broader and varied our syllabuses are compared to when she studied.

Later this summer I was fortunate enough to travel to Cuba with two fellow Geography peers. Stepping off the plane in Havana’s Jose Marti Airport, we were immediately greeted with a hug of humidity, and soon hopped into the windowless 1952 “fontingo” taxi that took us to our casa, noticing the immediate omnipresence of Che Guevara’s face on almost every wall along the highway, instantly knowing that Cuba would be an entirely unique. Needless to say, we were itching to start exploring the island, and it resulted in a truly unforgettable experience. However, my understandings of space and place were indeed challenged and observing Cuban life helped shed new light on my conversation with Granny back in Shaftesbury.

Castro’s takeover in 1959 and the subsequent development of a communist regime meant that imports into Cuba were restricted, reduced further by the permanent trade embargo with the US (Coates, 2017). Consequently, the rate of globalisation within Cuba was effectively put on hold. Being just 90 miles from Miami, Hartshorne’s idea of ‘aerial differentiation’ is abruptly challenged, as despite geographic proximity, Cuba is politically and socially much further away (1939 in Castree, 2009). Only in recent years has Cuba become more ‘porous’ (Castree et al., 2009), such as with some US food imports and some installations of internet access. Yet internet only benefits 4% of Cuban households, and in Havana (with a population of 2 million), there are just 25 Wifi hotspots, with one hour of data costing 10% of one’s average monthly salary (Chanda, 2016). With limited horizontal connections to outside places (physical and virtual), Cuba exhibits a vertical sense of place – rooted and insular, developing in alignment with it’s external limitations and internal lacking. Moreover, the average Cuban relies on (often outdated) paper maps, with the world of TomToms and Smartphones still waiting to penetrate. Taxi drivers must stick to areas and routes stored in their memory or else follow a map, just like Londoners pre the digital revolution. Their use of maps and cartography as a skill is still fundamental to their daily life.

Cuba is an incredibly interesting country. Post-Cold War and just as the world was rapidly becoming highly connected, Cuba was becoming more and more isolated. While this is gradually changing, traveling to Cuba still provided me with a first-hand example of a truly unique place, and reminded me that while many Western places resemble each other, not everywhere is affected by globalisation and therefore the concept of a mosaic-like ‘place’ can still be very applicable (Castree, 2009). The way my Granny studied Geography was likely very different to how UK students study Geography in 2019, and this is a reflection of the modern, digital age of our society. However, as evidenced in Cuba, it is important to remember that the habit of diligently reading and using maps in which my Granny’s generation developed is not entirely lost to the modern world.

Castree, N. (2009) “Place: connections and boundaries in an interdependent world.” in Clifford et al, eds. Key concepts in geography, 2nd ed (2009): 153-174

Chanda, (2016) Cuba Poised for Globalisation. Straits Times [online] Available at: https://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/cuba-poised-for-globalisation [Accessed 3 Sep. 2019]

Coates, A (2017) Is this the end of the road for Cubas classic cars? The Independent [online] Available at:https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/motoring/is-this-the-end-of-the-road-for-cubas-classic-cars-a7570636.html [Accessed 3 Sep. 2019]

Kelly, J (2014) The Lost Era of the A-Z Map? BBC News. [online] Available at:https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-26288619 [Accessed 4 Sep. 2019]

Wilson, (2017) Driving Test Changes. Despatch Blog [online] Available at:https://despatch.blog.gov.uk/2017/08/07/driving-test-changes-the-new-instructions-examiners-will-give/ [Accessed 3 Sep. 2019]

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