Category Archives: interactive maps

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.

 

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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.

 

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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?

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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–

 

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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.

 

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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)

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–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–

 

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

 

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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–

 

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–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.

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

A Rapidly Disappearing West

Armed militant Ammon Bundy of Bunkerville, Nevada called for occupying the offices of the Oregon’s Malheur Wildlife National Refuge, to join him in demanding that the US government “release” the public lands it administers.  As if to stage claims to a disappearing west, Bundy sought to reclaim them for ranching and hunting from a very local point of view, resisting a disappearance of the fabled “open lands” that once defined the West as the son of a Nevada rancher.  Bundy and his fellows railed against the government, invoking hopes to restore the conditions of the west, as if removing governmental presence would let a wilderness reserve to revert to wilderness by liberating it from alleged government control:  his anti-government animus was evident in his earlier defense of the right of his father, Nevada rancher Cliven, to refuse to pay grazing fees of federal lands.  Ammon encouraged a 41-day armed occupation of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in January, 2016 to defend local claims on a national stage–although his anti-government stance was more apparent than his appreciation for the historical loss of open lands across the extent of the western states.  The sympathy of resistance of a range of militia to Bundy’s elaborately staged event of reclaiming the West was a response to a shifting mental geography of the west:  but the extreme violence of reclaiming western lands, as if to restore it to a lost landscape of hunting, trapping, cattle ranching seems a geographic dream so remote from realization to be self-indulgent.

Can a web-based map provide a more clear-eyed way of taking account of the rapid decline of open lands across the western United States?  Can mapping California’s disappearing open lands in a more objectively interactive format provide a more clear-eyed ability to track their disappearance?  A recent set of interactive maps of The Disappearing West offer the opportunity to assemble and investigate data on the drastic reduction of public lands and extent of extra-urban growth across the west that seems particularly timely as the tools it offers to call attention to the loss of open lands in our national interior.  Indeed, the increased current dangers of dismantling the public custody of remaining open lands may make the website a valuable tool of visualizing and taking stock of the extent of their reduction in recent years–and raise questions about the best ways for preventing their disappearance.  For the dangers to the western lands lie less with the invasiveness of public governments or the extent of government land-holding in western states than the true value of their custodial role in preserving needed habitat and open spaces–the commons of the wilderness, if you will–that are increasingly endangered or lost.

 

1. The imagined spatial geography that the Bundy clan sought to defend has long vanished, but Ammon and his brother Ryan held a spatial imaginary nourished in a landscape where federal policy, rather than local development, threatens the landscape of the west. Much as their father, Cliven, had evoked the former freedom of a once open lands of the western states once known as the “public domain,” the retaking of a federal wildlife reserve seemed a theatrical reenactment of federal lands as if a wildlife refuge constituted a last stand for defending his family’s rights.  The group that lived in the offices of a preserve for birds for month, after intending to occupy the land for a year, evoked a departed west, but acted somewhere between a costume party and organized terrorism in a poorly conceived defense of the Second Amendment, dressed in cowboy hats and attracting the support of anti-government militias at whose rallies Ammon Bundy and his brother Ryan announced plans to occupy the refuge’s unoccupied offices on the first days of 2016, inviting armed men to sieze them to defend the idea of access to an idea of wilderness long vanished for most.   Evoking the specters of governmental presence in untarnished lands, Ryan Bundy based his claims to protest the government’s role in the US West in eastern Oregon to “open’ 1.4 million acres of the Malheur National Forest for logging, as if to restore the old rules of the west by exposing an undeveloped forest to forestry, and dismantle the role of National Parks in preserving some more isolated fragments of a once-forested wilderness.

 

 

Screen Shot 2016-10-28 at 11.27.22 AM.pngAmmon and Ryan Bundy/Oregon Public Broadcasting

 

While their protests were misguided, the Bundy brothers seized state facilities as if they were their natural rights,  bulldozing new roads in the refuge, and attracting the attention and support of local libertarian militia until they were arrested as if protesting the death of an earlier rural America and of the once-open west through the issue of federal land-ownership.  But the problems of public management of lands have little to do with the disappearance of open spaces across the western United States, if the Bundys sought to defend their ability to graze animals, hunt, camp and live in open lands increasingly curtailed in most of the United States, and even in the western states where few opens spaces remain, but where residents were long attracted to the freedom of their open space and ready to defend what they saw as the impending encroachment on common lands.

 

image-1.jpegRick Bowmer/AP

 

The loss of open spaces from Arizona to Oregon are far less the result of government policies than the rapid overdevelopment of western lands, and although the spatial imaginary of the Bundy and his followers directed much of their animus to the United States government, they responded to the rapid contraction of the notion of “public lands” that have changed the very image of open space across the western states, which Bundy seems only to understand–quite misguidedly–in terms of the federal policies of land management.  If the notion of “the commons” has long departed from the American West, the image of those commons and rolling plains has been far more compromised and challenged by the rapidity of land conversion due to public development and the rapidity of extra-urban growth, which Bundy from the perspective of his father’s ranch may not see–and may even only be able to be entertained from a site such as the Wildlife Refuge where he and his followers holed up and presented the demand that the “federal government will relinquish such control” of the national forest it maintains in a role of stewardship, and allow “ranchers . . .  kicked out of the area [to] come back and reclaim their land.”  The imagined intergenerational transmission of property rights in regions never open for ranching could be alleged to be “in accordance with the [U.S.] Constitution, which is the supreme law of the land,” but the desperate vigilante action was a power-play for national attention with little sustainable logic–especially given the scale at which open lands were lost to private development across the west.  Whether the image of the “Oregon Territory” inspired Bundy and his crew, privately held lands (light blue) dominate Oregon far more than the small bits of National Wildlife Refuge (brown) lying in Eastern Oregon–yet Bundy alleged his case lies outside of government jurisdiction, summoning a misguided notion of natural rights to defend his personal right to the land.

 

Oregon.pngLand Ownership in Oregon/Mark Green

 

2.  The diminishing green space across much of the Western United States has rapidly rewritten a landscape of once-open lands.  Such rapid curtailing of open spaces, as much as revealing a change in land cover, has deeply altered the local experience of the very landscape and fragmented wildlife habitat in ways challenging to map-so radically have deep changes altered our experience of its landscape on the once-virgin west through the rapid change of once-rural lands.  With over a hundred million acres lost to modification by humans, a decade of satellite imagery of land cover over eleven western states and multiple datasets of different sorts of human activity Conservation Science Partners have analyzed, the Center for American Progress commissioned a striking interactive website of land use, The Disappearing West, as a starting point to survey and take stock of the scale of massive environmental changes created by an ongoing collective redefinition of how we have come to inhabit the new landscape of the American west.

The progressive development of the landscape over a decade is difficult to comprehend.  But the streaming of this data into multiple layers, superimposed on each state, counties, and urban areas allows foregrounded layers of the map to jump out at viewers in particularly effective ways.  They help parse  the eleven western states that fills 165,000 square miles of landscape–a change in land cover equal to the construction of parking lots for six million superstores, and at an annual rate of an area almost as great as the footprint of the entire metropolitan area of Los Angeles–and far greater than the footprint of New York City, according to US Census records of the loss of natural lands used by Conservation Science Partners–to create a virtual profile of land conversion in an area that is increasingly fragmented by road, as once roadless areas are exposed to development.  The rapid anthropogenic change has been to some overshadowed by intensity of drought and of global warming, but distances the land in a terrifyingly definitive way as the region’s open spaces are increasingly segmented by roads and transportation routes.

 

land conversion

 

The web maps focus on a uniquely revealing index of the human footprint, rather than cities, or jurisdictional lines, to suggest the extent of how we are re-writing a relation to the land.  They aim to comprehend the loss of land over time a region that experiences the loss of a football field of uninhabited lands every 2.5 minutes, and foregrounds a contraction of open lands that one can zoom to local levels, against which cities and regional names float in ghostly way, as if it describes the changes that underly a simple road map of place-names and individual states.  Its flexibility helps viewers take stock of accelerated changes in ways that we have only begun to take stock collectively; indeed, the maps force us to come to terms with the scale of recent “development” of open lands in ways that have been rarely so effectively or dramatically synthesized in one site.  The idolized aspect of a map as a “world/ not of this world” was described affectionately by the Polish poet , which “give no access to the vicious truth,” but the web maps in The Disappearing West expose the degradation created by the scale of its inhabitation–and the vanishing of once open space at a pace equal to the construction of six million superstores in once-Virgin land.  Is the Bundy case of the Malheur Refuge a misguided reaction to the disappearance of such once-public lands from the map?

How to map or take measure of the alarmingly rapid shrinking of open lands is difficult and challenging to render.  In part, this is only because the scale and rate of their disappearance has been so rapid.  The loss of open lands in the region is especially important to map in comparison to the rest of the United States in an era of increased severity of drought–if only to take stock of the shifting patterns of land management that have led to such a massive transformation of the lived landscape.  The multiple scales and avenues for exploring and assessing the contraction of open space across the western United States.  In the Disappearing West, interactive maps trace the changed landscape from 2001 to 2011 that invite observation at multiple scales.  The richly colored web maps try to grasp and appreciate the vast scale at which the conversion of once-open spaces across the western United States over a decade, and the stark remove of the past.  The interactive synthesis of levels of development and extra-urban growth help take stock of the tremendous loss of open lands in states, counties, and localities over a decade, each now trackable over time by an interactive slider bar for easy investigation.

The interface with the disappearance of public lands puts one in touch with the departure of the very sort of landscape which motivated Bundy and his friends to imagine they might recover or restore by occupying a wilderness refuge with their guns:  sense of navigating an accelerated virtual record of the changing landscape of the west communicates the rapid loss of lands to development traces the extent of lost open spaces difficult to imagine at any scale.  They focus not only on land cover, but the disappearance of the open spaces that were once thought of as open lands.  Although we can map multiple indices of human impact as being predominantly agricultural, the disappearance of lands to private land development paints a picture of the curtailing of landscapes once thought as innate to the region.  The dramatic scope of anthropogenic change is as immense as in the expansion of intrusive sound-levels of human-made noise across lived environment and national parks, or the diminution of sounds of species that remain in what we still call the natural world.  The loss of such open spaces are the natural corollary to these anthropogenic shifts–but offer an even more acute register of the loss of once-“natural” habitats in which a range of birds, grazing animals, and insects dwelled, and the transformation of land cover that development has wrought.  While strictly analytic as a parsing of a large datasets, the striking color schemes of these web maps raise multiple alarms about the changing land cover of the west and the new landscapes that we increasingly have come to inhabit in a formerly Virgin West.

The change in land cover across the West is challenging to map comprehensively and in adequate detail to convey the change in landscape that has occurred.  A compelling visual synthesis of the massive contraction of open spaces over a large area maps the loss of wilderness due to increasing development–largely on private lands–by directing attention to the changing of the landscape of the west, by synthesizing a range of data on the conversion of open lands.  The human impact on the lands of western states has so accelerated that the percentages of lost lands have rewritten the landscape over a third of the country, fragmenting open spaces from 2001 to 2011, as the drastic diminution of open lands grew with the expansion on and development of private lands. This development of once-open spaces across the West has mapped a deep transformation present across the memory of a generation.

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Filed under California, greenspace, habitat loss, interactive maps, wilderness

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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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–

 

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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.

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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.

 

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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–

 

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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:

 

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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.”

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