Michael Phoenix looks at how technology impacts thinking

By Mick Rhodes


“There are some people who are born geographers, whether they know it or not,” said Michael Phoenix, and he most certainly would know it. The 79-year-old has spent his entire life in a state of near constant wanderlust, visiting more than 120 countries.

“If you take a five year old, and put him in front of a map, and he’s fascinated—why a five year old would be fascinated with maps I don’t know, but I run into them every once in a while, and I was one of them, one of these little kids who loved to sit and look at maps,” Mr. Phoenix said.

“And, it was always the empty places on the maps that I was fascinated with; it was never the places with a lot of dots and lines like the Parises and Londons of the world, it was the Sahara and the Amazon and Siberia that fascinated me.”

Mr. Phoenix grew up in Schenectady, in upstate New York, and later lived in Massachusetts. He hit the highway right out right out of high school, joining the military. After college, he joined the Peace Corps. He then worked with the US State Department foreign aid programs in war zones in Vietnam and Laos, and in refugee camps in Somalia.

Later he spent time working on Habitat for Humanity builds in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Paraguay, and in Malawi, in southeast Africa.

He didn’t become an academic until later in life, earning his PhD in geography from Clark University in Massachusetts when he was 52.

Today he lives in San Mateo Canyon, in rural Riverside County, near Redlands. In 1992 he went to work for ESRI, the world’s leading provider of data collected from satellites, headquartered in Redlands.

On Tuesday, January 21, Mr. Phoenix will bring his lifetime of travel and research to bear as the guest speaker at the University Club of Claremont’s luncheon at 11:30 a.m. at Hughes Community Center, 1700 Danbury Rd. The talk will focus on space-based applications of geographic information science and the importance of critical thinking.

Asked what has driven his desire to travel, he was quick to respond: “I like to tell stories,” Mr. Phoenix said. “Most all the decisions I made in my early life were based on wherever there was more adventure.”

And even nearing 80, there is apparently no slowing him down. Asked how he does it, with the rigors of overseas travel and all of that up, down and moving about, he says he exercises, eats well and stays in shape. Mostly though, he follows his passion, and that keeps him strong.

“My wife and I were in Africa for more than a month in May of last year,” Mr. Phoenix said. “It was great. I got three new countries: Namibia, Botswana and Zambia. We’re going to Egypt and Ireland next year. I’m always trying to go to new countries, because I’m one of those people that keeps lists. I like going to places my wife hasn’t seen and showing them to her. I’ve been to Ireland and Egypt, but she hasn’t, and I think she will really enjoy it.”

He’s been traveling around and giving the “critical thinking in the spatial domain” talks for about 15 years for ESRI. It’s a passion—he clearly adores his work—and combines his lifelong love of maps with travel.

“University professors are used to talking about critical thinking, but they don’t often look at it from that perspective,” Mr. Phoenix said. “So what we’re talking about is: How can you apply critical thinking to solving problems with the spatial, map data? So I was going to a lot of conferences and universities.  After I retired [in 2008], the company sent me on a few lecture tours.”

He spent two semesters teaching in China, where the geographic information science department was massive, with 1,200 students. “It was just mind blowing,” Mr. Phoenix said. “Everything they do there is just big in numbers.”

His lecture career soon spread to India and Africa. A portion of his talk focuses on how maps are used in thousands of applications in science and industry.

“Most scientists study subject matter,” Mr. Phoenix said. “Everything exists in time, space and matter. The focus has been mostly on the matter part. Historians do a pretty good job on the time part. Some scientists look at change over time, but it’s not a major thing. One thing that’s been neglected through most science and in industry is how things change over space.”

Almost every problem has a spatial dimension to it, Mr. Phoenix explained, but we never had the tools to really do a spatial analysis until the technology began to get more sophisticated in the 2000s.

“Most universities are now are aware of spatial technologies,” Mr. Phoenix said. “And because of GPS technologies in cars and Google Maps, most citizens are aware of the usefulness of spatial information. People can do things that they couldn’t do with the paper map.”

For instance, one couldn’t ask a paper map, “Where’s the nearest ATM and how do I get there?”

“That’s a pretty simple question, but it’s actually fairly hard for a computer to answer that question because the data that’s necessary,” he said. “If you have a GPS in your car, the most important part of that is the data that’s inside it. Really what a GPS does is tell you your latitude and longitude, down to less than a meter, within a few centimeters now. Without a map, that’s pretty useless information.”

Mr. Phoenix’s enthusiasm is difficult to resist, whether talking about his work with ESRI, environmentalism, his many dog-eared passports going back to the 1960s, California’s wild interior, the challenges of working in a warzone, or the joys of living nearly off the grid in the canyons on Riverside County.

All these years later, that little five-year-old boy who was obsessed with maps is still spending his days and nights poring over them, just as thrilled now as then. He’s working, yes, but he’s also still looking for those unfamiliar “empty places,” planning his next adventure.

The University Club of Claremont hosts Mr. Phoenix at 11:30 a.m. Tuesday, January 21 at Hughes Community Center, 1700 Danbury Rd., Claremont. A $20 meeting fee includes a buffet lunch. The talk and meeting are open to the public. More information is at www.universityclubofclaremont.org.



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