Category Archives: interactive maps

The Built World

Walking the streets in my now apparently abandoned neighborhood for an errand after a few weeks of sheltering in place in Oakland, I had the eery experience of navigating and inhabiting empty city. While I knew the pavement, I almost felt no longer familiar with the streets that afternoon. There was the sense that no one knew the state of affairs about reopening, and many were just puzzled about how to proceed: as a few young kids skateboarded up Shattuck Avenue, profiting from the lack of cars, some odd improvised bicyclists were on the sidewalk. But the sidewalks were empty and sun intense; storefronts often boarded up. The streets were no longer places for salutation or recognition, even if I greeted the mailman on the way home: as if no time for social niceties remained I walked down the sidewalks and into empty streets, rarely negotiating margins of safety, or distancing with a few folks on foot, noticing with a cringe the large number of homeless who stood out against the stark streets and empty stores. They were, as it were, always there. I had been cutting myself off from the surroundings, as I never thought I would. As I had been sheltering, thoughts going global as I was following updates about the pandemic, this was a stone’s through from my home, so many had none. What was sheltering, anyways?

Looking down Adeline Street, at the still tents of homeless encampments that may have multiplied, I felt new distance gaping between us, as the very streets I had walked down regularly seemed to have been forgotten while sheltering indoors, the stores now empty, a few windows borded up, almost no one driving in the streets where you could almost walk without worry. Aa a sole airplane, the first seen in days, flew overhead: I felt like I was on a filmset, more than where I lived. The place was the same, but suddenly ghostly: the built landscape that I was inhabiting was the same world, with fewer inhabitants, and less secure attachment to palce–as if the artificial interruption of indoors life shifted my relation to built space, made it harder to navigate, and shifted the security of place.

This was a different place, suddenly, and not a comfortable one. Sripped of my points of reference or familiarity with my neighborhood, a few dispossessed in the sidewalks, of what wasn’t a nice area of town, I was reminded rather urgently of ongoing part of urban life no longer framed by sounds of traffic, public transport, open businesses and pedestrian sounds, that continued while I was indoors. The degree zero of urban life reminded me of the empty landscape of building footprints that, in a detailed satellite overview that recalled nothing more than the outline of an archeological dig of ancient city, as if drained of motion, and filled with apprehension, in a damn eery way. Was this a pause or a new landscape?

I had navigated a building footprint map, “Every Building in the United States,” about a year ago, and hung the section of the houses of the Bay Area onto our refrigerator wall. The interactive website of the machine-readable result of aerial imagery recalled nothing more than a flyover of the ruins of a future world, a snapshot of each and every building in its current position, as if registering the extent of built spaces across an otherwise quiet and otherwise uninhabited world: as if the perfect document of the anthropocene, this was the built landscape, removed from and detached from a natural world. This was the built landscape of the region, divorced from the lay of the land, as if a perfection of the GPS contents of street view, without any street traffic or greenspace at all. The stark interactive map of 2018 seemed to be newly present to the space I was negotiating in my mind, even more stripped to its bare bones and evacuate of inhabitants.

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

Despite the immediacy of this comprehensive map of the nation–comprehensively tracking and signaling each of its buildings, read from a satellite flyover view of amazing detail–seems striking not only for what it shows–although that is the content that grabs the viewer’s attention, and leads its interactive functions to be so striking–and compelling–but what is left out, the things that lie on the edge of the buildings, that are never hardly or clearly able to be separated form the anthropogenic imprint of building footprints, but inseparably go with them–especially on the nation’s shorelines, that are increasingly reminding us that no line is hard or impermeable, and that where things move on a map are perhaps always the most important and most difficult to remember to include.

The aerial perspective reveals a human “footprint” of each building, as read by computers trained in distilling satellite imagery, augmented by local and federal maps.  The result, in either printed or interactive form, orients viewers primarily to a flattened world of increased solidity, a flatland of a landscape entirely built, removed from locally varied environments, stripped of weather, soil, or climate vulnerability, patterns of rainfall, hydrology, or geomorphology, but registers the substrate of building patterns across the United States.  Although the machine-read footprints, a conflation of the human intelligence inherent in all mapping and the abilities to train machines to recognize built footprints, seems a weirdly disembodied map, it is easily able to be invested with oddly commemorative elements, or an elegiac tone, as if it was recorded from a point in the future where one looked back in time to a human past.

In an era when we usually rely on satellites maps not only to indicate a synthetic record of the spectrum of weather risk of the impact of global warming on the nation over–

NASA, Climate Trends, 2013-17

but the extension of our usual cartographical indices, as warming maps that confirm the expansion of the lines of the Tropics by a half a degree a decade, as the climate zones have quite decisively expanded by thirty miles each decade, and tropics determined by where the sun lies directly overhead in solstices, or at about 23 degrees north and south, but is measured by the pattern of the circulation of hot air rising at the equator falls back to earth, creating a dry middle region of the earth known as the Hadley Cell has grown since the 1970, shifting in the north and south by 0.2-0.3 degrees of latitude per decade, and bringing drier, as rain decreases in subtropical regions and the Mediterranean, and the Sahara expands,

Tropics growing at half a degre a decade:Katie Peek

Tropics Expanding at a Half degree a Decade/Sttaten et al, 2018, graphic by Katie Peek

and the hundredth meridian that divides weather of the arid plains form the wetter eastern zone in the United States has shifted eastward by  one hundred and forty miles, shifting the historical western climatic divide with terrifying implications for farming, irrigation, croplands, and national water supply.


Modification of Climactic Divide by Climate Change/from Seager et al. (2018)

Decreased groundwater from lower levels of precipitation and the risks that this poses for our groundwater has been alarmingly mapped by satellite–


–at the same time, maps propose forecasts of future temperature increases and new extremes of aridity and drought in much of the midwest–

–and the micro-scale of GPS pinpoint increased risks of future seismic activity in overwhelming ways, for which we are hardly prepared–


1.  There is a refreshing palpability and materiality of a web-based map liberated from overlays, by which to access the material presence of human habitation, as if to reaffirm the settlement of the continent in ways that remind us of the density of human population centers and indeed the location of each built house.

“Every Building in the United States”/New York Times/Mapbox

The dynamically detail of the interactive map in online and paper versions afford a virtual flyover of each house–each building!–in the nation, in a comprehensive catalogue of how humans were actually transforming the landscape, or the cumulative changing of the built landscape in North America, or the lower forty-eight, that seemed a map of indisputable reality, rendering material presence in all too refreshing ways. But the AI imagery of a “built environment” suggests wrestling the concept of a “footprint” to the ground, removing it from the rest of the environment, and trusting computerized vision to reconstruct patterns of physical resettlement–shifting attention from recent concentration on the impacts of human communities in the age of the anthropocene. While the image does allow us to examine what we mean by the “city” today, in a time of urban sprawl, and to describe urban corridors, coastal strips, and intense congregations of built environments, the absence of inhabitants is oddly ghostly, as if it were an image of archeological ruins or built remains.

Is the sheer reduction of informational content–paring the built world down from environmental influences, air pollution, or land surface impermeability and change, or place-names, a view that shows the amount of area that remains for human settlement in the lower forty eight, without preserving ? I kept returning, most of all, to the fragile ghostliness of the map that lacked people, and which seems to show now human impact because it is both for a future age–if not a reconstruction of a past moment from a future point. The sense of melancholy was not only due to the retro black-and-white starkness of the map, but its pictorial poverty and eery association, which I couldn’t close, with mortality. I toggled between these two points of view. The ghostly settlements seemed to be archeological ruins, images of a world without people, of the post-human, and scanned and measured by machines refusing to register the place of humans in the built environment, and filtering or outright removing them from it.

When I looked at the region of upper Manhattan where I was raised, the map triggered memories of space, and my own abilities of spatial judgement, as if it offered an actual yardstick to be read against my earliest sense of place.  The creation of such a static vision of the gridded city blocks of upper Manhattan suggests a rhythm of settlement different from the Jersey shore or inland, encompassing a diversity of settlement patterns, with nothing like a plan, that seems an encomium to the density of its coverage, taking stock in a particularly flat temporal sense of the density and intensity of the clustering of residential areas and sharp differences of built space.

Static nyc upper manhattan.png

But there is also an eery sense that the monochromatic surface of a virtual flatland invited a sense of spatial deciphering quite unlike other mapping surfaces we are accustomed to interact, or web maps that augment and ask us to match up with our spatial knowledge.  If the reliance on mapping services is argued to weaken or alter our sense of orientation, the machine-read imagery from detailed satellite photography served as a prosthetic to orient ourselves to space again, its clean-cut outlines of solid black serving to show streets as we had never seen them, a mosaic that was undoubtedly the result of collective building practices over time, bestowing a sense of coherence on architectural planning, and oddly–if one read it as transparently as it invited–in ways that naturalized the built land.

For me, there was also an inescapable haunting quality in the map of each structure’s physical footprint, which seemed to serve as a memorial for the expanse of human habitation at one time, and a map that could be thrown into three dimensions and historical perspective from an undefined future as a record of the density of habitation of our coasts and cities as a future past–as if the comprehensive visual survey represented a high-water mark in our inhabitation of space, before the apocalyptic moments of global warming or climate change, and before the burning of increased fires rendered many of the houses in the west coast, near where I live, either uninhabitable or disappeared, as the structures that they trace start to look far more like archeological remains, especially as they are mediated by the computer-recognition of built polygons from a remotely sensed high-detail imagery.  The new frontier of remote sensing–in which high resolution datapoints can be surveyed, photographed, and compressed, created and rendered as composites that create cloudless images of place,  comes to a new head in the training of machines to read the imprint only of buildings, in ways that stand to pose a challenge for the map as a human creation–or as a human urge to map–even if the machines that read such imagery were of course designed by humans, and are not alien to the human race.  But the mechanized mediation of “vision,” “tracing” and rendering along geodetic coordinates are far removed from the human forms of mapping that we seem entering the “mind” of a machine.

Because of the machine-drawn nature of the comprehensive maps of buildings–the utmost man-made creation–there is the sense that the survey pushes tools of mapping to a new frontier, as well as offering a new way to observe or surveil our built landscape in a greater detail than ever before, zooming into specific details that give high-res image of high-scale places, and teaching us to look again through different eyes at the inhabited world.  That the image so clearly resembles the tracing of ancient ruins of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century is not only uncanny–it is profoundly disturbing and odd.

The assembly of such a comprehensive visual survey, if absent from the mountains, rivers, streets, and open spaces, suggests a counterpart to an actual census of population, if one deeply tied to the clustering of residence and lopsided density of the nation, and accentuates the anthropogenic nature of the sites where most of the population live–weighting the map in ways that suggest a deeply cosmopolitan perspective, and suggesting the emergence of a landscape less tied to land-use, denatured and denuded of trees, forest, foliage, leaves or landscape.


The map derived from training computers to detect built structures in a huge database a huge public database of building footprints read from satellite vies was amplified by the Times through local and state maps of buildings’ footprints to create an interactive exploration for readers that presents an image of the footprints of each structure–particulate matter, marine trash, debris, not to mention the levels of ozone pollution generated near Long Beach, a site of notorious for release of toxic gases, ozone and particulate matter–based on a recent environmental health assessment by CAL EPA, not to mention offshore fracking, or the pockets of poverty around Long Beach–mapped in the header to this post, and is a site of high carcinogenic risk.



toxic relase:air.png

Toxic Releases into Air Near Long Beach/2014 (CARTInstead of constituting a record of anthropogenic change, the map focuses on a snapshot of the imprint of buildings on the soil, more than the impact of humans in or on nature, or of any sense of flux in the continued effects of emissions, release of contaminants, and their possible pollution of ocean waters, or combination with water vapors to create acid rain.  The intuitive sense of reassuring tangibility in the comprehensive record of every building in the United States reassuringly mimics the material world, and reifies it as a given structure, standing apart from its environment, or a lived world. While I lived in Oakland, the image of the East Bay was sharply unlike the registration of breathable particulate matter, generated and released by diesel exhaust courisng across the industrial area from the automative arteries of the 580 and 880, created by Google with the Environmental Defense Fund(EDF) and Aclima, a sensor technology provider, to map airborne pollution in West Oakland across highly trafficked corridors and West Oakland’s streets, mapping the density of the diffusion of particulate matter: rather than using only one sensor to monitor air quality–how did the idea of a fixed air monitoring station that was located at West Grand and Poplar emerge?–cars equipped with sensors drove four hundred miles to unpack what West Oakland Enviornmental Project’s Brian Beveridge says needs to be expanded beyond “a tale of two freeways,” and the diesel trucks who use them to arrive and leave Oakland’s port.

via Google

The logic of building patterns are of an aesthetic interest for viewers and create a startling map of unprecedented detail that foregrounds machine-learning skills to forge a new relation between cartography and art:  the survey of local neighborhoods and structures, even in 2D form, suggest constellations of architectural sedimentation of different times that pop out to the viewer, conveying a material presence–one can see one’s own house!–patterns of habitation seems to stand at a skew with our systems of political representation.

At a time when we increasingly consult maps that lie on backlit screens to trace disembodied routes in virtual worlds, and rely on map servers for itineraries of green arrows  toward buildings on screens, in ways that might atrophy senses of way-finding, rendering footprints in a manner that we can navigate invite us to gauge spatial logics of place.  The fish-eye maps of satellite data, set atop a Mapbox scaffold, helps defamiliarize ourselves with place and position ourselves in relation to its configuration and partially representational terms:  the politics of reifying the built environment as neutral is highly questionable, especially at a time of climate change, but offers a sheer pleasure of navigation through an encomia to the scope of built structures across the land.  Rather than finding one building, we are invited to scan them all, jump into the midst of space as into the midst of logic of a website, to follow what commands interest, and find our ways through the virtual mosaic.

The constellation of houses reveals what Andy Woodruff calls  “the sometimes aesthetically pleasing patterns of the built environment” more than revealing devastating effects of overbuilding in any place, removed from all threats to their permanence.  While suggesting the fragility of the lattice-like structure of built space, the definitive black boxes, rectangles, and forms suggest a lived mosaic where humans are oddly absent.  The patterns in the built buildings are not primarily utilitarian, or dynamic, but seem an odd proxy for the imprint of humanity.  They suggest more than they reveal an actual pattern language, in the sense of good design practices, so much as a snapshot-like record of what is at hand.  There is less of a coherent pattern language in the forms of the machine-read images than one might imagine.  When Christopher Alexander coined the term “pattern language” to distinguish good practices of architecture as a way to solve large, interconnected questions of design, in intentional ways, serving the users of space–and indeed creating common spaces within houses and cities that make life bearable, he saw it as a place-holder for a range of results of problem-solving of needs for privacy, intimacy, and contact, as if modular components might have a grammar or syntax that meet local and quite personal needs, which designers could work in iterative processes to meet, arriving at solutions able to balance competing forces.  The absence of any syntax or structure in the web map is more often apparent in the stripping houses from context, given the absence of streets, highways, or forest in the building patterns that result, which appear stripped of local logic as abstracted footprints in patterns that recall property developments, with minor variations, but minimal evident intent–without clearly revealing how they meet needs, but suggesting the formulaic patterns of housing, rather than privileging what Alexander called and treasured as the logic of common space.

Mesa Temporal clustering.png

Mesa, AZ

There are few inheritances evident in the map, despite clear patterns of building from the Mississippi river, south of New Orleans, where the intent of builders is apparent, but seems removed from users needs or competing interests, and not addressed toward their fundamental needs of contact and civic squares, the sorts of public spaces for wandering or collecting with neighbors, but space follows property lines that stretch from the river, in an odd echo of earlier plantations.

Bend in River.png

South of New Orleans, on Mississsipi River

The building appear in each case oddly stripped of a larger, comprehensive sense of design or intentionality, or of a design process that empowers the builders, but exists, almost inertly, on the screen, if they may seem to indicate their own rationale, but only use it as a start to question or understand how it benefits those who live there or of a place that works for its residents, in Alexander’s terms, so much as an integrated circuit or maze, far less directed toward the needs of inhabitants than Alexander would like, and which made urban planing seem a set of predetermined frameworks with little bearing on local needs.

2.  What to make of the map, which offers a sense of weight, but oddly reifies structures at a remove from a human hand, or from the human activity that built them?  If this is a record of humanity, it is an odd record, to be sure, removed from evidence of agency, but the ghost-like outlines of the traces of buildings measured by a footprint alone.  Despite being confined to only two dimensions, the interactive map invites users to alternate between multiple scales, traveling at a commanding if terrifying pace from a nation-wide view, or zooming down to regional panels, or even hovering over large-scale images streets and neighborhoods, in a flat surface abstracted from the environment, illustrating the configuration of real estate across the nation.  While one can expand to a city’s urban plan, in ways that challenge attention, panning out to the broader patterns of the inhabited land, the absence of any imprint beyond the individual building seems to deny ostrich-style the presence of increased risk of extreme weather events, or to adjust our habits of building to that risk–although they come immediately to mind when one sees how many built structures crowd our shores.

Borders, jurisdictional lines, and counties are absent, as are electoral districts, in a map of habitation that lacks any reference to topography or the footprint of humans on the environment, save the footprints of the buildings that they built and the human curiosity or compulsion to design and refine maps, in ways that seem to seek to transcend the perceptual limits of one visual position. The dispensing of most human artifacts of measurement are striking, as there aren’t even scale-bars, and, in an ompholocentric illusion, the nation is the universe.  Many things don’t appear on its surface, in ways that make the view liberating and somewhat exultant, although it is quite removed from a celebratory tradition of national mapping of sovereign territory.  It’s even pretty striking that the US-Mexico border-line that has haunted our national political discussion is among the most uninhabited regions, the density of our coastal constructions–from California to the Gulf of Mexico to the East Coast to the somewhat neglected if highlighted populated coast of the Great Lakes–the real “border zones” where two-thirds of the nation in fact dwell–


“Every Building in the United States”/New York Times/Mapbox

–is represented in crisp clarity by machine read detail to prompt glosses by its illustion of complete and comprehensive knowledge.  If the “map is the territory,” the territory seems oddly shrunken, if it exists where houses exist.

There’s considerable pleasure that exists in the sense of material embodiment and spatial recognition in the crisp greys and half-tones render a collective mosaic of human habitation, mapping every building in the United States from an astoundingly comprehensive database.  The result dynamically mimics an ability to move through a known space–entirely removed from navigational ends, in the manner of Google Maps or other mapping platforms, but as a way to mimic the ability to observe every house, in a vritual flyover map, to gauge the footprint of mankind as it is frozen at a single given moment, but in ways that may give a portrait of where money is converted and ploughed into real estate as much as of population density, or the uneven terrain of the United States, in ways that cannot be read without some bearing on the current electoral map, and the deep tensions between our conception of our nation.

While the map is somewhat pleasantly removed from the haunting divides of red and blue  that dominated interpretation of national politics from the autopsy of the body politic in the 2016 Presidential “election” or midterm elections, cleansed as it is of electoral districts, county lines, or states–

The United States, with state sized based on electoral votes.

2016 Presidential Race

–its removal from a range of expertise in reading maps also seems set to unleash a broad free-for-all of cartographic analysis, and DIY interpretations, amplifying the validity of the cartographic record as a source for exploration, of almost scriptural nature, to unlock the secrets, impact, distortions, and divisions of our settlement of the nation, and even in black and white mosaics the are man-made preserving a disembodied reading of the nation, with limited text or apparatus, reminding us of the bizarre consequences of settling a drastically uneven relation to the land.

Living within 100 mile border zone

3. The resulting interactive virtual map exults in possibilities of examining built space at multiple scales, without guidelines to read, by inscribing the viewer in a perpetual bird’s-eye view that is the longstanding dream of a cartographic imaginary, but which machines have now provided, in what seems a Cyborg manifesto of its own, created by engineers who trained computers to read satellite imagery, and whose programming–with Mapbox engines–serves as a visual prosthetic.  The interactive nature of the map allows one to swoop to any city, zip, or site at intriguingly and quite astoundingly large-scale, moving among ridiculously tremendous variations in scale with the power of a DIY version of Charles and Ray Eames’ “Powers of Ten” (1977) on your own personal computer screen,–expanding the field of vision by powers of tens, and reducing it by tens to the level of angstroms, and back again, unsettling the position of the viewer by its purified mathematical tools even without its didactic awe-filled voiceover that seems to replace the divine.

The expansive panning over the United States’ lower forty-eight starts as a collection of micro graphical specks, unable for anyone to draw or transcribe, not corresponding to population density, building heights, or in which one is invited to magnify scale to arrive at the neighborhoods and places that one might recognize, as if to measure its accuracy against one’s own spatial awareness, and to be astounded by the accurate abilities of transcription of the scope of mechanical recognition of building forms from satellite surveillance.

Berkeley. CA
Berkeley two

Berkeley CA/North Oakland CA

The rich detail of the map has a counterpart in the thin scratchings of the mosaic of large scale views, however, as the delicate traceries of the small-scale image gain a mute stolidity in the black blocks of individual buildings.  The sense of emptiness that the map viewer or reader gains increasingly comes to accompany the sense of vertiginousness, however, in ways much akin to the viewing of Eames’ video of scalar multiplications and diminutions,–even though they seek to provoke a sense of the expansiveness and fluidity of our constructions of space.  The elegant becomes an eery denaturing of space, even more than a reduction to two dimensions.

The interactive map is not to space, or really even to a political territory, but to the literal footprint of all structures in the nation–a literal symbolization of settlement patterns on a virtual result.  The result is a teaser of the possibilities for re-rendering satellite views, that so powerfully mimics cognitive perceptions we can match our own memories with its virtual surface.  By embodying a high-resolution outlines of human habitation, we can drop in at any zip code or place-name into the crowded record of every house in the lower forty-eight to investigate patterns of housing, abstracted from any setting, in eye-opening ways.  It is able to capture interest in the macro-level patterns of settlement and built structures in an absolutely flattened space registering the density of all built structures in the lower forty-eight–


“Every Building in the United States”/New York Times/Mapbox

–to individual regions, s we  interactively pan, scan, and move around rendering of buildings computers were trained to detect from satellite imagery, examining the crowding of habitation and alarming density of how we cluster in space, in strikingly uneven national markets of housing or real estate, in ways that force us to reflect on how we inhabit space, more than navigate it, rendered in ways that accenturate the earth’s curvature to heighten the sense of spatial perception with a crispness of detail one could never process save from machine-read satellite imagery.

Bay Area buidlings

San Francisco and the Bay Area/New York Times/Mapbox

Of course, this looks a bit different when one is mapping population, but the advances in machine learning of recognizing built structures provides a new form of mapping–sort of at the start of a new technology of mapping–that goes beyond the limits of current data visualization, to parse out a popped out vision of the built environment from the landscape, and gain a sense of the human built footprint rendered alone, if one tilts the Bay Area a bit,.

or tries to place it in a broader nationwide context of population peaks.

4.  The powerful recognition of inhabiting space offered both in the printed version or the interactive maps was so compelling that the Times included local print versions in its national edition, suggesting a cool bridge between interactive and print graphics in the dynamic uses of D3 mapping tools Mike Bostock had first pioneered at the newspaper.  For the interactive abilities translated into print in a local way, as if to encourage readers to pore over the interactive version with the attention demanded by the detail of paper maps , in ways that recuperated the excitement of examining a static map’s local detail, and recuperating with new intensity the discovery of navigating through a powerful striped-down symbolization of inhabited space and housing density.

Darkness is an odd proxy for habitation, but concretizes a huge database, sifted through from satellites and amplified by local and federal maps, in a scary reminder of the major sites of investment in real estate–and the uneven valuation of the land–and of the fine grain of our powers of remote surveillance.  The result is both truly awe-inspiring as well as deeply mournful–omitting the places and focussing on real estate–by tracing footprints of houses, without signs of life.  The result is a sort of encomiastic image to the skills of transcription from satellite imagery, the landscape, as an abandoned one, without frame of reference, as it were, filled with traces of buildings, but without other signs of habitation by the human and limited register of a natural world.

While one usually thinks of the arrival of web-mapping as displacing print, Every Building in the United States invites you to use your cursor to navigate through its surface, like the virtual space of a video game, zooming into details, to bring one’s best abilities to grasp the current total literal footprint of all built space.  In what presents itself as a melding of machine reading with a mind’s eye, a hybrid form of mapping and cognition that combines the mechanical detection of buildings with an invitation to expanded perception.  Offering a sort of prosthetic extension of vision, emphasizing the virtual extension of the United States, the map abandons any imposition of indices of legibility, replacing them with an invitation and injunction to look.  The “map” that was assembled with Mapbox software is an ecstasy of the visual, although the places are so oddly hollowed out, not only reduced to monochrome shadows, but oddly and eerily removed from the human hand, or textual legends and critical approaches to guide the reader;  the analogy to a video game’s virtual space seems apt because the map invites viewers to project meaning onto their formal shapes, in a sort of urban planning and environmental studies done on the fly, and without much expertise or specific skill set, its abundance of information allowing one to make bold generalizations from what seems intentionally limited data.

If Every Building presents itself as rather seamlessly melding trained detection of satellite records with human cognition and visual perception, melding mind and machine in a hybrid form of inscription and cognition that extends visual perception, it makes sense to ask interrogate how the interactive and print modes articulate a new visual relation to space, or rehabilitate and perpetuate some rather old fantasies of a disembodied relation to space.   The “view from nowhere” echoes a helicopter or aeronautic path, to be sure, relative to the selected degree of scale, but echoes the transcendent view of space that ancients and early moderns long imagined when considering Ptolemaic maps.  The dizzying counterpoint readers encounter between the spanning the continent as a unit and the buildings of any local site suggest less a synthesis, than the creation of an imagined perspective from which readers can zoom across a virtual surface, disembodied from terrain or topography or “nature,” through what is an anthropogenic record of the buildings that constitute our national version of the ecumene.  The result seems to present an image of our increasingly atomized national space, in place of an interconnected network, fit for our times.  It raises questions about the coherence resulting from a machine-read image as a map, and the place of machine-readable satellite imagery in what seems a scary prototype of the future of maps.

For despite the interest and levels of spatial recognition that readers are provoked to explore in the interactive map and its more local, but more legible print counterparts, which expand the detail of the national map, the lack of any points of orientation are oddly devoid of tips or clues for reading space, or the arrangement of a built space, or of how one navigates within it.  If the engineers who trained computers to read satellite imagery for evidence of individual houses invites viewers to examine the patterns of housing at multiple levels–a site to look at the architectural ordering of space machine-read from satellite observations, rather than mimicking travel through space, the patterns offer an eery recognition of place and space, unlike we’ve ever seen it before in a map, stripped of natural markers or much textual apparatus, strangely static in its rendering of built space, oddly ethereal in its absence of color or natural forms, or even what we might call experiential grounding over this flattened footprint of every building, disorientingly stripped of their actual height.

Upper manhattan.png

Upper Manhattan

–where blocks of black space trace the ground print of buildings, independent from building-heights, as if they prepare the basis for a more complete mapping of urban space, or are only concerned to measure.

One balances orientation and disorientation, in fact, in a way that provides an uncanny model for reading space:  the space that one knows is abstracted, and one is challenged to match lived space to the screen space, and read the flattened forms that were detected by aerial surveillance of satellites.  In ways that challenge any viewer to try to orient themselves to its level of local detail, the exclusive focus on built anthropogenic space invites a curiously tactile mode of interacting with zoomable of increasing scale maps at once embodied and abstracted from a spatial setting.  But the local maps were particularly reassuring, notwithstanding their pared down, radically abstracted quality.  Interactive and print versions alike invite, in their full display of trimmed-down detail, which invite renewed ability to pore over the infinite richness their content, and an ability to recognize the spatial disposition and distribution of houses even if they have been suddenly removed from their surroundings and topography:  serving as a way to define and discover one’s own relation to place with an apparent materiality, the interactive map made of machine-read detail provide an uncanny tool to navigate through space, and uncanny relation to place.

For the map of the tracings of each building, whose machine read linear crispness seems to recuperate the drawn basis of a local map, seems to recuperate the hand-drawn map, but over an expanse no human could ever render by hand, or that could ever be read in its totality.  As if an inverted Google Maps, rather than foregrounding way-finding tools or individual roads, each section of the map is less dedicated to routes of travel or sites of arrival.  Instead, the maps invites interactively reading its contents of a map, by zooming to local details across the United States at scales so large a scale they range from continent to local neighborhoods.  The comprehensive coverage of the continuous forty-eight might recall the one-to-one scale of the classic tale of the fanfare and fate of a one-to-one map made by imperial cartographers in “On Rigor in Science,” often translated as “On Exactitude in Science,” written in the start of the Cold War in 1946 by Jorge Luis Borges.

At about the same time as demand grew for an abstractly gridded space in global theaters of combat that would become the Universal Traverse Mercator global grid, Borges asked about the fictional nature of the relation of any map to a territory.   Borges imagines the demand for unprecedented rigor in the push toward greater and greater exactitude, when “the Art of Cartography had attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entire City,” and invited viewers to process far more local detail than any would ever be able to read.   The map Every Building holds back on much more information than a monochrome mosaic of quite stripped-down form, approaching a similar level of detail, impossible to assemble .  Whereas “the following Generations not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears saw that that vast Map was Useless,” in Borges’ fable, inviting its material decay to tatters, once “. . . delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters,” allowing it to become reduced to tatters of its original celebrated form, the infinite contents of the interactive map creates a haunting permanence, which its interactive form allows one to navigate selectively, awed by the comprehensive large scale map that the huge dataset contains.

As greater scale approaches an increasingly disjoined view, the mosaic of buildings, some recognizable, all lacking identification, seems to capture an atomized view of society, in its rendering of individual buildings without a formal frame, coherence, or unity, as if affording an atomized view of space fit for our time.

5. The interactive vertigo seems destined to stand, in virtual form, as a melancholy snapshot preserving a moment of a built environment. It may be an unprecedented alienation from the natural world.  Unlike the image of time-tagged buildings in the Netherlands, color-coded by century through a rich archival database by Dutch cartographer Bert Spaan, which allows ways to view how cities built outlying areas, the static database of drawn buildings is frozen in time.  But its comprhensive nature, and far larger scale, provides a rich set to parse, filter, and cross-reference for endless fun, creating ways to query, clip, and sift buildings across an extensive space, or to zoom into cities from Washington, DC to New Orleans, whose flattened surfaces all but erases their distinct architectural styles, as has been noted, suggesting the database’s limitations as a guide, rather than a heruistic illustration of machine-reading, existing in glorious and definitive black-and-white that seem to distance its formalism from the fact that all these buildings were man-made, by all but eliminating the trace of the human hand from its form.

But one can pan, with a striking detail, over the coastal structures in California’s Long Beach, and sail across the counterpoint built-up nature of its shoreline’s empty spaces, shore-line plants and facilities, and low-density housing.

Los Altos:Long Beach.png

Long Beach, CA

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LA Times’ Pollution Map–Toxic Releases/CARTO

Unlike the data sold to Google Maps, Bing, Apple or other mobile mapping services, the sharpness with which the data is read by machines offer viewers an almost tangible sense of place.  The machine-read tracings of each building’s footprint in the nation is highly mediated, and disembodied and abstract, as well as augmented by local maps from states and cities.  But the eerily familiar sense of panning over inhabited space that results offers viewers an eloquent form of orientation able to restore now-lost materiality to a map, orienting us in ways that embodies space in ways that are uncanny if almost eerily welcome in the level of familiarity gained as one zooms to known spaces, greeted by layouts abstracted from any spatial particularity.  And in California, or the Bay Area, where I live, I can’t help wonder if its pronounced alienation from any sense of climate risk, or the increasing sense of the contingency in the far of climate change, is oddly absent from the map, and disconcertingly disorienting in the false sense of comfort in permanence that it brings.

Constituting a negative Google Maps or Street View, satellite imagery the nation offer improbably crisp coverage into whose totalistic coverage of the lower forty eight we can scan or zoom without atmospheric obstruction to explore traces of human habitation; if streets, lakes, parks, rivers, and what might be called public or civic space are absent from the map, the collation of tracings of each buildings render a god-like view of building density in detail, that pops up as a national network and switch to an almost fish-eye view of zip-codes, materializing a massive database in copious detail within a national backdrop that seems a negative image of geographic terrain.  Houses string along major roadways, reminding us of the sharp discontinuities in the spread of inhabitants in disquieting ways, and the imbalances in our investment in real estate.


New York Times/Mapbox

Housing seems to mirror the folds of the topography, lying along rallies and in dense clots by the oceans or waterways, revealing the intensive crowding we all experience of the shorelines, and reminding us of the increase of manmade ground cover and the anthropogenic impermeability of much of our coasts.

If some inland areas of the nation are stretched thin along roads, that, as in Lancaster, PA, stretch in lines of housing from city buildings into far more open spottily settled lands retain a more “organic” sense of their historical settlement–

Lancaster, PA

–the ring of cities that hem in the Bay Area where I live, far more “challenged for space,” immediately suggests the scarcity of land and small supply of housing in the fold-out paper newsprint insert, both by the density with which urban over-building rings the Bay Area, and the low South Bay shoreline where coastal housing stands to be threatened by sea-level rise.

South San Francisco Bay

The special pull-out section of my local Times offered the print counterpart tot the national map.  It oriented readers to their locations, in the manner that the larger interactive web-map promised, but invited even more detailed reading under the viewer’s eyes, at a far greater surface, when fully unfolded, than  the print newspapers have had for years.

The dual-publication evokes clear comparisons between map and text, and the readability of the map, often argued point-based cartography has eclipsed or disrupted, though the new senses of territoriality they create:  but if the grid may challenge the analogy between the reading of maps and reading of a text:  the printed version of the map indeed forced the question of reading place and reading patterns of settlement in locations that communities of readers knew all too well to invite them to re-examine their sense of space, and relation to it, in invitingly provocative ways, asking readers to re-read their relation to place free from devices, and merging the legibility of the canvas of the single sheet of newsprint with the degree of detail we are habituated to find on the computer screen, or handheld device, that occupy so much of our visual attention and interpretive skills.  The effect of being able to navigate the print version is jarring, but refreshing.

6.  In the Bay Area, the image however cut oddly against the increased sense of vulnerability to climate change, from sea-level rise to swings between drought and flood that the permanence of the machine-read tracings of each building–from the disk of the Apple Headquarters to the Great Mall in San Jose to the buildings of the Tesla factory–as if the reading of the detail of the map presented a reconstruction of the ruins of Silicon Valley for future generations to pore over and study, as if to find the extent of the economic explosion of the region in a removed past, whose footprint has been reconstructed over time, and can speak across an otherwise unbridgeable temporal gap with the crispness of summarizing the results of an archeological excavation of antiquity.

The insert and interactive map alike illuminate the insights of reading maps has to offer, and the concision of the arguments and insights that they are able to offer readers who often struggle to make sense of their own environments.  Offering a negative image of the network of roadways in Open Street Map derive from satellite imagery, ready by computers trained to read large-scale data in microscopic detail, the rendering suggests a nation of suburbs, and offers much less legibility for urbanized areas or density, which it renders in ways that resembles something more analogous to a computer chip, at times, than a human space, or at least not one of civic participation.  It is almost a map for our times, a data overload presented in locally legible terms, where our data has been “read” and rendered legible, abstracted from any civic or social sphere in what appear intentionally  disturbing ways.


Mesa, AZ/New York Times

The oddness of decoupling spatial data from any other expertise in a stripped down data flow makes one wish for further levels of information to be added to the map despite the attraction of its crisp level of highly specific details.  The map is disembodied, offering far more than any on the ground observer could navigate.  As much as heralding the acceptance of a new Age of Cartography, it realizes the historical claims of cartography as a God’s-eye view, afforded by satellite may reflect a quite atomized nation-state, defined by contrasting communities that reflect defined partisan lines as much as by its coherence or unity, removed from questions of coherence–or from reflecting an image of geographic mobility, compromised continuity of acknowledgement of civil rights and citizenship, and even even of crisp borders, even lines, and an inherent uniformity in a logic of the distribution of geographic residence.

Flint Mosaic.png

Near Flynt, MI

The emptiness of spaces in these sub-urban spaces suggest a sense of emptiness of communities in areas stretching across a grid of roads.  If Thomas Jefferson, who helped design the grid, mapped rural regions out of the firm belief that “Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens,” as constituting “the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, . . . tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bands,” the space of citizenship in the dot-based map of buildings removes their residents from any context–or interests–the footprints are removed from and space of civic activity or virtue.

The density of information that derives from a proximity of high-resolution surveillance satellites of heighented black and white resolution is even greater than the satellite views that “map” crop circles in chromatic detail.  Its even greater detail in local coverage, at a scale able to process local buildings as proxies of settlement and habitation and density–rather than crop health and irrigation that served as proxies of agricultural productivity and crop vitality.


NASA, Earth Observatory/Satellite imagery of corn, sorghum, and wheat in Kansas, United States of America in circular fields fed by pivot irrigation (2006)

There is, perhaps, an exultant sense of dislocation and alienation from place in the machine-read panchromatic imagery of building footprints.  With a remove evoking an aeronautic panning over space and place, but with a crispness of detail that the human eye can’t ever hope to gain, the machine-read input captured from the sky offers a disembodied perspective, to be sure, but one with an eery sense of familiarity the is most pleasurable for the recognition.  The map was made by Microsoft engineers who trained computers to read satellite mapping from a huge public database released by Microsoft amplified by the New York Times through local and state maps of buildings’ footprints to create an interactive rendering of the entire continent.  Perhaps in an era when we are almost at home with increased levels of surveillance in all of our daily activities and cell phone use, there’s even an eery warmth in accepting the detail of the zip by zip analysis.

The images suggest not only beautiful patterns that emerge in how land is settled, as the settled areas are stripped out from the surrounding landscape, in an eery reduction of houses to so many dots–which almost seem to be at first a measure of building heights, until one recognizes that they designate the cruder representation of settlement of density alone, but also an imaginary ability to navigate streets of increased population, as if to wander along the coasts of rivers whose level doesn’t flood, and even along intact coastal waters, which seems somehow deeply reassuring at the same time as we read daily of destroyed homes along the Gulf and Florida Coasts–and consider the same regions that are increasingly vulnerable to sea-level rise.  The absence of environmental sensitivity–if not utter alienation–masks environmental risks and invites false security by removing real dangers or risks in its abstraction of highly-detailed record of homes and buildings in regions we’re increasingly aware will soon be unlikely to remain.

Coastal risk of chronic inundation.png

Union of Concerned Scientists, Interactive map of coastal risks from sea-level rise (2018)

Dystopianist William Gibson has recently cautioned the ways “all imagined futures lacking recognition of anthropogenic climate-change will increasingly seem absurdly shortsighted,” and “virtually the entire genre will be seen to have missed the single most important thing we were doing with technology.”  A map that reinstates the current configuration of coasts without a nod to anthropogenic change may seem absurdly shortsighted indeed, as if the entire map may be destined to be consigned to something of melancholy reminder of the past, removed from a present to which it bears decreasing resemblance.  The point of the map is to capture the now.  But where I live, in northern California, faced with increasing vulnerability of drought and fire, as well as flooding, in what seems a case study for climate change, the steep sense of risk and extreme weather stands at odds with the permanence with which houses are mapped.   In the Bay Area, where climate risks have become increasingly clear, there is an eery dissonance in reading maps that suggest the permanence of housing, from the North Bay recently struck by massive fires to the seismic vulnerability of the land, all of which make us appreciate the increasing in the inherent risks of climate change with which increasing parts of the continent seem to live in the Texas coast, Florida coast, and Gulf of Mexico.

7.  There is something disturbing at the reassurance of the tactile heft that the darkening of sites of habitation imparts. Although it’s machine reading of remote observation is a single snapshot of human settlement, the interactive map has almost representational–and definitely recognizable–heft.  The buildings are not records of height–but darker areas mask that they are filled with low houses, and the palpable presence serves as a proxy for mapping habitation in the Bay Area that erases risk, lending a sense of permanence to its shores–as well as to the safety of its houses from earthquakes or fires–and indeed preserves the integrity of the homes, buildings, and skyscrapers, even in the face of the vulnerability of the region to extreme change.   After the proliferation of new forecasts, even if containing considerable uncertainty among them, the persistence of each and every building seems stubbornly to have elided or ignored any sense of vulnerability in disconcerting ways.

Bay Area buidlings.png

New York Times/Mapbox

The absence of the monochrome density of building, in the view of san Francisco alone, presents a view of overbuilding and congestion, to be sure, that omits the image of green spaces,–

Bay Area nature sites of open space

–or the abundant habitat that cultivated green cover within the city contains in its exclusive focus on built space.

nature in city slide

Habitat in the Greener Areas of San Francisco/Nature in the City (2018)

The map of the five boroughs of New York City assumes an iconic form as a record of monumental permanent, punctuated by the white rectangle of Central Park, or whitespace of Flushing Meadows, holes in crowded housing that extends out beyond Newark to the open salt marsh of Oyster Bay or the single-dwellings of Wayne, Yonkers, Mount Vernon, and Freeport or Rockville Center, in a triumphant paean to construction that would have made Robert Moses proud in the density of the housing market throughout Manhattan, but also Queens, Brooklyn, and the New Jersey shore out to Garden City, as if the city has been transformed to an ode and elegy to the power of real estate.

New York Times/Mapbox

8.  Which return me to the oddly melancholic status of this view at a distance from interpretive skills, and from human experience, which the multi-scalar map incommensurately joins to a huge database, allowing viewers to wallow in the attempt to process as much of it as they can take or manage.

Although the database has shed all local detail, and appear removed from any interpretive expertise.  Increasing darkness appears a surrogate for the density of housing, revealing intriguing patterns of houses that seem a tease that almost invite the viewer to fill in more information to read and interpret the massive database on where all houses lie.  The particular delicateness of the scattering of houses into the parks, open space, or what passes for countryside around the Bay Area, where we preserve a sense of the closeness to the country and its ecosystems to the city.  The sense of a tacit proximity to place is partly confirmed by how we see the surrounding regions fade to light grey, as the density of built structures dies down, and congestion recedes.  Many bees are cultivated in the area, and the hive-like nature of settlement across the land of houses nestled together seems oddly comforting, and natural, if misleadingly so, in the density of their clustering, and raises questions of their relations to parks, open space, and habitat that were explored in an earlier post.

But the fading of the region to wilderness is far more upsetting than reassuring or comforting,  as the weighted regions of Richmond, the East Bay, and Marin City fade into the nationally protected lands as if they were pristine–neglecting the considerably complex historical reasons with  which the National Parks System came to administer the Point Reyes National Seashore, quite distinct from the administration of public lands and national parks, in a specific economic climate that led the Mexican-era ranches and farming grounds as a bulwark against the fear of urban sprawl, and prevent it from the process of subdivision and a threatened real-estate frenzy, by grandfathering in farms as a basis for land conservation to treat the  region as “potential wilderness” and indeed for the National Park Service to work to preserve the region as a rural environment, to the extent of eradicating and removing half of the built structures from the Pt Reyes Seashore, and wait for the ruminating farms and dairies to dwindle and diminish, and even enacted policies that might encourage the process based on what they thought the park “ought to be”–and ought to look like–according to Laura Alice Watt.

Fading into Wilderness?.png

Regional zip code maps show the decisive mark of settlement on the landscape, in a refreshing and somehow actually reassuring way, but also oddly affirm the permanence of that settlement, and treat what is in fact an area of congestion, dense traffic, urban pollution, and over paved regions as a lacy area of disperse settlement, extending as a veil over the land.  But if when bees are killed, or their hives disturbed, they give off a recognized scent able to cause or trigger an immediate alarm to the residents of the hive, notifying fellow-residents of an alarm, the dense clustering of houses is the opposite; oddly absent of human scent of dwelling, actually almost antiseptic in its delineation of dwellings, there is no trace to the human or lived save in the scattering of place-names–

Berkeley view.png

–if the larger image of the Bay Area raises pressing questions about housing supplies in the coastal community that seems increasingly crowded by housing and over-paved.

NYT Bay Area.png

And it continues as we zoom in, as all map readers now feel themselves entitled to do, into the neighborhoods we know, we can find the empty spaces amongst houses, and pause over the interruptions among buildings, and the courtyard like clusters of back yards we are privileged to possess in places like Berkeley, balancing a sense of the density of housing by the familiarity of the white spaces where our eyes can still rest.

houses parks berkeely.png

Surely this is far away from the dynamics of space that a “map” seeks to offer as an actual guide to human habitation, or illustration of how man makes space.

9.  At this level of scale, the lacy habitation of the Bay Area acquire both a surprising solidity distance, gaining a greater aura of permanence, as an archeological map, whose distance seems symbolically to capture the distance of time.  As if a set of stones or ancient ruins, the flat footprints of buildings recall, in the questions that they raise for the viewer of their interpretation,  the reconstruction of a classical layout of a ruined ancient city, but suggesting a timelessness of an archeological map, which employed a similar density of the footprints of excavated buildings, as if a recovery of memory, and a lost common memory of a Republican past, treasured by antiquaries and visitors to Rome throughout the nineteenth century as icons of a collective mourning for a removed ancient past which survives in the reconstructions of ruins, and which echoed that lost monument of ancient cartography, the Forma Urbis Romae, which early archeologists saw themselves as reconstructing as a legacy of civilization for a large audience during the late nineteenth century, in efforts that curiously parallel the expansion of urban cities, urban working conditions, and urban class conflict, as if the ancient city could emerge as a new citadel of civility.

Baedecker Roman Forum

Such engraved maps of the orientation of ancient ruins and monuments were produced not only for archeologists, but as legible texts of vanished monuments that were destined for educated audiences to reenact the cultured Grand Tours from their libraries.  The maps were reproduced widely in printed maps of guides that derive from archeological handbooks, and constituted a collective act of veneration for the lost buildings of what was cast as a common cultural forbear, even as Europeans wrestled with new levels of urbanization, and a reminder of the monumental civilization of the ancient world that provided a powerful affirmation of a common humanity, even as it rehabilitated the slave cultures of the past as a paragon of civility and civilization as European cities grew and expanded to accept rural populations.

Forum Romanum Baedecker 1868

Such plans fashioned a false proximity in powerful ways because they became part of the ideal of urban building,included in the libraries of the cultured–including, somewhat famously, Sigmund Freud–who saw their design as a basis for acculturation and reconstruction across time that served to reaffirm, as if in a Proustian reconstruction of the past, the structures of ancient buildings as superimposed atop the actual urban plan of contemporary Rome, and coexisting with it.  The black rectangles, grids, squares or forums, and rectilinear walls of a domus, stadium, temple, arc, or porticos were sites of obligatory reference, as the imagined sites of the collective memory of the past, to which a connective tissue still existed and could be actually preserved.

The rectilinear forms, in comparison, seem unwillingly to convey a false sense of proximity to a temporally removed record, definitively distanced from the present, even as they capture the present.  The footprint silhouettes, removed from signs of habitation, oddly evoke permanence and majesty of a lost past of deep melancholy, approaching the commemorative and valedictory as much as the machine-read.  The imagery seems mournful in suppressing a state of transience and far more than a state of continence, surpasses anything of the extreme impermanence of the contours of global warming, the extreme insecurity of home-ownership in the California fires, and indeed the heightened insecurity about the future, by investing the footprints of buildings and property with a new sense of permanence, and of finality, presenting the physical ground-plan or plant of the of the buildings etched into the landscape, the buildings now permanent blocks of buildings.  The buildings appear as lost sites of habitation, as much as an encomiastic image of settlement.

The maps of course provoke a new, distanced reading of the present, that jars our sense of the constant actuality of most satellite images–of fires, weather, or hurricanes–and suggests the benefits of the distant reading of maps, for all the boasts of immediacy and proximity that we associate with visual media.  The machine-read surface of blocks of polygons and rectilinear structures exist as indelibly drawn into a stone, like the mythic stone map of ancient Rome, as a virtual Tabularium–fesitshized by nineteenth century ancient historians as an architecturally majestic site for record-keeping, whose volcanic rock arches were covere by travertine was an inspirational massive public works project perched atop the Capitoline, over the Forum, or, even more likely, the fragments of the Severan map that traced the  buildings of Rome in a massively expansive view over one hundred and fifty marble slabs, mounted on the side of the Ara Pacis, at 1:260 scale that recalls the resolution of streets and buildings in “Every Building in the United States,” which was a monument of Severan Rome, showing each place, building, temple, bath, stadium, apartment and street int eh Eternal City as if t attest and confirm their own sempiternity.


The melancholy we find in the Mapbox projection based on satellite data is perhaps not only melancholy in our imagination.  We watch a similarly removed view of landscape in “Every Building in the United States,”moving blithely across the screen at multiple scales.  We interpret the expanse of  landscape beside the curving interstates that cut through the nation, in images that may be showing us the lists of he settlement of the United States on the cusp of the drama of climate change, when our current settlement of place may seem far more transient and impermanent than we have considered it for some time.

Oakald North.png

North Oakland, CA

As we move into the more built-up area of downtown Oakland, moving past the open spaces of residential areas, into solid city blocked of skyscrapers and larger footprints, the map is given a sense of material permanence, all too absent from the superabundance of information in most of our hand-helds, the substrate and record of a lived-in set of monuments, removed from a social space or social dynamics, but a human form of a built space that we know all too well.  In the face of changing temperature, global climate disasters, and urban gentrification, the timelessness of the machine-read outlines of buildings carry a comforting sense of lack of change.

moving downtown Oakland.png

Oakland, CA

The expanse of Oakland, Berkeley, San Francisco and Richmond that stretch across the Bay all appear as so many static monuments to settlement, bleached of color, locality, or place, but abstracted in so many machine-read outlines, as if in a literally endless map that we can scroll over without the confines of any individual sheet, an odd mash-up of the material and the virtual, mediated through the tools of aerial photography and a crisp machine-reading of the underlying terrain, in which we only slowly realize that we are reading what the machine is reading, but something far more deeply affirming of property values than images of earthquakes, flooding, hurricanes, and fires; the flat marshes of the South Bay seem removed from actually pressing questions of sea-level rise, and leave us wondering where the “Tattered Ruins of that Map” that was the last “Relic of the Disciplines of Geography” will, in the future, lie, or where the print and interactive formats of the map will lie.


Oakland, CA

These are not only buildings, however, but also, it somehow seems, perhaps sites that are akin to resting places, sites of former habitation, or even, in a dark moment of map reading, graves.  The evocative nature of these black footprints, as if tracing a progress of habitation over time, serves also as a way of memorializing a site, and a trigger to one’s recall of a place.  Panning across the Bay Area suggests a snapshot of a version of lived memory at one moment.  It is, to be sure, technologically mediated in its entirety, and machine read, in ways that make it even more ghost-like as if a record of the former sites of inhabitation, and a memorialization of its previous habitation as they will be seen from an unknown future.

This effect is perhaps accentuated as it is so drained of life, save the toponyms that fade from view at quite different times:  the striking absence in the map of any civic space, any space of living together, mirrors the absence of any sense of the instabilities of climate change, thought from the 1970s to be among the steepest dangers that the world faced, they are absent from the map.

Silicon Sea Level Rise.png

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Graphic: Jan Diehm/The Guardian

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Silicon Vally/FEMA 100-Year Flood Hazard Zone

Carto Sea Projection OSM

Open Street Map contributors/CARTO/created by Amanda Hickman (2015)

Could the future of an underwater buildings of Silicon Valley be the landscape of ruins produced by the results of an increasing absence of contingency plans for earthquake, flooding, or fires?   As an age of climate change brings increased uncertainty in climate projections in a climate world, the familiarity with place seems destined to fade.  Does the focus on built structures turn our attention, ostrich-like, from the impending phenomena of climate change, and make us feel all too reassured in our admiration of the buildings we’ve constructed along the landscape?

9.  One might ask what becomes of place, or indeed constitutes place, as we unpack this massive mapping of a data download.  The abundance of spatial information in the interactive maps gisters no sense of human habitation save by the 2-D outlines of built forms.  Ursula K. Le Guin, longtime resident of Cannon Beach, Oregon, long championed the specificity of how we construct and define places, from the fictional worlds she created–Earthsea among them, or Kirien and Antares–or the community ‘Klatsand,” also on a strip of land on the Oregon coast, in the Pacific Northwest, to her advocacy of how sanctuary cities could resist the continued anti-immigrant policies which she found so shameful.  She saw fiction as a point of resistance by which to define the meaning, value, and nature of the community in an all-important sign of making meaning, creating real commitment, resolve, and determined hope in the face of adversity, as she wrote as recently as 2017, but had also long insisted that the making of worlds and places were themselves critical forms of political action as they articulated and constituted basic forms of hope.  “Klatsand” did not exist on a map, Le Guin writes in Searoad (1986), but was first coined and created, when the site lay in the Washington Territories.  It gains its deepest meanings from the generations live, die, endure loss and recover, in a town that exists almost as a place of retreat and for the formation of new selves.


The distinctive locality of place Le Guin evokes, and what might be called its texture, is what seems oddly absent from the abstract buildings one scans in the interactive map released by the Times.  The characters in L Guin’s novel confront problems of how to recover from loss, and find solutions in the retreat offered by the town–an imaginary place, whose name was made up by one of its first pioneers, but which stands as a rich refuge in her stories.  For its outsider status presents, or preserves,  a possibility for continued  comfort for the pioneers and outcasts who inhabit it–from suffragettes to escaped asylum inmates to poets, where its land seems to offer a sort of resource for imagining other futures.  And the continuity across time of this marginal place became, for its residents, a continued point of resiliency and comfort in apparent adversity.  So much is made clear in her richly diachronic–or polychronic–reading of the lives that were made in the place lying on the open shore, decisively off the beaten path, in ways that a simple rendering of built structures flattens, but which is posed as a fragile place between the elements, and an outpost of human survival, more than one of permanence, in which narrative helps one gain a sense of the fleeting nature of the present, preserved by a sense of the fragile nature of this special place–a place with clear echoes of the Cannon Beach area where Le Guin lived.

The fictional Klatsand placed across generations, rich with memories and resources, impossible to map in Euclidean terms.  The power of place as a unique relation to the world is affirmed in the quickness with which a bereaved woman in Klatsand is overpowered by an image of the ancient, prehistoric settlement of a coast in England whose powerful memory of walls of weathered stone of small stone huts in Cornwall has lodged in her soul:  it suddenly overwhelms to the surviving partner of a couple who lived in the coastal community, in Le Guin’s narration across the generations of women who lived in the northwest coast.    All of a sudden, the movement of wind through the houses, the emptiness of abandoned structures that were moved through by dirt, dust, and wind, seems echoed in the wobbly fencing filled with sandy dirt.  The image of the abandoned granite home, newly present in her soul, and image of the stones in Cornwall, which lodged in Shirley’s soul as she heard Barbara’s final breaths, captured the sense of an empty dwelling place on a cliff, and a sense of the deep temporal passage through place that is something of a topos for generations of characters–many of whom are women–who move through the town across time in Searoad:  Chronicles of Klatsand, and for whom it defines a needed space of self-definition in each of its episodic stories.

The fictional town near Portland, and only somewhat notionally in the United States, seems a site of independent traditions.  And when the recently bereaved partner faces the children of her companion standing in her coastal garden on a cliff,  the memory of entering the quoits of uncut granite returns as she faces her soon bereaved house.  Faced with the crowded flowers of lobelia, roses, tiger lilies, and impatiens that her partner had planted beside the wooden house, she is overwhelmed by the memories of the stone megalithic walls of quoits they once saw.  The stone structures that seem to double as homes and graves, similarly inhabited by ancestral souls, haunted the woman as she watched her partner decline, and arise from her soul as a hidden counterpart to the houses perched over the Pacific on a strip of land between marsh and sea; the stone homes echo the scattered houses along the largely uninhabited northwestern coast near Portland, removed from inland cities and with few year-round inhabitants, and the memories that they carry or retain.

Tillamook to Oceanside and Cape Lookout

The sparse coastal settlement in Searoad: Chronicles of Klatsand describes an in-between place, where lives are mapped with haunting resonance across generations, haunted by the past, punctuated by deaths, across which female independence resonate.  The image of the mysterious prehistoric quoits in Cornwall, slabs of weathered stone leaning inwards and covered by a stone into which the wind enters, resonate as isolated funereal dwellings through which the wind blows, emblems of loss of her partner and the independence of generations of women who return to dwell in the rugged landscape in the houses and homes of Klatsand–a settlement perched above the sea, somewhat eerily echoed in scattered residences found on northwest Oregon’s actual Sandlake Road, stretched thin above the ocean.

Sandlake Road, OR

The houses become the sites of transmission of independence and resilience transmitted in the house, its books, sea spray, open ocean view, site, and even in its furniture, not to mention the tracery of foam that waves leave on the coast, and the images they provoke.  So resonant are the ancient cliff dwellings in the sequence of stories to suggest a palimpsest of its settlement, and its own sense of enduring memory of houses that are also graves.  The granite walls of these mysterious houses, made of slabs of rock with three or two walls, topped by a massive horizontal capstone thousands of years ago seem an emblem of the generations of women who lived in the houses on a strip of land between marsh and sea in Oregon, as akin to the megalithic burial sites, whose houses seem to similarly do double duty as walls of graves–or quoits–in Oregon, as at Cornwall, located “on the worn slopes of hills over the sea,” well-etched and preserved for a heroine by the haunting structures of gaping empty doors mark the spaces by which “the dead had gone in and the living had come out,”–as if such primordial sites were evidence of how “like Romeo and Juliet, and Tybalt lying there keeping them company under his sheets and cerements, and older bones of a older Capulets, companionable,” at man-made openings remaining from a time when “death used to be not a hole but a house.”


A house or a site, or a site of public memory?

The construction of these enigmatic monuments, modes of mapping place as much as residing in it, would hardly register in the machine read maps.  They echo the mythic England, separate from if oddly the same time as Rome, which also delineate something like a sacred space.

The sites of the quoits that haunt Klatsand seem to pose questions of independence but also of deep continuities of dwelling places.  If houses once were graves, the darkened plots of buildings in the machine-sensed maps seem openings in the inhabited world, akin to something than graves, or memories of ancient buildings, whose presence spans the known world, and lies not only at the edge of the built world, and seems something like an invitation to think of new futures by being placed at a remove from the presence of an increasingly overbuilt world, and lying on its margins, rather than at its center, and offers as such a sense an opening to the spaces of the future even in an increasingly hemmed-in world.


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

Where Do I Go?

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

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

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


Different Scales antipodes.png


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


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

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




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.




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–




–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.





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.




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–



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?



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.




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.




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




–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–




–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.




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–




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.”




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.




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–





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.




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)



–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.




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–




–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–




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.




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.





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




to an unkown site in the Indian Ocean–




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




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–





–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–




–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.


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

On the Growing Global Migration of Guns

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

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





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 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/


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

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


states not accepting-syrian-refugees-exlarge-169

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


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


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

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

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


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

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




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.






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.



Everytown Research


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


Background Check policies.png

Governing, from Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence


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

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

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


OG-AC384_openca_G_20140822132909Wall Street Journal


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

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

But the routes of the licit and illicit transportation of guns indicates increasing cultivation of firearms as powerful forms of human-object relations–a relationship which oddly links such terrorism to mass shootings, though the two threats are quite distinct.  And the transport of firearms have also so intensified globally to demand to be better mapped, as much as the question of what it means to be “engaged in the business” of selling firearms demands to be better clarified.  (In the span of a single recent year, over 644,700 ads for guns from those without licenses to sell were tallied by Everytown Research in the single online marketplace, 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.


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–



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.


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.




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.



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–




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:




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.




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.”


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