The Revenge of the Infographic?

Long before he himself was a candidate for President of the United States, Barack Obama reminded the nation of the danger of a red-states/blue-states divide that increasingly seemed increasingly to determine the electoral map.  When announcing John Kerry’s 2004 nomination as the Democratic candidate to run for the presidency of the United States, Obama had sought to reassure  the nation that, evidence to the contrary, “We’re not red states and blue states; we’re all Americans, standing up together for the red, white and blue.”  So powerful was the visual image of unity as a rebuke to the map to announce Obama’s oratorical eloquence to the nation.  So powerful was the image that he would rebuke the danger of such a chromatic divide retained in a 2012 tweet sent in the heat of the Presidential campaign, asserting that “There are no red states and blue states, just the United States.”  The figure of speech which was first penned by Obama in 2004, before addressing the Democratic Convention in Chicago, although John Kerry recognized its rhetorical power and adopted the image in his own acceptance of the 2004 nomination.

Obama warned the country of the difficulty of such a national mapping that ran against national interests; the junior Senator from Illinois took pundits to task for presenting a picture of the nation that served only “to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states–red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats.”  Obama called out the two-color maps as perpetuating a harmful vision, apt to diminish voters’ sense of their ability to effect political change, and diminishing voters’ agency, by inscribing the voting patterns in a static map that fractured the nation into blocks of like-mindedness as if to suggest that the electoral results were predetermined.  (The notion of “swindler-states” would only emerge as a way to challenge the authority of this two-color map, of course, during Obama’s own 2008 candidacy.)

Obama’s phrase has gained a quite surprising second life.  What were words of caution have gained a new concrete sense after the indictments released by Robert S. Mueller III have revealed outside interest in sharpening contrasts in the electoral map in the 2016 Presidential race, that suggests that the infographic has indeed gained an upper hand in the electoral process in even more dangerous ways than Obama had described.  It’s indeed pretty hard to see the United States divided into “red” and “blue” states, isolated from the world, in the same way again, as if each state shaded pink, light blue or strong red and dark blue in complete autonomy, showing their political temperatures in isolation of from the outside world.  Indeed, although the 2014 House of Representative race was striking for its salmon pinkness–and the deep red of the US-Mexico border, as well as Iowa, such colors are increasingly difficult to be seen as self-contained or removed from the larger world.



2014 House of Representatitves Mid-Term Election 


Back when Senator Barack Obama so eloquently endorsed John Kerry as a presidential candidate, his admonition–or quite gentle–scolding struck such a chord not only as an effective image of patriotic identity, and not a reality check.  But the powerful phrasing became a theme of his campaign, and it was unsurprising when Obama returned to it in his 2008 victory speech in Grant Park, and welcomed the good news of what seemed a remapping of the United States, and he took the time to congratulate American voters for having “sent a message to the world that we have never been just . . .  a collection of red states and blue states” and which confirmed that, appearances to the contrary, we “are, and will always be, the United States of America.”  The words had reverberated in many ears with a sense of freshness, from when they were first uttered, as if seeking to disabuse television audiences of the image that had haunted the nation from before the 2000 election, but which had stuck uncomfortably in the background of the nation’s cerebral cortex, creating an image of sharp divisions,–even if those divisions were far less clear on the ground even in 2004, as Obama had suggested–but full of chromatic variations, even when they appeared entrenched, with some eighteen to twenty states mapped in varied shades of purple.  The blurred nature of this dive into voting habits as much as patterns suggests a point-value to political preferences that is misleading, but as a snapshot of the body politic, it suggests diagnostic tool that was valued in altering electoral outcomes as much as the image of individual agency that Bascom Guffin worked to create, using the concept of political scientist Robert Vanderbei


purple_nationBascom Guffin, “Purple Nation”


As much as Obama honed a rhetorical device, his phrasing gained new meaning and relevance in Robert S. Mueller III’s recent indictment charging thirteen Russians of waging information wars during the election, and from 2014, that aimed to splinter existing political divides to foster increased dissensus and distrust in the political system.  Indeed, the vulnerability of the political imaginary that foregrounded a red state-blue state divide for the global image of American politics made something of an unforeseen return, when it was announced that the Russian operatives who had toured several states to conduct something of a political ethnography of the abilities to create greater political divisions and distrust in the political system focussed on the sensitivity of “purple states” as sites to increase and exploit existing political divides, and create increased political tensions in the United States through the results of its elections.  Taking the occasion of the 2016 Presidential election as an occasion to increase political distrust, and for slicing and dicing the nation For the targeting of what were described as “purple states,” in an unforessen appropriation of maps of a less polarized “Purple America” made after the divisive presidential election of 2000, by Robert J. Vanderbei.  The new visualization was widely adopted by the news media as a dynamic form of infographic, using colors exclusively to communicate the political temperature of Americans.  Yet the image gained a new second life as it provided a ground-plan for planting social media interventions, Mueller’s indictment reveals that the figure of speech, as well as a concrete metaphor, served to target disrupting political consensus from 2014.   Indeed, “purple America” provided not only a target for winning over the electorate for both political parties, but a target for disrupting consensus evident as much from outside of the United States as from within.

If purple can come to seem a sign of vulnerability, this is in large part because of the possibilities of warping through the electoral college produces clear divides, but which indeed offers a sense of stability–affirming a sense of continuities all too easily disrupted by the dogmatic prism of a red state/blue state electoral map, with a brightest red–actually pink–in the Texas panhandle and Dakotas, but the nation is decisively mottled; even in the divisive 2004 electoral map, “red” only dominated Wyoming, Utah, and Idaho, and redness was evident in blue states, as bluenesses in reds.  Drilling down so far is not, in many cases, an adequate picture of the political process, but offers a counter-map to the electoral map, that reflects a sense of cartographical insufficiency.


PurpleStates.jpgEmmie Mears, “These Purples States of America”


Emmie Mears’ deeper dive into the data is a striking photoshop map and suggests an even greater expanse of purple.  The contiguity of purple shades that run the vast extent of the nation pointedly challenged the polarities shared by pundits, and reveals, even in the 2016 Presidential race, a widespread admixture of voting tendencies.  Although Obama’s stirring image of overcoming political divides is often retrospectively cast as pandering to patriotism, it increasingly seems an accurate prognosis of a problem waiting to happen.  While Mears’ visualization was intended to affirm the plurality of political opinions, to undo the tension of oppositional confrontation that was generated already in the nightly news, the danger of adopting such a syntax of a census–familiar from the Dustin Cable’s Racial Dot map or the American Community Survey, which show both diversity and stark lines of ethnicity, education, and income, the danger of the vesting of political preference as a question of character–and not a selection in a given time and place–of course dilutes the representational institutions, and poses the problem of whether a two-party system can ever be able to refract our political diversity.

But it also suggests the broad openings for undermining that consensus, as the recent indictment of thirteen Russians who conducted preparatory ethnography as they planned a long-term project of disrupting American political consensus that would intersect in unforseen ways with the candidacy of Donald Trump–a long-time fringe candidate, whose ascendancy to the oval office had been represented as an unsavory alternate future in Doonesbury, but whose own deep hunger for approval, recognition, and adulation seems to have created a tenacity to court  audiences without much attention to the public good.  Whether or not Trump shared the vision of the electoral map as ripe for exploitation, although his own deep attachment to the two-color outcome of the electoral map hints at how overjoyed he was with the results, the echo chamber of social media certainly helped dilute the deep purpleness of America that political scientists had mapped.  If it is the case that Trump proudly selected a framed map of the distorted division of electoral votes in the White House as one of the first images to be displayed to visitors, he certainly took deep satisfaction at the outcome  which was in part the result of targeting public opinion in divisive ways, even if many of the most powerful and divisive images that announced his campaign promises to the public seem to have derived from suspiciously identified social media sources.

The gap in population density between flatland of the regions of “red America” is thrown into a relief in a prism map that offers a county-results in a tiltable 3D electoral map between counties voting Trump from those voting Clinton, a gap evident in economic integration, education, and lifestyle, that reminds us of the gap in media coverage increasingly centered in cities; but if it corrects the distorted flatland of an electoral map,  it surely exaggerates that yawning gap, as its blue/red dichotomy erased the purple nature of so many counties where social media news feeds helped worked to fill that gap, allowing Facebook feeds to play an increased role in forming a surrogate public opinion that could effectively intensify existing political divides, so that they appear even more extreme that in previous elections with the sort of “political intensity” that indicted Russians planned to foment.  Did the extension of first amendment Free Speech laws to cover data-driven bots and platforms designed to work by keeping viewers engaged help  expand the blue/red divisions that we’ve come to accept in the electoral map?



County-level Margins of Victory legend.pngBlueshift


Indeed, the current rash of twitterbots that issued viral memes from #ReleasetheMemo to #Guncontrolnow and #Parklandshooting that hail from Russia–if not St. Petersburg–need to be held to different standards than First amendment rights, but under if seen as speech acts, protected First amendment, although originating in foreign lands, they are able to gain a pressing reality in our politics for their consumers and followers.  The shape of such activity seems especially prominent in creating an apparent groundswell of the alt Right in the last election.  When Mueller’s indictment forced social media giant Twitter was forced to purge thousands of newly suspected automated bots posting from overseas that Twitter’s legal division had seen as protected by Free Speech, deleting 50,000 accounts linked to Russian bots created such sudden drops in the numbers of the followers of figures like white nationalist Richard Spencer or long-time Trump promoter Bill Mitchell that they were suspected as victims of a purge of followers of figures in the alt right.  If the move provoked cries of censorship, we were reminded how much they shaped the election, mostly in the valleys of areas colored red, with a third of pro-Trump tweets among over a million tweets issued by automated bots, and pro-Trump rallies belying his lower standings in most polls save on Facebook, as millions of bots nudged the geography of the map from behind the scenes through an unforseen barrage of propagandistic images and texts that directed the mental attention of a Durkheimian collective.

Many images displayed by accounts suspected of originating overseas, as of the platform ‘Secured Borders,’ create a quite viscerally striking image of the very geopolitical imaginary that the Trump campaign openly promoted.  But if they echo Trump’s rhetoric, the deeply offensive images identifying migrants as vermin, as if to deny them of legal rights, derive from a right-wing imaginary already current in central Europe, as other images used in Trump’s political commercials, showing hoards of immigrants racing across border, and  betray historical roots in Nazi visual propaganda.  These images created a geographical imaginary rooted in fear, indeed, and promote a geopolitical imaginary–a divide made visibly clear in cartoonish ways in the contrast between the barren lands to one side of the wall and the green lands across it, where the suited Father Figure Donald Trump stands wearing his red tie and flag pin, in a new and creepy image of the defender of the nation–as if to protect the greenness of its grass.  (The creepy smile and richly solid comb over look so little like our supposed President, it is quite oddly designed, if replete with visual triggers, and its hortatory text lacking a comma, its limited punctuation seeming poorly proofread.)



Secured Borders: immigrant as vermin?





Such a reality seems to heighten not only the “political intensity” but heighten divides along what we map in red/blue terms, despite the limited explanatory power of an electoral flatland’s gaps between blue peaks of populated centers and the far redder expanses. Even after refining the flat electoral map, by adopting opacities to render margins of victory, retaining a contrast designed to foreground sharp differences fails to register the range of purple regions that turned red, driven toward an intensity of political involvement or disaffection by memes of social media still protected as “free” speech.

The issue is not only, moreover, the troll accounts that were tied to a Russian “troll factory” outside of St. Petersburg, Russia.  For the so-called ‘factories’ that mined images designed to provoke visceral responses that would trump reflection released a steady feed of fake news, based on innuendo and insinuation as well as outright slander and attack, that polluted the global media, as they were actively retweeted by the Washington Post, Jack Dorsey, CNN’s Jake Tapper, to fed an information ecosystem that was waiting to be poisoned, as some 3,000 global news outlets inadvertently included tweets originating from confirmed Kremlin-linked troll accounts in upwards of 11,000 “news” articles as the 2016 Presidential election approached, based on an analysis of over 2,700 Twitter handles confirmed to be linked by Twitter to the Internet Research Agency, a group tied to Russian intelligence–including David Duke (@DrDavidDuke), Sen. John Coryn (@JohnCornyn), Kellyanne Conway (@KellyannePolls), FOX News host Sean Hannity (@seanhannity), Brad Parscale (@parscale), Anthony Scaramucci (@Scaramucci), former White House press secretary Sean Spicer (@seanspicer), and Sen. Ted Cruz (@tedcruz)–in ways that transformed Twitter into a tool of information war.  By targeting audiences by zip-code, education, and wealth, raising the specter of those who “come to our country to change our traditions,” and increasing the fear and specter of unwanted refugees.




Tweets on new issues of 2016, from illegal immigration to voter fraud, circulated from Russian plants–in cringe-inducing claims such as “If Hillary wins, she will amnesty 30+ million illegal aliens and Republicans will never win an election again”, or “#VoterFraud by counting tens of thousands ineligible mail-ins for Hilary votes being reported in Broward County FL”–mirrored the fears of a “rigged” system and election that Trump had repeatedly conjured, and created a new meme in American political discourse that increased skepticism about the political process..

The overlap between many purple regions and regions with distinct patterns of consuming news in print or online media would have only magnified the divides where social media platforms spread disinformation–that infamous “fake news”–to gain a purchase as real in our political system.  Even if the possibility of infection by viral posts can’t yet be traced or measured with certainty as a map, the disinformation moved by bots or “troll factories” created a pitched battle of electoral intensity, that was staged around electoral votes or at least along fomenting clearly defined geographic/regional divides that Russians charged with visiting states in the United States to gain a sense of their ability to exploit a divided political landscape didn’t even need to travel to America to apprehend, as infographics clearly served as a readily available primer on how best to foment increased divisions.  Indeed, even by creating a distracting static whose constant beat eroded dialogue or trust, from internet accusations of the murder of Justice Antonin Scalia, deep distrust of naming a successor, and a year-long vacancy of his seat, as Mitch McConnell forced the sort of divisive deadlock only able to intensify political opposition.  (While the diffusion of the demand among Republicans began from McConnell’s quick tweet incited a sort of collective resistance, issued hours after Scalia expired in Texas, and lent broad currency to the numerous questions about conspiracies of the nature of his death that circulated online.  The  false populism in many ways echoed Trumpism, issued an hour after Scalia was confirmed as dead, and generated disruptive memes on social media–“OMG They killed Scalia” “I hope an autopsy is done to make sure Obama didn’t have him killed”– which supported an unprecedented, as Glenn Thrush and Burgess Everett reminded us, “rebuke of President Obama’s authority” and “categorical rejection of anyone Obama chose to nominate,” irrespective of their merits, to disrupted trust in political consensus during the Republican and Democratic primaries.  (Was it a surprise that McConnell, the senior senator from deep red Kentucky, playing the part of a disruptor, in late August single-handedly blocked bipartisan decisions to alert the American public to FBI reports of Russia’s unwanted involvement in the presidential election, from staging cyberattacks to ties to the campaign of Donald J. Trump?)


The entrance of this gambit within the context of the political election indeed led all Republican nominees to adopt the issue that drove a wedge between red and blue states and their respective media outlets, in what was cast as a rebuke to President Obama’s lack of respect for the institution of Congress to pursue “his personal agenda.”  A yawning gap between red and blue counties reveals the disconnect in our social fabric but of the consumption of news, and sources of opinion, about which the “troll factory” charged with launching disruptive messages into America’s Presidential election from St. Petersburg were able to play a disproportionately outsized role.  The divide was plain in this 2013 map of print news consumption, where yellow shows the swath of land getting news principally from USA Today, a year later by online outlets Huffington Post and TMZ, where the investment in social media may have had particularly pronounced leverage.  And in a period of increased attachment to divisive news sources that intensified an absence of dialogue between political parties, the expansion of divisive posts on social media platforms helped to undermine civic discourse.


print-news-consumption-2013Media Map Showing Most Shared News in Each State (2013)





Although it was habitual to take what seems Obama’s fondness for the phrase as a sense of its particular rhetorical effectiveness, a more charitable interpretation of his attachment to the phrase might be intimations of the deeply corrosive nature of the metaphorical divide of the nation.  The image of an electoral divide perpetuated by pollsters and pundits was shown to haunt the nation not only in the 2016 Presidential election but, as we have heard in the recent expansive indictment that Mueller issued accusing Russian operatives who travelled the United States seeking strategies to sew discord “in the U.S. political system” from 2014.  Traveling in Colorado, New Mexico, Michigan, Illinois, Texas, they defined their mission as  oriented along that very divide.  Defendants Mssrs. Krylova, Bogacheva, and Bovda were charged with conspiracy for not disclosing the motivations of their travels in the United States posing as tourists, developed the idea of targeting “purple states” as sites to foment the greatest divisions–seeking to “create ‘political intensity through supporting radical groups” and transform fictitious personas into “leaders of ‘public opinion’ in the United States” by hundreds of social media account.  While traveling in America a “real U.S. person” advised that they


should focus their
activities on "purple states" like Colorado, Virginia & Florida.


–and the principle of “targeting ‘purple states'” returned in later months as a ground-plan to disrupt the election, and sew a deeper sense of distrust within our democracy.  Even if the term “purple states” that emerged as sites of targeting may not have been seen as sites where social media platforms could have substantially increased authority, the success of increasing divisiveness readily responded to stark divisions on the map.

The parlance learned in the United States was shaped in the media sphere to enlarge factional divides, if the notion of “Purple America” had been born to give complexity to a blue state versus red state divide.  Avatars on fictitious social media accounts used the categories of political scientists to amplify existing prejudices from troll factories in St. Petersburg, often pedaling prejudices that gained greater reality in what seemed public opinion as the election approached.  The “information warfare” waged on social media that was an odd spin on globalization, that kicked into gear with racial prejudice channeled by Russian hipsters working round the clock in twelve-hour shifts from a designated “Facebook department” in Taylorist fashion within a “troll factory”:  the surprising success of targeting voters in the United States was based on extensive mapping of political divisions, and a design to exploit them through social media.  Were the addictive apparatus of a medium that seeks to command the attention of observers part of the plan?

images, texts, comments, and posts designed to stoke divisions were based on ventriloquizing Americans, but pushing the envelope on the standards of address:   in a scene straight of Adam Smith’s pin-making factories, the web of disinformation that was spun from Americans’ social media fabric extended not only what seemed to the Russian who created them incredibly “believed [to be] written by their own people,” and even worked directly with the Trump campaign to coordinate rallies in purple states like Florida.  If Trump didn’t detect that the divisiveness Russian trolls devised on Facebook feeds incriminated his campaign, because Mueller did not reveal direct ties between the desire of the Internet Research Agency to sew disinformation and division was distant from his own campaign–“Obama was President up do, and beyond, the 2016 election.  So why didn’t he do something about Russian meddling?”–what Trump confidently imagined to be a wellspring of popular support for his candidacy may well only have intersect with the more successful than anticipated adoption of the Russian trolls’ stories in Facebook platforms that created the intense emotional involvement which drove an under-the-radar aspect to the campaign, from images linking Hillary Clinton to Satanism to targeted voter suppression to diffusing enthusiasm by openly promoting third-party candidates as effective protest votes.

Indeed, Facebook and Twitter did the heavy lifting of ensuring that trolling from St. Petersburg were sent out across America, and to effectively mask the diffusion of messages along various social networking platforms to create something like an inadequate surrogate for public opinion–even as Facebook was foreign to Russian social networking when the Internet Research Agency was begun in 2014.




The Internet Research Agency, perhaps an acronymic pun on the Irish Republican Army, worked to foment what seemed a similar faith-based war by manipulating styled prejudices to “spread distrust” to online communities they had infiltrated, warning of misleading “hype and hatred . . . forcing Blacks to vote for Killary” to “Woke Blacks” Instagram accounts in October 2016–weeks before the election–and adding “we would surely be better off without voting AT ALL” than cast a vote for the Democratic candidate.  As well as  unleashing an unprecedented epidemic of trolling, the St. Petersburg “troll factory” staffed by 900 employees posted over thousand times each week at the height of the election from over one hundred Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts, in ways that magnified the rifts in the isolated filter bubbles had previously existed in order to turn them against one another.  When Eli Pariser in 2011 coined the phrase to describe the dangers of isolating information ecosystems in selective news feeds forming virtual echo chambers of false comfort in an insulated information bubble,




the tools of social media sites enabled the splintering to actual communities in an almost mechanical fashion of cause and effect, as if sending ripples able to create the sort of electoral disruption in strategic ways.  In doing so, they mirror the very danger of which President Obama in his final public speech cautioned against “retreat into our own social media feeds” as rendering Americans uncritical information consumers [who] start accepting information, whether its true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on evidence that is out there.”  The warning delivered after the election of Donald Trump and delivered in Chicago saw Obama trying to move out of the bubble, and was delivered near to where his 2008 victory speech celebrating an America able to transcend its image as a nation divided between red states and blue states.  But the bubbles in which selective calls to not go to the polls or demonize the Democratic candidate were launched as narratives may have made them difficult to detect or counteract.

The rapidity of the sort of fragmentation that troll factories Mueller has charged by being run through reconnaissance in the United States could have been as easily gleaned online, but was described as something that the charged operatives had to travel to the United States to discover.  But much o the sort of prejudice that was pedaled in postings crafted in St. Petersburg to disrupt the Presidential election seems to have imported a deep suspicion and oppositional racism as much as it mimicked back prejudices observed in ethnographic study of American social media Facebook groups.  Indeed, the stories of Russian hipsters working twelve-hour days on posting divisive comments on Facebook from 2014-16 in St Petersburg, posing as Americans, and required to write an essay in English on Hillary Clinton to determine whether they were suitable for the job, suggests just how invested the foreign government was in addressing social media to purple states to influence the election’s outcome, and doing their best to dissuade blacks and other minorities from supporting Hilary Clinton, despite an overall eligible voting population that was more racially and ethnically diverse than ever, according to Pew Research, but for the first time blacks declined as a share of voters since 2004.   Black voters were not only among the “three major voter suppression operations” Trump advisors worked to lower turn-out, with white liberals and young women, but one of the most successful efforts seemingly tied to Trump’s director of data digital operation in his San Antonio headquarters, Brad Parscale, whose nightly electoral simulations seemed aimed at providing a basis for to partly its data into a new news organization, mirrors techniques of turnout suppression adopted by destabilizing social media divides.  Facebook accounts such as the “Blacktivist” page that urged that voting for Jill Stein–a candidate with close ties to Russia–was “not a wasted vote,” clearly recycled historical images of African-American nationalism and solidarity, in hopes to decrease voter turn-out in Maryland.  The use of the emblem may seek to re-engineer the energy of black voters for past Democratic Presidential victories, and to scare others who might see it.  With other accounts openly urging Muslim voters to boycott the election, the goal was to dilute and splinter the very coalitions that the Clinton campaign assembled by sowing distrust–and indeed, to exploit social media by triggering a clear emotional response, more than making an argument.



The studies of social media patterns that began from at least 2014, which were, as if by coincidence, marked by huge Republican gains in Senate and House under a banner of the most angry national midterm elections to be directed against a sitting President, was effectively amplified with the encouragement and traction that the bitterness of 2014 elections had set across the southern states and deep south, southwestern Texas along the US-Mexico border, and in formerly ‘blue’ or ‘purple’ states–creating a particularly obstructionist House of Representatives that succeeded to obstruct so any of the policies President Obama sought to pursue in his final two years.



National results of the 2014 House races, showing Republican gains in bright red


The divisiveness continued by injecting increasingly radicalized terms of political debate, and even fundamentalist notions of apocalypticism, that seemed foreign to American political debate, depicting Hillary Clinton as increasingly satanic and promoting open borders, promoting division and distrust around bizarre social media memes.  The offensive cartoonish images promoted by the IRA-sponsored “Secured Borders” borders account, designed to appeal to Trump’s supporters and introducing an icon of his campaign, resembled the icon of the United States Border Patrol to create an image that not only recalled its official insignia–




–but did so to link a specific presidential candidate to patriotism in extreme ways, celebrating the at of rejecting refugees and asylum-seekers and increasing border protection as a need for national protection, creating a false equivalence if there ever was one, and straining any logical linkages.  (The conceit of “liking” advocating political isolationism is a bizarre mashup of Facebook’s prescriptive language of immediate unconsidered emotional reaction and a political position with all too dangerous political consequences.  Was the irony of using social media to raise questions of border protection not ever perceived?  or was the idea to root the image of a tough border so deeply in one’s mind, that one didn’t think that clearly about its politics, consequences or implications?)




Rusian FB ad for Secrured Borders.png



Indeed, an ethnographic study of Facebook groups might target alone groups living on the southern border, Christian fundamentalists, white supremacists and Black Lives Matter as potential groups to manipulate to stoke divisiveness on partisan lines, and sow disorder on the performance of a two-party system by gaming electoral geography.  There is hope in puncturing the filter-bubbles of Facebook groups, however, by the increased calling out of the need for resolve on a true issue–gun control–too regularly and dismissively side-lined by the staged political debates that were shared in posts, and which seems, if only because of the strength of its blunt actuality, to puncture social media with an urgency that can’t be denied.

The decision to direct a social media focus on purple states as sites where divides would stand the greatest chance to disrupt or even to tweak the electoral results reveals a bizarre recycling of what was designed as a classificatory map to increase divisions, and gave a distinctly new ideological flavor and torque to the left-wing concepts of swing states that were so successfully promoted within the 2008 Obama campaign.  By recycling attention-getting image of chromatic divides developed for television audiences, purple states emerged as targets for online spooking, and Facebook aggregation gained traction around affective ideas like casting the color red was a form of patriotism.   But the notion of pressing advantages on social media in states purple, but maybe able to be nudged Republican, provided the deepest rationale for division.  Defendants, posing as members of the group “Being Patriotic,” under the guise of that patriotism offered the idea of pressing their advantage by the notion of a wedge in purple states.  The defendants offered in emails, “we’ve got an idea.  Florida is still a purple state and we need to paint it red.  If we lose Florida, we lose America.  We can’t let it happen, right?  What about organizing a YUGE pro-Trump flash mob in every Florida town?” on August 2, 2106, and offered, “We clearly understand that the elections winner will be predestined [sic] by purple states.”  While not brilliant as strategy, as a selective basis to sew distrust and disorder in one of the most over-polled elections ever, where we watched the results of multiple daily polls as if to deliver the odds on horse races, tweaking the electoral map toward a new color combination was enough.

The “purple” region gained the most striking new sense as sites of information warfare in the United States over a period of years–in ways that might be detached from the actual campaign.  The figure of speech born of data visualizations gained a newfound torque as a form of divisiveness, and the chromatic metaphor operative force, as “focusing on purple states such as Florida” became, for the fictional identity “Josh Hamilton,” a strategy proposed by a false grassroots efforts that was communicated to Trump campaign officials.  White most tracks were concealed, a few were not.  And although the Trump campaign didn’t need to be advised, necessarily, “to focus on ‘purple’ states like Colorado, Virginia, and Florida,” the targeting of areas where there didn’t seem a clear polarity promised to create a far starker one.   But Russian use of a language of infographics served to materialize, in a starkly divided map, existing fault-lines that one needed only to exploit, push apart, and throw into relief to engineer a surprising electoral result, using images that recovered more subtly shaded areas where blue met red as tools that were able to be exploited to show the world a far more bitterly divided United States, as if even raising the specter of a deep red region could sow considerable distrust in a Democratic system, or just vacate whatever appeal its constitutional rights held in Russia and Central Europe.



New York Times:  2016 United States presidential election results by county 


The organizing of false grassroots efforts according to the Mueller indictment not only to organize rallies that would “focus on purple states,” but to create a divide in doing so that best exploited divisions in our electoral maps.  Indeed, the notion of such a divide that had been picked up by Nate Silver and across the art of political forecasting was not something that would have had to come from any sort of special informant, being in the air of 2016 and widely broadcast on the airwaves, as the “Purple America” coined right after the divisive presidential election of 2000, by Vanderbei, as a way to come to terms with starkness of the opposition between Bush v. Gore; Vanderbei recast what seemed a polarity in the context of a variety of political opinion, leading to articles after 2004 to insist that America is not divided into sub-nations, or on the brink of a second Civil War, and continued to map the mutation of purple America in future elections.

The conceit of Purple America rescued to some extent the simplified opposition implied by a chromatic divide between red v. blue.  Articles ran entitled “Most Americans live in Purple America, not Red or Blue America” rather than in a blue or red state, created a sense of consensus and diversity, befitting a democracy, but the yawning gaps in areas of intense redness meant that purpleness provided a language of opportunity for those seeking to grow division and craft heightened political dissensus.  Vanderbei offered the original “Purple America” to help refine a clearer statistical image of the dynamics hidden between the political polarization of a body politic, and to give greater agency to a varied range of political opinions in most states.  By embodying a red flyover zone, or a blueing of the coasts, the intention was to encourage a deeper dive into the national vote, as well as to retire the tired glossing of the electoral map:  the bridging of a division that Obama would make in his speech in support of John Kerry’s Presidential candidacy fenced the hegemony of a similar symbolic divide, and cast it as at its root dangerous to democracy.




Purple America (2000)


But it didn’t remain there.  The migration of a language designed for a broad market of TV news infographics to a language of political operatives interested in subverting the democratic process is perhaps instructive.  The map was perhaps replayed in the media as it contained sufficient dramatic tension to foreground problems of crafting political consensus, as if social policies and political opinions were identified with an area in the country, and as if every issue in the political platform was fundamentally designed to capture a divisive issue of political debate–around abortion, social security, gun control, climate change or global warming, environmental regulation, and monetary policy or fiscal restraint–whereas the options on the table were not, in fact, that divergent.

The maps however naturalized the divisions, and, paradoxically, left them open to be exploited, perhaps not so much since we were fractured into filter bubbles as because pundits wanted to create the necessary degree of dramatic tension, and to craft and foreground the dramatic arc of an election season, as if the notion of a ground-plan and an electoral strategy could be portrayed and represented as a military as much as a political one.  The guiding metaphor of divisiveness and division that was foregrounded in this map–as if blocks of population existed with one preference, despite the subtler variations in voting, despite the blue/red divide imposed by majority victory–

Mark Newman Red:Blue ma.png

–even if such a decision, a sort of hold-over from a pre-parliamentary languages of democracy, that privileged the notion of a ruling party in a quasi-monarchical way, obscured the variations once one drilled down into voting patterns–


votes- red v blue, by county and interest level


–but obscured the huge number of “ghost votes” across the less inhabited areas, where isolated communities, suspended outside of the metropoles, were magnified in an electoral college that robustly enhanced their political voice in ways bluntly reflected by the flatness of the two-color map in stubborn wasy.  But as Chris Howard, inspired by the blended voting maps created by Robert J. Vanderbei of the 2012 election that showed purple America, and the cartograms of Mark Newman, transparencies could capture the magnification of political voices of low-density in the electoral map, in ways that might have suggested the potential for electoral disruption to those seeking to do so–even if such a perverse reading of the language of infographics was hard to imagine.



The graphic language, migrating from electoral processes to the nightly news, may have provided a basis for newscasters to naturalize a drama of political  contestation, more than conversation.  Whereas we are increasingly talking not of “states” that suggest the fragmentation of the union, we live in an increasing economic divide largely oriented not along pitched lines of battle, but by urban/rural divisions, if the divide is belied in the flat pasteurization of space of electoral maps.  The growth of megacities across America have raised multiple divisions electoral maps fail to capture, with its fundamental insistence on the county as a unit of voting, despite the increasing evacuation of its meaning as a unit of political representation.  But as a metaphor, or master-trope, the fracturing of states was something of an invitation to a foreign nation to seize up and try to pry apart, however, as French cartographer Luc Guillmot showed in an alternative cartogram, sized by votes in red states in the so-called heartland of the midwest, in the manner of Ben Hennig’s cartograms.





But President Obama’s own words come back to haunt us.  In the electoral maps for the 2016, indeed, the masking of gradations of division produced the sense of a democratic result we were bound to accept–





–even if it brought an intensified red that was really clinched at the margins, or in Texas, Florida, Michigan and Virginia, but whose deep red “heartland” created the sense for the victor that he was indeed recognized by the “real Americans” he so desired to court.  Trump was so taken with the electoral map to have it framed, and has been so personally obsessed with imagining the scale of his supposed victory to be present in the intensity of the square mileage of red hued states to take a truly personal offense at the idea that voters swayed by Facebook pages and Instagram groups are seen as diminishing the status of his victory, and an election he imagines a total victory he pulled off by bravado, and dismiss concern of dangerous effects of foreign disturbances of the voting process.

Did the exploitation of such divisions, and indeed the language of opposition, subvert the democratic process, and did the maps help present such a vision of polarization, where consensus was ready to be flipped, and all precedent of civility turned on it head, by exploiting that narrow margin of purple states of the nation with an enthusiasm that few saw as even in reach on the eve of electoral night, as America seemed to fall into two camps, but with the electoral collect staying clearly in Clinton’s camp.  (The hold on the lighter blue states like Florida and North Carolina were tenuous, however, and the loss in Colorado, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania tipped the scales.)  If the blue states seem able to hug the red core to prevent it overflowing to both coasts, the glare of the divisions between blue and red states was so starkly naturalized to masquerade the extent to which flipping purple states would in fact flip much more of the nation red, and alter the outcome of the electoral count in ways that renders the flat dichotomy of a two-color prediction irrelevant.


Cahnc of Wining.png

The fact stubbornly remains that it wouldn’t involve that much demographic science or pinpoint precision polling to know that enough pressure in the purple states could create a crisis in consensus enough to blur the outcome of the vote.  But we clearly can’t go back again to seeing the national shores as creating a red/blue divide that is taking the current temperature of public opinion in each state, in isolation from the rest of the world.


Filed under 2016 US Presidential Election, Donald Trump, electoral maps, fake news, Presidential Elections

Fruitvale Station

When I took public transit to a legal clinic near Fruitvale Station in hopes for help to contest an eviction notice my family and I had received this January, I had a growing sense of entering a new social topography that I didn’t often see–and not only because it was the first time I had experienced eviction.   I had watched largely through maps at how evictions had transformed much of the East Bay–an area already fractured with strong social divisions–and the Bay Area at large.  But the foreclosure landscape that had transformed the Bay Area was something I hadn’t seen at first hand, but had suddenly become disorienting after receiving a 60-day notice to vacate the premises of what was my family home for almost fifteen years.  The surprise news had left us facing a legal landscape little familiar, but increasingly ready to reach out to social services with which we’d had no familiarity, and to face a landscape of landlord evictions that has been the byproduct of rising property values across the East Bay.  And so the ride to the social services non-profits that are congregated around Fruitvale Station, a community that has long been of special resilience, seemed the only hope we had of legal redress.

Although that matter was resolved relatively amicably, the sixty-day notice concretized the economic pressures that have rewritten Oakland communities.  The vacant faces at many of the offices among those learning about renters’ legal resources to contest or confront a letter of eviction–or an unlawful detainer–mirrored the uncertain grounds for response open to many in a city where the law is not clearly their friend.  And the many non-profits that are located around Fruitvale Station–and defined it as a community of local mobilization and resistance for some time within the city of Oakland–both as a site of social services and local non profits around the intersection of Fruitvale and International Boulevard–provided a basis for orienting me to the landscape of evictions, in ways that seemed encapsulated and condensed in the BART map by the renaming of place.  If the renaming of the transit map reminded one of the political nature of place-naming, the resistance that it offered seemed deeply comforting, if as a revisionary cartography–an exultant shift of place-name, reclaiming the map–in the face of a depressing picture of limited choices.

The limited familiarity of legal options that many tenants feel in Oakland seemed to give concreteness to renaming of the very place I was headed on public transit.  The renaming was all the more striking as cartographic intervention in an urban map whose inequalities seem increasingly pronounced, and whose neighborhoods were changing, and local memories erased.  As a sort of cartographic resistance, the stickers renaming “Fruitvale Station” after a BART traveller killed by transit police at that site some seventeen years seemed to first appear  on trains in 2016, they seemed to acknowledge the continued resistance to the only increased uneven social topography of the city.   What, after all, did place mean, and what did its naming process mean for its residents?  And while I didn’t face such limited alternatives as a result of receiving a notice to vacate my premises, the shock of facing the process placed me in closer contact with the forces of displacement long at work in the city, as if revealing the underbelly of the city’s property market that one fails to notice before, and that all too often goes unseen, and the steep costs of that failure.

In a city afflicted by a crisis of widespread social displacement, the scale of eviction was a crisis of justice.  Seeing the alteration–or correction?–of the transit map in the car I rode, the name “Oscar Grant” affixed over my destination, seemed to re-orient me to this space.  Coming across the map at the very moment I was taking action against the eviction notice seemed to be of a piece with starting to redress some of broad inequalities of power and social justice in an epidemic of local evictions, and to be even more powerful for masquerading as an official BART map.  My own familiarity with maps of evictions and Unlawful Detainers across much of the area where I was traveling was less comforting than the political art of the substitution of the name of the transit station where over ten years ago of Oscar Grant III died at the hands of a BART officer from bullet wounds that entered his back.  The sense of relief, if not momentary elation acknowledging the change in place-names of the BART stop in several of the maps in public transit cars was a relief after public protests urging official renaming of Oakland sites after Grant to acknowledge the not only the wrongful but tragic and criminal death that divided the city, and reminded so many of the uphill climb toward social justice.

A different sort of criminality and social justice were in my mind as the BART arrived. Landlord evictions had indeed spread with the rash of foreclosures that were an effect of a ballooning real estate market, shifting the landscape in much of Oakland and around Fruitvale Station, where I was headed.   I observed the desperation created by the shifting topography of renters as I navigated the networks of housing assistance.  As I had learned, the abilities of landlords to evict tenants for “no-fault” of the tenant was considerable, and letters giving thirty or sixty days notice can arrive without any specific reason or explanation in many buildings, not covered under the Just Cause law, without listing any reason—just or otherwise–and just reasons can be for no fault of tenants, including Owner-Move-In or Ellis Act evictions. The shifting landscape of rapidly rising rents had provoked an unexpectedly sudden ground change for urban renters, few of whom had tools of legal redress of the very sort I was engaged.   I recognized the depths of desperation created by this topography as I navigated an unfamiliar and uneven legal landscape, where  tenant rights were being explained to me, and the rights of those facing eviction seemed to create a huge information gap to landlords’ advantage.

The landscape of eviction letters was widely experience in the Bay Area, the sense of defenseless against the encroachment of new owners–or landlords’ demands–the basic service that the clinic offered, and that the specific vacant faces of those waiting to meet with lawyers, holding out hope, seemed to announce–was an issue of social justice.  As I reviewed the papers that I had brought to the clinic on BART, I recalled the broad landscape of foreclosures and evictions across Alameda county as the train pulled into Fruitvale Station and gathered my thoughts, I remembered mosaic of foreclosures, owner move-ins, and flipping of houses by larger realty companies had created a new geography of displacement–and an intense barrage of filing eviction notices across much of Oakland, and which have recently begun to be documented and mapped.


Alameda Evictions.pngEvictions Based on Housing Foreclosures in Alameda County, 2005-15; Lake Merritt is alligator-shaped squiggle in lower left, still connected underground to Oakland estuary


Oakland’s new landscape is evident ow the recent spate of unlawful detainers blanketed space, creating a virtual sea of evictions around Lake Merritt from 2005-15 by which so many were displaced.   Offers of money to move from existing or new building owners, and organizations like the Bay Area Property Group–founded by one Daniel Bornstein–created a landscape of displacement reinforced by rising rents.   The filing of expansion of evictions exploited the already stark neighborhood differences in life-expectancy and income, in part as unlawful detainers terrified residents, without clear senses of they rights, and have exposed residential communities past Lake Merritt to increased evictions in ways that are increasingly mapped to reveal the scale of their dramatic change over the past decade, and the scale of injustice that they posed.

If the scale of unlawful detainers were not able to be volleyed even by a huge array of legal clinics that sought to help negotiate unlawful detainer notices issued in Oakland–over 28,000 between 2005-15–clustered in downtown Oakland and West Oakland.



Screen+Shot+2017-09-28+at+11.21.36+AMUnlawful Detariner Notices Filed, 2005-16/Anti-Eviction Mapping Project


The passengers riding BART were by no means likely to be evicted, and not all who receive Unlawful Detainers were evicted.  But how to map the lack of justice that their distribution suggests?

Disparaties of income distribution of the East Bay map all too neatly onto its space; in 2011, the sleek lines interconnecting the East Bay in the regional transit system mapped starkly onto differences in wealth, education and rates of childhood hospitalization for asthma–stark divisions that popped out from a recent remappings of social inequalities.  In using BART stations to map such disparities, Laura Choi created an alarmingly bracing counter-map of urban space, modeled after how the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation used transit maps to consider urban divides by data of the American Community Survey.  The map revealed differences in life-expectancy of a decade between sixteen miles of track, presenting a microcosm of disparities in life expectancy in California.  The map suggest the intensity of economic divides–outing a hidden geography of sharp fault lines in life expectancy and income–health and wealth–in a landscape where the BART map emphasized spatial continuity, masking a stark lack of equality in its smooth surface.


big bart copy


BART Health Map:Life Expectancy at BART stopsLaura Choi//FRBSF


The deep divides in social justice have intensified the stark inequities of public health, in ways that demand a more fitting counter-map.

The rise of evictions across the city from before the Survey suggested an endemic expansion of foreclosures, flipping, and swaps in housing across the more vulnerable corridors in Oakland–as well as opening many areas to displacement that intensify communities’ vulnerabilities, both to investors who are interested in converting and flipping properties–here marked in almost 4,500 red-brown dots–or foreclosures, represented by an abundance of over 10,000 tan dots.





The battles are pitched, suggest the dense clustering of overlapping tan and red dots around the International Boulevard corridor.  And the cards seem stacked.  The point was made with crystal clarity, by a glance at the BART map in the train I took from MacArthur station, I was reminded by the sudden shift of its demographic from Lake Merritt station, site of Alameda county courthouse, as passengers on the Fremont-bound public transit car changed to show a major fault line that divides the East Bay in a scar of the search for social justice.  And so in noticing the arresting nature of the renaming of the BART stop I was headed, I wondered about the power of place and of renaming places in maps in the substitution of “Fruitvale” with the name “Oscar Grant,” in a clever nod to the hegemony of the map.   Although renaming or identifying transit stops have provided formal tools to demonstrate social inequalities, the power of such situated renaming–and selective retaking–seemed to alter the landscape in powerful ways by visually mimicking a voice of authority, as it had been renamed from at least 2016, revealing the strength of the survival of local memories, and the depth of injustice.


Oscar Grant



“Fruitvale Station” had been strategically replaced, with what seemed particular eloquence, taking back of the map’s surface at a station renamed after the wrongly murdered Oaklander, Oscar Grant, in this one map.  Grant had been killed after being stopped by BART police as he lay on its platform, lying prone on the platform and handcuffed, and for reasons never clearly resolved was shot by an officer in his back.  Almost a decade after years of protest demanding the renaming of the station–site of the tragic killing of Oscar Grant, a twenty-two year old man on his way celebrate New Years back only to be shot in the wee hours of 2009, returning from the San Francisco fireworks, unarmed, after being wrongly profiled by BART transit police, and shot dead in the back at 2:00 a.m. as he lay on his stomach at Fruitvale Station.  The renaming was a small site of resistance, important in the social web of public transit, and the sort of sites of civic memory that maps can erase and obscure but also often sort out. But the placement of the decal sticker was particularly powerful, especially as I had been considering, if in a different context, the disparities of social justice so striking in a public transit map.  This counter-mapping, improvised and in situ, was particularly powerful, and triggered intense memories of injustice at a shooting that should never have happened.

The strong identification of Oscar Grant’s name with Fruitvale station was not only  cemented by the later film, andwas difficult for residents to separate.  Grant’s shooting had provoked protests at police brutality, after the shooting of a handcuffed man led to no charges being filed against the BART transit officer who shot the young man with a 45.  The violence of that evening led to protests at the station of a more peaceful nature, as the officer who killed Grant was released from prison, around Justice for Oscar Grant.  The 2013 drive to rename the station, only partly provoked by the film of that name, didn’t bring about a name-change, but there was a powerful restoration of poetic justice by affixing Grant’s name in the font and into syntax of the official BART map, by a decal affixed–even if an edge hints it might have been tried to be removed–on the official transit map, beside the familiar five-color map lines.  The perfectly matching font of the peel-off decal was made to replicate an official adjustment to the map, but addressed its users by successfully reaching into their collective memory, if not suggesting a struggle over a station whose immediate neighborhood not yet redefined by continued gentrification, but redefined since 2004 by its mixed-use Transit Village, a transit-hub development including affordable housing and needed community resources.


Oscar Grant.JPG


The placement of the new place-name performed a compelling counter-cartography that suggested resistance to the dynamics of power in the city.  Oscar Grant’s tragic death had been part of the Oakland landscape for some time, to be sure.  It was long attempted to claim public recognition in a place name, and the appearance in BART font of the late man’s name on the map BART users consulted reminded one of the fractured social economy of the city, and the uneven legal access or accountability that Grant’s death had been emblematic back in 2009, and inspired Ryan Coogler’s award-winning first movie of 2013, which gave particularly poignant drama to the needless slaying of a man trying to live gainfully, and to provide for his daughter, who was shot with bullets as he moved after being stopped by BART police who arrived in response to an episode of violence in which Grant, by all accounts, wasn’t involved.  (Although the officer alleged he mistook his gun for a taser, firing into the prone Grant’s back as he pleaded to the armed police, praying he not be killed, as was captured on live video feed by bystanders’ cellular phones.  The shocking video shows the white BART officer reach for his .44 with puzzlingly calm intent that only helped inflame passions, charges of racism, and interrogation as it was captured on camera.  Films on bystanders’s phones raised sudden questions  of how such open and wanton use of force could have been, as some claimed, accidental.  Indeed, the footage made the BART station the location something of a primal scene of the recurrent racial violence under the guise of the law that haunts Oakland’s present as it haunted its past.

Why Grant feared the BART police might kill him enough to beg them not to shoot him isn’t clear, but may have been triggered by being recognized by a former inmate at San Quentin, where he had served time, or sudden fear at the arrival of armed police who had drawn weapons and detained twenty to preserve the peace.  The image of Grant, handcuffed and prone on the ground while detained among some twenty other suspects police held while investigating an episode of violence with what seemed needlessly inhumanity, fearful that someone else had a firearm on their person, but reminding most all of the all too common under-representation of racial balance or Oaklanders in the BART police;  stick figures rendered in signs protest didn’t need differentiation by race.


GettyImages-84291237-5a454cef96f7d00036e25426Justin Sullivan/Getty Images


The survival of Grant in public memory persisted, as his death became emblematic of steep inequalities.  There had been many invocations of Grant, to be sure, in the Occupy Movement–held at a square before City Hall that was temporarily rechristened “Oscar Grant Plaza in honor of the young African-American, whose death had provoked broad outrage and raised tensions city-wide, which intensified as a search for public justice or social justice went unanswered.  Protests at the release of his murderer from jail ran from the station to the City Hall, as if in an attempt to raise questions of political representation–and the lack of equitable representation, in a city whose mayoral candidates competed in offering greater police protection in later years as if it were a measure of their deservingness to hold the mayoralty.  Requests to memorialize the killing by renaming the BART station weren’t accepted.  But the sticker’s placement at Fruitvale Station offered a sense of public justice, as an effectively situated counter-map.

The terrain of public transit, that most shared and common of media of spatial orientation, is often taken as a counter map by provocative toponymic transpositions.  There have been, to some extent, revisionary subway maps that have presented or tried to present counter-maps to a landscape of gender, as Rebecca Solnit did so elegantly in her warm pink-hued “City of Women,” redressing a gender imbalance inscribed in New York’s topography.  As a cartographer of hope, Solnit worked to rename each station, following the symbolic template of the transit map, but coloring it pink as a way of bearing witness and offering a firm if gentle acknowledgement of an actual and effective absence of the commemoration of women–or public presence of women–in a city where male statuary defines the landscape, and almost all the women who do appear in statue form are symbolic or spiritual figures.  The result is an exhilarating topsy-turvy rendering–a City of Women, in a nod to Fellini, if less embodying a male gaze?–and a discovery of a new community, opening up an exuberantly cornucopian revisionary text whose inventive cartography provokes reflection on the public space of the city.


city-of-women.jpgRebecca Solnit/Molly Roy, “City of Women” from Non-Stop Metropolis


Solnit’s elegant remapping of the serpentine lines of the MTA subway system seems a new take on the chorographic form of mapping of the community, and foregrounds a community that is all too often silenced in maps:  Solnit invited her students at Columbia University to imagine what their own relation to place would be in a city whose streets were named after women, and seeks to redefine the community by replacing the names of stops on the subway system.  If the new image of a pinked public transit features Carole King, Dorothy Day in Staten Island, Hannah Arendt, Susan Sontag, Toni Morrison, and Rosa Luxembourg in lower Manhattan, in a celebratory reclaiming of that landscape, its trick lacks the immediate poignancy in its redress of the map in toto and in its inversion of space as a land of make-believe, not to mention its unclear engagement with actual spatial inequalities.  But the point isn’t a cartographical precision, to be sure, so much as a broad-brush- strokes provocation revising the historical imbalance of the city’s gendered space, and the multiple polysemic sort of narratives it might occasion.


Subway South.pngRebecca Solnit/Molly Roy, “City of Women” (lowerManhattan, Staten Island, and Brooklyn)


Despite the breadth of the counter-roster of unremembered figures, from Sojourner Trut to Elaine de Kooning and Joan Mitchel to Beyoncé and Lady Gaga to Susan B. Anthony to Twyla Tharp to Janet Yellen, who lend their names to the celebration of the rich cultural vitality of the flat, pink-hued landscape, there is a wistful undertone to the reminder of just how far this landscape is from our life, if there is the injunction to hold it present in our minds all the better to orient ourselves.  The city embraces them all, and we can imagine coming into contact with them on the map in any commute route.


SOUTH NYC SUBWAY MAPRebecca Solnit/Molly Roy, “City of Women” (detail)


If the reclaiming of Fruitvale Station for Oscar Grant is also imagined, the imagined practice of affixing the detail of that decal, all important and rich with melancholy, but now beautifully inscribed on the map’s surface, provides a spatially situated act of resistance at which one’s heart suddenly and surprisingly warms.  Its particular power is to take us to a special place, and, in taking us to a place of incredible emotional power, to tell us about the power of maps, as well, of course, about the East Bay and the society where Grant’s death might occur–and where it might be recognized.  There was a sense of urgency, if a muted one, in the placement of the sticker over the place “Fruitvale Station” in the transit map that demanded BART riders recognize the value in its improvised renaming, which seemed to open up new spaces of expression in the map.


Oscar Grant.JPG


The glare of the transit lights that reflected off the map, and the act of the name’s placement on the map, offered a remapping of our relation to place that was deep, and human, as much as the glare superficial and electric.  For maps are not only about the narratives triggered by place-names, but the process and practices of the continued rewriting of place, and the territory that the place summons, and indeed the contested landscape of Oakland.  The counter-cartography made the viewer do a double-take, but addressed how place was commemorated, and how the rider was entering a topography that had been defined by increased killings by law enforcement officers, if marked by a sharp drop some years after Oscar Grant’s tragic shooting and needless death.


Death by Law Enforcement Oakland.png

Oakland Police Killings--OPD, CHP, BART police.pngAnti-Eviction Mapping Project–Killings by Oakland Police Officers


If the site of Oscar Grant’s shooting on the public transit platform had gained clearly divisive connotations, the absence of recognition at what so wrongly occurred at the site were made only deeper by the sentencing of the former transit officer for involuntary manslaughter,–and his early release after eleven months of his two-year sentence.  Where was the place for Oscar Grant on the map?  Renaming the station had already suggested the search for a fitting way to honor Oscar Grant, rather than obscuring the experience of Frank H. Ogawa–an interned Oaklander, barred from living in one of its “white” neighborhoods, who later rose to serve his neighborhood on the City Council.  But the need of processing and addressing Grant’s wrongful death demanded commemoration lest it be wrongly erased from a collective memory–indeed, upon seeing the affixed decals some passengers wrongly imagined that, upon seeing the doctored map, that the city had altered the station’s name “’cause that’s where they killed him,” as if the map was The Man, and its authoritative voice was seen only as one of antagonism, not one in which they or Grant could inhabit, so foreign was the official landscape of public transit and so raw remained Grant’s more than wrongful killing.  The memories activated by the place-name seemed to lead to stupefaction at the substitution of the station’s actual name for many who wondered what was up.

The decals renaming the station affixed by an unknown group–or an industrious individual–at a precise spot on several of the maps on the Fremont line is emblematic of a guerrilla cartography of the contested territories in Oakland.  The cartographic revision of place registered the continued sensitivity of processing memories of place, and of doing so in a changing social field.  The decals may have encouraged a mistaken rumor of an official renaming of Fruitvale Station as Oscar Grant Station in 2016, but also continue to remind us of the particulars power maps hold in preserving narratives about place, or literally as place-holders, and conserving a common memory.  The prominence of the renamed station remind us of the contestatory nature of all naming, and renaming, in a testimony to the vital need of the map, even in an age of GPS surveying, where a geodetic position exists independently from the map–as a location stripped of context and independent from it.  Fruitvale Station remains a site of contestation in Oakland’s public memory, three years before the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin, occurring only years later in Sanford, Florida, four before the 2014 death from choking ofEric Garner in Staten Island, when the uncertainty of interaction on the BART cars seems as if it cold have gone different ways, but didn’t, and how we can deal with it as a community, some nine years later.  The filming of these deaths on cell phones, and the collective witnessing of their deaths on social media, rehearsed the inequities of what seemed epidemics of abuses of justice.

The inequities of displacement cannot be seen but in this context as a form of exclusion; even if it is not as violent in its manifestations, it is far more insidious.  And so it is all the more pressing, perhaps, to consider be best or indeed adequately visualized, in terms of its human costs.   The odd use of muted pastels to visualize the pressures of displacement on the housing markets in the Bay Area calls attention to an important phenomenon but only at a distance–the widespread inexorable pressures of gentrification are light colored, and even along the Fruitvale are and International Street corridor all the way to Hayward.  The color choice is not bad, but runs the risk of seeming to remove the observer from the actuality of displacement, and may, despite its best intentions, suggest only at a far remove the fates of those displaced, or the huge financial pressures of rising rents that have served as forces of exclusion–and the social justice issue that rising rents raise.  The dislocation of man residents to cities outside of the Bay Area–Manteca; Visalia; Fresno–suggests a diaspora of economic refugees.  The process of displacement is perhaps impossible to color as landcover, land-use, or population density and the spectrum that would be most opportune or adequately expressive may not exist.  But the prominence of lavenders suggests a melancholy remove, and the intense spread of lavender along transit corridors and especially in Oakland West, if it mirrors the BART in scary ways, seems striking, although the degree to which the entire map is now covered with regions undergoing or at risk of displacement and exclusion suggests a Bay Area that is quickly leaving its former neighborhoods as they empty out..


Urban Displacement East BayUC Berkeley/Gentrification Displacement Map

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Filed under Bay Area, counter-map, mapping BART, mapping place, representing Oakland

National Security and Personal Bests

Was it only a coincidence that on the eve President Donald Trump boasted in his State of the Union address of an era “we no longer tell our enemies our plans” that the release of a live global heatmap pinpointed the location of U.S. military installations?  The release by Strava Labs of a spectacular heatmap that celebrated the routes where folks exercise worldwide suggested the flows of itineraries of physical exercise by running, biking, or skiing in stunning lines to reflect increased intensity, that appeared as if engraved on a dark OSM base map.  Indeed, the open nature of the data on military positions offered to any viewer of the heatmap seems as pernicious as culling of internet use long engaged in by the NSA, but for the state–as well as for the safety of soldiers who share their location, or fail to use security settings, as they exercise while completing military service abroad. Is this approaching a new level not only of broadcasting plans to an enemy, but failing to protect military positions in internationally sensitive zones?

While the map had been around for several years, its detailed update was so much more comprehensive than the 2015 version included–and was released in a time when internet observers scrutinize data visualizations.  The updated heatmap was a big deal for how it illuminated the world in a ways that few had seen, both in its own architecture of a spectacular network of athletes that reflected its expanded use, and the huge data included in aggregated routes for training, but illuminating clear divides between its users; but it gained even more attention foregrounding the presence of isolated groups of athletic performance abroad with an eery precision and legibility that quickly raised concerns reminiscent of the scale of unwanted intruding or monitoring of physical actives, even in an app that based its appeal in the data density of tracking it provided.  While promising individual privacy or anonymity, the benefits promised by the fitness app seemed almost a runaround of the appeal of PGP, Tor, and Privacy Badger that promised a degree of privacy by encrypting data from online trackers and privacy self-defense; rather than ensure the anonymization of the internet connections, however, the platform posted patterns of use whose legibility did not violate individual privacy, so much as state secrets.  Indeed, the surprising effects of how the Strava app made individuals suddenly legible so that they popped out of darker regions was perhaps the most striking finding of the global heatmap, as it illuminated stark discontinuities.

The newly and vastly amplified dataset included zoom functions of much greater specificity:  so richly detailed Strava was charged with betraying once secret locations of U.S. military worldwide, even if unknowingly, and creating a data vulnerability for the nation the would have global effects.  The heatmap made stunningly visible rasterized images of the aggregate activity of those sharing their locations that it gained unwanted degree of publicity months after it went live in November, 2017, for revealing the actual location and global military presence of American soldiers tracking their exercise and sharing geodata–including American and European soldiers stationed in the Middle East and Africa, and even in South Korea.  Although the California-based fitness app rendered space that seemed to celebrate the extent and intensity of physical exercise in encomiastic ways, as if the app succeeded in motivating invigorating exploration of space, and tracking one’s activity that guaranteed anonymity by blending data of its users in brightly lit zones, as for the Bay Area–


Bay Area.png


–the image that had clear implications of announcing its near-global adoption registered in the more isolated circumstances that many members of the American military increasingly find themselves.  The data set that Strava celebrated in November, 2017 as “beautiful data” on the athletic playgrounds of the world took an unexpected turn within months, as Strava came to remind all military users to opt out of sharing their geodata on the zoomable global heatmap, that aggregated shared geodata, lest secret locations of a global American military presence that extended to the Middle East and Africa be inadvertently revealed.  Whereas the California fitness app wanted to celebrate its global presence, the map revealed the spread of secret bases of the U.S. military in a globalized world.  The map of all users sharing geodata with the app were not intended to be personalized, but the global heatmap showed bright spots of soldiers stationed in several war zones.

The narrative in which the map was seen changed, in other words, as it became not a data dump of athletic performance across the world, that was able to measure and celebrated individual endurance,  but a narrative of hidden military and intelligence locations, tagging CIA operatives and overseas advisors by indelibly illuminating their exercise routes in a field of war in ways that seemed to foretell the end of military secrets in a world of widespread data-sharing. And Strava Labs for their part probably didn’t exactly help the problem when they took time to assure the public that they indeed “take the safety of our community seriously and are committed to work with military and governmental authorities to correct any sensitive areas that appear” in the web-maps,” as if to assure audiences they privileged the public interest and public safety of their users.  (But as much as addressing public safety in terms of operational security, Strava’s public statements were limited to caring for the community of users of the app, more than actual states.  The disjunction reveals very much:  when Strava labs saw their “users” or customers as the prime audience to which they were faithful, they indeed suggested that they held an obligation to users outside of loyalty to any nation-state, and indeed celebrated the geographical distribution of their own community across national frontiers.)  Indeed, the app’s heatmap disrespected national frontiers, by suggesting an alternate space of exercise that was believed and treated as it had nothing political in it.

In contrast, the landscape that American President Donald Trump presented in his first chest-thumping first State of the Union returned to the restoration of American security seemed incredibly to deny the consequences of recent availability of military geodata and indeed military base locations, in announcing that in his watch, we “no longer tell .  our enemies our plans.  For whereas President Trump boasted the return to an era of national security and guarded military secrets, the app broadcast a pinpoint record of the global dispersion of American troops, military consultants, and CIA “black” sites and annexes.  Indeed, for all the vaunted expansion of the U.S. military budget, the increased vulnerability of special operations forces has been something that the United States has poorly prepared for, although the release of the heat map prompted Gen. Jim Mattis to undertake a review of all use of social media devices within the military, so shocked was the news of the ability to plot geographical location by the exercise app. If the activities tracked and monitored in the hugely popular fitness app suggested a world taking better care for their patterns of exercise, it revealed scary patterns as a proxy to chart American presence that map the recent global expansion of the United States military in the beauty of its global picture across incandescently illuminated streams–




–as when one zoomed down to those running in Kabul, and geolocated the movement in ways that betrayed military footprint from intelligence personnel to foreign operatives to contractors overseas.  The data harvested on its platform appears to endanger American national security–and offers new ways to combine with information culled from social media–as it seems to pinpoint the bases around which military take their daily runs.


Strava sites?Strava heatmap, Kabul


The recognition of the scale of personal tracking by soldiers sharing data on exercise apps grew as one exploited the heatmap’s scalability, and examined areas in which few locals were using it–or had access to the First World problem of registering how many miles one ran.  While the data was not only sourced from Americans, the anonymity of the aggregate map–which can be viewed in multiple shades–provided an image of ghostly presence that seemed particularly apt to describe concerns of security and suggest an aura of revealing secret knowledge.  The cool factor of the Strava map lit up the hidden knowledge that echoed the longstanding surveillance of the communication records of Americans in the bulk data collection that the Patriot Act allowed, although now the dragnet on data use was being done by private enterprise, suggesting an odd public-private sharing of technology, as what had been viewed as a domestic market suddenly gained new uses on an international front.  The poor data security of U.S. forces abroad reminded us that we are by no means the only actor collecting bulk data, but also the scale of digital dust that we all create as we entrust information about our geographical locations to companies even when they promote the value of doing so to be salutary.

Multiple accusatory narratives quickly spun about whether the release of the new global heatmap by Strava Labs constituted a breach in national security.  The soundbite from the State of the Union proclaiming a “new era” described changed conditions by referencing Gen. Michael Flynn’s charge, first raised during the 2016 Presidential campaign on national television news,  that the United States had sadly become “the best enemies in the world” during the Obama years, as he attacked the government of which he had been part for being itself complicit in how “our enemies love when we telegraph what we’re doing” by not maintaining secrecy in our military plans.  Flynn’s assertion became something of a meme in the campaign trail.  And President Trump sought to reference the fear of such changes of a past undermining national authority abroad when he claimed to bring closure to lax security, choosing to message that the loopholes that existed were now closed, and respect had been achieved.  The fictionalized imaginary landscape seemed to distract America from danger or unemployment in celebrating its arrival in a better economic place.  The message seemed as imaginary as the landscape of an employed America, which had arrived in a better economic and place.

General Flynn’s metaphor of telegraphing was even then quaintly outdated, as if from a different media world.  But the allegation that had become a meme on alt right social media during the campaign to discredit military competence, gaining new traction as data security became increasingly a subject of national and international news.  Since President, despite having quickly issued one of executive orders that he has been so fond of signing on cybersecurity, Trump has in fact been openly criticized for a lack of vision or of leadership in addressing  national vulnerabilities in cybersecurity.  As President, Trump has preferred to pay lip service in the executive order, by far his preferred medium of public communication, to the growing frustration of a number of cybersecurity advisors who resigned before clarifying best practices of grid security.   Broad sharing of geodata by military and intelligence raised red flags of security compromises; it would, perhaps, be better raise a clarion call about our unending readiness to aggregate and be aggregated, and the unforeseen risks of sharing data.

The patterns of tracking exercise–biking, running, swimming, windsurfing–created striking pictures in aggregate, reflecting the collective comparisons of routes and itineraries, and showing a terrain vibrant with activity.  But while the app did not specialize in tracking individual performance or local movements, the new context of many apps transformed foreign counties where military travelled to sites where their data sharing stood out.  The sense of accessing the platform was so second nature to American soldiers moved across space, in fact, ignorant of the platform on which it was aggregated and its effects–or the audiences before who it was broadcast and displayed.  The ability to detect bright spots of athletic engagement around American bases, military camps, and CIA outposts suggested an unwanted form of data-sharing, RT television newscasters proclaimed with undisguised pleasure at the ease with which soldiers could be observed in different locations across the Middle East, from Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan, to Pakistan, and crowed that Americans are so unwary about being surveilled so as to provide evidence willingly of their own global footprint’s size.




It’s striking that government secrecy has become a public hallmark of the Trump administration.  But if Trump wanted to inaugurate the start of a fictional landscape of securing state secrets in his first State of the Union address, his words were pronounced with no acknowledgement of the release of the heatmap and the concerns of leaking security operations.  The map that Strava labs designed to celebrate the global extension of a triumphal image of the expansion of exercise in a triumphal image appeared in new guise as the latest example of breached military security secrets–suddenly made apparent at high resolution when one zoomed in at greater scale to Syria, Somalia, Niger, or Afghanistan, and even seem to be able to track the local movement of troops in active areas of war, and not only identify those bases, airfields, and secret annexes, but map their outlines that corresponded to the laps that soldiers seem to have run regularly around their perimeter while sharing their geodata publicly, or with the app.  While the app was designed to broadcast one’s personal best, as well as log one’s heart rate, sleep patterns, and performance (personal data which remained private), it collated in aggregate the patterns of activity across national borders.

For its part, Strava had only boasted it could “create the ultimate map of athlete playgrounds” by rendering “Strava’s global network of athletes” in a stunning heatmap from directly uploaded data.  If there was a sense that the “visualization of Strava’s global network of athletes” described a self-selected community, the beauty of the data set created from 13 trillion data points provided a new sense of exercise space, as if it sketched a record in aggregate of individual endurance, or a collective rendering of folks achieving personal bests.  But the illuminated “maps” of the global network of those exercising and the distribution of US military bases and sites of secret involvement raises complex issues of data-sharing, and the shock at the intersection of leisure space and military secrets–somewhat akin to the stern warning military commanders issued to years ago about using Pokemon Go! in restricted areas of military bases, mapping a comprehensive global map of military over-extension is an odd artifact of globalization.  And it was odd to see RT seize on this issue, as a way of describing the presence of the actors they id’d as “Uncle Sam” to suggest how zooming in on the global map revealed the reach of the United States in Afghanistan or Syria, as if playing a computerized game to see where clusters of forces might be illuminated, as if to exploit fears of revealing military secrets through geolocated data.

The story was pitched on RT suggested a market-driven surveillance network of which the Americans were themselves the dupes.  In its own spin on the story, RT reported of the leaks with glee, for rather than arriving from hackers, or Russian-sponsored hacking groups, military security was compromised by the very tracking devices, it was argued, that soldiers, military intelligence, and CIA officers wore.






By imposing outlines of national maps on the dynamic rasters of the web map that Strava released, the position of military forces or advisors indeed seemed able to be roughly revealed as military secrets by zooming into locations, much as RT announcers asserted, as if the “bracelets” of fitbits provided tools to geolocate soldiers as if they were manacles, reminiscent of the ankle bracelets given to many parolees, sex offenders, or prisoners, by using a GPS tracking system to monitor released inmates all the better to monitor their acitivities, in a practice that has only grown in response to overcrowding conditions in many federal and state prisons–GPS tracking systems were billed as able to save prisons up to $9,500 per inmate, or up to $25 a day; but rather than provide tools to surveil non-violent offenders, the effective monitoring of military bases and what seem CIA field stations provided a multiple security vulnerabilities of unprecedented scale.

But the real story may have been how so much data was available not only for state eyes, but for a broader public:  in an age where surveillance by the state is extending farther than ever before, and when we need, in the words of Laura Poitras, “a practical and metaphorical road map for navigating the post-9/11 landscape,” the maps of Strava have shifted the landscape of surveillance far from the state, and deflected it onto the internet.  For the far greater geographical precision and detail of a diverse user group may prefigure the future of data sharing–and the increased vulnerabilities that it creates.  The live data map broadcast not only an image of global divides, but of the striking patterns of the aggregation of geodata that reminded us of  the pressing problem of data vulnerability in the military’s extended network of secret military bases and dark sites.  Indeed, when a student at the Australian National University in Canberra, Nathan Russer, first noted that the Strata search engine created an Op-Sec catastrophe for leaking locations of US military patrols and bases, his observations unleashed a storm of pattern analysis and fears of compromised national security.  It indeed seems that the vaunted agility that allowed American forces to deploy in much of the world could now be readily observed, as we zoom into specific sites of potential military involvement to uncover the presence of Americans and assess the degree of involvement in different sites, as well as the motion through individual sites of conflict.  The spectral map that results suggests something quite close to surveillance–at time, one can scrape the place of individual users form the app’s web map–but that is dislodged from the state.

The notion of a private outsourcing of data surveillance to the public sphere is hardly new.  One can think, immediately, of Facebook’s algorithms or personal data-harvesting or those of search engines.  Although the U.S. Department of Defense has urged all active military abroad to limit their active presence in online social media, no matter where they are stationed, the news reminded us yet again of an increased intersection between political space and social media, even if this time the intersection seems more shaped like a Moebius strip.  The divisions within a global geographic visualization of Strava’s users reminded one of a usage landscape that suggested a striking degree of continuity with the Cold War–with an expanded iron curtain, save in scattered metropoles–whose stark spatial division reminded us of the different sort of lifestyles that public posts of athletic performance reveals.  As much as showing a greater openness, the heat map suggests a far greater willingness of posting on social media use:  the intersection suggests a different familiarity with space, and a proprietary value to the internet.’


strava1Strava Labs


Indeed, in only a few months to notice how American soldiers’ presence in coalition military sites suddenly popped out in the darker spaces of the Syrian Civil War, where different theaters of action of coalition forces that include American soldiers are revealed, and panning back to other theaters can indeed revealed the global presence of U.S. military and intelligence.  Against a dark field, the erasure of any sense of national frontiers in the Strata labs data map suggests the permeability of much of the world not only by interactive technologies but by the isolated groups of soldiers who deal with the stress of deployment by bike rides and runs while they are stationed in Afghanistan.



Runing In Kabul


Although the fitness app saw its aggregation as registering geodata in the relatively apolitical space of physical exercise, fears of political and national security repercussions ran pretty high.  Indeed, the tracking of running laps, cycling, and daily exercise routines revealed U.S. military bases in Syria so clearly that it proved a basis to locate and orient oneself to an archipelago of U.S. military activity abroad in the global heat map, and lit up American presence in Mosul, Tanff, north of Bagdad and around Raqqa, providing a historical map able to pinpoint airfields, outposts, and secret stations in the war against the Islamic State.  Security analysts like Tobias Schneider argued they helped track the movements and locations of troops and even extract information on individual soldiers.  In place of an image of the global contagion of tracking exercise, the patterns of performance provided a way to look at the micro-climates of exercise on a scaling that were not otherwise evident in the arcs of the impressive global heatmap.

Sissela Bok classically noted the ways that secrecy and privacy overlap and are linked in some collective groups, as the military, but the absence of privacy or secrecy on much of the Strava Labs heatmap raised questions of the increasing difficulties to maintain a sense of secrecy or privacy in an age of geographically growing war.  In an age when more and more are living under surveillance, and indeed when the surveillance of subjects has only begun to gain attention as a fact of life, the fear of broadcasting an effective surveillance of exercising soldiers seems particularly ironic–or careless.  The practices of secrecy were more than lax.  For the United States military has in fact, quite vigorously promoted Fitbit flex trackers among pilot programs at U.S. bases to lose calories, and provided devices that measure steps walked, calories burned, and health sleep as part of its Performance Triad;  Fitbit trackers were provided as part of a pilot fitness program from 2013 with few issues raised about security, and placing restrictions on American soldiers’ use of mobile phones, peripherals, or wearable technologies would limit military volunteers.  (The Pentagon has in all distributed 2,500 Fitbits as part of its anti-obesity program, in more flexible wearable form, without thinking of the information that they broadcast.)  Yet soon after the map appeared, folks noted on Twitter with irony that “Someone forgot to turn off their Fitbit,” and it became a refrain on social media by late January, as the image that tracked American military outposts not only in Kabul, but in the Sahel, Somalia, Syria and Niger all popped out of a global map–embodying the very outlines of the camps around which military run.  ‘

Although the U.S. National Counterintelligence and Security Center informed the intelligence community of dangers of being tagged by “social media postings,” the imagined privacy of exercising soldiers is far less closely monitored than should be the case–resulting in a lack of clear vigilance about publishing Strava data.


Runing In Kabul.pngKabul, Afghanistan, in Strava Labs global heatmap


The heat map so strongly lluminated itineraries users ran, biked, or skied, tracked in incandescently illuminated streams, and even zoom in on specific locations, where they stand out from considerably darker zones of low use of the app, that some national security officials wanted the app to take time to take the maps offline so that they could be scrubbed; worries grew that one could even to scrape the itineraries of individual soldiers who exercise on military service in the heatmaps.

But the two fold ways of reading of the map’s surface suggest that their contents were difficult to free.  The same map celebrating the app’s global use revealed deep discrepancies between the brightly illuminated areas of high-use and data input and its dark zones.  Data mapped on Strava’s website also seems to enable one to id the soldiers using the Strava app with far greater certainty than foreign governments or non-state actors had before, in ways that would create multiple potentially embarrassing problems of delicate foreign relations.  While in part the fear may have derived from the hugeness of the dataset, the fear of being compromised by data raised an increased sense of emergency of a security being risked, and fears of national vulnerability.  Partly this was because of the huge scale of geospatial data.  The updated version of the heatmap issued by Strava Labs illuminated the world in a way that few had seen, and not only because of its greater specificity:  Strava had doubled its resolution, rasterizing all activity and data directly uploaded, and optimizing rasters to ensure a far richer and more beautiful visualization, along glowing lines to reflect intensity of use that looked as if they were in fact vectors.  It made its data points quite beautiful, stretching them into bright lines, eliminating noise and static to create a super smooth image that almost seems to update the Jane Jacobs’ notions of public space and its common access–and the definition of spaces for exercise.

To some extent, the highlighting that the app did of common routes of exercise seem to mirrored the metric of walkability, the measurement of active transportation forms like walking and biking and stood as a surrogate for environmental quality.  The fitness map improved on the walkscore or its cosmopolitan variants, by involving its users to create a new map of exercising space.  The abilities to foreground individual and collective athletic performance in a readily accessible map provided what must be admitted is a pretty privileged view of the world; but the self-mapped community it revealed gained a new context just two months after it went live, as the map drew attention to the patterns it revealed of using an app to track one’s activities, as much as register work-out trails.


San Fran Strava dataset  San Francisco in Strava Labs Heatmap


The new map attracted attention not only for the fitness crowd, a self-selecting demographic, in short, but as an interesting extension of the beauty and the huge amount of datasets it uploaded and digested in a highly legible form:  indeed the legibility of the data that was able to be regularly updated online suggested a new form of consensual surveillance.  The data-rich expansion of what was the first update to the global heat map of users that Strava Labs issued since 2015 encoded over six time more data, and promised a degree of precision that was never even imagined before, notably including correction for GPS distortions and possibilities of new privacy settings, in ways that amplified its ability to be seen as a tracking device most notably in those areas where the aggregate of Strava users was not so dense, first of all those military sites where American military and operatives were stationed and perhaps secretly engaged, but gave little thought to the day sharing app installed on their Fitbits or iPhones, and may even have seen the data-sharing function as a source of comfort of belonging to a larger exercise community.

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Saturated Shores in Southeastern Texas

There is almost no trace of the human, or of the extreme overurbanization of the Texas coast, in most of the maps that were created of the extreme flooding and intense winter rains that hit Galveston and Houston TX with the windfall of Hurricane Harvey.  While maps serve to orient humans to the world–and orient us to human processes and events in a “human world,” as J.B. Harley and David Woodward put it.

The relentless logic of data visualizations based on and deriving primarily from remote sensing are striking for rendering less of a human world than the threat of allegedly “natural” processes to that world.  Perhaps because of the recent season of extreme weather we have experienced, weather maps may be among the most widely consulted visualizations in our over-mediated world, if they were already widely viewed as the essential forms of orientation.  But the pointillist logic of weather maps may fail to orient us well to extreme events as the hurricane that dumped a huge amount of water on overbuilt areas to include the human–or the human world–seem a tacit denial of the role of humans in the complex phenemona of global warming that have, with the warming waters of the Gulf of Mexico and ever-increasing ozone over much of the overbuilt southeastern Texas shore, created a perfect storm for their arrival.

This failure to include this role haunts the limited content of the weather map; including the role of humans in maps of extreme weather events indeed remains among the most important challenges of weather maps and data visualization, with the human experience of the disasters we still call natural.


1.  For weather maps are also among the most misleading points to orient oneself to global warming and climate change, as they privilege the individual moment, removed from a broader context of long-term change or the human alteration of landscape.  They provide endless fascination by synthesizing an encapsulated view of weather conditions, but also  suggest a confounding form of media to orient audiences to long-term change or to the cascading relations of the complex phenomenon of climate change and our relation to the environment, as they privilege a moment in isolation from any broader context, and a sense of nature removed from either landscape modification or human intervention in the environment, in an area were atmospheric warming has shifted sea-surface temperatures.  The effects on the coast is presented in data visualizations that trace the hurricane’s “impact” as if its arrival were quite isolated from external events, and from the effects of human habitations on the coast.  The image of extreme flooding is recorded as a layer atop a map, removing the catastrophic effects of the flooding from the overpaved land of the megacities of southeastern Texas, and the rapid paving over of local landcover of its shores.




Such visualizations preserve a clear line between land and sea, but treat the arrival of the rains on land as isolated from the Consuming such events of global warming in color-spectrum maps.  The data of rainfall translate data into somewhat goofy designs represents a deep alienation from the environment, distancing viewers in dangerous ways from the very complexity of global warming that Gulf coast states encountered.

Such data visualizations seem dangerously removed notion of how we have changed our own environment, by describing a notion of “nature” that is immediately legible, as if it were removed from any human trace or of the impact of modification of the land, and by imaging events in isolation from one another–often showing a background in terrain view as if it has no relation to the events that the map describes.  Although weather maps and AccuWeather forecasts are sources of continual fascination, and indeed orientation, they are are also among the most confounding media to orient viewers to the world’s rapidly changing climate–and perhaps among the most compromised.  For they imply a remove of the viewer from space-and from the man-made nature of the environment or the effects of human activity form the weather systems whose changes we increasingly register.  By reifying weather data as a record of an actuality removed from human presence at one place in time, they present a status quo which it is necessary to try to peel off layers, and excavate a deeper dynamic, and indeed excavate the effects of human presence in the landscape or geography that is shown in the map.  We are drawn to tracking and interpret visualizations of data from satellite feeds in such weather maps–or by what is known as “remote sensing,” placed at an increased remove from the human habitation of a region, and indeed in a dangerously disembodied manner.

Visualizations resulting from remote observation demand taken as a starting point to be related to from the human remaking of a region’s landscape that has often increasingly left many sites increasingly vulnerable to climate change.  But the abstract rendering of their data in isolation from a global picture–or on the ground knowledge of place–may render them quite critically incomplete.  The remove of such maps may even suggest a deep sense of alienation form the environment, so removed is the content of the data visualization form human presence, and perhaps from any sense of the ability to change weather-related events, or perceive the devastating nature of their effects on human inhabitants:   their stories are about weather, removed form human lives, as they create realities that gain their own identity in images, separate from a man-made world, at a time when weather increasingly intersects with and is changed by human presence.  While throwing into relief the areas hit by flooding near to the southeastern Texas shore at multiple scales based on highly accurate geospatial data, much of which is able to be put to useful humanitarian uses–


Harvey flooding_1.jpgDartmouth Flood Observatory/University of Colorado at Boulder, August 29. 2017


1504094467hurricane-harvey-flood-map.gifMaps of the World


–the reduction of floods to data points creates a distorted image of space renders their occurrence distant from the perspective of folks on the ground, and places their content at a considerable remove from the complex causality of a warming Gulf of Mexico, or the problems of flood drainage by which Galveston and Houston were beset.  Indeed, the multiple images of that report rainfall as an overlay in a rainbow spectrum, at a remove from the reasons for Houston’s vulnerability to flooding and the limits the region faces of flood control, in broadcast Accuweather images of total rainfall in inches advance a metric that conceals the cognitive remove from the dangers of flooding, ora human relation to the landscape that the hurricane so catastrophically affected.  Can we peel under the layers of the data visualization, and create better images that appreciate the human level on which the landscape stands to be devastated by hurricane rains, as much as tracking the intensity of the growth of rainfall over time?


90-5.jpegAccuWeather, Rainfall levels by Thursday

90AccuWeather, Friday to Monday


Such layers of green, meant to suggest the intensity of rainfall that fell over land, reveal the concentration of water in areas closes to the Gulf of Mexico.  Even the most precise geographical records of the dangers of flooding in the floodplain of southeastern Texas with little reference to the historical modification of the region by inhabitants–


Harvey flooding_1Dartmouth Flood Observatory at University of Colorado, Boulder/August 29, 2017


–and conceal the extent to which the landscape’s limited ground cover permeability has left the region far more susceptible to flooding, and elevated the risks of the emergency.  The problem of reading any signs of human presence into these “images” of precipitation provoke problems of disentangling remote sensing data from knowledge of the region’s recent urban growth and the consequent shift in local landcover.

The perspective of our relation to these events is often as fleeting and as existential as they flood us with data, which we viewers have little perspective or tools to process fully.  The onrush of recent remote sensing maps batter us with an array of data, so much as to lead many to throw up their hands at their coherence.  Even as we are  still trying to calculate the intensity of damages in Puerto Rico–where electricity is so slowly returning that even even after four months, almost a third of its 1.5 million electricity customers still lack power–and the cost of fires in southern California.  We look at maps, hoping to piece together evidence of extensive collateral damage of global warming.  Yet we’ve still to come to terms with the intensity of rainstorms that hit southeastern Texas–deluging the coast with rainfall surpassing the standard meteorological chromatic scale that so misleadingly seems to offer a transparent record of the catastrophe, but omits and masks the experiences of people on the ground, digesting swaths of remotely sensed data that take the place of their perception and experience, and offering little critical perspective on the hurricane’s origin.

The rapidity with which rain challenged ground cover permeability provides both a challenge for mapping as a symptom of global warming and landscape modification:   the mapping of “natural” levels of rainfall blurs the pressing problem of how shifting landcover has created an impermeability to heightened rains, and indeed how the new patterns of habitation challenge the ability of the coast of the Gulf of Mexico to absorb the prospect of increased rain in the face of decreasing groundcover permeability, and the extreme modification of the coastline that increasingly impeded run-off to the Gulf.


2.  Across much of southeastern Texas, a region whose growth was fed by the hopes of employment in extractive industries, real estate demand and over-paving have unfortunately intersected with extreme weather in southeastern Texas in ways which dat visualizations have had trouble exposing, but which raise a curtain on the coming crises of a failure of ability to accommodate increased levels of rainfall  If the lack of precedent for the intense rainfall in Galveston Bay generated debate about introducing a new color that went beyond the rainbow scale employed in weather charts, what seemed a problem of the cartographic color-spectrum suggested a problem of governability and indeed government response to extreme weather conditions.  How to register the dangers of rainfall that goes of the scale or standards of measurement?

One must consider how to orient viewers to the intensity of consequent flooding, and to its consequences and better prepare ourselves for the arrival of deluging rains without falling back on the over-freighted metaphor of rains of biblical scope.  How many more hurricanes of increasing intensity can continue to pound the shores, by whipping precipitation from increasingly warming waters and humid air?  The cumulative pounding of tropical cyclones in the Gulf stands to create a significantly larger proportion of lands lying underwater–temporarily submerged lands–with radically reduced possibilities of drainage, as hurricanes carry increased amounts of evaporated water from the humid air of the warming gulf across its increasingly overbuilt shores. in ways that have changed how the many tropical cyclones that have crossed the land-sea threshold since NOAA began tracking their transit (in 1851) poses a new threat to the southeastern coast of Texas, and will force us to map the shifting relation between land and water not only in terms of the arrival of hurricanes, or cyclonic storms–



–but the ability of an increasingly overbuilt landscape to lie underwater as the quantity of the Gulf coast rainfall stands to grow, overwhelming the overbuilt nature of the coast.

Most maps that chart the arrival and impact of hurricanes seem a form of climate denial, as much as they account for climate change, locating the hurricanes as aggressive forces outside the climate, against a said backdrop of blue seas, as if they  are the disconnect.  Months after the hurricane season ended, the damage for hurricanes caused have hardly been assessed in what has been one of the most costly and greatest storm damage since 1980 in the United States,–including the year of Hurricane Katrina–we have only begun to sense the damage of extreme weather stands to bring to the national infrastructure.  The comparison to the costs of storm damage in previous years were not even close.

But distracted by the immediacy of data visualizations, and impressed by the urgency of the immediate, we risk being increasingly unable to synthesize the broader patterns of increased sea surface temperatures and hurricane generations, or the relations between extremely destructive weather events, overwhelmed by the excessive destruction of each, and distracted from raising questions about the extremely poor preparation of most overbuilt regions for their arrival, and indeed the extent to which regional over-building that did not take the possibility of extreme weather into account–paving large areas without adequate drainage structures or any areas of arable land–left inhabitants more vulnerable to intense rains.  For in expanding the image of the city without bounds, elasticity, or margins for sea-level rise, the increasingly brittle cityscapes of Galveston and much of the southeastern Texas shoreline were left incredibly unprepared for the arrival of hurricanes or intense rains.  Despite the buzz of an increased density of hurricanes to have hit the region,




the questions of how to absorb hurricanes of the future, and to absorb the increased probability of rainfall from hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico and its shores, suggests questions of risk, danger, and preparation that we have no ability to map.  What, indeed, occurs, as hurricanes themselves destroy the very means of transmitting on the ground information and sensing weather, and we rely exclusively on remote sensing?


Destroyed satellite dishes after Hurricane Maria hit Humacao, Puerto Rico  REUTERS/Alvin Baez



To characterize or bracket these phenomena as “natural” is, of course, to overlook complex interaction between extreme weather patterns and our increasingly overbuilt environments that have both transformed the nature of the Southeastern Texas coast and have made the region both an area of huge economic growth over time, and have paved over much of the floodplain–as well as elevated the potential risks that are associated with coastal flooding in the Gulf Coast.  To be sure, any discussion of the Gulf of Mexico must begin from the increasingly unclear nature of much of our infrastructure across land and sea, evident in the range of pipelines of gas and oil that snake along a once more clearly defined shore charted by ProPublica in 2012, revealed the scope of the manmade environment that has both changed the relation of the coastal communities to the Gulf of Mexico, and has been such a huge spur to ground cover change.

The expansive armature of lines that snake from the region across the nation–


pipeline_line_mapProPublica, Pipeline Safety Tracker/Hazardous liquid pipelines are noted in red; gas in blue


-and whose tangle of oil pipelines that extend from the very site of Galveston to the Louisiana coast is almost unable to be defined as “offshore” save as a fiction, so highly constructed is much of the national waters in submerged lands in the Gulf of Mexico–


gulfofmexicopipelinesProPublica, Pipeline Safety Tracker/Hazardous liquid pipelines are noted in red


They indeed seem something of an extension of the land, and a redefinition of the shore, and reveal a huge investment of the offshore extractive industries that stand to change much of the risk that hurricanes pose to the region, as well as the complex relation of our energy industries to the warming seas.  Yet weather maps, ostensibly made for the public good, rarely reveal the overbuilt nature of these submerged lands or of the Gulf’s waters.

Despite the dangers that such an extensive network of hazardous liquid lines along the Gulf of Mexico, the confusion between mapping a defined line between land and water, and visualizing relations of extreme weather disturbances as hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico and local infrastructure haunts the extremely thin nature of the sort of data visualizations that are generated about the dangers of hurricanes and their landfall in the region.  For all too often, they presume a stable land/sea divide, removed from the experience of inhabitants of the region and how we have remade the shore.


3.  How can we better integrate both a human perspective on weather changes, and the role of human-caused conditions in maps of extreme weather?  How can we do better by going beneath the data visualizations of record-breaking rainfall, to map the human impact of such storms?  How could we do better to chart the infrastructural stresses and the extent to which we are ill-prepared for such extreme weather systems whose impact multiplies because of the increased impermeability of the land, unable to absorb excessive rainfall, and beds of lakes and reservoirs that cannot accommodate increased accumulation of rainfall that  stand to become the new normal?  The current spate of news maps that provoke panic by visualizing the extremes of individual cases may only inspire a sort of data vis-induced ADD, distracting from infrastructural inadequacies to the effects of global warming–and leaving us at a loss to guarantee the best structures of governability and environmental readiness.

Indeed, the absence of accurately mapping the impact and relation between landcover, storm intensity, rainfall, flooding, and drainage abilities increases the dangers of lack of good governance.  There need not be any need for a reminder of how quickly inadequate mapping of coastal disasters turns into an emblem of bad governance.  There is the danger that, overwhelmed by the existential relation to each storm, we fail to put them together with one another; compelled to follow patterns of extreme weather, we risk being distracted from not only the costs but the human-generated nature of such shifts in seasons between extremes of hot and cold.  For as we focus on each event, we fail to integrate a more persuasive image of how rising temperatures stand to create an ever-shifting relation between water and land.

Provoked by the rhetoric of emergency, we may need to learn to distance ourselves better from the aerial views that synthesize intense precipitation, tally hurricane impacts, or snowfall levels, and view them less as individual “strikes” or events and better orient ourselves to a broader picture which put us in a less existential relation to extreme weather.


2017-four-us-hur-landfalls_3The Weather Channel


We surely need to establish distance to process syntheses of data in staggering aerial views on cloud swirl, intense precipitation, and snowfall, and work to peel back their striking colors and bright shades of rainbow spectra, to force ourselves to focus not only on their human costs, or their costs of human life, but their relation to a warming planet, and the role of extreme of weather in a rapidly changing global climate, as much as track the “direct strikes” of hurricanes of individual names, as if they were marauders of our shores:  their creation is as much tied to the changing nature of our shores and warming sea-surface temperatures, and in trying to create a striking visualization, we deprive ourselves from detecting broader patterns offering better purchase on weather changes.


direct-strikesThe Weather Channel


If patterns of weather maps epitomized by Accuweather forecast and projections suggest an exhilaratingly Apollonian view on global and regional weather patterns, they also  shift attention form a broader human perspective in quite deeply pernicious ways.  Such maps provided the only format for grasping the impact of what happened as the hurricane made landfall, but provided little sense of the scale of inundations that shifted, blurred and threatened the coast of the Gulf of Mexico.  They provide a format for viewing floods that are disjoined from victims, and seem to naturalize the quite unnatural occurrence of extreme weather systems.  Given the huge interest in grasping the transformation of Hurricane Harvey from a tropical storm to a Category Four hurricane, and the huge impact a spate of Category Four hurricanes have created in the Gulf of Mexico, it’s no surprise that the adequacy of the maps of Hurricane Harvey have been interrogated as hieroglyphs or runes of a huge weather change:  we sift through them for a human story which often left opaque behind bright neon overlays, whose intensity offer only an inkling of a personal perspective of the space or scale of their destruction on the ground:  while data maps provide a snapshot of the intensity of rain-levels or wind strength at specific sites, it is difficult if important to remember that their concentration on sites provide a limited picture of causation or complexity.

All too often, such maps fail to offer an adequately coherent image of disasters and their consequences, and indeed to parse the human contributions to their occurrence.  This post might be defined into multiple subsections.  The first actions suggest the problems of mapping hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico in relation to flooding in data visualizations of the weather and the overbuilt region; the middle of the post turns to an earlier poetic model for considering the relation between land and sea that visualizations all too easily obscure, and the meaning that the poet Elizabeth Bishop found in viewing relations between land and sea in a printed map of the Atlantic; after returning to the question of the overbuilt shore compounds problems of visualizing the Texas coast, the final section, perhaps its most provocative, returns to Bishop’s reading of a map of the Atlantic coast.

What such new weather maps would look like is a huge concern.  Indeed, as we depend on weather maps to orient us to place ourselves in the inter-relations of climate change, sea-level, surface temperatures, and rain, whether maps cease to orient us to place, but when best constructed help to describe the changing texture of weather patterns in ways that can help familiarize us not only to weather conditions, but needed responses to climate change.  For  three months after the hurricanes of the Gulf of Mexico caused such destruction and panic on the ground, it is striking not only that few funds have arrived to cover costs of rebuilding or insurance claims, but the judgement or understanding of the chances for future flooding have almost left our radar–perhaps pushed rightly aside by the firestorms of northern and southern California, but in ways that troublingly seem to forget to assess or fail to assess the extent of floods and groundwater impermeability  along the Texas and Louisiana coast.  The problems that preparation for future coastal hurricanes off the Gulf of Mexico raise problems of hurricane control and disaster response that seem linked to problems of mapping their arrival–amd framing the response to the increasing rains that are dumped along the entire Gulf Coast.



Indeed, the chromatic foregrounding of place in such rainbow color ramps based on GPS obscure other maps.   Satellite data of rainfall are removed from local conditions, and serve to help erase complex relations between land and water or the experience of flooding on the ground–by suggesting a clear border between land and sea, and indeed mapping the Gulf of Mexico as a surface as if it were unrelated to the increased flooding around Houston, in maps prepared from satellite imagery, despite the uneasy echoes of anthropogenic causes for the arrival of ten hurricanes in ten weeks, in ways that suggest how warming waters contributed to the extreme inundation of the Gulf Coast.  Despite NOAA  predictions of a 45% likelihood of ‘above-normal’ activity for the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season, with, a 70% likelihood of storms that could transform into hurricanes, the images of inundated lands seem both apocalyptic and carefully removed from the anthropogenic changes either to the ocean or land that intensified their occurrence so dramatically on the ground.


Dartmouth Flood Observatory Flooding Harvey Dartmouth Flood Observatory


Harvey flooding_0.jpgDartmouth Flood Observatory/August 29, 2017


Is it possible to recuperate the loss of individual experience in such data maps, or at least acknowledge their limitations as records of the complexity of a changing climate and the consequences of more frequent storm surges and such inundations of rainfall?  As we seek better to understand the disaster relief efforts through real-time maps of effects of Hurricane Harvey as it moved inland from the Gulf of Mexico, shifting from Category 4 Hurricane from a tropical storm, we tried to grasp levels of rainfall that spun out of 115-mile-an-hour winds across southeastern Texas that damaged crops, flooded fields, ruined houses, and submerged cars, we scan stories in hope of clues to assess our position in relation to increasingly dangerous weather systems whose occurrence they may well forebode.  At a time of increased attention to extreme weather has long developed, the gross negligence of climate change denial is increasingly evident:  it recalls the earlier denial of any relation between hurricanes and climate change, when increased hurricanes were cast as “the cycle of nature,” rather than as consequences whose effects have in fact been broadly intensified by human activity.

Current attempts to map the toll of record-smashing hurricanes focused almost exclusively on point-based data view rainstorms largely as land-based records; even as they intend to monitor the effects of Harvey’s landfall by microwave censors, they risk seeming to isolate real-time rainfall levels from the mechanics warmer air and sea-surface temperatures which result from human-caused global warming, not relating increased storm surges or inundations to achanges in coastal environments or climate change.  To render such changes as natural–or only land-based–is irresponsible in an age of reckless levels of climate denial.  Indeed, faced by the proliferation of data visualizations, part of the journalistic difficulty or quandary is to integrate humanistic or individual perspectives on the arrival of storms, rendered in stark colors in the increasingly curtailed ecosystems of newsrooms which seek simplified visualizations of satellite data on the disaster, which fail to note the human contributions to the travails that are often reserved for photographs, which increasingly afford opportunities of disaster tourism in the news, emphasizing the spectator’s position before disasters, by images that underscore the difficulties in processing or interpreting the proliferation of data from MODIS satellite feeds:  we can show the ability to measure the arrival of torrential rains, but in offering few legends, save the date and scale, but offering few keys o interpret the scale of the disaster.

The looming portent of human-made climate change, however, underlies the poor predictions that NOAA offered of perhaps 2-4 major hurricanes this Spring, and the lack of a new director for NOAA–on which local and state agencies depend to monitor the nations shores and fisheries–suggested the, from June to September, which left states on their own to make decisions and plan for disaster mitigation programs and better flood maps.  (The danger of appointing a newly nominated director, Barry Myers, who is a strong supporter of the privitization of weather maps and an executive at the private Accuweather mapping service, suggests the difficulty of determining the public-private divide in an era of neoliberalism, and a free market of weather maps that were once seen as central to national security and standards of safety.)   There are two hidden scales on which we read these opaque maps of global warming and globalization and local inundation are triply frustrating.   For all the precision and data richness of such point-maps of largely land-based rainfall, local temperature, or flooding, the biases of such instantaneous measurements seem to fit our current governing atmosphere of climate change denial, and dangerous in erasing how such storms are informed by long-term consequences of man-made climate change.  (As the mapping tools of coastal weather seem destined to change, what sort of change in direction for NOAA coastal maps do we want:  the appointment suggests the terrifying possibility of a return to the Bush-era proposal nominee Myers supported that prohibiting the agency from producing any maps already available in the private sector then threatened federal weather lines to go dark–lest they literally compete with ad-supported websites private providers–and shift federal information offline?)

For making moves toward the future readability of weather maps may well be at stake in critically important ways.  The 2005 proposal that Myers backed would have eliminated the National Weather Service, even while exempting those forecasts needed to preserve “life and property,” would in essence have returned the weather services to a pre-internet era, even as the most active hurricane season including a record breaking fifteen hurricanes and twenty-eight storms began in the gulf coast, including the infamous hurricane Katrina.  The proposed bill would have prevented NOAA from posting open data, and not only readily available to researchers and policymakers, in ad-free formats, free of popup screens, but allow them to make their own maps on the fly–ending good practices of posting climate data would work quite dangersously to prevent development of tools of data visualization outside commercial models of rendering storms and hurricanes as if environmentally isolated.





A deeper problem of providing such limited weather maps of tropical storms may be the subtexts about the relation of human causes to weather they convey, and the absence of a greater narrative of the transformation of a global ecology or of the ecology of the Gulf Coast.  The curtailed images of “nature” they present by symbolizing rains, winds, floods, or submerged regions in appealing hues as natural–raise questions of the odd simplicity of the absent storylines:  cheery colors erase or bracket complex questions of climate change, the human contribution to extreme weather events, or the human experience of suffering on the ground:  Rita, Cindy, Katrina, Dennis, and Wilma seem not part of the environment, epiphenomenal interlopers moving across a static deep blue sea, in an apparent dumbing down of the mechanics of hurricane or storm formation in a rainbow spectrum removed from a human-made environment.

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Filed under climate change, data visualization, ecological disasters, hurricanes, Remote Sensing

The Terror of Climate Change: Uncorking Bombs of Streaming Snow in the Atlantic

Even in an era when waking up to weather bulletins provide a basic way of orienting oneself to the world, the arrival of the bomb cyclone in the early morning of January 4, 2018, along the east coast of the United States, commanded a certain degree of surprise.  For those without alerts on their devices, the howling winds that streamed through the streets and rose from rivers provided an atmospheric alert of the arrival of streams of arctic air and snows, creating something called “white-outs” in highways along much of the eastern seaboard that paralyzed traffic and reminded us of the delicate balance over much of our infrastructure.

The effects of the arrival of a low pressure system in the western Atlantic created effects that cascaded across the nation, setting temperatures plummeting and winds spewing snowfall as the extratropical cyclone was displaced off New England, and propelling snow over the east coast from what was an offshore weather disturbance.  While the “bomb cyclone” sounded portentous, the actual explosiveness was perhaps not felt at its eye over the Atlantic–




–as the bomb-like burst of pressure scattered snows through howling winds across much of the coast, but rather in the unbalanced distribution of snowfall across the nation that it so quickly created.  The cyclonic winds of the “weather bomb” could not be localized:  their effect was to set off a burst of precipitation, chilled by arctic airs, remindeding us of the delicate relation between land and sea in an era of climate change, when we are apt to feel the effects of colliding air masses across the country, as far as Tennessee or Ohio.

The bomb created a deep oceanic disturbance in the dissonance of sea-surface and air temperatures, and triggered the increasing imbalances of the distribution of snow across the nation, as if inaugurating an era of the increasingly unequal levels of snowfall, as a bomb that seemed to burst over the Atlantic sent snowfall flying across the east coast–


Thursday am bomb


–in ways that led to a deep disparities of snow and ice levels across much of the country, where much of the nation’s western states were surprisingly free of snow, increasingly rare save in several spots.







The bomb cyclone spread across a broad surface of the eastern seaboard and Gulf of Mexico, as the areas that stand to be open to gas- and oil-speculation suddenly took a far greater hit than was expected, raising questions of the arrival of extreme weather systems as sea-surface temperatures grew:  the kink in the Gulf Stream created a swirl that sucked in arctic air and spread clouds of snowfall across the eastern seaboard as the seas became incredibly stormy, driven by hurricane winds.  The bomb cyclone wasn’t a major disaster, but seems a wake-up call of the charting of minerals stored in the seabed of offshore areas in the Outer Continental Shelf off the United States–the “federal lands” that the government decided since it administers directly it may as well start to lease.


Thursday am bomb.pngPrecipitation Column Rising from Offshore Winds, January 2-4/Ryan Maue

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Filed under energy independence, environmental change, Global Warming, oceans, remotely sensed maps

Ink-Jet Wonders and Other Printed Curiosities

The appeal that was exercised by a newly discovered set of gores that arrived at Christie’s announced was considerable.  The map constituted one of the first mappings to show the place of America on the globe–and indeed to map the globe as a globe.  The considerable attention that the gores slated to go to auction in mid-December attracted must have lain not only in their rarity, but the cult of priority of the naming of place.  The gores exemplified the declarative role of mapping to designate place, as well as a geometric organization of global continuity shortly after the discovery of the new world, but it was hard to imagine that the appeal of the gores in our increasingly pixelated, pointillistic, and fragmented mediated sense of space was not in the solidity with which they seemed to embody “America,” both on the map and on a globe.

The gores were highly valued as the first image that mapped America–and assigned it a name–whose almost cultic prestige had grown allowed viewers view a watery western hemisphere, since described by antiquarians as the “birth certificate” of America, in an ahistorical but nineteenth-century fashion, for bestowing the name of the European navigator Vespucci on the continent that he had described in a set of letters that widely circulated in Europe from 1503, and provided a written account that oriented readers to to the New World, describing a vicarious sort of witnessing the unknown that expanded the demand for global maps as they were widely reprinted.   Amerigo Vespucci described the long shorelines of a New World  that allowed a distinctively modern way to view a rapidly expanded image of the inhabited world, and allowed Waldseemüller–even if the humanist cosmographer who had trained as a theologian rarely travelled beyond his town of St. Die, near Strasbourg, but exploited the printing press to reconcile Vespucci’s findings with precepts of map projection derived from cutting edge cartographic tools.  And when he adopted the format of the mathematician Apian to render the world on gores, he used the graphic techniques of projection to lend solidity to the first narrations of the New World.  So it was quite surprising that the forged copy of gores that almost made it to auction in 2017 belonged to the same visual culture of online images–the culture of image capture and digital reproductions–as what seemed a worm-eaten sheet of printed paper was found to be created by tools of digital photographic reproduction, with little human trace of an engraver’s hand, although they seemed strikingly similar to the long unknown image of a material rendering of the post-Colomban world.


MUNICH WALDSEEMULER in Peckham, 1504:1510pngUniversity Library of Munich, ULM Cim. 107#2. Courtesy of University Library of Munich

Indeed, the similarity between the online diffusion of the image and the reproduction of the fake seems a modern rewriting of the intense attention that Waldseemüller and his circle of geographers in St. Die embraced the tools of early modern engraving to design multiple woodcut maps in the first decades of the sixteenth century, in order to meet a fast-growing market for globes that lent legibility to the world.  But the new forms of legibility that the online reproductions prized–so distinct from the printed images of the early sixteenth century–seem something like a moral fable of the different levels of spatial legibility of different ages, if not two period eyes.  The gores that cosmographer Martin Waldseemüller and his St. Die circle had designed were printed in 1507 had been long prized as the earliest example of an identification of the New World as America, in honor of Vespucci.  In an elegant description of the entire surface of an earth as yet not fully known, but able to be mapped in a woodblock form, the gores adopt and incorporate aspects of recent engraved maps and nautical charts in a synoptic visual digest.  The gores form part of a distinctly cosmographic project of rendering the world on a graticule of parallels and meridians, and vaunting the adoption of an ancient global geometry for transposing the curvature of the inhabited surface of the globe to a sectional globe of two dimensions, despite their limited toponymy, and balance their comprehensive coverage with the treatment of the map as a canvas to advertise the new naming of America, expanding the map’s surface far beyond the manuscript tradition of Ptolemaic maps and orienting viewers to the predominantly watery surface of the world.




The single sheet that seemed early modern map gores for a short bit of time seemed to belong to the first records naming the continent after the navigator, and clearly gained their value as such as a piece of paper:  the announcement of a new discovery of the sectional rendering of the world’s surface by regular intervals of thirty degrees appeared to offer an early geographic primer modernizing Ptoleamic geography, based on the first nautical charts of the new world.  The attempt to chart global space for Renaissance readers who remained in Europe were long associated with the cosmographer Martin Waldseemüller, the mathematically-trained theologian and cartographer known for creating several global maps, and for writing one of the first treatises of cosmography to adopt Ptolemaic principles to explain and describe the principles for mapping the New World.  By announcing the adoption of a new set of tools as a new descriptive framework in a manner similar to his 1507 cosmographic wall-map, which unified the nautical charts of America Vespucci with a Ptolemaic framework of world-mapping; the sheet of map gores supersede traditional nautical charts in a form of world-making.

Indeed, the single sheet seemed to seek to promote universal geometric tools to unify an expanded global expanse:  the new sense of the “cumene” would not be recognized by Ptolemy or ancient mappers, and gave an expansive portion of its surface to oceanic expanse, registering a new conception of a terraqueous world.  The graphic image following Ptolemaic principles of projection incorporated Vespucci’s accounts and nautical maps in a new model of cosmographic knowledge, inviting readers to experience vicariously his travels to the New World, and to understand the greater value that he attributed to maps and cosmographical knowledge to arrive at this site across the ocean in another world:  much as Carlos Fuentes has recently offered an indelible picture of the epistemic paralysis of the monarch Don Felipe, a barely disguised version of Philip II, as a semi- autistic ruler doubting the existence of a new world that was not comprehended in the palace to which he has withdrawn in Terra Nostra (1975), a massive novel whose literary structure mirrored the tripartite structure of the palace Philip II commissioned to include maps of all the Spanish possessions, the embodiment of the globe on a set of twelve elegant map gores would condense and rebut such the imperial stance of utter disregard to the new world that possessed Fuentes in his novel.  The careful construction of the globe’s surface onto indices offer a global purview that might be called the first age of globalism.


1. Waldseemüller’s single sheet map condensed the cosmographic principles the he had followed in series of elegant wall-maps that foregrounded the artifice and difficulty of the composition of the world map.   Waldseemüller and his circle had actively promoted standards of global legibility, using Ptolemaic precepts in a triumphal manner to celebrate the power of naming, charting, and mapping new lands for European audiences that invited ways of telling, describing and narrating Europeans’ spatial relation to a new world.  The large wall-maps that he produced in over a thousand copies promoted modes of reading globalist relations  facilitated by copious textual cartouches and inventive decoration, that underscore its cosmographical nature as a product of writing, drawing, and design to affirm the growth of oceanic expanse that defined the continents.  The wall map was hardly free of what Edward Tufte might call “chart junk” on its exuberant margins, but conveyed tthe excitement of heralding a new graphic synthesis of a global map over which Vespucci presided in one lunette, adding continents of a new hemisphere to the known globe, offered a cartographic solution to a problem of ordering terrestrial space.


Vespucii On Map

Waldseemuller-Map-631Martin Waldseemüller, Universalis Cosmographia secundum Ptolomei Traditionem . . . . / Library of Congress



The image is no less than celebration of the new status of cosmographical arts that elevate the medium of engraved images to tools of global description.  If the twelve-sheet c wall maps Waldseemüller’s school composed, designed, and whose engraving they closely supervised set a new standard for the elevation of cartographical skill from a technical craft to a new model of knowing and seeing–and a way of making epistemological claims, as much as using transmitted forms, in ways that linked the art of mapping as a scribal technology to cultures of telling, describing, and demonstration, the wall maps invite viewer’s eyes to comprehend space outside a situated position.


Waldseemuller_map_2Martin Waldseemüller, Universalis Cosmographia secundum Ptolomei Traditionem . . . . / Library of Congress


In a counterpart to the large wall maps that he designed and sold, Waldseemüller expounded the modern precepts to orient one in space and synthesize global knowledge by parallels and meridians in his Introduction to Cosmography (1507).   The slim volume,  the basis for his identification with the unsigned gores, seven as a manifesto for the twelve-sheet engraved global wall map, over which preside busts of Ptolemy, the ancient geographer who formulated the mathematical precepts of terrestrial projection on a graticule, with America Vespucci, combined the modern experience of navigation with the ancient precepts of learning and naming place.   Waldseemüller himself never travelled far beyond his native Strasbourg, but invested the map with authority to communicate geographical knowledge as a token of modernity of embodying a global geographical knowledge, albeit a modernity now displaced by the grid.  Waldsemüller’s projection has the energetic displacement of the authority of a nautical chart, echoing how Vespucci declared his competency in his letter to arrive at the New World even “without the knowledge of sea charts” prized by navigators, being “more expert in navigation than all the pilots of the world.”   The gores staked a similar model of expertise of reckoning and calculating distance and place by a new matrix of latitude and longitude that they embody:  the preeminence of the graticule as an epistemological tools of global geography that expanded the scope and nature of geographical knowledge lasted some four hundred and eighty years until it being displaced by grids.  Indeed, the value that the map was readily assigned suggests its survival in a distinctly post-scribal culture of mapping.

Did the value that the auctioneers assigned the map gores reflect these grandiose knowledge claims?  The gores elegantly translated knowledge of the earth’s newly discovered hemisphere to indices the viewer could readily process and digest, foregrounding the new name that it proposed for the continent named after the Italian navigator.  But they assumed a new status in the age of digitized maps, and Google Earth images of global interconnectivity, which may have been paradoxically elevated by the newly antiquated image they acquired.  Rather than being sold as emblems of knowledge, the new image of the gores that Christie’s claimed to bring to public auction had gained an immeasurable status after the earlier auctioning of similar gores for above a million dollars, not to mention the unprecedented price that the United States Library of Congress agreed to pay in 2003 of $10 million for the sole surviving edition of the large wall map Waldseemüller had engraved, the one copy of the thousand-odd he had printed, of which it was something of the poorer cousin, but which had been widely touted as the “birth certificate” of America, and the map on which Waldseemüller had proposed using the name of the Florentine navigator Vespucci who had described the long coastlines of the New World in his printed letters.

The set of map gores, a complementary spherical map that Waldseemüller had described making, provided an early image of global totality that gave a similar dominance to the line–indeed, the geometrically determined line–to orient viewers to a global surface.  When the late historians of cartography David Woodward and J.B. Harley tersely defined the map in “purposely broad” terms, at the outset of the monumental History of Cartography, an extremely elegant series since expanded over multiple volumes, as “graphic representations that facilitate spatial understanding of the world of things, concepts, conditions, processes, or events in the human world,” they may have been thinking of the graphic lines of the gores as such a facilitation of spatial understanding.  For the gores process the encounter with the New world, the travels of the navigator, and the recovery of Ptolemaic precepts of world-mapping, and the naming of the newly discovered continents in the western hemisphere on a clearly graphic construction.  Woodward and Harley’s emphasis on “graphic representations” recuperated the ancient Claudius Ptolemy’s use the Greek verb  γράφειν (graphein), or “to write,” and Waldseemüller’s assimilation of that verb of the act of writing to engraving tools; it caused much revision, even by Woodward himself, of its lack of allowance for cross-cultural comparisons, but suggests a significance of writing systems as a mode of ordering space.  Waldseemüller appropriated the authority of the verb in print, giving the engraved line a deictic sense of displaying space–


Single Sheet UNM


Waldseemüller School, 1507 Globe Gores/Badische Landesbibliothek


–in a map of globular design of the sort that Woodward idealized as the culmination and embodiment of cartographical principles, in a globular map of the sort that was more readily defined in a more familiar globular form by 1583, here shown in two images of the same year in “universal rendering of the newly discovered parts of the world,” printed in Italian, or discovered parts of the world, which emphasize nautical travel as the basis for the incorporation of place on the globe, and reveal the increased scope of geographical exploration in the intervening eighty years.


Globular Italian Map Parte del Mondo Ritrovato 1583





More broadly, however, “graphein” might be understood as the trace of the human that orients themselves to the world, hand-drawn or manually rendered.  These were soon shown to be absent from the gores:  indeed, the blurring of the very lines of the gores that went to auction suggest that they belong to a new visual culture of scanned images and photographic reproduction.  The very traces of graphical operations were permuted and erased in new ways, as is the sense of a human presence, in ways that suggest the distance of our own visual culture from Waldseemüller’s world, in ways that the forger never intended.

In their groundbreaking History of Cartography, David Woodward and Brian Harley had celebrated the line as the means of graphical orientation, in what now seems an elegy to the art of printing.  An unforgettable image remains clear in my head of David Woodward in his basement, in Madison, WI, running maps off a letterpress printer, and hanging them to dry on strings by clothespins, and his love of the ink applied to the engraved plate to present a precise rendering of space.  But the fake set of gores that reached auction were not printed or drawn, let alone in the Renaissance or during Waldseemüller’s life, but probably printed some five hundred years later, from a scan of the map in the James Ford Bell Library’s website.

The gores that arrived at auction this December suggest far less of a clear trace of a human hand, and perhaps belong to a different visual culture of online images.  Indeed, the astronomical value that the single sheet was invested may be a symptom of our entrance into a different visual culture of mapping–indeed, the sheet that seemed to be valued at more than a sheet of gold of the same size suggests the fetishization of the paper map in an era of web-based mapping, and mobile GPS.  The fake gores suggestedthe translation of Ptolemaic terms to a visual culture that privileges the dot and the grid as a basis for orientation, rather than the engraved line, but where the aura of the writing of space persists, and the paper map fetishized in a world that increasingly relies exclusively on mediated digitized images.  The set o fraudulent gores is itself something of a post-modern artifact,–less concerned with the authorities of narratives of discovery, but able to admit the false authority of the map as objective, and almost ready to accept the value of its aura even if it was only an image grab printed on old paper.

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Filed under fake maps, globalism, globalization, Mapping the New World, media studies

Clipping Bears Ears

The tenuous status of public lands was evident in the back seat of a mandate of protection after intense lobbying of the American Petroleum Institute and other players in the energy industry to reduce the limits of National Monuments across the United States, in ways that stand to redefined American West.  The removal of all regulations that the reduction of national monuments would mean fails to understand the monument as an ecosystem of environmental integrity, and indeed the historical value of the lands as sites:  it is almost as if the difficulty of defining the valce in a society which uses GPS to map on a UTM projection provides sites of mineral deposits and potential petroleum drilling, but erases the holistic image of a vanishing landscape that has long been so central a part of our national patrimony.

As parcels of that landscape increasingly stand to be leased to extractive industries, despite the fragmentation of open lands across western states.  Indeed, the encroaching the interests of the American Petroleum Institute on what was once understood as preserved wilderness has become a way to rewrite the state’s relation to federal lands, and indeed the patriotism of the protection of public lands of longstanding historical value.  In ways that reflect the deep anger at the protection lands negotiated by the Obama administration–and done so in a way that tried to involve community stakeholders over time, if concluded late in the Obama Presidency–and the obscuring of claims historically made from 1976-2010 alone in the region once defined as Bears Ears–


–the division of the national monument into two rumps opens many of the areas where mining claims  were staked, and allows further claims to be made, as well as encourages easy transport of extracted materials from the historic grounds, by denying their claims to historical value.  Indeed, by reopening many of the BLM claims on the region, the decision to parse Bears Ears from a continuous monument seems a give-away to extractive industries.

The gains of that lobby in asserting their claims and rights to access mineral deposits and veins stands to emerge as one of the largest land grabs in American history, reshaping the notion of the protection of public lands and access allowed to drilling, pipelines, and mines on federal lands, as if definitively abandoning any concept of the value in their preservation for posterity.  Indeed, only by recasting the role of government as securing lands worthy of protection as a case of undue restraint on business can the dire effects of  the plans for expanding private leases on public lands be failed to be recognized as a shifting the preservation of historical legacies to permit widespread industrial leases on federal lands in ways that abandon and relinquish a clear long-term view of their value.  When Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke questioned whether a third of Interior employees were “loyal to the flag” before the National Petroleum Council, a petroleum industry group–and desired to reduce the “physical footprint” of the Interior Department by reducing the civil service employees who he sees as obstacles to opening up the permitting process for oil-drilling, logging, uranium mining, and energy development he sees as President Trump as having a legal mandate to accelerate, Zinke seems to make an end-run around the public custody or preservation of increasingly fragile lands of sacred resonance to many of the residents who most prize its integrity.


Bears Ears Buttes Big expanseGeorgy Frey, Getty Images/National Geographic


Valley of Gods, in Bears Ears National Monument 


Indeed, the agressively regressive attacks that the Trump administration has made on environmental regulations or responsible custodianship of public lands–leading states to file suit against the Environmental Protection Agency and EPA administrator Scott Pruitt for rolling back agency policies of designating areas of dangerously high ground-level ozone in unprecedented ways–is mirrored in the attack on protecting public lands, on which the Interior Secretary seems to have no endgame save leasing them to industry.  The agressiveness with which Zinke has taken aim at the government’s custodial role over wilderness and public lands–some of the few places where undisturbed ecologies exist–suggest a widespread attack on the notion of wilderness.  Is it possible that the Trump administration is preparing to excavate any mandate to protect historic lands?

When Zinke complains “I can’t change the culture without changing the structure,” he suggests a broad disbanding of regulations accumulated over time with local groups after consideration of public impact that he wants to cast as obstructionists and arbitrary bureaucrats.  Yet when Zinke suggested that “Fracking is proof that God’s got a good sense of humor and he loves us,” he conjures a terrifying hybridization of manifest destiny and unrestrained corporate greed.  Zinke’s initial review of a full twenty-one National Monuments on federal land stand to change the landscape of the American west.  For in removing acreage of interest to private industry from federal protection, in a particularly short-sighted move under the quixotic banner of energy independence, the Trump administration seems bent on allowing the very federal lands protected by government for posterity to be treated as lots able to be leased for private development, without appreciation of their historical, cultural, or sacred value.  The map of National Monuments under “review” suggest a euphemism analogous to downsizing, and a shift in the conception of the custody of national lands–including the Grand Canyon–that seems to prepare for the excavation of what were the most protected federal lands.



Reduced Monuments


The expansion of national monuments currently designated “under review”–which has led to the recent declaration shrinking Bears Ears and renaming two protected areas that constitute but a rump of the once National Monument he Obama administration named after substantive negotiation with local stake-holders, reveal the dangerously unconsidered course by which protected public lands stand to be declassified in order to meet the demands of private industries, many of whom have already mapped mineral deposits or previously leased mines in their ground.  Zinke tweeted images of how he rode to his first day as Secretary on Interior on a horse named Tonto, in a ten gallon hat, flanked by the US Park Police, as a coded gesture to fulfill the demands of farmers and outdoorsmen:  the self-designated cowboy of Trump’s cabinet was on his way to eliminate protected status of federal lands, poised to remap the west’s most delicate open areas for extractive industries and the environmentally toxic mining and drilling of fossil fuels, in the name of energy independence:  if intended to evoke Theodore Roosevelt’s commitment to the outdoors, the dark garb and black hat suggested apt funereal garb to preside over the dismemberment of the American West.  But the usurpation of an identity as a cowboy outdoorsman in which Zinke has cultivated seems an apt metaphor, if unintentional, for the disenfranchisement of native inhabitants of a land that has been hold sacred for generations, and is a priceless repository for cultural artifacts and prehistoric ruins, as well as a priceless fossil record of dinosaur bones.


Zinke Goes to Work.png


Zinke’s image as a faux cowboy outdoorsman who loves western open lands exemplifies a dangerous sort of double-dealing, running rampant over public interests.

For in presenting a public face of affection for the outdoors concealing the agenda of energy industries to shift the landscape of the American West, the re-dimensioning of public lands and National Monuments opens them to coal industries and petroleum and uranium mining.  The redrawing of Bears Ears is isolated, but foretells a terrible vision of the curtailment of federal lands by future leasing, drilling, and mining–at the same time as curtailing access to parks by substantially raising their entrance fees nationwide.  Nowhere are the fears of opening lands to drilling more feared than in the Alaska’s Wildlife Refuge.   Yet under the quixotic directive of ensuring “American energy dominance” the koan of the Trump administration, and the meaningless slogan “Energy Is Good,” the charge to remove regulations on coal, drilling, and oil pipelines are cast as a means to confirm our prosperity and energy independence as a nation, in deeply misguided ways that are based only on doublespeak, but epitomized by the withdrawal of any sense of custody for the increased scarcity of undisturbed open lands.

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Filed under American West, Bears Ears, environmental preservation, federal land protection, Landscape, wilderness