Paradise Lost

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Fig 1 – web mapping utopia, location uncertain

“Not surprisingly, in a culture in which information was becoming standardized and repeatable, mapmakers began to exclude “paradise” from their charts on the grounds that its location was too uncertain.”

—Neil Postman, Technopoly (1992)

I recently spent a few hours re-reading some old books on the shelf. Neil Postman’s Technopoly triggered some reflection on the present state of web mapping. As a technophile, I tend to look forward to the next version of whatever with anticipation. Taking the longer view, however, can be a useful exercise.

Progress – yes, no, maybe?

Postman’s critique asserts that Technology is in the vanguard of illusory “progress.” That the impact of technology shapes deep things in a culture with unimagined side effects. The core technology of our current cultural turnover is electronics and the key utility is “Information,” its storage and flow. Information volume and velocity apparently grow exponentially over time loosely tracking the famous Moore’s Law time curve. Our web mapping subset of Technology is embedded in this Information ramp up, and we are still grappling with the confusion of Information and Knowledge, resulting from an accelerating information glut.

The principle of Information is popping up all over, from Claude Shannon’s Information Theory to Hawking-Berkenstein’s Black hole solution which surprisingly showed that the total Information content of a Black hole is proportional to the Planck square surface area of its event horizon (as opposed to a cubic volume relation). Naturally the concept of Information leaks into the soft sciences as well. Bit obsession is now woven into Western economic fabric with the assumption of continuous progress.

Sociologically, this all leads to a breakup of previous generations of “knowledge monopolies” and a hyper-sensitivity to initial conditions, (the old Ray Bradbury crushed butterfly scenario at the root of chaos theory). The upheaval is met with a kind of assumed optimism, an unquestioned utopian view of progress around the benefits of modern technology. Information is good, right? More information faster is even better! Web maps contribute more information faster, so web mapping is on the side of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. Naturally web maps can be quite beautiful, whatever that means subjectively.

The age of typography, ushered into Western culture by Gutenberg, had profound and enduring effects on history and culture, affecting everything – from the Reformation and the rise of Democratic Nationalism to our educational bureaucracy and even common definitions of truth and knowledge. But not until Marshall McLuhan were the typographic origins of these effects popularly visible, and only in retrospect. The electronic age, in its current internet iteration, is undoubtedly creating similarly profound dislocations, whose consequences are not at all apparent at present. Unintended side effects are just that, unintended. Consequences are unintended, because they are unknowable.

“Technology solved the problem of information scarcity, the disadvantages of which were obvious. But it gave no warnings about the danger of information glut, the disadvantages of which were not seen so clearly, the long range result – information chaos.”

 

“The world has never before been confronted with information glut and has hardly had time to reflect on its consequences.”

—Neil Postman, Technopoly (1992)

Whither web mapping?

So the question at hand revolves around the smaller microcosm of mapping in the internet era. That an ever growing amount of this information flood is geospatial is indisputable. Computing mobility adds terrestrial location to all business and social enterprise – Tweets to Facebook, Fleet Tracking to Risk Analysis are increasingly tethered to spatial attributes. Maps take all of these streams into a symbolic spatial representation, which filters for location. To a mapmaker everything is a map and terra incognita has long since vanished.

Web mapping adds an element of exploration, with zoom and pan flight through these abstract spaces, that mirrors movement in our physical world. Our community is also wont to add controls affording endless tinkering with the form, as if one more contribution to universal “Choice fatigue” will add value. But Google glommed on to the real deal. In a state of information overload, the key to riches is meaningful information reduction. Simplification is the heart of search. Web mapping is one more filtering approach reducing information along the axis of spatial proximity.

Do interactive maps add seriously to comprehension or just to entertainment, as simply a novelty? Cartographers relish pointing out this quandary to web developers and other mere mortals. In the web mapping community proliferating means can easily be confused with progress. Doesn’t it seem peculiar, for example, to attach any meaning whatsoever to charts of Kindergartener’s DIBELS scores, let alone median DIBELS scores charted on national school district polygons. Does it lead to anything but a bureaucratic illusion of some control over chaos? No child is better off for the graph (unless distant employment potential as an educational bureaucrat is considered relevant), and, “no child left behind” slogans to the contrary, the overthrow of typography based education proceeds apace in a confusing melee of winners and losers. The application of numeracy to every conceivable problem like this elevates modeling to mythic proportions.

“When a technology becomes mythic, it is always dangerous because it is then accepted as it is, and is therefore not easily susceptible to modification or control.”

—Neil Postman, Technopoly (1992)

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What is a map but a modeling technology, a symbolic abstraction of space to visualize a formulaic concept? Maps are all entangled with mathematical models, ellipsoids, surfaces, and transforms, but are we guilty of mythically inflating the power of maps to communicate something of the Good, the True and the Beautiful? Does the proliferation of web maps, for instance, alter the injustice of Atanas Entchev’s incarceration for the so called “crime“of immigration? Likely not, and in fact, may contribute to the irony of an ICE database assigning the Entchev family a spatial attribute coinciding with some “Community Education Center” in Newark, NJ.

“Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at.”

—Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854), p. 42

Another pillar of cyber utopian thought is the inevitability of improved community with improved connectivity. The meteoric rise of Facebook exemplifies this confusion. For in fact Facebook is faceless, not anonymous, but prone to carefully crafted pseudonymous identities. Unintended messages ripple across unknowable communities, and histories, whether wanted or unwanted, retain regrettably long tails. Twitter, as well, champions brevity while fragmenting communication across a ghostly crowd of undisclosed persons.

“The great communication that we have today can lead to complete depersonalization. Then one is just swimming in a sea of communication and no longer encounters persons at all.”

—Benedict XVI “Light of the World” p59 facebook

Ray Kurzweil’s anticipation of the Coming Singularity includes human/non-human relationships via digital intermediaries, a thought with somewhat disturbing implications. Knowledge of location across an intermediary network matters little to human relationships and adding non-human intelligence to the mix is only disturbing. Real human relationships have deeper currents than high velocity information or spatial attribution. Studies in the educational community have repeatedly shown, for instance, that the presence of a real teacher is overwhelmingly more effective than video or online classes. To state the obvious, face to face renders location aware apps irrelevant and leaves artificial intelligence firmly anchored in the creepy category.

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Robot Teacher?

Assumptions of all goodness by Cyber Utopians are not at all justified as remarked by Evgeny Morozov in The Internet in Society: Empowering and Censoring Citizen? Enduring histories on Facebook, subject to examination by Iranian intelligence for hardly promising ends, should be unsettling to all but the grimmest of Marxist utopians. Doubtless a few stray Stalinist at Duke and Zuccotti Park are taking notes on new media and the social web.

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Evgeny’s passing point about "cyber captivity" underlines a growing problem of lost opportunity. The prescience of Alduous Huxley’s Soma comes to mind. Does obsessive gaming, for example, reduce higher value opportunities for learning, productivity, and human relations? Do vast iTune libraries subtract from the net benefit of personal mastery of a musical instrument? These calculations are impossible to quantify and really revolve around deeper questions of spiritual significance, sub specie aeternitatis.

More information faster is not necessarily a net positive in another sense. Proliferating conspiracy theories only corroborate Neil Postman’s shuffled deck analogy, that a disintegrating information context conditions perception to credulity. Anything is believable because the next card is experienced as random. Unwarranted credulity paves the way to tyranny as recent history has shown all too tragically. The Rwandan genocide, less than 10 years ago, was incited by incredulous claims aired to a credulous public in creepy Goebbels fashion. The future specter of OsGeo web maps delineating the boundaries of inyenzi (cockroach in Kinyarwandan), does little to encourage optimism.

“The fact is, there are few political, social, and especially personal problems that arise because of insufficient information. Nonetheless, as incomprehensible problems mount, as the concept of progress fades, as meaning itself becomes suspect, the Technopolist stands firm in believing that what the world needs is yet more information.”

—Neil Postman, Technopoly (1992)

Summary

These may all be rather marginally Luddite issues. The genuine “terra incognita” of information technology, and consequently web mapping, is the tectonic plate of culture. What kind of global cultural, economic, and political earthquakes have been set in motion? What tidal wave of changing perceptual process is yet to be hailed from the yardarm?

Kind of exciting to think about.

Paradise Lost? Please report to Lost and Found.