Category Archives: interactive maps

Narratives, Agency, & Electoral Maps

The entry of the data visualizations into the pitched narrative of the Presidential election is not new. If thought to begin in the collective unfolding of the election-night drama on television screens, as the casting of ballots long understood as a collective action of union has prompted a narrative of division, CNN offers a new model to personally intervene on one’s iPhone or android, as if to offer the means to ramp up agency on social media, inviting users to tap on one’s personal screen to build-your-own electoral map, perhaps to assuage one’s heightened anxiety, granting the illusion to allow yourself for entering your own alternative future. Echoing the algorithmic thinking of tallying “pathways to victory” we’d been following to exist the Trump Era with increased desperation, courtesy FiveThirtyEight and others, we imagined scenarios of the electoral constellation that might prepare for the dawning of something like a new age. As different campaigns used maps to assert “multiple pathways to victory,” the statistical likelihood of a victory seemed to suspend agency, in ways that would come to haunt the nation, in the aftermath of the election, as the tally of the vote was questioned in multiple ways, undermining the accuracy of the tally of individual votes, and injecting a degree of supicion dangerous to democracy in the name of ‘transparency.’

The standard map of the United States became a model for the President’s personal lawyer to present “evidence” by appealing the vote, long after the votes were tabulated, and winner declared, in a new form of aftermath for an election we had never experienced. If the security of paper ballots were put into question by the question of “hanging chads” that demanded hand counts with observers back in 2000, a weeks-long battle that suspended any announcement of a victor in a divided nation, that demanded “optical evidence” of the will of voters, by scrutinizing some 537 votes out of the entire nation in order to determine the victor of the electoral college, and forestall the celebrations of Democrats over the nation who expected that victory was at hand, the aftermath became distilled in 2020 to the contestation of an electoral map, the map that had come to mediate the election, as the President’s lawyer, looking like Frankenstein, returned from the dead, declared the continued existence of “multiple pathways to victory”–the very phrase that Joseph R. Biden’s circle had announced in predicting his victory. The “post-truth” announcement was not only post-truth, but a dumbed down version of voting before multiple American flags, presenting the states that the map labeled “red” that had voted for Biden to be at basis “red states,” and inevitably destined to fall into President Trump’s column. The news conference that was presented at Republican National Committee headquarters on November, 19, almost three weeks after the election was held, seemed to reclaim states’ electors as if they were enemy territory, as Trump’s legal team insisted that a spate of “irregularities in the voting system” had created numerous bases for serious fraudulence in tallies of the voting process.

November 19, 2020/AP/Jacquelyne Martin


The made-for-TV moment that was designed to circulate online as an iconic image crystallized the post-truth debates about the actual results of the election–a basis for the myth of a “stolen victory” that would continue until the tragically violent insurrectionary invasion of the U.S. Capitol building on January 6, 2021, a readily recognized power play of seizing the electoral map from the networks, denying the role of the media or television networks from making a prediction or declaring the victor, and deciding to gesture to the selective distortion of the electoral map as if it was evidence of the true “map” of the election, as the image of five “battleground” electoral states that the Trump campaign was announcing were the basis of its campaign to Keep America Great or Make It Great Again focussed, in a new use of Cold War rhetoric, on removing “outrageous iron curtain of censorship.”

Rudy Giuliani, personal attorney to US President Donald Trump, gestures at a map of election swing states marked as Trump 'Pathways to Victory' during a news conference in Washington November 19, 2020. — Reuters pic
November 19, 2020

The results of the Presidential election in these states were not particularly close, and did not recall the nail-biter of 2000, twenty years ago, when the inspection of paper ballots by impartial judges provided an unplanned basis for showcasing the legal efforts of moving the election to the United States Supreme Court as a final arbiter.

But if votes in either Michigan or Pennsylvania were hard to say were not conclusive, without either a legal theory or strategy to discard the existing tallies of the election, without disenfranchising hundreds of thousands, the post-truth campaign posited a systematic lack of vigilance of Democrats to play rough and tumble with registered voters and enshrined voting practices, arguing that the norms of voting practices were so systematically violated both in the voting machines themselves, especially paperless touch-screen voting machines that were argued to be open to manipulation, as well as the farming of ballots, and unreliability of mail-in voting practices. The proliferating basis of instability for the tabulation of votes–the foundation of the democratic process–was argued to be inherently imperfect and corrupted at its root, suggesting the election was stolen. The argument that a small Texas company had made–“Allied Security Operations Group”–posited all software used in Smartmatic voting machines demonized as designed by a corporation with ties to Venezuelan founders: the basis among staunchly conservative activists to push a sense of widespread voting fraud–perpetuated on Newsmax in Dominion voting machines–was launched not by experts, but a myth of fraudulenceWashington Post has tied to Texas businessman Russell J. Ramsland, Jr., Trump advocates would adopt to discredit the outcomes of voting tallies already tabulated in battleground states.

The story of deep skepticism about the outcome of the election was in many ways nourished by the relative indeterminacy of possible outcomes for 2020, all of them hinging on battleground states that would push the electoral college one way or another. If the process seemed to remove the voting systems from the voters, the unfounded conspiracy theory Ramsland endorsed suggested the shaky foundations of democratic institutions that were trotted out with readiness to defend the outcome of the election they sought–and seemed to find consolation in an iconic map that painted these “swing” states a uniform red. The accusations that seem to have found particularly fertile ground on one side of a digital divide, increasingly skeptical of the “irregularities” in the tabulation of votes without a paper trail, and ready to doubt the need to question faith in the electoral process as itself an erosion of democracy–a questioning that led to the belief that the hacking of voting machines were at the basis of a pernicious electoral fraud which would overturn the election that a third of American still consider fraudulent. The cartographic affidavit that was presented with the air of an undertaker as all courts had officially thrown out Trump’s case for voter fraud–even as new lawsuits proliferated, originating from Texas and filed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) with members of the Trump campaign and seventeen Republican attorneys general, who seemed to sanction a new standard of electoral authenticity. The figure of Giuliani, unfortunately and unintentionally channeling the image of the Don Corleone charaters in the five mafia families he prosecuted when he worked for the Southern District of New York, who offered an icon of Republican attempts to strong-arm an electoral map into submission.

November 19, 2020. Sara Silberger/Washington Post

We’ve rarely had so divisive a President as Donald Trump, who has sought to divide the country by race, region, religion, and income, and the hopes for emerging with a new vision of the union are slim–making the amount of weight and meaning that rests on the map appear greater than ever. How it would spin out was unclear, but the red block that Trump had pulled to the considerable surprise of all political pundits was promised to be able to be chipped away at in multiple ways, sketched by so many algorithmic story maps as alternate “paths to victory.”

The array of paths each candidate faced–though we focussed on Biden’s range of options and winced at those of Trump–could be organized in what seems a rehearsal for the glossing of possible eventualities, as multiple data visualizations that led to alternative futures like so many forking roads out of a dark, dark wood.

The hope to find coherence in the map seems even greater than ever, as if it might finally purge the divides of the last four to six years. There was a grim sense of being defeated by the electoral map during the 2016 and 2020 election, with the skewing of electoral votes to low-density rural states–skewed further by the increasing distance at which those local problems appear from Washington, DC. The configuration of the electors, as the configuration of the federal representative government, are compromised by giving more pull to residents of many rural states and creating a red block that one can only hope to chip away at in the age of coronavirus either by online donations, phone-banking, or, at this late stage, by imagining alternative futures, and playing around with the map to see how the post-election endgame will play.

This election, sequestered behind our walls, often having already cast our ballot, the parlor game of playing with the CNN interactive graphics may come as a relief offering an interactive model for adjusting and tweaking the electoral map, playing out alternative scenarios whose conclusion and potential endgames we can indulge ourselves and to an extent confront our fears in this most anxiety-producing of elections by imagining alternative scenarios playing out, using a tentative set of color choices, more familiar from polls than television, to suggest the possible outcomes of the elections as we try to assemble the final tabulations of the vote, and the disputes that may arrive in each locality about margins of victory this time round, hoping to heal the abrupt chromatic divide still huring from 2016, using polls’ take on “battleground” states to game outcomes of potential electoral maps.

Polls and Potential Electoral Distribution of 2020, CNN

The above (imagined) electoral map would be the narrowest of Democratic victories, but affirm some deep divides across the nation from 2016, but might be arrived at only after recounts and disputes. The fantasy map suggests not only the open-ended nature of the vote this year, where the large number of absentee ballots tabulated during the pandemic poses problem of tabulation exacerbated by local restrictions on when the tally of votes is able to begin.

But cognitively trained as we were over the previous months–conditioned?–to entertain multiple contingencies of electoral paths “to victory” in the ecosystem of data visualizations, schooled by the acumen of considering “paths to victory” entertained by Nate Silver, the CNN maps offered not only a parlor game, but a rehearsal for glossing electoral configurations based that might emerge on November 3, 2020, should we be forced to entertain multiple “pathways to victory” that might emerge–or, as it happened, remain–as the evening proceeded. They cued possible narrative scripts.

In retrospect, of course, we could barely imagine an electoral map that was so delicately balanced on tenterhooks. The dramatic unfolding of multiple “roads to 270” suggested a possibility to reclaim the dominant metaphors from sports, pace Silver, to a narrative of democracy. Although some petulantly suggested that the mail-in ballot was more than a bummer but a trap, presenting more possibilities of limiting votes and discarding ballots, by making us more dependent on mail delivery and USPS, the expectations for vote-counting that were a byproducts of the COVID era may well have furthered democratic discourse, and the focus of the voting drive, as well as affirming the democratic centrality of the mail: as much as provide a route for the current joyless hack of a Postmaster General to intervene in the expression public will, the narrative of tabulating every vote and creating a true paper record was an unexpected reform of the tally of votes and voting process, as tabulation foregrounded political participation as a schooling in votes nowhere more evident than in the unexpected drama of the slowing down of the tabulation of votes and arrival of data into the electoral map provided an unexpected lesson of democracy.

Electoral Map as Ballots Tallied in Nevada, Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania

We expected little conclusiveness in the electoral map on election night, even into the wee hours, unlike the intense drama of earlier years. The election will continue even after the counts are finalized in each state, as it is bound to be contested in perhaps ongoing and painful ways, if it proceeds not only to polling places but up through the federal courts, as new complaints about the validity of votes are posed by the Republican Party. The hope to restrict the franchise in any way possible plays to fears not only of aliens who are exercising a vote, but a new array of restrictions on the franchise.

2020 Electoral Projection of Nate Silver, Election Day 2020

And we could fear an endgame destined to subvert the narrative drama once located only on the electoral map, its narrative unhinged from the map, pursued in cases that debate the ways votes were tallied, compiled, tabulated beyond November 3. Nate Silver’s map as not purely prognostic. If it reinforces the deeply divided nation fractured on broad-based faults of terrifyingly portentous contiguity, it suggests a painful endgame narrative, as court cases were pressed, recounts demanded, and charges of illegal voting launched in the face of attempts to aggregate votes from mail-in ballots in states predicted to “go blue.” The possibility of such “I can’t go on, I’ll go on” was not at all appealing.

Even if static, the alternative electoral maps staged a sort of drama of hypotheticals that anticipated the dangers of deep dissatisfaction across the nation. There is a deep fear that if no souther state “flip blue,” even a truly “tenuous win” might be almost pyrrhic. The narrative is grim, if its end result may have positive elements. Is its biggest impact not in delivering a President–the outcome of the electoral system–but, this year, it is also a map of the painful endgame of litigating the vote, even if the nation is haunted by a Mason-Dixon latitudinal divide among electors which most of the nation valiantly hoped we somehow might soon put behind us.

The narrative is displaced from the election. While Nate Silver notoriously went wrong in prognosticating 2016, he reminds us, in case we forgot, “Trump didn’t win the last election by that much.” This year the true terrifying story may well be the aftermath, and the difficulty to call the election, and what this means for the nation–which is a narrative that one may only gloss from the map, which threatens not to materialize in any trustworthy way until all the votes are counted–and all legal battles around their tabulation are hopefully resolved. But the most despicable sort of battles about VOTER ID, and the deeply divisive questions of the legitimacy of who could cast a ballot, were immersed in the heady waters of debates about immigration, seemed game for inclusion, as eighteen states now require VOTER ID, in ways that pose broad risks for disenfranchisement that local administration of elections threaten to perpetuate, after the refusal to amend the historic Voting Rights Act whose teeth were removed.

As other nations puzzle over the arcane methods for employing an electoral college that dilutes the actual popular vote that is distributed among apparently aristocratic holdovers of electors, but is in fact far closer to an ideal model citizenry of those honorable to place nation first over sectarian interests, the passionate intensity of division made such ideals seem destined for planned obsolescence, for reasons maybe not far removed from media technologies.

The liberating nature we find in designing our own DIY electoral maps on our peripherals offer more than a fun exercise in alternative realities in a national compact; playing with the maps are far more effective and engaged than most other forms of narcotics for assuaging anxiety, and do lower blood pressure. There was some pleasant chutpah to seeing Phillipe Reines put out his own prediction of an overwhelming Biden electoral victory that kept Trump below 200 electors, on November 2 2020, with a prescience reveals that the narrative was indeed there to be unpacked.

https://twitter.com/PhilippeReines/status/1323473321107857408

There was a sense of liberation in the ability to easily enter alternate futures, thanks to CNN graphics team and your smart phone, of greater national harmony–if the possibility of harmony seems in many places pretty illusory or lost, across the red dust bowl of arid lands Great Plains, echoing John Wesley Powell’s “lands of the arid region,” now only starting to be imagined to be rendered other than red, and Appalachia. This alienated “forgotten” American persists even in the DYI electoral map that not based on tabulations of votes. But such a map seems telling: tapping states to flip their votes invest a sense of agency in our ability to make possible predictions, even more important than the vote: we have ingested so many polls in news maps, there is something liberating in playing with the electoral map ourselves, gaming multiple scenarios, fidgeting with the map as an outlet for nervous energy as we wonder how those polls will translate to an electoral map,–

Fantasy Electoral Map, Built on CNN

–and how those states will add up to produce the only numeric legend the will really in the end count.

If we once relied on television pundits to explain the translation of the “raw” popular vote and the possibility of a win of electoral victory without a popular vote victory–then a deeply doubted as an eventuality–in describing the contest for “the percentage of the republican vote” as an obscure statistical construct. When even in the 1980 election, pundits bemoaned this “long electoral season,” the “magic map”

Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under 2020 election, data visualization, electoral maps, interactive maps, Red States/Blue States

The Built World

Walking the streets in my now apparently abandoned neighborhood for an errand after a few weeks of sheltering in place in Oakland, I had the eery experience of navigating and inhabiting empty city. While I knew the pavement, I almost felt no longer familiar with the streets that afternoon. There was the sense that no one knew the state of affairs about reopening, and many were just puzzled about how to proceed: as a few young kids skateboarded up Shattuck Avenue, profiting from the lack of cars, some odd improvised bicyclists were on the sidewalk. The absence of interaction was a weird pause indeed, giving an eery sense of the timelessness of space, as if the time/space fabric by which I had long seen the neighborhood was suddenly out of whack. While no visible destruction had happened or occurred, the disembodied nature of the inhabited world was drained, even as it was filled with sunlight and birds, giving me the eery sense I had had when I looked at the machine-read maps of building footprints, “Every Building in the United States,” whose section situating Bay Area buildings hung on our refrigerator wall, like a scary map of the archeological ruins of a future Baedecker Guide to the ruins of San Francsico.

Had the designers of te interactive webmap of machine-readable imagery Microsoft had assembled intended the eery effect of describing the inhabited world as a ghostly ruin of lived life? The relegation to place-names to a very secondary status in the image of the overbuilt landscape seems to lie on the edges of the black blocks of built space that is was the basis for the AI map distilled from aerial photographs, and parsed as black and white data. If its form seems oddly ghostly, the reduction of the monochrome paper map reveals shades of grey that fade into rare open spaces, where one’s visual attention seems at first drawn, before one returns, with hopes for some sense of recognition, to the built spaces that one knows, and the congestion of black that marks urban agglomerations. The black boxes of settlement reveals the crowding of our coasts, the density of much urban housing and indeed of the area of the East Bay where I live, but is also an eerily image of an inhabited landscape selectively organized to omit any sign of living presence–either of “wilderness” or habitat, but anthropocentrically maps the anthropogenic world as if for posterity. For is not the black boxes of building footprints something like a record of the anthropogenic imprint on the world, by now extended across the globe. The building footprint map derived from AI is a rewriting of the ancient notion of the ecumene–the “habitable” more than “inhabited world”–or οἰκουμένη, which sought to encapsulate the inhabited regions as the ones that entered human comprehension: is it a removal of the humanist object of the map, now mediated through machine learning?

If the ancient geographers discussed the οἰκουμένη as the “habitable world” from the frozen north to the scalding sub-equatorial lands that seemed to “balance” the inhabited regions, as if what merited human attention and contemplation was that region that permitted settlement: the turn to a record of imperial administration in the Roman Empire–and of religious unity in a ‘civilized’ world–introduced the governmentality of the control over the inhabited world, that by the Renaissance had become an enticing image of national incorporation and political ties, that became intellectually articulated in the post-Cold War as a global ecumene of imperial cultural dominance and integration incarnated in European inheritance of political institutions, science, technology, and economic forms as a world system: the association of a global integration whose exponent in historical texts was perhaps William McNeill’s Rise of the West (1963) had withered away by the time of the data-driven map of inhabitation, as we have become increasingly aware of mapping the human impact on the world–an image in which the building footprint map might be placed.

It is hard to discuss intentions in a map that was organized by AI, but the ledger size newsprint that covered almost a full side of the refrigerator, hanging on magnets, assembled a flyover of the ruins of a future world, a snapshot of each and every building in the area. The result is a poor excuse for a “wall-map” of the region of Northern California. It seems more of a memento mori of the prosperity Silicon Valley once enjoyed from a future world, registering the intense economic growth that fueled the housing bubble along the San Francisco Bay, in an unintentional snapshot of the explosion of paved space and housing across the coastal margins of what was once one of the more “edgy” areas of the United States: entertaining the imagined future might have created the perverse pleasure of hanging it in my kitchen, long before COVID-19 struck, a celebratory if slightly morose record of the world in which we once lived.

But the sidewalks were empty and sun intense; storefronts often boarded up. The streets were no longer places for salutation or recognition, even if I greeted a familiar mailman on my way home: as if no time for social niceties remained I walked down the sidewalks and into empty streets, rarely negotiating margins of safety, or distancing with a few folks on foot, noticing with a cringe the large number of homeless who stood out against the stark streets, closed storefronts, and empty stores.

They were, as it were, always there. I had been cutting myself off from the surroundings, as I never thought I would. As I had been sheltering, thoughts going global as I was following updates about the pandemic, this was a stone’s through from my home, so many had none. Looking down Adeline Street, at the still tents of homeless encampments that may have multiplied, I felt new distance gaping between us, as the very streets I had walked down regularly seemed to have been forgotten while sheltering indoors, the stores now empty, their windows recently boarded, few driving in the streets where one might walk without danger. The eery absence of population was a scene from The Last Man, momentarily interrupted by an isolated airplane, the first seen in days, flew overhead: I felt like I was on a filmset, more than where I lived, a tracing of life past.

If we were sheltering, what was place, anyways?, I wondered with the footprint map in mind. Empty streets looked like nothing more than an apocalyptic reimagining of the neighborhood, drained of inhabitants, save the apparently increasing cluster of homeless tents, looking far more embattled, and more survivalist than ever. If the building footprint map was restricted to spaces where people lived and work, the ghostly anthropogenic substrate seemed to have an eery counterpart in the homeless encampments near my house. The survivalism was evident in the homeless settlement that had in recent years overflowed, expanding to fill in the island of trees where how Steve Gillman’s 2011 public sculpture marked the interurban divide. The public sculpture elegantly if snidely punned on the allegedly dismissive pity saying ascribed to an icon of modernity about her native home–“There’s no There there“–as an entertainment for motorists, or BART passengers, as much as a public art for pedestrian passersby–by broadcasting a literary reference in greenery.

The two words marked the Oakland-Berkeley border by two words, now rusted fifteen years later, as relics of an earlier epoch themselves: the homeless encampment blurred both sides of the dividing line between the cities which had long since melded indistinguishably in the increasingly gentrifying area where I had lived for twenty-odd years.

The erasure of a sense of “here” that was promoted by the public sculpture seemed erased in the AI map, that reduced space to built houses, even as the homeless were the only residents in sight as I walked around the tensely empty neighborhood. I’d long appreciated, if a bit begrudgingly, how the Gateway_Project defined the edge of Berkeley CA took Gertrude Stein’s saying and liberalized it in hight-foot tall powder-coated steel letters, where the BART tracks go underground, intended as “a literary and whimsical welcoming to Berkeley,” where they supposedly read not only Stein’s poetry, but where so many poets had lived–and was a “here” worth commemorating by sculptured letters, a new Fons et origo of the Beat Generation, perhaps, or a dynasty of mid-twentieth century poets–Kenneth Rexroth; Czeslaw Milosz; Allen Ginsberg; Gary Snyder; Frank Whalen; Thom Gunn; Robert Hass–by 2002 recognized as a literary patrimony. Designed primarily for passing motorists, as if few could be imagined to walk nearby, the site built to commemorate a “sense of place” had become a cluster of encampments, as if that was the only place that existed at a time when all remained shuttered indoors–if in 2010, just ten years ago, one letter was covered, by a group of Oakland knitters, to transform it to “HERE/HERE,” peacefully protesting the work as barely concealing an agenda of gentrification.

Jill Posener, on Jill Rants and Raves/June 1, 2010

The collective of knitters who had covered the “T” as if to object to the tired trope with which Oakland was long saddled was the result of a. relatively calm tussle, cast as a border war against gentrification. But the global pandemic had subsumed any distinction of “here” and “there” in a new global: the AI map seemed to be indeed a snapshot of the scale of habitation before the pandemic, a ghostly picture of an earlier time.

As I walked through it, at least, the same North Oakland neighborhood was suddenly, if maybe temporary, rendered ghostly: the built landscape that I was inhabiting was the same world, with fewer inhabitants, and less secure attachment to palce–as if the artificial interruption of indoors life shifted my relation to built space, made it harder to navigate, and shifted the security of place, and indeed removed any sense of recognizability from the built landscape, almost to ask what the civilization was that led to the building of all this paved space.

The unmooring from physical presence was like being dropped, I imagined in a flight of fantasy, to that Microsoft map, so akin as a snapshot to the sort of map of archeological ruins future generations might trace as guidelines of orientation to a lost past, when what was the greatest “here” of antiquity–the city of Rome–was etched by nineteenth century archeologists and antiquarians by the physical plant of what once stood on the site of the ancient Roman forum, only perceptible to the eyes of tourists if they had trained themselves on the map to imagine the ghost-like presence of architectural monuments that had once affirmed the place of Rome at the center of the world at a far earlier time.

Where was here, now, on the AI map? Was the tie I was drawing between the map and the uninhabited neighborhood only the depressive meanderings of a middle-aged crisis? Or was it a global one? West Berkeley and North Oakland had been certainly rendered quite a different place, quite suddenly, and not a comfortable one–still inhabited by ghosts. Stripped of my points of reference or familiarity with my neighborhood, a few dispossessed in the sidewalks, of what wasn’t a nice area of town, I was reminded rather urgently of ongoing part of urban life no longer framed by sounds of traffic, public transport, open businesses and pedestrian sounds, that continued while I was indoors. The degree zero of urban life reminded me of the empty landscape of building footprints that, in a detailed satellite overview that recalled nothing more than the outline of an archeological dig of ancient city, as if drained of motion, and filled with apprehension, in a damn eery way. Was this a pause or a new landscape?

I had only recently been navigating the 2018 building footprint map, “Every Building in the United States,” and aout a year ago, hung the section of the houses of the Bay Area onto our refrigerator wall. The creation of Microsoft that was removed as one might imagine from the ancient notion of an “inhabited world,” comprised of building outlines, a distanced description of the world a declination of mapping human settlements, mediated through what seemed the iconography of an archeological map of a removed time, rather than the actual lay of the land–or, better yet, it seemed to exist in two planes more than ever, and both as a historical record of a snapshot of built space across America, and of actuality. The interactive website of the machine-readable result of aerial imagery that invites one to zoom closely not on landscapes, but a black and white rendering of built space, recalled nothing more than a flyover of the ruins of a future world.

The aerial snapshot of each and every building in its current position had a sci-fi aspect of a record of space drained of nature, biodiversity, non-anthropogenic environments, and life–distilling selectively the extent of built spaces across an otherwise quiet and otherwise uninhabited world: as if the perfect document of the anthropocene, this was the built landscape, removed from and detached from a natural world. This was the built landscape of the region, divorced from the lay of the land, as if a perfection of the GPS contents of street view, without any street traffic or greenspace at all. The stark interactive map of 2018 seemed to be newly present to the space I was negotiating in my mind, even more stripped to its bare bones and evacuate of inhabitants.

The vertiginously uninhabited interactive map peered at onscreen allowed one to look at the nation and soon to whatever spot on the map, suddenly panning and focussing into crisp detail, but lacking all sign of inhabitants, save the names on each street or place. The sense of exploring a neighborhood I once knew may have been an accelerated arrival in late middle age. But the spatially empty landscape of building footprints encountered I opened in 2018, “Map of Every Building in the United States,”was filled with a sense of dread and of testing my own geographical knowledge, scanning to familiar neighborhoods and structure, and matching abilities to recognize the flattened forms against the material structures with which they correlate.  There is no sense of the amount of chemical waste and diesel pollutants in the nation’s largest port, Long Beach, pictured in the header to this post, where pollution has caused ongoing health problem for residents.  

Continue reading

2 Comments

Filed under Bay Area, data visualization, interactive maps, satellite surveillance, virtual space

Where Do I Go?

As if doing an asana into a terrain-view surface of Kathmandu, or leaning too forward into a map screen to place his head into its tiles, a sportily dressed male icon in the Antipodes Map plunges across the map to its other side.  The imagined transit through rendered topography seems noteworthy of an alienated relation to place, despite the proliferation of toponyms on the surface of a screen.  Although the site is dated, the avatar is an emblem of the reduced interactivity on offer in most web-based maps, and something like a prisoner in the platform that he was intended to promote, and the poverty of how we use coordinates as a way to organize screen-based maps that remove from cartography from an art and perhaps–more seriously–the observer from the map.  At a time when the world demands more detailed observation and scrutiny–and Donald Trump proposes not only to do less to slow climate change, but give broad profiles to climate change deniers in his incoming administration, the importance of mapping climate change seems likely to be curtailed, in ways that raise the danger of an alienation from map-based inquiry.  At at time when we need something stiff to take our mind off what’s going on, the teasing use of the map in the  Antipodes Map seems almost an emblem of uncertainty.

For the staid Google Maps platform, despite its richness in place-names, hardly suggests the landscape of where you would end up in the world.  The platform maps the location where you would suddenly re-emerge by showing its antipodal counterparts of any location on a map screen.  But the illusion of hexadecimal accuracy conceals the maps generated from a toponym could in fact be located most anywhere:  the map is impoverished of meaning.  If the icon exists in almost comic way, it suggests the seriously diminished expectations of a map and their expanded claims for trust in their certainty, the website creates non-utilitarian maps, stripped of any navigational use of actual way-finding, that make one feel the slippery epistemic consequences of one’s remove from a globe.  Indeed, it makes one wonder if the embrace of such a platform suggests an endemic alienation from the local against which we seem condemned to struggle.  The figure in the map is almost something of an emblem for the “end of the map,” and the consequences of the adoption and diffusion of platforms of impoverished interactivity. Even in an age where expanding abilities of interactivity have redefined video games, musical composition and screen use, why is the map with such lowered expectations?  There seems to be a clear sense of removing attaching narrative coherence to its form, despite its hugely rich narrative possibilities.

The algorithms underlying the Antipodes Map are simple.  They playfully promise the possibility of re-emerging on the “other side of the world” in ways that suggest the remove of the globe from our geographic unconscious.  Provided for an audience of bored armchair travelers from bored office-workers  to zoned-out insomniacs, the paired maps of antipodal locations claim to be about place, but suggest the remove of the viewer from their content.  This is partly because the rather sterile landscape is stripped of any use for navigating or sense of orientation, and its remove from the operations for travel that the map actually presents–stripped of much sense of the local or the spatial, it is as if the map were a way to play with spatial travel, so compelling that it might substitute for geographic knowledge, so removed is it from much any sense of actual presence with which a viewer can interact.  In a sort of caricature of an online map, it is a low-tech cartographic formulation of place that seems to expose the consequences of our increasing remove from a world of tangible paper maps.  Indeed, the easy generation of misleading mapping at such an extreme cognitive remove may not only perpetuate the sense of global chaos that Donald Trump purveyed with such success, but the misreading of the voting landscape that made his election so much of a surprise.  The comic image of burying one’s head in a map certainly gains added resonance after the 2016 general election for President of the United States as an allegory about the costs the alienating viewers from place whose tiles are stripped of scale and cleansed of much local detail.

 

Different Scales antipodes.png

 

Although it’s difficult to take full stock of the diminished role of the globe in daily life, the limited presence of a relation to place or spatial differences that is perpetuated in the Antipodes Map seem particularly acute for the problematic question of how we map “place” today.  In an era when we increasingly stitch together georectified satellite images of the globe, bemoaning an absence of coordinates may seem hopelessly antiquated–but the problematic meaning of “place” in a globalized economy seems mirrored in the dislocated sense of place that is present and perpetuated in many overly schematic maps–and the difficulty to mediate place, or to tell an effective narrative about place in the set of GIS tools that are available in most web-maps, whose terrain view backgrounds hint strongly at homogeneity.  The increased slipperiness of grasping place in the raster tiles of a slippy map seems to inflect the level of trust that the modeling of electoral projections sustained this past month, and a failure to register the declining numbers of voters in the map echoes the sense of banality in the maps’ properties–and their remove from telling non-generic stories about place.  The troubling absence of a road map for the future may even increasingly make us come to yearn for the tangibility and stability of the maps to which many have said farewell.

 

1.  It is more than somewhat ironic in an age of increasing border controls and confinement that the Google Maps engine provides an almost entirely notional relation to place in how the Antipodes Map.  For the website, which employs maps as a sort of device, takes advantage of online mapping to create an image of antipodal points of any “place,” promising to help users to “tunnel to the other side of the world”–showcasing a virtual escape from the more densely inhabited regions of the earth to that uninhabited region through to an antipodal point in the Indian Ocean, in the image of someone in a pose ever so slightly resembling downward dog, but with their head immersed in a map’s face, as if entering the sea of map data to re-emerge, mermaid like, off the coast of Australia–the very region once described as the Antipodes.

But despite the antithetical or oppositional nation of the Antipodes–or the firm belief in an artistic localism the Antipodean Manifesto advocated in 1959, proclaiming “Dada is as dead as the dodo and it is time to bury this antique hobby-horse“–place is not that clearly differentiated in a website that constructs antipodal relations generated by adding 180 to latitude and a negative sign to longitude is as almost sterile as its flat base map.  With brio, the Melbourne-basd artists who launched the Antipodean Manifesto asserted it “only natural that we should see and experience nature differently in some degree from the artists of the northern hemisphere,” against the ascendancy of American abstract expressionism, with a flourish of place-based common sense; yet the local is lost in the diversionary algorithms for imaging complementary cartographies of geographic location that are less rooted in place, than seem to aspire to transcend it.

 

Antipodes.png

 

As much as doing downward dog on the slippery surface of a slippy map, the figure in the map seems almost to bow to the authority of geolocation in the web-based map that almost says goodbye to the relation of the viewer and the map.

In an age that increasingly seems to pride itself as existing “after maps,” the website offers the metastasis of a form of mapping, fitting for an age when we are tracked in web maps,  but maps have ceased to exist as objects with their own formal properties.  It’s almost fitting how the Antipodes Map website provides viewers with an opportunity for cartographical interface maps from any place concretely render the sense of how geolocated maps exist in our heads–in fact, so immersed in maps are we that we rarely can resurface near the international dateline off the coast of New Zealand.  The cartographical fantasia that’s engineered on the old-fashioned webmaps of the website is emblematic of the loss of the globe, however–it recalls the paradoxes of imagining travel without a physical map:  we don’t travel in maps, perhaps because we are already in them.  In an age that both is inundated by maps, and lacks them, the screen cartoonishly absorbs the spectator viewing the map’s content, with a half-hearted attempt at irony at placing you next to the International Date Line in danger of being attacked by sharks.  The sense of impending danger might exist almost anywhere, given the multiple narratives that might be hung atop the awfully opaque surface of a Google Map.

 

rome-to-antipodes-near-new-zealand

 

Although the stitching together of images would be impossible without coordinate systems, they are sublimated in most satellite imagery and web maps, which exist with hidden coordinates, recently reborn in an age of digitized mapping forms as the UTM.  The gridded lines that once guided readership and visual attention to some degree, as well as explaining the nature of the transformation, have receded into the background as a layer beneath their surface, tacitly accepted, not part of the map’s surface and without any deictic function of indicating place–as if we don’t need them any more to read the map’s surface or place locations; the map has gained a formal coherence as a picture plane.

The absence of indication or reference points remind one of the wonderfully cloud-free satellite mosaics of Planet Labs, which balance spatial precision with the “accuracy” of the visual georectification within a coordinate system, but it has recently receded entirely, as the coordinates have vanished and disappeared as indices.  Terrestrial coordinates are the conspicuous absence we rarely take stock of in our web maps as most cartographers fit satellite maps into most any mapping matrix as a base map– stitched together as a mosaic of pixellated forms to provide a disembodied relation to a virtual landscape, whose rendering assembles a place for us in a weirdly disconcerting cartographical pastiche.

 

Laos Spatially accurate.png“Laos,” Planet Labs

 

The coherence of this map is of course predominantly pictorial, with far less premium placed on the projection.  With so many models for achieving smoothness in what now are called maps, programs for georectification take the place of base-lines, as the assembly of maps take their reference from LandSat, stitching together a mosaic that adjusts for any photographic distortions, warping each pixel to terrestrial curvature to create a coherent image seems as if it is completely removed from geographical coordinates–which are banished to tacit signs, as if relics of a past relation to a map’s face.

Because of this, the suddenly unexpected prominence that the system of coordinates gain again, as if in a return of the repressed, is so surprising in the somewhat outdated Antipodes Map.  While the website streams Google Earth locations in familiar tiled map imagery, the hidden use of a system of coordinates is its central and animating conceit.   As in the header to this post, the engine of the Antipodes Map bears out its the promise to match any location to its antipodal location,  as if suddenly pairing any screen map with its counterpart as if in a cartographically-enhanced ADD by playfully juxtaposing any place on the globe with its antipode in a semantically bizarre visualization map-engagement–

 

aleppo-antipodal

 

–that is an illustration, perhaps, that the map exists in your head.

But the Antipodes Map seems to render the flexibility with which map data has come to  supersede maps in somewhat accurate ways.  It’s no surprise, perhaps, that in our map-inundated era, Gary Johnson was left confounded by questions of what “Aleppo” was–a sausage?  a fashion statement?  something a President is expected to handle?–almost exasperated for lack of context to place the place-name.  Are we all in danger of finding ourselves increasingly lost in the opaque surface of maps?  We may be faced by a limited range of stories able to be attached to or hang around place, as place-names are situated abundantly in generic landscapes with few clear claims for their physical actuality, or to the stability of place.

 

tiles.gif

tiles.jpg

 

2.  The on-line viewer of the Antipodes Map is cartographically rendered as lost in the map or as entering the surface in which he takes refuge–as if to invite the viewer to enter through its surface to arrive at a location’s terrestrial antipode.  It is an easy slight of hand but a bizarre semiotic conflation that seems to perpetuate the illusion of frictionless travel web maps allow:  the instant generation of map situating the viewer on the corresponding point on the other hemisphere echoes an image of global inter-connectedness that the constraints of a web-map don’t allow it to ever provide.  We indeed seem to fall into our screens, or into the terrain-view base maps that they generate, in the Antipodes Map website, that has revived the life of an early modern or medieval geographic concept of the weighted harmony of the place of landmasses or continents on the globe to provide a diverting disorientation to the world as viewed by Web Mercator, our current de facto default for imagining indexed tools of spatial reference on coordinates, for lack of a globe.

 

zDNb5.png

 

Despite the considerable analytic benefits of slicing up the continent and country into differently sized map tiles, the maps that cannily re-segment the country into units may have led to a lack of clarity in much of the nation for what it meant to pursue votes–no doubt complicated by the overdetermined distribution of votes, and the nature of turn-out, and the range of local policies of voting were so systematically altered over years.

To return to the Antipodes Map, the inspiration of this post, the website has the odd quality of defining place in a post-cartographical world, dispensing with the map to organize a sense of place independently from a map’s legends, words, or narratives, as if it was a readymade version of truth, to whose authority viewers enjoyed a largely passive relation, and whose immateriality contains some disorienting features of its own.

 

OpenStreetMap_homepage.pngOpen Street Map

 

3.  One cannot but worry deeply that the absence of material coherence has quite recently resurfaced in the U.S. Presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton.  The apparent failure to plan a pragmatic strategy to win the electoral college for Hillary Clinton’s campaign, as we replay its narrative and promise within our heads in an attempt to grasp where we might have gone–or just went–so sadly wrong.  Despite the reassurance for which we turned repeatedly to political forecasts, the poor prognosticative value endemic to most all data projections that were produced during the final months of the campaign almost removed us more than oriented us to the political problems of the country.  Even if we almost didn’t grasp what happened, the problem of missing the people behind the numbers–or somehow seeming to describe the electorate, not wanting to look at the voters, the maps produced now seem to betray the inherent fraudulence of any such forecasting as an exact art, and the dangers of their analogies as forecasts to the weather or competitive ports– without looking at the margin of error or fate of the undecided, fetishizing figures rather than issues, led analysts to endow a misleading degree of solidity in the opinion poll maps.

Whether due to a lack of clear messaging by the candidate, or of just being outclassed by another storyline, something just seems to have been not visible or escaped detection– despite the reliance of the highly talented Clinton team electoral maps and big data.  For if data was ostensibly what Clinton’s team so relentlessly pursued, one can’t but worry that some did so, somehow, without looking that closely at the landscape and realities that lay beneath it.  Buoyed by expectations for higher voter turn-out and far greater voter interest, the attention to advertising markets on unreadable territories somehow increased.  Why, one wonders, even during its final weeks, rather paradoxically pursued advertising markets so aggressively it took its eyes off of the “electoral map” of voters, to shape its strategy out of ideal aspirations for arriving at a political consensus that seemed in reach in Ohio, North Carolina, and Florida, as well as Arizona.  What were the reasons for selecting as the major markets for television advertising states she didn’t need to win, and directing precious resources in a quest that seems now, with the benefit of retrospect, most misguided.  For in focussing on them, her campaign seemed to ignore votes in Wisconsin, Michigan, and almost Pennsylvania–and the important down-ballot priorities in those states–maybe taking for granted their historical support for a Democratic candidate as able to survive without active cultivation–in ways that were almost, incredibly, oblivious to a landscape defined by increasing voting restrictions.

 

VRA restrictions.png

States Implementing New Voting Restrctions in the 2016 Presidential Election

 

One fears that by being egged on by a data-driven optimism, inspiring a last-minute appeals to the all-but-out-of reach, the disturbing allocation of resources seems a particularly dangerous error, unwisely hoping for a victory across an east coast time zone for viewing audiences on the nightly news  on election night, or enticed by the elusive promise of a broad victory, which in retrospect seems so very self-indulgent, or at least misguided by the overselling of the precision in models of voting, and ignoring just how many wait until deciding how to cast their vote, especially when 12 percent of the electorate claims being undecided, but broke late for Trump in ways that invalidate any security in polls-based prognostications as a guide on where to place your money.

For in failing to defend bread and butter of the Democratic party the Democrats may have crashed the ship of state atop the rocky symbolic politics of a general election.  During a campaign that became increasingly unhinged from policy questions, and waged by vicious but misleading ads insinuating outright criminality but fixated on soundbites–Build the Wall!; Drain the Swamp!; End NAFTA!–slogans seem designed to boost voters energy but distract attention from actual economic issues and global dangers or disequilibria.  The consequence of Democrats saturating certain markets, buoyed by what we now see as unreliable polls, has resulted in the increasing sense of uncertainty that now afflicts the world, even if they may have seemed to make so much sense as a guide to saturate selective media markets–setting apart the content of those ads and their effectiveness.  The regions where unions once defined the project of getting out the vote found that their members were just not voting Democratic after all in 2016, the ongoing decline of unions‘ strength had significantly changed the dynamics of the voting map.  (And where many were expected to vote Democratic in the past, that just wasn’t going down.)

The dissonance of such changing where money was spent seems terribly sad.  The intensity of the ad campaign might be selectively distributed to a set of states where investments were perhaps either not enough or were maybe not clearly warranted anyway, as the airwaves were apparently flooded with Democratic ads in an overly optimistic way, as a barrage on the airwaves was assumed to sway people to one side in the final weeks of the most contentious presidential contest in recent memory.  This was almost a sustained hope to pummel one side with an intent that may have escaped actual possibilities, but remained skewed to the ever-elusive targets of North Carolina and Florida in ways that are retrospectively tragic, and removed from the distribution of electoral votes–

 

floridanoth-carolina-ohio-penn

campaing spending TV ads.pngCampaign Spending on Television Ads in General Election, Aug 9-Oct 25 (Bloomberg)

 

 

ad-map-final-week2016-presidential-cmapignaCampaign spending on television ads in 2016 Presidential Race, September2-November 7

 

While the content of the ads can’t be ignored in assessing the value of these markets, the way that the media markets were so clearly cut up by someone in the Clinton camp make one raise eyebrows that big buying in Michigan, Wisconsin, Georgia, Maine and Arizona seemed not only to abandon the vaunted fifty-state strategy, but fell short in generating enthusiasm or response.  It’s hard not to wonder, even if it many not get us anywhere, since it might help to reflect on the sorts of narratives that maps might better allow us to frame and to reflect on the advantages and consequence of doing so.  The disarming geographical clustering of media elites, the distance from their lives from the majority of Americans, and the inability to report on a broad range of social conditions create a perfect storm for failing to reflect how most of the actual voters lived, and the increased remove of most journalists from the nation, with broad suspicions of media “elites” and their pronouncements, remain a significant problem for journalists to serve a public.  But it remains fundamental that the false promise of a certainty of synthesis lies also in the data-driven delusions that allowed many to not see the potential real weaknesses Clinton might face–and not the strengths she might gain–and less on the dangers that were implicit in getting out the vote in the strange, new landscape of voting restrictions.

Could Clinton campaign’s projections have taken the eye off an electoral map, by removing a sense of niche markets from an effective overall narrative of electoral victory?   Ronald Brownstein already feared such an eventuality in the works, wondering openly if the campaign was overly attracted to assembling an apparently attractive advantageous coalition of voters, which weighted their attention to the map of apparently obtainable electoral votes that so unfortunately didn’t ever materialize.  In attempts to assemble an increasingly diverse electorate that they hoped would turn out for them, it’s hard not to ask, without recrimination, if they were driven by data and margins of possibility–or enticed by the possibility of projecting huge margins of victory across the map, in ways didn’t help the campaign to focus more intensely on the people behind it or the places where they lived, not to mention the distributions that the electoral college reflects.

The “rational over-confidence” that led them to aim for long-shot down-ballot benefits in Nevada, North Carolina, and across the South, suggests Alex Lundry of Deep Root Analytics has argued, may have led to a rather stunning neglect of core states that so surprisingly migrated in the end to the Republican column, in ways that redrew the national political map few data projections imagined and pollsters or pollsters predicted.  It may make no sense to look back in anger.  But was an absence of attention to the “heartland” in favor of devotion to urban areas in Florida, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina a consequence of undue trust in data visualizations?  Could it be that the seductive illusion of intriguing electoral scenarios was created at the cost of curiously disembodied data in a market of political prognostication–as wide trust in models and figures helped move Democrats’ eyes off the prize in the political map?   For while Trump inundated ad markets in Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania with particularly nasty misleading attacks on personal character, the Florida market gained irrational magnetism as a site to stop his Train, in ways we have to resist pondering if only to keep our heads.

Bracketing the current electoral disaster, are there genealogies of trust in data, and mediating the country through an electoral map, in the dismantling of the material map?  They are tied to an acceptance of an age after the map, in which we’re guided by the promise of comprehensive coverage at one’s fingertips–and persuaded that it would be possible to put them “in play” since we seem so empowered by the data we’ve assembled in an apparently coherent map, that we ignore its other fault-lines.

The premise seems so compelling that to be worth tracing in greater detail.  Could the embrace of digits led to ignoring individual voters, as probabilities and the compelling nature of alternate scenarios and visualizations of past history dangerously took one’s eyes off how recent elections in 2012 were determined largely by the nation’s new socio-economic map?

 

countymaprb512

countymappurple512.pngMark Newman/2012 election cartograms

There are optimistic signs of the possibilities and options for refiguring the huge problems in democratic representation, as by creatively using data distributions that we have to create better centered electoral districts in less interested ways–shown here in the state of Georgia–that could reduce gerrymandering by redistricting through simple GIS.

 

Impartial Automatic Redistricting (2010)

 

Indeed, many plans for redistricting can lead to a more effective model of representation to which special interests, and bureaucratic slowness, have not led us to adopt, with potentially quite undemocratic results, in large part because of the huge cost of the transformation in voting practices.  But is the cost of such a failure increasingly apparent in the ways we form and select government for all?

And anyway, is the geographic allotment in California with greater sense as such a map?

 

 

CA.pngImpartial Automatic Redistricting (2010)

 

The alternative possible plausible map offering voters more equitable distributions of equidistance by automatic redistricting seems, in the abstract, potentially more reasonable, and removed from the interested division of districts in the existing map.

 

map-1.pngImpartial Automatic Redistricting (2010)

 

Perhaps the difficulties of redistricting are daunting, but the tools of mapmaking indeed have made them increasingly possible, if not for the difficulty of undertaking national changes that cut so sharply against entrenched interests of existing representatives who have nurtured bonds to their constituents, and would feel challenged by the compact district of a new electoral map, even though the older map is effectively infected by existing interests to easily confirm the redrawing of district.

 

pa-map.png

 

Or have we been overly disempowered by platforms of mapping, in ways that have allowed them to serve individual interests in overly explicit ways?  Indeed, the possibility that mapping platforms are tied to an unwarranted overconfidence in data and in the manipulation of individual votes seem to have been present in both sides of the 2016 vote, as plans for exercising rights to create a more equanimous image of voting representation remains in an earlier era–as, perhaps, the electoral college itself, may overly distort voting in ways that we are too often compliant.

 

RFD-map-votes-sfSpan.png

 

If we have long been attracted and attached to the descriptive power of the map–

 

fdr-and-glorious-globe

 

–is the medium not only interfering with the message, but overly disorienting?

 

4.  The enduring absence of a globe may be an eerily enabling underside of globalization, in which the never-ending wonders of internet are given something of an enabling basis in a range of maps that erase a contextualized view of place.  The imagined freedoms guaranteed  by uniform access to online information on the world wide web may have origins in the sense of liberation from geographical divisions of mapped territories that many maps once seemed, after all, to perpetuate so falsely as a bad ideology of the state.  One feels hard-pressed to imagine the democratization of the “flow of information” as leveling the playing field, save by its flattening of the earth.  But let’s move to a rosier age.  But the desire for the liberation of such a global vision of information might start in the “big picture” that maps provided for folks like R. Buckminster Fuller and of course Stuart Brand, who famously took the globe as an image of big issues and complexity.

For the economy of online information that derived from such initial optimism and indeed near-utopian aspirations to emerge from geographical constraints of Cold War nationalism has produced a spatial imaginary that has all but dispensed with place, by positioning it in a new matrix of geolocation.  Despite initial eagerness to envision global unity as proclaimed in the 1960s in the iconic interrogative Brand’s clever button posed in northern California on or around March 22, 1966.  For Brand hoped a more complete image the world could provoke a release from the ideology of a national map and a holistic attitude to environmental care as if by an interrogative of greater imaginative force–

 

Figure-1-Campaign-button-1967-by-Stewart-Brand-Urging-NASA-and-the-Soviet-Union-to.png

 

–the notion of the “Whole Earth” that Brand and crew believed to be almost in reach back in 1968 has more than somewhat receded from sight.

Brand had bravely advocated expanding one’s cartographical comprehensiveness to remap connections in a new picture for his audience.  He became an evangelizist for the “Whole Earth” perspective and offered broad “access to tools,” by boosting the breadth of its contents, and cramming information into the dense layout of its pages that optimistically erased one’s sense of disconnect to actual uneven distributions of wealth and, er, tools.  But by providing inter-connections by “big picture thinking,” Brand promoted a wonderfully holistic vision in the Whole Earth Catalogue, that Bible of “Holistic Thinking” aiming to remedy an absence of attention to complex, interconnected systems of which Brand dedicated himself whole-heartedly, by the sheer force of making a more open and comprehensive map to display the whole “big picture” in its copious abundance, enticing readers to trace extensive interconnections in the world that the Catalogue revealed.

 

Whole Earth Tools.pngFall, 1968

 

Stewart Brand and company viewed cartography both as an illustration and a model for the understanding of “big systems” he sought to illuminate in the Whole Earth Catalogue, providing an image of complexity of the “whole Earth” that interacted over an extended space in ways that cartography provided a metaphor to reveal.  Viewing the “whole Earth” sought to provide ways of revealing unseen connections between places and also offered with brio a ticket to understanding whole specialized systems and bolstered the hubris of bridging a gamut of specialities.  If this made the Whole Earth Catalogue a precursor to the internet and World Wide Web in its aims to reveal the breadth of the ongoing state of play, it was also embodied in the notion of a playful game in which the earth’s fate lay in the balance–echoed in how Brand imagined players of the cooperative game Slaughter shifting sides to prevent the earth from ever being pushed “over the edge” to one side–in an undisguised metaphor for preventing real slaughter from occurring during the war.

 

Whole Earth March 1970.pngWhole Earth Catalogue, March 1970 (MOMA)

 

The notion of a game inspired by volleyball using a ball painted as a globe sought to turn players’ energies toward protecting any team from pushing the earth over the “edge”–a fear increasingly emergent in the Vietnam War, by focusing on preventing it from falling–or, in a version modeled after Tug-of-War, by shifting sides in order to prevent the ball/earth from ever crossing too far across one line, and trying to maintain its stability.

For back when Brand and his friends optimistically  enjoined NASA and the Soviet Union to ‘‘finally turn the cameras backward’’ towards the planet earth to provide a picture of the world, posing the question first on buttons he hocked at the University of California campus in Berkeley, the notion of a new mapping of a global world and its connections would open a perspective that liberated users from what seemed hackneyed nationalistic values and promising notions of interconnection to ideas and information in new graphic forms.  The idealistic promise of global coverage didn’t create such a release, even long after the button-selling of Brand was chased off of Berkeley’s campus, but Brand’s idealistic notion of the power of global coverage informed the internet’s promise to provide information everywhere, by allowing unprecedented access to maps in ways world-changing in itself.

To be sure, the liberating force of the internet lies in its ability to provide information everywhere, but it remains true that the surface of the world wide web is anything but a uniform surface or playing field.

 

unknown-4

 

The absence of a level field in internet use continues even after Facebook‘s efforts to saturate the planet with free wifi, already evident in those most  connected to Facebook–

 

connessione-facebookFacebook Connectivity Lab

 

The obstacles to the dream of comprehensive online exchange hasn’t happened, and may not, given the uneven nature of the global penetration rate of the internet, whose global spread is broken down nationally on a cartogram warping of space by population, and shows deep whole in much of Africa and South Asia, and a lopsided evolution of web-use, convincingly rendered by the clever cartographer Luc Guillemot–

 

global-penetration-of-net-2000-2012Luc Guillemot

 

 

5.  Paradoxically, if inevitably the generation of most online maps is overwhelmingly and resolutely local, in the sense that it is only accessible in quite unevenly distributed ways–it would be wonderful to see the scope of the scale at which Google Maps is accessed in different places and regions, if such data were open; as it is, we rarely see the “whole earth” as Brand imagined, so much more focussed are we on tracking national political events or elections, or mapping the settings and spaces we travel and spread of local weather variations.  We map where we are in maps of air travel on view in airplanes, Waze apps we use to view traffic flows, or the crime maps of neighborhoods and, on a broader scope, the weather maps of nations, states, or regions, which have a sense of actuality that exploit most maps’ existence on a server, always able to be reformulated to track meaning and flows for our eyes, and indeed even to put us into its content.

Encouraged by the near-ubiquity of wifi and internet services, we use smart phones as navigational tools to trace our locations on winding roads, taking our eyes off of the itinerary, almost to the degree Rube Goldberg’s cartoon of Non-Tangle Map Rollers prefigured–running the danger of taking eyes off of the road on which we are driving.

 

Rube Goldbert's Non-Tangle Road Map Rollers.png

 

There is not such a utopian sense of how information actually flows online through the ether, to be sure.   Indeed, there are still clear winners and losers for the speeds of information exchanges that the speed of internet exchanges creates–and are not evident on Brand’s “whole Earth,” which still seems to provide the mental model to which online mapping aspires–despite the actual differences in the backbone that enables such online communications and the advantages it allots residents of certain regions:  for rather than provide a unified global image of à la Brand, cartographer Luc Guillemot’s recent map of internet capacities reveals intractable inherent differences in the sizing of information highways for different regions–and give the lie to the free-floating of information along the cables and backbones on which they are transmitted among different regions, by mapping the actual quantified capacities at which they run.

00.pngLuc Guillemot

 

The ways that we might understand the vision motion of information better have only begun to be mapped.  But the continuous provision of infinite information faces multiple material constraints.  The enticing image of the expanse of the global net has clear weaknesses, to be sure, as does the hope of expecting universal access to online maps.

So what of the whole earth?  Where did it go?  The proposals and presuppositions of the Google Maps template and of Web Mercator are rarely interrogated, but in the name of subsuming information to utility, and actuality to web tiles, the map engine does odd things, removed from experience, as a semantic web of spatial reference–like suppose a uniformity of land and water, render and reify abstract spatial positions removed from local context, and reinstate a flat-earth perspective that would be less familiar from a globe, that provide an array of tools to conceive of place–from tracking to geolocation.

 

6.  The framework of spatial reference generated the Antipodes Map streaming Google Earth locations in familiar map tiles imagery.   As in the header to this post, the engine bears the promise to match a map of where you are to the earth’s other side, analogously online information-sharing promises to place any user at any site, and by using the very same engine.  As internet-based maps provide a network of ready-made mapping whose instruments are accessible to all–despite the clear constraints that undergirds the internet and renders it less of the open area for free exchange.

The Antipodes Map engine is itself an artifact of the age in which any map is readily generated and supplied, more than exists.  It is an emblem of the utopian premises of the hyper-personalization of online maps–rather than present a record of the inhabited world, the site marks place for viewers by a search engine alone–and situates place in an otherwise undifferentiated expanse:  the map revels in the status of place in the map-engine as a “quasi-object” and of the map’s user as a “quasi-subject,” to use terms Bruno Latour coined as tools to understand the networks in which each exist; for the Antipodes Map website itself serves to trace networks of calculating place on an online map engine by a coordinate network, preparing a readymade sense of local landscapes disembodied from place and with little context, and removed from current political events or human habitation.

There is no Jules Verne-like majesty of imagining the construction of an actual tunnel, as a corridor running through the earth’s core, here advertised as a project to open to visitors tired of global air travel, linking Singapore and Ecuador, that is promised to be constructed from Singapore by 2050, which might provide the very sort of transport it imagines in an imagined physical corridor–

 

antipodes2

 

It oddly remaps place that preclude any sense of embodied travel, in a gloriously impoverished sense that sees the map as not only the medium, but simulacrum of travel.

The frictionless sort of travel that online mapping claims to provide to its users has been interestingly incarnated in an online Antipodes Map, if the magic of generating a web-map has admittedly lost much of its early initial sheen.  The search engine light-heartedly bills itself as a virtual “tunnel to the other side of the world” that half-exploits the decreasing availability of concrete media and forms of mapping in a “globe-less” society, whose lack it seems to mourn.  Many may mourn the symbolic centrality of the globe as a talisman of interconnectedness in the age of web-based maps, but the performance of the web-map and the surrogate reality that it offers viewers in a new network of map-use is celebrated in the engine as if to overcome the lack of the materiality of the map.  The engine allows, by an easy trick, instant generation of the web map from any set of coordinates, as “our ‘man’ will dig a tunnel from selected location, right through the center of the Earth, up to the other side of the world which will be represented on Right Map.”

 

different-scales-antipodes

 

Although the lack of scales in the two windows of the map-generator negotiates the fact that much of the world is water, the possibility for altering scales allow considerably bizarre symbolic, and even odder as a way to lend a sense of presence to the formally abstract and generic screen map–lending a notional materiality to the web-map that almost celebrates the map as a simulacrum that’s ready to be fashioned around where you are, wherever you are, immediately.

 

different-scales

 

For if the screen map declares it to be nothing so much as a “quasi-thing,” recalling a map in its pixellated forms existing only for the beholder for whom it is conveniently remade, and reassembled, that emulates the apparatus of map-viewing on a Google Maps platform.

 

7.  Indeed, the engine almost openly celebrates the rebirth of the new status of the map as a “quasi-thing“–which almost ceases to register spatial variations–where geodetic data exists only in a relation to the viewer or users of the platform, rather than inhere in the map, and place a “quasi-subject” that exists in a social network of map use and is provided for the user of a mapping service.   Place, in other words, emerges in the act of consulting the map and GS84 coordinates readily generates it, and place exists as a consequence of a technology of map-reading–and a network of reading place as it is generated on search engines–and as it circulates online in a network of map reading.  Although the Antipodes Map was not particularly successful as a search engine on its own, it recreates the same networks of map-reading to generate place through the immediate assembly of map tiles.  The Antipodes Map has little to do with actual Antipodes, but less dynamic GIS version that echoes the physical interactivity for reading space H.A. Rey so appealingly rendered in the illustrated children’s classic How Do You Get There?

Rey’s fold-out images offer visual surprises that dramatically addressed the problems of modern navigation of an age, as if to socialize children to problems of transportation, that responded to the increased mobility of the mid-twentieth-century, and indeed the increased possibility of a surprising degree of geographic mobility due to contingent circumstance that Rey himself experienced.  Rey’s classic book sometime seems a valiant attempt to put a good face on the history of displacement and mobility Rey himself experienced–but recalls a tyranny of the map that has become a far less sensitive visual medium in the a dangerously disembodied absence of a sense of self amidst the tiles of Terrain View.  The interactive mapping site suggests a nostalgia for the globe, by suggesting the notion of global antipodes can be easily rewritten for the screen, is subtly mirroring the imaginary of the smooth travel that the internet and many platforms of web-mapping openly promote, even as many face increasing obstacles to geographic mobility.  Any obstacles to mobility seem miraculously erased in the user-friendly promises to immerse oneself in the map and be transported to an antipodal point–albeit one that comes up quite short on any spatial experiences at all.

For if How Do You Get There? was permeated by a sense of place, and may indeed echo how  the intrepid children’s book illustrator might have mused on the varied conveyances of his narrow escape from Paris to Lisbon and through Rio de Janeiro, in Brazil, to New York City from bicycles to transatlantic ships, it offers a visual sequence of problems of transport and the most apt vehicles to move from one site to another, inventively exploiting the fold out pages in the paper product of the book to mimic movement across spatial divides across which different vehicles can transport you, retelling the radically expanded transit possibilities half way between the innovation of the ocean liner and the jet age:  the first image poses problems of transportations to which solutions immediately emerge by raising half the page, to reveal the conveyance allowing one to move across a medium–

 

unknown-9

inagll_031810_300pxc

 

The growth of new possibilities of transit is implicit in every page of Rey’s book, most often poignantly told from the child’s point of view, as if to offer a guide that can orient them to both the local and global, and newfound mobility in urban and global space.

 

bus.png

a_h_rey_page_open

In contrast, current users of “Antipodes”–a service whose plan lacks relevance to the actual Antipodes, a concept that maintained the balance and global harmony of the world’s continents, which came to refer specifically to the large southern landmasses New Zealand and Australia in much of the northern hemisphere–

 

207C.JPGSt. Sever (1030 AD, following Beatus Renanus)

207d2

 

–but rather relates antipodal points that intersect the earth’s center in a straight line, mapped on projected coordinates.

There is a sense in which the dual maps presented to viewers clearly recalls juxtaposition images in parallel slide projectors, as a sort of comparison of the formal shift in settings that the map takes the viewer or generates a place.  Rather than offer the material visual surprise of actively unfolding a paper flap, the parallel images that recall parallel projection from two projectors in the slide lectures given in darkened halls of art history lectures of a generation (or several) ago, to focus the attention of his audiences on the Formgefühl of projected images to unmask a syntax of art.  The twin map-screens of different scales in the Antipodes Map are clunky because they  echo how parallel slide projectors provided an apparatus, from magic lanterns to the slide projectors, for art historians to compare and contrast styles Robert Nelson once described as an inheritance from the Swiss art historian Heinrich Wölfflin–who employed dual projectors to give viewers the sense that they witnessed and hence best appreciated the content of images.

 

8.  The juxtaposition of two map screens less openly celebrate the work of art more than the speed of the instantaneous generation of images, of course.  But the Antipodes Map is similarly intent in the miracle of creating a juxtaposition of antipodal locations, as if place was merely something that arose from the comparison of locations.  The basic suasive apparatus of the website’s map engines echoed how the material apparatus of projectors that became such a staple for orienting beholders to stylistic differences, and appreciate a work of art.  They seem to celebrate the online map, despite its visual dullness of its form.

The contrast immediately generated between a provided place-name and how the engine locates its antipode by the magical apparatus of an online map engine; users are  invited to enter the sketchy simulacrum, and to identify with the icon in slacks and a white shirt who seems to reappear at a corresponding point, albeit almost always at radically different scales–that exploit the frictionless nature of the virtual map as an accurate interface.

 

bed-stuyaustralian-indian-ocean

 

The aesthetics of the website obscure distance, by allowing one to move by the input of any toponym to two points in the world, and find its corollary in the opposite hemisphere automatically generated.   The coordinates of longitude and latitude are suddenly, as if by a magical sort of travel, spatially re-situated by polar opposites of place represented by adventurous figurines who seem to stick their head in the ground, as in the manner of an ostrich, only for it to reappear at the corresponding antipode on the terrestrial sphere.  The website lists the range of actual antipodal cities that make one wonder what meaning lies in antipodal relations–Manila and Cuiaba (Brazil); Shanghai and Buenos Aires; Taipei and Asuncion (Paraguay); Aukland and Seville; Singapore and Quito; Suva, in Fiji, and Timbuktu; Hamilton, New Zealand and Tangiers; or Masterton (New Zealand) and Segovia–beyond suggesting the extreme over-inhabitation of much of the current ecumene.

Indeed, “tunneling through the world” will allow one to move from through an infinity of antipodes, as from Split, in Croatia, to its actual antipodal point off New Zealand by a hexadecimal coordinate system of Google Maps,–

 

–in ways that suggest the antipodes don’t actually “exist” as a place, but only in the relative terms that exist in a Web Mercator projection of WGS84, which in the map screen can be imagined as two points between which web-maps allow one to physically move, and coordinates that can be readily juxtaposed.

The conceit of the simulacrum of the map through which one passes, as if to another world, to its antipodal counterpart, is a cool tool to vaunt the power of the web map with apparent precision.  Tunneling through the virtual screen will surprisingly transport you from one city to another.  Iconic humanoid stick figures, our new stock figurines of surrogate explorers within the screen map, are immediately oriented to a mapped place abstracted from any vehicle of travel by the GIS mapping engine, on a website that seems glibly to treat the map itself as the medium for imagining one’s voyage to a point of parity on the globe by analogy to Google Street View, as if one might poke one’s head through the world’s surface, and treat the conveyance of the map as a way to shrink space.

While the logic of calculating terrestrial coordinates of antipodal points is ridiculously simple–by simply switching out North (N) for South (S) in each latitude; subtracting the longitude from 180° and visualizing the result in Google Maps–

 

Antipodes.JPG

 

–the visualization is profoundly bizarre symptom of a globe-less culture, where coordinates exist not on paper, or on a spherical surface, but rather on a screen–and may suggest something of an a nostalgia for the globe as an object of contemplation, despite the sense that it is a far less adequate substitute, whose interactive format is a bit more of a parlor game quick to become outdated in the age of online mapping.

The formal trick of the interactive Antipodes Map invites us, perhaps for want of a paper map, to dive through the surface of the map, and presents the flat surface of the screen map as if it were a surface through which one could travel through a now-absent globe, as if through a looking glass, between such antipodal points as Rome and New Zealand–

 

Rome to Antipodes near New Zealand.png

 

or Denali Park in Alaska to the even colder regions of the Southern Ocean near Antarctica’s edge–

 

Denali Park:Antarctic Southern Ocean.png

 

and imagine easy transit from Oakland CA to the Indian Ocean–

 

rockridge-to-indian-ocean

 

or from the West Bank and Jerusalem, as if to escape the constraints of increasingly obstructive boundary barriers, to beside the international dateline in the South Pacific–

 

 

The notion of such smooth cartographical getaways are flights of fancy, but can’t help but make one think of the actual mobility of refugees who increasingly crowd the surface of the world whose itineraries are all the more fraught.  Has it been a coincidence that as globalization is based on new modes of mapping borderless travel and data flows without frontiers, frontiers of economic differences are increasingly constraining ever-increasing numbers who are not often on our mental screens?

 

 

Perhaps the magic of shifting place in the Antipodes Map is a product of a society where our travel intensity is so susceptible to place-shifting and where upwards of 700,000 are up in the air at any moment, and over a million paying passengers flew daily in 2015, and airlines are expected to fly 3.6 billion passengers by 2016.

 

air_routes-1Michael Markieta (Arup)–60.000 air routes

 

In an era of massively accelerated geographic mobility connecting some 7,00 airports, there is something crazily believeable about the playful conceit of the Antipodes Map:   one might readily imagine one can stick one’s head into the land only to re-appear, presto changeo, on the other side, as if by sticking one’s head into the ground, one might reappear on the other side of the globe.  We are removed from the sense of a globe–despite the use of terrestrial coordinates; the website rather provides a sort of Flat Earth Project, now is cast as sort of paired Moebius strip, using the visual metaphor of entering head and hands first though the pixellated map of New York,

 

New York.png

 

–one might be conveyed by the search engine, as the map gives way, in all of its faux materiality, and we appear at the opposed set of terrestrial coordinates, off the coast of Australia, in a metaphor for the cognitive difficulties of world navigation by smart phone, using a projection that expands Antarctica to a prodigious size the it serves as the footer of the screen:

 

Near Australia.png

 

Resolutely and radically anthropocentric, if similarly antiquated–much as the conceit of compare and contrast with dual slide projectors, the variation on Google Street View places the humanoid and seemingly male figure in an abstracted landscape, in ways that incarnate an idealized interface between man and map, loosened free from any environmental context or actual spatial orientation, save longitude and latitude.

 

phoneix

 

One can move in to closer scale, to be sure, and focus on a specific neighborhood or intersection of streets in a city before symbolically tunneling to the other side of the world, or reappearing on the matching coordinates in the other hemisphere:  but place is less here understood as a place of habitability, or inhabitation, so much as the coordinates mediated on a screen and as a sort of place-marker, familiar from Google Maps, with only marginal reference to its topography, and not a space for settlement or inhabitation.

The fictional cartographic conceit entertains an imagined transit of childhood–digging a hole to China?–but rather than present an actual adventure, à la Jules Verne, one celebrates the versatility of the flimsy artifice of the flattened screen, which suddenly and playfully invests itself perhaps with a health share of faux materiality, as if to announce the lack of global bearing or geographic learning that are in the end required for new tiles to assemble and reassemble themselves at convenience, to show you where you are, and no real need for a conveyance to arrive anywhere in embodied form, and to celebrate that no resistance or friction to imaginary travel exists any longer in a globalized world.

Sometimes the icons may seem odd, not to mention out-dated, as if one was doing asanas in the midst of a forest near Nepal, where all of the previously familiar constraints of travel are erased by the imagined access to space that the terrain map provides.

 

kathmandu

 

 

We can move, frictionlessly, to tunnel across the world in this cartographical fantasy from a site located beside a lake–

 

Chicago.png

 

to an unkown site in the Indian Ocean–

 

site-in-indian-oceran

 

or indeed from the Himalayan mountains of Tibet to off the coast of Chile–

 

lhasa-tibet

 

The oddest aspect is the utter absence of a sense of conveyance, as if a celebration of the fact that what exists is not reality, but only, and absolutely, the fantasy of a flattened map.

If Ray celebrated the opening up of the landscapes of travel by different conveyances, as if to celebrate the transit across space for readers, by orienting them to challenges that almost seemed impossible–

 

15038531

15038532

 

–the notion in this search engine seems to be that there is no landscape, but that by playing with maps, in an innocent way, the contours of the globe are not only easily transformed to a hand-held pixellated screen, the new medium of the map–

 

bed-stuyaustralian-indian-ocean

 

–but that one almost doesn’t even need to see anything in the map as a set of spatial relationships, but can use it to lead to situate oneself immediately in the static landscape ties that the search engine generates.

How to reconcile the constraints in which so many live clustered on the side of borders that defined economical disparities, or just outside them, with the unbounded optimism of the online map that can track our position at any place in the inhabited world seems a problem of world-making, if one that mapping may not alone resolve.

2 Comments

Filed under data visualization, geolocation, Google Maps, interactive maps, mapping place

On the Growing Global Migration of Guns

Although we’ve been entreated to fear Syrian immigrants as posing potential threats to national safety, rather than with sympathy, as if they held sleeper cells of terrorists more than people in need.  (Bills intending to block states from funding refugee resettlement have been introduced or are under consideration in Missouri and South Carolina, as programs of federal resettlement of Syrian refugees has been challenged in Tennessee, Kansas, Mississippi, and Arizona.)  The fearsome specter of terrorists seems to surpass the humanitarian needs and obligations of the United States, however, as if our borders needed securing–rather than thwarting terrorism by limiting the arms in circulation that enter their hands.  For the recent evocation of a terrifying specter of terrorist threats that arrive from afar–posing as refugees–hints at the profiling of Muslims suspected as terrorists, for Donald Trump, and  deflects attention from the unprecedented scale of the circulation of small arms within our borders–as well as from outside of them.

Indeed, few Americans seem  to be conscious of the expanding traffic and sales of firearms worldwide, from the trusted Kalashnikov pictured in the header to the increased guns that have entered circulation–and the problem of encompassing their traffic and its effects pose steep cognitive challenges.

 

20140315_USC517

DRUS05-09-11-1

 

The heightened availability of guns and the expansion of the national gun trade, however, seems more deeply dangerous to our safety than anything arriving from outside of our frontiers.  Indeed, in pointing to the dangers of terrorist threats, we may fail to take account for the scope of the growing traffic in guns–and indeed the trafficking and “migration’ of guns world-wide, lest they fail to be more clearly mapped.

It seems easier to fear a refugee, after all, than the firearms whose open circulation ever expands.  The purported threat of sleeper cells entering the country’s allegedly increasingly fragile borders is both a casualty of a toxic Presidential race and a crisis in global geography, in which eyes are easily drawn to red flags raised on nations’ borders, while expanding trading zones of firearms or munitions are rarely mapped with any attention to detail.  The impossibility to map or foresee threatened firearms attacks are in fact imagined at a remove from the global routes of migration that firearms regularly take in their global sales across boundaries of jurisdiction.

For we repeatedly re-map the scope of the global refugee crisis in hopes to indicate its seemingly unprecedented scope, and increasingly pronounced local reactions to the increased number of Syrian refugees, but fail to map the ever-expanding market for rapid-fire guns–including that most “democratic” of all weapons, the streamlined Kalashnikov.  But as we do so, we ignore threats of an expanding free market in firearms which has grown so rapidly to be difficult to map, let alone tally.  Although firearms and guns that are the tragic means to perpetrate recent attacks that have cost increased numbers of lives as well as bodily and psychic casualties, the expansion of licit and illicit trading zones of small firearms has occurred in recent years that make discussions of declining violent crime in the nation, the astounding number of over 30,000 deaths from firearms this year–arriving at a rate 130,000 people shot each month–so surpass abilities for easy comprehension to take the eye off of the increased number of firearms in open circulation.  And so, when we point to the dangers of refugees, we find a target that displaces attention from maps of shootings in our own neighborhoods,

 

USA Shot by GUns

Slate/Gun Violence Archive

the lack of decline of firearm-related deaths in the country, the persistently growing number of firearms-related incidents, or the number of mass shootings since Sandy Hook, and, of course, from the circulation of increasing numbers of firearms.  And we do not even know how these guns move–although, according to work of Everytown Research, the expansion of unlicensed gun sales over the internet, social media, and site such as armslist.com have been tied to increased gun violence; such sites indeed attract buyers with criminal records–mostly including domestic violence and felon records that would prohibit them from legal gun sales–as a way to circumvent background checks, but provide an increasing means to transport guns in need of legal oversight.

 

Mass Shootings Since Sandy HookVox/ShootingTracker.com

 

There is, after all, considerable quantifiable satisfaction in indicating numbers and routes of immigrants from the Middle East that can be clearly mapped–as if they contained the sleeper cells of Jihadist threats–but a failure to map the expanding circulation of guns that are the means for such disruptive violence or even to comprehend the scale and stakes of the global gun trade.  For it places one at a somewhat myopic remove from understanding the nature of terrorist threats.   Perhaps we’re blinded to it, in part, given how much more common gun ownership remains in the US than in other countries.

The growing circulation of firearms and automatic rifles across countries is not a reason for, so much as a consequence of terrorist activity.  But it is the chosen and highest impact route for orchestrating attempts at violently and suddenly destabilizing a state and civil society.  The Kalashnikov, indeed, looks like a somewhat remote and less grizzly reminder of the spate of gun violence we have increasingly seen in recent years, often through automatic guns outfitted with much more rapid-fire magazines.  But the suggestion of foreign agents who might perpetrate gun violence raises more curiosity than obfuscation.  And so, when several governors in the United States took to identify points of vulnerability in groups of Islamic immigrants, they openly demonized the foreign provenance of a population of refugees–by metaphors of disease.   The readiness with which state governors took it upon themselves to try to ease panic by directing attention to refugees’ entry into the country–even as some questioned whether “states have the authority to decide whether or not we can take refugees”–suggests a dangerous degree of myopia.

 

states not accepting-syrian-refugees-exlarge-169

Their show of bravado not only undermined human rights accords, but almost directs attention from the growing danger of multiplying markets of guns among those “engaging in the business,” legally or illegally, of selling guns.   For the problems of understanding the expanding paths by which ever-increasing numbers of guns circulate–path far less easily tracked, but also challenging collective comprehension.  The construction of the United States as a closed universe–all too easily visualized as a hermetically sealed land of local governance–seems a particularly perilous premise in a landscape of the international flows of firearm trading, however helpful it is to indicate the stances each governor took.   The constellation of quasi-autonomous political entities seems unrealistically impervious to the undercurrents that lap its shores.

 

Governors and Immagrants.pngNational Public Radio (November 15, 2015)

 

By trumpeting such fake fears, the lack of orientation to the scale alone of guns’ sale is obfuscated, since it is so hard to articulate compared to fears of terror attacks by sleeper cells.   (Insisting on the need to ensure our borders, they ignore that many Syrian refugees referred for refugee status in the US are children under 12 years in age.)   The proposed protective closure of state boundaries distract us from the broad dimensions with which guns have come to circulate at large–and indeed the disorienting nature that the circulation of guns has within most things we can actually measure.  If Justin Peters found, based on data six years old,  approximately 310 million firearms to exist in the United States–a count broken down into 114 million handguns, 110 million rifles, and 86 million shotguns–but the numbers are not complete.  A $489 million domestic market for non-military assault-style rifles Smith & Wesson reported in 2011 has grown, according to the Freedom Group, at a compound annual rate of 3 percent and for assault-style rifles at almost 30%; the NRA reported at least 1,626,525 AR-15-style semi-automatic rifles sold in domestically from 1986 to 2007, whose numbers have since grown far beyond 2.5 million; including foreign-made rifles, the count of assault-style rifles alone surpasses 3.5 million.

Meanwhile the United States continues to shatter records in surging exports of global arms sales, exceeding the 66 billion dollar record high of 2011, far beyond the $31 billion record of 2009, and totaling the $67.3 billion exports of armaments sold in 1994-96 in a single year:  another $7 billion worth of excess surplus arms it exported at free or deeply discounted arms rates from 1990-95.  And as the US government continues to shatter records in global arms sales, it sets something of a message for the growing traffic in arms worldwide.  The collective growth of a global traffic in arms goes scarily unmapped, as we have lost a sense of how many guns in fact circulate world-wide.  It conceals a deep ignorance of the actual vectors or pathways of global violence in the traffic of guns and assault weapons whose numbers have not only increased but so dramatically grown in the United States alone that we have no actual idea how many firearms are actually in circulation–if those entering circulation has risen dramatically, as revealed in the number of monthly background checks over ten years–and almost inexorably so since 2008.

monthly-permit-related-nics-checks-1999-2014NRA/Institute or Legislative Action

 

1. The solemn insistence by governors to refuse to admit refugees for public safety obscures the almost four-fold growth in the number of guns in circulation in the US from 2000.  We not only just don’t know how many hundreds of millions of guns are in circulation, since the self-reported number is rarely willingly disclosed with true accuracy–“especially if [gun-owners] are concerned that there may be future restrictions on gun possession or if they acquired their firearms illegally,” as the Pew Research Center concluded in 2013.  We don’t know how many guns circulate in the nation.  And this was before 2015 brought more background checks than any year in American history–even if such checks are only required in but fourteen states.  To be sure, the conjuring of terrorist threats migrating in concealment diverts attention from how the circulation firearms provide tools to perpetrate such deadly attacks.

As if in concert with accusations of national weakness and the need to secure frontiers, the expansive global currency in light firearms and assault weapons may indeed puncture The increasing ease of purchasing and accumulating assault weapons defines terrorism as nothing else:   acts of terror reflect expanding of a “free” legal and illegal market of firearms,  which permits the sort of domestic stockpiling of arsenals by individuals, as much as the indoctrination of terrorists over the internet by indoctrinating videos.   Amedy Coulibaly famously kept an array of AK-47s and ammunition stacked in a hamper in his home.  And the firearms legally purchased firearms as the AR-15’s used in the  San Bernardino mass shooting, bought at a local retail chain, Turner’s Outdoorsman, and later modified with larger capacity magazines–raising questions of whether the arms should be sold without clearer background checks, even as other voices remain firm that concealed weapons could have prevented the deadly attacks Tafsheen Malik staged with with AR15s, before fleeing in a black Ford Explorer with more than 1600 bullets in the car. The stockpiling of arms by the Pakistani Malik and her husband Syed Farook, who she joined in the United States from June 2013, after being subject to background checks, was enabled by the wide availability of arms in the United States.

 

BN-LO495_1204gu_P_20151204131326

 

Despite demands to create better surveillance and management of bullet sales, fears of government encroaching on gun ownership led the AFT to openly withdraw the proposals.

 

9.png.jpeg

 

AFT.png

 

It is not any secret that the proportions of the growing global traffic of arms has escalated in particularly dizzying ways.  Providing a better mapping of the scale and circulation of the transaction of such assault rifles may not be a measure against their later use.  But better mapping their density and volumes of scale seems increasingly important when illegal gun trafficking is increasingly incumbent in a thriving underground and above-ground gun trade.  Is defense of permissive attitudes to gun sales really an excuse for not mapping the migration of guns in actual inter-connected webs of human exchange?

The increased fetishization of ‘open carry’ in America seems something like a terrifying public pronouncement of one’s ability to exist in a world without clear purchase on the increasing numbers of guns that have come to be regularly exchanged–and even carried openly in public in times of peace.

 

Bill Pugliano Gun Activitists    Bill Pugliano–Getty Images

 

Assault weapons are not only purchased at gun shows or sporting good stores, but are in need of better mapping nationwide.  About 50,000 yearly cross state lines on underground networks of interstate traffickers, often subverting one state’s gun laws by arriving on highways, by FedEx, or from states with markedly different gun laws, often under the eyes of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.  While admittedly based on the guns that arrived in cities from other states that were confiscated by police, the pathway of underground sales to urban areas are particularly striking, and dangerously remove gun sales from any official monitoring or oversight.  Although it often repeated that “guns don’t kill people, people do,” the arrival of guns under the noses of authority suggests not only an evasion of laws, but thriving illegal markets for guns, some foreign.

 

gunflow-bigmap-1050New York Times, based on data of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives

If gun trafficking is a major inter-state offense, a significant number of the trafficking cases for guns involve international illegal trafficking of firearms across borders, mostly with obliterated serial numbers, making it difficult to identify exact numbers of guns or ammunition that reach foreign countries with certainty–in postal shipments or by underground routes of gun trafficking.

 

Page10-GunTraffickingMap-1

Everytown Research

 

We can understand the basis for such traffic from Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri and Florida through the uneven geography of enforcing background checks at gun shows reluctant to admit that they “engage in” firearm sales.

 

Background Check policies.png

Governing, from Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence

 

More clearly mapping the increased pathways of travel taken by firearms seems a far more opportune response to terrorism, as tracing the multiple pathways assault weapons take provides a basis to better to comprehend the growing dangers of assault.  And despite President Obama’s decision to not harp on the need to map guns better in his State of the Union address, only a better mapping of the traffic and movement of guns can present a better image of gun sales–and indeed suggests cultivation of an individual bond to guns.

The ease of access to assault rifles in the United States and diminished checks to their purchase or policing have had limited attention until recent months.  Despite deep fears exploited in suspicions about the hidden infiltration of the country by terrorist threats, far less attention has focussed on the needed tracking of the illegal transit of firearms across borders:  in an age when we are apt to concentrate on social media as a tool of indoctrination of subversive and on mass-migrations as hidden vectors enabling flexible geographical mobility of terror networks, it’s perhaps overly retro to focus on the itineraries of the  transport of mundane material things like guns.  Tracking the physical movement of small guns, rifles and other firearms, and the transport of assault weapons such as the popular Kalashnikov reveals the deeper social relations encouraged by the greater circulation of firearms–and indeed an increasingly global sense of cathecting to guns.  The paths by which guns reach the hands of their users isn’t as interesting, perhaps, as the uses made of them, but demands to be far more closely tracked.

Attention to firearms’ rapidly increasing availability in the United States is relatively recent–partly in light of the limited oversight of hobbyists “engaged” in selling guns–but also is a microcosm of the growth of a global market for firearms.  Indeed, increased sales of arms as well as applications for concealed weapons permits suggest an increasingly vicious circle between escalation of sales in response to announcements of gun control policies, leading gun salesmen to crow that “Obama is our best salesperson,” and gun sales to double over his administration; mass shootings have not only accelerated sales, but created new currents of gun transports, as well as growing numbers of first-time applications for concealed handgun permits with mass shootings, as well as a growing geography of places accepting open carrying of handguns in reactions to fears of gun violence, and agitation from pro-gun groups to change laws to allow open carry and conceal carry as a right to self-defense in a country whose residents seem increasingly desperate to seek safety.

 

OG-AC384_openca_G_20140822132909Wall Street Journal

 

Increased number of mass shootings have partly prompted gun sales in ways from which manufacturers such as Smith & Wesson have been able to consciously profit–whose sales channel further funds to the NRA–and the webs of gun sales both in the country and on an international scale demand to be mapped.  More detailed mapping of the growing global exchange of military materiel–tracing where guns go–however raise tantalizing questions about networks of global firearm exchanges as the dark side of globalism in what might be called Pynchonian proportions.

The novelist Thomas Pynchon has returned with what seems quite considerable prescience if not obsessiveness to the motifs of the circulation of rockets, rifles, grenades, or small bombs–often encoded with cyphers–as the telling modern talismans of global exchange; mapping the trade in arms, one of the historical items of global trade, reveals eery global networks in the post-Cold War world that demand to be more broadly mapped through the  routes that guns are increasingly disseminated across channels of illicit as well as public exchange.  More than ever, the hydra headed illicit trafficking of arms–as well as the “legal” arms trade–seems an emblem of globalism.

But the routes of the licit and illicit transportation of guns indicates increasing cultivation of firearms as powerful forms of human-object relations–a relationship which oddly links such terrorism to mass shootings, though the two threats are quite distinct.  And the transport of firearms have also so intensified globally to demand to be better mapped, as much as the question of what it means to be “engaged in the business” of selling firearms demands to be better clarified.  (In the span of a single recent year, over 644,700 ads for guns from those without licenses to sell were tallied by Everytown Research in the single online marketplace Armslist.com, most not selling only individual firearms.)  Visualizing the global context of the local pathways exchange of small firearms provides a way to consider global changes in firearm exchange on a local level that is particularly illuminating–and to identify global markets of small arms exchange for mobile arms of considerable force, including automatic assault rifles such as the Kalashnikov pictured in the header to this post, one of the most popular and most widely produced of firearms.

 

Armslist.com.png

 

2.  Exposing the global markets of small guns was the ostensible subject of Google‘s 2012 day-glo interactive “Chrome Experiment” that maps global arms trafficking–a big data visualization limited per force to legal trade of small arms alone, using public data from the Small Arms Survey.  Nonetheless, the interactive 3D maps offer a cool tool to investigate what globalization looks like, in a sort of weather map of the arms trade that occurs above-board and in the open.  The “experiment” offers a sort of landscape of small arms markets for ready scanning, letting one to rotate the globe interactively to create the best vantage point on aggregated data from reported imports and exports, or the above board “over-the-counter” gun sales.

The gloriously color-saturated interactive Globe allows viewers to rotate the globe in different manners to chart the global traffic of firearm imports and exports in surprising fashion.  The exports and imports are mapped from individual countries, while parallel bars break the official numbers down into ammunition and small firearms, allowing one to parse the massive flows of armaments that proceed from larger mega-states like the USA to the world.  The weirdly aestheticized images will make viewers oscillate between wonder, stupefied awe, and depression.  It’s a strikingly powerful visualization of major arms providers, like the United States, as it illuminates their traffic, and in scanning the globe that we can turn interactively, we can compare the somehow huge exports of ammunition the US manufacturers send to the world–the huge importation and exportation of firearms in the US compare to the incredible 85 plus million imported in Canada (where guns and ammunition are less often manufactured) or far smaller number imported in Mexico, where few guns are allowed in personal possession, unlike the US.

One can visualize the global dispersion of imports (blue) and exports (red) moving around the globe in animated vectors, coursing with an intensity of white-hot fashion:

 

Googling Gun TradeInteractive Globe: Small Arms and Ammunition-Imports and Exports

 

The interactive map is a sort of GL 3D experiment, and foregrounds the rotatability of the globe to seek the best angle by which to visualize each country’s collective import-export business of arms and ammunition.  For larger arms exporters like, say, the Russian Federation, the results are spectacular–the RF streams over 140 and a half millions of dollars worth of small exports (mostly to client states) and imports another 36 million worth, here shown coursing the globe in pulsating red and orange neon arcs; the thin blue streams of imports contrast to major rivers of exports to Russian client states.  The global format has clear advantages for visualizing major arms providers–although the maps eerily disembody and almost naturalize the arms trade.  The graphic rendering of the small arms trade can’t help but seem–even if this is not its primary intent–somehow celebratory about its explosive energy, so that one can forget what the sort of small arms and firearms traded actually are, segregated as they are from any mortal consequences:

 

big export of arms and Russian Fed.pngGoogle Interactive Globe: Small Arms Imports & Exports

 

The impact is similarly stunning, if less grandiosely global, for smaller states in hot spots as Serbia, as it allows one to look at the globalization of arms, struck by the relatively few bright blue lines of arms importation, and the flow of $28 million of legally exported arms from the small country that chart the remapping of its global significance circa 2010 with a similarly sinister white-hot glow, revealing the surprising scale of its huge exportation of arms worldwide:

 

Serbian arms exchanges.pngGoogle Interactive Globe: Small Arms Imports & Exports

 

There is a similar odd balance between local and global in the collective arms trade from neighboring Croatia, a major exporter of materiel and transatlantic provider of arms:

 

CroatiaGoogle Interactive Globe: Small Arms Imports & Exports

 

or examine the glow of flows of exports and imports to and from Hungary-

 

HuNgArY war flows.pngGoogle Interactive Globe: Small Arms Imports & Exports

 

and the local importer of arts, its Balkan neighbor Montenegro, which seems to import a considerable amount of arms indeed–

 

Montenegro 2010.pngGoogle Interactive Globe: Small Arms Imports & Exports

 

3.  Such enticingly glittering global networks leave us in awe at the massive amount of arms trafficked, as if what passes under the radar would be insignificant in comparison.  But it makes us thirst for better local knowledge.  Small is beautiful in mapping local knowledge of the mechanics of the hidden paths guns travel, as well as their licit sales, which prove far more multi-causal and serpentine than the broad brushstrokes afforded by “where the world buys its weapons”–and it reveals the patterns of illicit gun transport, accumulation and sales.  But, most disturbingly, they are utterly removed from human agency, as if such geopolitically inflected macroeconomic flows are actually alienated from paths of traffic on planet earth.

Indeed, local pathways are perhaps more illuminating when it comes to arms traffic–especially, of course, of illicit trade in arms not revealed in such global macroeconomic images.  For few of the actual arms we want to track circulate stratospherically along the aeronautical routes the Google rendering suggests.  Despite the benefits of Google’s glossy macroeconomic global view, what would it mean to make this mapping more local, more closely focussing on local transport of individual arms by itineraries, or to try to track hidden on-the-ground routes of firearms supplies?  The big data maps almost make you want to wonder what went on to the individual materiality of arms themselves, which vanish into so many brilliantly coursing data streams.

Mapping local routes of arms travels, if less glamorous or flashy, seems increasingly timely, if less interactive or dynamic in form.  But together with varied maps of the same regions, they provide another way to visualize networks of violence, civil war, or terror.  The basis for the transport of Kalashnikovs lies in large part in regions in the Balkans, as Montenegro, which provide pathways by which they are carried to Schengen lands.

 

Spread of Kalashnikovs

The Guardian

The uncontrolled smuggling of arms in the Balkans, recently a veritable hub for the illicit arms trade, led the United Nations Development Program to give a mandate to the Pynchonian entity of the South Eastern and Eastern European Clearing House for the Control of Small Arms and Light Weapons, acronymized as SEESAC; uncontrolled weapons trafficking in the region increased its chronic instability and fueled local crime, with a arms exports in the western Balkans amassing $1.6 billion between 2007-13, and little data available on illegal trade arms trade that is increasingly a problem of global proportions.  Of course, it parallels the primary route for the burgeoning business of routes to smuggle asylum across the western Balkans, for which some €16 billion was payed to middlemen since 2000–

 

image-893567-galleryV9-fwyp-893567

Der Spiegel

 

–following routes that almost directly mirror the popular pathway for the also lucrative heroin trade from Afghanistan, onto which it might well be superimposed:

 

Balkan Route MAP_UNUNODC

 

and global routes of a metric tons of heroin carried on a modern and more mechanized Silk Road moving across Asia to European markets:

 

Heroin from Asia, etric tons.pngUNODC

 

But the trajectories of assault rifles across the Balkans have allowed amateur armories to be assembled by folks like Amedy Coulibaly and Chérif and Saïd Kouachi, who planned and executed attacks at the office of Charlie Hebdo, including multiple AK-47s, Scorpions, handguns and semiautomatic rifles,  van loads of arms, often of Soviet production, from the 7.62-mm Tokarev rifle to the AK-47 with which Coulibaly infamously decided to pose beside in the curated message he would stream to the world after he had killed four innocents at a Kosher Deli in Paris.  (Coulibaly neatly stacked those AK-47’s and their ammunition in a laundry hamper in his home.)

The broad range of arms available to ISIS was dramatically increased through the proliferation of war-torn areas across the world, as the Balkans, as well as the collapse of strong-armed power-hungry states–as Syria or as Libya–who had long stockpiled small arms within their national armories.  Indeed, the collapse of Libya prompted a struggle to contain Kalashnikovs, and struggle with the possibilities of instituting anything like a buy-back program in the country, given the clear value of arms in a society that seemed poised to descend into chaos, and growing advantages of owning arms in most all of north Africa.  As a garrison storing 20,000 surface-to-air missiles simply collapsed in Libya, as previously guarded hidden arms caches throughout the country that constituted the huge arsenal assembled by Col. Muamar el-Qaddafi entered the black market quickly, and spread from Libya, according to the Small Arms Survey, through much of the Middle East, reaching Syria as well as Mali and Sudan, even as US-sponsored “covert” actions to arm rebels funneled still more arms into the country as it approached the brink of civil war–and many rebels, desperate for cash, sold the arms with which they were supplied.

 

arms from stockpiles in fragmented Libya.pngNew York Times

 

4.  Perhaps the pietas of commemorations for the eponymous designer of the assault rifle of which all others are epigones, Lieutenant-General Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov, who designed multiple rifles in his post within the Chief Directorate of the Red Army, suggests a growing migration of the gun particularly fitting in light of their newfound mobility–particularly the migration of the Avtomat Kalashnikova model 1947, or AK-47, designed in prototype for a 1946 design competition to defend Mother Russia, and which has proved one of the most easily transportable assault weapons of the twentieth century.

Kalashnikov-AK-47-assault-007

Avtomat Kalashnikova model 1947 (type 2)

 

The arrival in 2011 of the renowned Kalashnikov assault rifle in London’s Design Museum, in homage to the curved grooves of the machined geometry of its magazine, as well as in an opportune expansion of museum audiences by gesturing to current questions of terror, may reflect the prominence of the objection modern life.  Its display surely mirrors the central place of the gun the Kalashnikov’s very own eponymous museum in Russia, which also features inviting exhibits like “Let’s recall Afghanistan!”, an anniversary special to commemorate withdrawal from that land–the museum opening was actually attended by its designer, the recently deceased lieutenant-general for the Red Army who designed the assault rifle as an effective arm to “defend the mother country” during World War II.

Far from being a purely historical relic, however, the arm that was designed by Mikhail Kalashnikov, here carrying a copy of the arm he both built and designed together with a group of weapons’ engineers, was intended for arctic combat.  But the assault rifle enjoyed huge staying power, or legs:  about 100 million of which are currently in circulation globally and some million more are built annually for a growing clientage.

 

521Михаи́л Тимофе́евич

 

At almost the same time as its designer’s death, the rifle entered the London’s Design Museum, in an attempt to enlarge its “classics” that marks the migration of the Soviet Union’s old Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifle, now the world’s most popular assault weapon, to the territory of esthetics and museum docents.  Whether it belongs in an exhibition in a e Design museum apart, the translation of the automatic assault rifle from the Arctic (where it had been developed) to the battlefield, and from illegal arms markets all the way into a modern exhibition space.

Even if the AK-47 assault rifle is removed from our own tragic familiarity with rifles in the United States, the widespread currency that it has gained as a rapid-fire weapon from central Africa to Indonesia suggests the heinous crimes with which it can be tied–as well, perhaps, of the far greater proximity of the firearm in question to London’s Design Museum than, say, the Cooper Hewitt Museum in New York or to MoMA.

 

AK47-Map

 

Much of this has to do with regional geography.  The collapse of the Soviet Union and military famously led such gun-entrepreneurs as Viktor Bout to trade AK 47’s that were Cold War surplus during the 1990s to the armories of African warlords, including those in Rwanda, as he also supplied them to UN peace-keepers there–all from an office he incorporated in Delaware.  Using a fleet of retired Antonov and Ilyushin military fighter jets to ferry firearms to Angola, Liberia–where he helped Charles Taylor destabilize the country of Sierra Leone–and Nigeria, helping to saturate the continent with firearms, as well as introduce them with rapidity into the Ukraine.  Despite the arms embargo imposed on Somalia, private militias and warlords continued to stock old, unused AK47s.

 

01-DELAWARE-JP2-popup

Viktor Bout

 

5.  To be sure, the trade in firearms is anything but new, and tends to blossom in the aftermath of wars, as materiel is traded privately in what were once war fields to willing buyers.  If there was something romantic in how Dutch colonists and traders introduced 300,000 carbines to the Gold Coast during the mid- to late nineteenth century that were marketed by clever munitions suppliers and manufacturers for global export–

 

6-3-cover

 

An increasingly broad trade in obsolete French and Belgium weapons emerged in Ethiopia in the post-war period that prefaced a new theater of international weapons trading, as arms exporters, revealed by this image of an apparently innocent arms manufacturer who instructs his prospective clients on how a rifle worked.  Italian munitions manufacturers soon shipped Remingtons, as Jonathan Grant noted, to Ethiopia as well, setting the stage for global arms exports over the twentieth century that so rapidly accelerated after the end of World War One marked an attempt to contain the growing arms market worldwide–emblematized by the full ceramic sculpture that adorned a Belgian arms factory specialized in the export of arms openly vaunts the circulation of arms it promotes in new markets as part of a civilizing process of instructing locals to develop their relation to firearms.

 

4-3-img1807Lambert Sevart weapons factory in Liege, Belgium, ceramic inlay

 

Post-WWII surplus allowed the market to expand wildly, and weapons surplus was recycled and resold in the Americas, with Samuel Cumming’s emergence as a licensed arms dealer, largely stored in Manchester, England and Alexandria, Virginia, in parallel to country-to-country sales of weaponry in the Cold War, when the AK-47 came to dominate the international light arms trade, even as American withdrawal from Vietnam made it heir to two million M16s and 150,000 tons of rifle ammunition that became the basic currency of barter Communist Vietnam circulated to trading allies.  As Third World countries devoted $258 Billion to arms between 1978-58, the United Nations Development Program estimates a trade of 8 million light arms and weapons in West Africa alone–a legacy of the many firearms that reached the continent after the Cold War that have continued to circulate to non-state actors (in Mali or the Maghreb) or secessionist movements to use in armed conflicts (as Boko Haram in Niger), or in coups, providing “legacy firearms”–of which assault rifles still prove the largest group, most of which are Kalashnikovs.

Although the flows of firearms are not consistent, UNODC has suggested broad patterns of sale to local buyers, including from Libya’s large stock of conventional firearms.

 

Firearms in W AfricaUnited Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Report on Firearms–Firearms Flows

 

Based on thirty recent gun seizures between 2008 and 2011, traffic in arms in Africa remained high, fueling warlords, nations and wars alike–

 

weapons transfersUNODC

The transport of Russian war materiel on conventional means as ships has allowed a brisk trade in Kh-55 Cruise Missiles with Iran and surface-to-air missiles to Ethiopia from St Petersburg that continued through 2014, and was later replaced by the increasing value of seaports in Ukraine’s Oktyabrsk port as points of departure for arms to Assad’s failing Syrian regime at a considerable swifter arrival time:

 

ef090d839398e808bbf43322ed467dfd

 

The spiking shipments from Odessa and Oktaybrsk remained a vital basis of sending further arms in container ships through the Bosphorus strait–across which refugees still try to move–to Damascus, in a stream of replacement parts for battlefield weapons in the continuing civil war that effectively assures the desperate flow of refugees from their land.

 

russian-arms-to-Syrian-regime

 

The continued export of global weaponry and related gear that leaves Ukraine to Syrian ports such as Latakia and Tartus constitute a broad geopolitical tactical game, of course, partly hidden, in which Russia is not at all alone–and one that is often engaged through hidden channels, as conventional weapons are disseminated from the US, Russia, Germany, and France to a growing number of client-countries at the start of the second millennium echoes lines drawn during the Cold War.

 

The five largest exporters of major conventional weapons -2004-2008 and 2009-13- and their recipient states -2009-13

 

But the rise of such webs of weapons transport from Ukrainian ports may have been overlooked in calculating the region’s geopolitical value as a transport-hub for the delivery of a range of wartime materiel from tanks, ammunition, SAMs, to automatic rifles like AK-47s to the Middle East, facilitated by a rail network connecting arms plants across a region Cold Warriors know as the “FSU” (Former Soviet Union)–including the Izhevsk factory where Kalashnikov long worked–so that such weapons factories from the Cold War could continue to fill standing orders for shipments from Oktyabrsk.  The geopolitical capital of Ukraine as a region may rest in good part in allowing the ongoing transport of war material to a broader range of the region  Russia considers its sphere of influence for Bashar al-Assad and others, as well as oil pipelines and the global significance of the region as being a nexus of energy transport.

 

Rail Weapons Transport in RUssia, FSU weapons

 

The networks by which firearms continue to move, and the ease with which they do, suggest something like a chapter in what Tomas Pynchon described as the networks of firearms in the “inexorably rising tide of World Anarchism” in Against the Day, a 2006 historical novel set in the turn of the century, whose global transit of firearms from Mexico to Buffalo to Europe mapped a premonition of the current globalization of multiplying networks of firearms.  One thinks back to that fictional seventeenth-century Dutch colonist, newly arrived in Mauritius with his arquebus, Frans Van Der Groov, who stalks the island compulsively in Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, compulsively and systematically eliminating dodo birds to extinction “for reasons he could not explain.”

2 Comments

Filed under firearms, gun circulation, gun ownership, interactive maps