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Geography Professor Shih-Lung Shaw Rethinking Concepts of Space, Place

There is a lot more to geography than you can explain with a map.

Chancellor’s Professor and Alvin and Sally Beaman Professor of Geography, Shih-Lung Shaw, said modern technology has merged the physical and virtual worlds in a way that’s forcing geographers to change the way they think about the concepts of space and place. 

“I’ve proposed a new framework for geographic information science (GIScience) where we put humans in the center,” said Shaw, whose research interests include transportation and geographic information science. “Increasingly we carry out our activities in the virtual world—in cyberspace and using those cell phones we cannot live without.”

Shaw said there is absolute space (a specific location), but there is also relative space (how a person is situated relative to surrounding environment), relational space (how people and/or entities are related), and mental space (how people perceive the world). And beyond simple location there are locale, place identity, and sense of place.

Shaw was born and raised in Taiwan, an island nation where there is much traffic congestion. Living in the midst of this made him interested in trying to improve transportation issues.

“Why do we need transportation? We need transportation because we need to move between different locations to fulfill various needs in our daily life,” he said. 

Going to work. Shopping. Visiting friends.

Technology, like computers and cell phones, has made it possible to do much of this online. The global pandemic made it necessary and, for many, preferable to do these things virtually.

“This has implications for many different challenges, like climate change, sustainable development, future pandemics, and equity issues,” Shaw said.

For instance, he said, if two people are meeting via Zoom, it doesn’t really matter where they’re located geographically. Social media, such as Facebook and Instagram, have become the virtual equivalent of neighborhoods. 

Unlike old-fashioned paper maps that showed roads and highways linking cities, Google maps and similar apps provide much more than simple location. These virtual tools can point you to nearby restaurants, tell you how they’re related and rated, and provide reviews left by other diners.

While these tools can be helpful, they can also be fallible. Just like humans.

Ask Google Maps and OpenStreetMap to show you the boundaries of Chinatown in New York City and you get two different answers.

“Which one is correct?” he asks. “In fact, there is no official boundary line to Chinatown.”

The bottom line: To explore and understand today’s world “We need to consider absolute space, relational space, relative space, and mental space.”

Shaw has been at UT since 1998. He has a bachelor’s degree in geography from National Taiwan University and a master’s degree and doctorate in geography from The Ohio State University.

He is president of the University Consortium for Geographic Information Science, a group of 60+ institutions of higher education, including Ivy League colleges, state universities, and private colleges.

Shaw and his wife, Mei, have two grown children and one grandchild, with a second grandchild on the way.

In his spare time, Shaw enjoys traveling and reading everything from science fiction to scholarly texts.

“Anything that can lead to new ideas,” he said.

-Story by Amy Blakely