Category Archives: statistics

The Cognitive Clouding of Global Warming: Paris and Pittsburgh; Creditors and Debtors

The argument of America First seems to have been extended to its logical conclusion as the apparently selected President of the United States has single-handedly subtracted the nation from a map of climate change.  By denying the place of the United States in the Paris Climate Accords, President Trump seems, in the most charitable interpretation, to have acted on his own instincts for what was the benefit that accrued to the country in the very short term, and after looking at the balance books of the United States government for what might have been the first time, decided that America had no real part in the map of the future of a warming world.  Rather than outright denying global warming or climate change, Trump decided that the conventions established to contain it by the world’s nations had no immediate advantage for the United States.  The result wasn’t really to subtract the United States from the ecumene, but from the phenomenon or at least the collective reaction of the world to climate change, and openly declare the supremacy of his own personal opinion–as if by executive fiat–on the matter.

The personal position which he advanced was so personal, perhaps, to be presented in terms of his own clouded thinking on the matter, or at least by seizing it to create what he saw as a wedge between national consistencies, and to use wildly incommensurate forms of data to create the impression of his own expertise on the issue–and to mislead the nation.  For Donald Trump took advantage of his having Presidential podium to diss the Paris Accords by a torrent of alliteration as resting on a “cornucopia of dystopian, dishonest and discredited data.”  Even if one wants to admire the mesmerizingly deceptive alliteration, the notion of rooting an initial response to planetary climate change in the perspective of one nation–the United States of America–which produced the lion’s share of greenhouse gasses–is only designed to distort.  By pretending to unmask the Paris Accords as in fact a bum economic deal for the United States, as if it were solely designed to “handicap” one national economy, set a sad standard for the values of public office.  For as Trump dismissed data on climate change as discredited with mock-rage, and vowed that the entire affair had been designed by foreign groups who had already “collectively cost America trillions of dollars through tough trade practices” and were desiring to continue to inflict similar damage.

But the large future on trade imbalances–which he treated as the bottom line–he staged a spectacle of being aggrieved that seemed to take on the problems of the nation, with little sense of what was at stake.  Trump’s televised live speech was preeminently designed only to distract from the data on which the Accords had been based.  And even as Trump sought to pound his chest by describing the Accord as a “bad deal for Americans,” that in truth “to the exclusive benefit of other countries.”  By turning attention to an America First perspective on global warming, Trump sought to replace the international scope of the challenge–and intent of the much-negotiated Climate Accords–by suggesting that it obscured American interests, even if it only took America’s good will for granted.  As if explaining to his televised audience that the agreement only “disadvantages the United States in relation to other countries,” with the result of “leaving American workers–who [sic] I love–. . . to absorb the cost in terms of lost jobs [and] lower wages,” he concealed the actual economics of withdrawing from the Accords were buried beneath boasts to have secured “350 billion of military and economic development for the US” and to help American businesses, workers, taxpayers, and citizens.  In dismissing the data out of hand about the expanded production of greenhouse gasses, Trump ridiculed the true target of the nearly universally approved Accords, scoffing at the abilities to reduce global temperatures; instead, he concentrated on broad figures of lost jobs in manufacturing and industries that are in fact small sectors of the national economy, and incommensurable with the dangers of ignoring global warming and climate change, or the exigencies of taking steps to counter its recent growth.


global warming

Increased likelihood of temperature rising above previous records by 2050 and 2080


oceanic-warmingSea Surface Temperatures compared to historical baseline of a century ago


As if years of accumulated data of earth observation could be dismissed as deceptive out of hand by executive authority, independent of an accurate judgement of its measurement, Trump dismissed expert opinion with the air of a true populist whose heart lay in the defense of the American people and their well-being–as if they could be abstracted and prioritized above the world’s  Trump’s largely rambling if gravely delivered comments in the Rose Garden press conference that painted himself as daily fighting for the country cemented the alliance of populism and a war on science by its odd substitution of bad economic data for good scientific data.  The switch is one in which his administration has specialized.  His address certainly culminated an outright dismissal of scientific conclusions based on a distorted America First picture of the world, where a stolid declaration that “the United States will withdraw from the Paris Climate Accords” made sense as form of national defense–despite the potential global catastrophe that rising global temperatures and sea surface temperatures threaten.

The catastrophes were minimized by being argued to be based on “discredited data” in a bizarre flourish designed to dismiss scientific concensus  Trump conspicuously faulted not only the “discredited” but distracting nature of data  in the speech he gave in the Rose Garden on June 1, 2017 that supposedly justified his announcement of withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accords in 2015 to limit heat-trapping emissions of carbon fuels that have been tied to observed climate change.  Rather than foreground the international nature of the accords among agreed upon by almost 200 nations, trump advanced the need to heed local interests, perversely, but even more perversely argued that the Accords resulted from disinformation.  He spoke to the world to chastise their recognition of scientific observations, in so doing destabilizing not only global alliances but undermining a long-negotiated climate policy by pulling the rug out from long accepted consensus not only of climate scientists but a role of national leadership that sought to remedy the failure of the Kyoto Protocol of 1997.  Trump turned his back on the Climate Accords on how to curb greenhouse gas emissions  by proclaiming their unfairness to American interests, and attacking unwanted constraints on American industry, through his own deployment of data that was even more discredited as an excuse to walk away from the prospect of a greener world.


Exiting the Green.png  Al Drago/New York Times


If Trump steered the nation away from green energy and into darkness, Vladimir Putin seemed to mock Trump’s rationale for the withdrawal when he mused, jokingly but ever so darkly, that “maybe the current [U.S.] president thinks they are not fully thought-through,” making open fun of Donald Trump’s image of global leadership by wryly noting in ways that echoed the absurdity of Trump’s defense of the local in place of the global.  “We don’t feel here that the temperature is going hotter here, . . . I hear they are saying it snowed in Moscow today and its raining here, very cold,” Putin noted, as if relishing undermining long-established trends in climate data by invoking a populist championing of local knowledge as if it trumped the advantages of earth observation that satellite observation has long provided.   Populism trumped expertise and Putin laughed at the possibility that the Accords might soon fail as a result.

Given the longstanding desire of Moscow to be released from constraints on exploring the billions of tons of Arctic oil on which Russia has chosen to gamble, Trump’s almost purposive blindness to a changing environmental politics of the global economy astounds for its parochialism, and its championing of place to dismiss undeniable effects of climate change that seems closely tied to carbon emissions.  For with a false populism that championed the limited perspective of one place in the world–or one’s own personal experience–Trump dismissed the maps and projections of climate change, on the basis that the “deal” was simply “BAD.”  And as a man who views everything as yet another deal, while he pronounced readiness to “renegotiate” an accord he sought to cast as a failure of President Obama to represent America’s interests, the rebuke fell flatly as the accord was never designed to be renegotiable.

Putin’s remarks were met by scattered laughter of recognition, and some smirks at the decision of the American president to withdraw form a long-negotiated set of accords to the collective dismay of our military and environmental allies, and its implicit endorsement of deniers of climate change.  The potential “axis of mass destruction” France’s climate minister has cautioned against might indeed be one of mass distraction.  For in dismissing and indeed disdaining the historical accords to limit carbon emissions, Trump sought a soundbite sufficient to stoke suspicions the climate treaty.  He sought to cast it as yet another deeply rigged system of which he had taken to compulsively warning Americans.  Such a metaphor of bounty was jarring to reconcile with onerous economic burdens cited as the prime motivations for deciding to reject the Paris Accords on Climate Change.  The jarring cognitive coinage seemed to connote its negative by a disorienting litotes; but perhaps the most striking element of the entire news conference was that Trump offered no data that backed up his own pronouncements and appearance of steadfast or only obstinate personal resolve.

Before the coherence of the embodiment of climate change in maps, Trumps jarringly juxtaposed radically different sorts of statistic to snow the nation–and the world–by disorienting his audience, on which Trump turned to a litany of complaints and perceived offenses striking for providing no data of any sort, save several bits of false data.  As much as Trump betrayed uneven command over the data on climate change, as if embedding discrete numbers in unclear fashion that supported a self-evident argument, as if they addressed one of the most carefully documented changes in the atmosphere of the world.  By juxtaposing a threat that “could cost Americans as much as 2.7 million lost jobs by 2025“–a number described as extreme but decontextualized to exaggerate its effect, framed by the dismissive statement  “Believe me, this is not what we need!“– with a projected small temperature decrease of two tenths of a degree Celsius–“Think of that!  This much”–as if to indicate the minuscule return that the “deal” offered to the United States that would have made it worthy accepting its costs–




The gesture seemed designed to juxtapose the honesty of direct communication with the deceit of the experts.   Trump’s notion of direct communication concealed the surreal enjambment of disproportionate numbers more striking by the difference of their scale than their meaning.  Of a piece with his citation of partial statistics that exaggerate his points, from “95 Million not in the U.S. labor force” as if to imply they are all unsuccessfully looking for work, targeting some 8 million immigrants as “illegal aliens”ready for deportation, or how immigrants coast American taxpayers “billions of dollars a year.”   Such large figures deploy discredited data difficult to process to conjure fears by overwhelming audience, distracting from specific problems with large numbers that communicate an illusion of expertise, or even overwhelm their judgment by talking points disseminated in deeply questionable media sources.

If the power of this juxtaposition of unrelated numbers gained their effectiveness because of a lack of numeracy–Trump’s claim of 100 million social media followers lumps his followers on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, many of whom may be the same people, and other fake persona —the numbers seem to exist for their rhetorical effect alone, as if to awe by their size and dismiss by the miniscule benefits they might provide. The point of contrasting such large and small statistics was to suggest the poor priorities of the previous administration, and dilute form the consensus reached on the modeling of climate change.  To be sure, the Trump administration also barters in fake facts on Fox News Sunday. inflating the number of jobs in coal industries, that show a misleading sense of the government’s relation to the national economy, generating a range of falsehoods that disable fact-checking, obscuring the fact that the global marketplace increasingly gives preference to cleaner energy and clean energy jobs more quickly others sectors of our national economy beyond energy industries.  The ties of Trump’s administration to fossil fuels–from the Secretary of State to the Secretary of Energy to the Secretary of the Interior down–employ the obsfuscating tactics of fossil fuel industries to obscure benefits of low-carbon fuels.  Indeed, the inability to “renegotiate” a deal where each nation set its own levels of energy usage rendered Trump’s promise of the prospect of renegotiation meaningless and unclear, even if it was intended to create the appearance of him sounding reasonable and amiable enough on nightly television news.


Broad hands.pngCheriss May/Sipa via AP Images 


Another point of the citation of false data was to evoke a sense of false populism, by asking how the Accords could ever add up.  In isolating foregrounded statistics great and small, tightly juxtaposed for rhetorical effect, the intent seems consciously to bombard the audience to disorienting effect.  We know Trump has disdain for expertise, and indeed the intersection between a sense of populism with disdain or rejection of science may be endemic:  in formulating responses to a global question like climate change that he has had no familiarity with save in terms of margins of profits and regulations.  Rather than consulting experts, the President has prepared for public statements by consulting sympathetic media figures like Kimberly Guilfoyle who endorse climate conspiracy–and not experts–who use data as obscuring foils, suggesting an ecology of information originating from pro-fossil fuel industry groups.

But as much as adopt talking points from other media, Trump uses data to frame overstatements of unclear relation to actualities–as making the distorting and meaningless promise to drop power plant climate rules, clean water rules and other regulations to “help American workers, increasing wages by more than $30 billion over the next seven years”–a figure drawn from a fossil fuel industry nonprofit, which offered little grounds for such a claim, and was a cherry-picked large number offered without any contextualization–or consideration that $30 billion would not fill the pockets of 300 million.  The point of allowing workers to continue to fire coal without hoping to meet any guidelines for carbon emissions did secure the total of 50,000 jobs in coal mining in the US, bit seems out of synch with the decline of demand for coal world-wide.



The point of citing such numbers offer a scaffolding for many of Trump’s claims, but as talking points serve to disorient as much as instruct, and disorient from a global perspective and became the basis for pushing the groundless withdrawal from the Paris Accords.  Perhaps the orientation for the talking points that migrate from many right-wing news sites into Trump’s public speeches As many of the talking points culled from the unsourced ecosystem of the internet inform Trump’s public statements that may be drawn from a special dossier that arrives on his desk, as Shane Goldmacher suggested, many of which are circulated in the White House to feed Trump’s personal appetite for media consumption, many both dislodged from their original contexts and some neither substantiated or fact-checked, are printed and placed on his desk in the Oval Office, effectively introducing dissembling as much as dissenting information into Trump’s significantly reduced three-page Presidential Daily Briefing.

Such a new information economy that defines the Oval Office in the Age of Trump makes it less of a nexus of information-sharing from scientific communities.  It rather serves to introduce information designed to swamp existing facts–as the eight inch rise in sea levels since 1880, or the catastrophic floods on course to double by 2030, or economic disparities of the global footprints of different parts of the world, and only recently recognized ecological debts that patterns of consumption generate globally.


Eco deficits

creditors and debtors


It is almost difficult to tell whether the jarring incommensurability of great and small numbers that Trump cited in his Rose Garden press conference was intentional–a strategy designed to mystify,–as some have cautioned–or a sort of cognitive dissonance between the ingrained skepticism before data, and  belief in his own powers to resolve a problem of any size.   It may well be a combination of both:  but the history of long-term measurement of climate change suggest a perfect storm between his own doubting of data and persuasive skills with his outsized cognitive sense of his abilities to resolve an issue of such magnitude, and the inability he had of acknowledging that the United States had a need to recognize a debt it owed anyone.

The very overflow and abundance of data on global warming and climate change, in this context, cast a gauntlet and raised a challenge to be dismissed, and negotiated around in ways that did not depend on scientific observations, but would reflect his own ability to get a better deal for the United States alone, in a perverse impulse to isolationism in response to one of the greatest consequences and challenges of globalization–climate change–and the particular problems faced by the developing countries and for nations that were defined as biocapacity debtors.  Indeed, in separating the nation from a pact between developing and developed countries on energy use and fossil fuel emissions, the notion of any prospect of global compact is unsettled by the withdrawal of the largest developed nation form the Accords–under the pretense that their interests were not respected enough–with one other nations that sought to enforce stricter emissions guidelines.


Developed and Undeveloped Nations Signed onto Paris Climate Accords/Washington Post

Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Donald J. Trump, Global Warming, globalism, globalization, statistics

Infographics in America

If the nineteenth century America has been often described as an era of geographic integration, perhaps no one more than the ambitious statistician Francis Amasa Walker created a new way of seeing the nation that foregrounded both the local differences that continued to divide the nation, but staked out the challenges for integration that the country faced in geographical terms.  His extremely influential 1874 Statistical Atlas, based on the unprecedented 1870 US Census that he directly supervised and made the case before Congress about the undeniable need for funding, whose maps created an image of the challenges of national unity that remained in the republic in the wake of the Civil War in which he had fought:  the Statistical Atlas extends the enterprise of the expanded Census, validating how statistics present a synoptic picture of the political economy–illustrating relations of the local to the polity across continuous United States as if processing part of a mental effort of consolidation.

Even before the unprecedentedly bitter electoral divide of 1876, Walker advanced maps as providing a new way to embody the polity through the visual records derived from statistical aggregates.  Although Walker’s subsequent tabulation of the data on immigrants in the late nineteenth century led him to fear their arrival as threatening the nation’s productivity, based on his perception of the depth of racial differences to the national polity, and encouraged others to do so, he advanced the embodiment of statistics in geographic maps, in ways no doubt influenced by his close collaboration with his father, the economist Amasa Walker.  In ways that prepared a basis for his use of maps to express the contested electoral results of 1876, Walker treated maps as coherent statements about the nation’s divides otherwise not able to be articulated, as a basis to start debate about the well-being of its political economy.  (His maps were so convincing, indeed, in framing a question of geographical organization, that they may have encouraged a narrative of geographical integration only recently challenged by investigations into the geographies continued to be produced on the local or regional level.)

Walker's Image of the Nation's Population

Mapping Population Density in the US, 1870

Susan Schulten has recently advanced the quite compelling argument that Walker’s innovations constituted gave the “invention of the infographic” distinctly American roots.  Her argument spoke appositely to the almost obsessive return in recent elections to infographics that suggested the likely tendencies of voters, and indeed often reframed a narrative of division into “red” and “blue” states–and even designated some “purple”–in ways that revealed an undeniable undercurrent that verged on obsession of questions of national unity and division that were of the very sort that Walker had similarly sought to address when he undertook the reformation of the decennial Census in 1869 at an amazingly young age of twenty-nine–no doubt with insight as to the ability to advance and illustrate the distinct distribution of space that the nation occupied.

Even as a staggering proliferation of maps of electoral zones flooded airwaves, newswires and web during the 2012 election, Schulten traced the invention of the American infographic to the innovative visualizations of data and government statics by an enterprising statistical mapper who after working to organize the 1870 Census, not only drew up a comprehensive reform of the census but treated its findings to create a “statistical survey” that came to  embody the nation’s political and economic unity.  While earlier Censuses were strikingly unscientific, Walker advanced issues of political economy in maps as an extension of his expansion of the decennial census, organizing the tabulation of population, agriculture, mortality and manufacturing data on 39 million Americans, and placing prime importance on geographically orienting statistics as tools to better visualize the nature of social and economic divisions after the Civil War in which he had fought and been grievously injured.

Walker’s maps framed the issue of integration in legible fashion–and produced them to allow the fate of the nation’s unity and division to be processed for a wider audience than would have otherwise confronted them–they did so since they readily processed statistics that went far beyond physical phenomena to chart the racial composite by which the national economy could be understood, moving beyond existing models of its physical geology–which he also included in the Statistical Atlas

walker-map-geologyPrinceton University (from Statistical Atlas, 1874)

–to attempts to embody the composition of its human inhabitants whose aggregates were earlier not clearly understood, in what was indeed the first public census to count African Americans who were former slaves as part of the nation’s fabric.

Colored in Aggregate

Colored Populations in the United States (1874) (Courtesy of Princeton University Library)

Walker’s advocacy of such choreographic statistical maps as snapshots of the political economy led to an invitation to join the editorial board of the New York Times–which he declined, probably since he continued publishing in competitors from Scribners’ Monthly to Harpers’ New Monthly, emerging as a public intellectual of originally progressive bent.  For Walker had convinced the US Congress to adopt a variety of projects that used recent lithographic techniques and statistical correlations to use the results of the 1870 US Census map an coherently compelling image of the nation’s situation for public debate.  If all maps reflect both the character and competency of their makers, Walker’s maps reflect the excitement and tenacity of mining data from the Ninth US Census of 1870 that he had compiled with congressional authority, compiling, correlating, and refining the image of the distribution of wealth, illness, and health to a degree that had not ever been earlier achieved.

He engaged in mapmaking in print as a form of public discourse that elevated the statistical map as a tool for envisioning the nation as an aggregate.  Walker’s early involvement with late nineteenth-century newspapers like the Springfield Republican Newspaper as well, from the late 1860s, at the Atlantic Monthly, in fact no doubt encouraged his trust in the power of such organs of public debate–and the power of printed supplements based on the US Census, several of which he published for Harpers’ New Monthly, as well as in Scribner’s Monthly, The Century and North American Quarterly, in ways that no doubt led to his conviction in the infographic as a way to shape public debate on political economy, population density, home servitude, and the working classes.  Walker’s position as Chief of the Bureau of Statistics and Taxes may have helped him use his position as Superintendent of the fifth US Census at just twenty-nine to present the project of the first Statistical Atlas of the country, a project which he expanded in the 1880 Census, whose unprecedented twenty-two volumes collected an even greater range of information than ever previously collated and greatly refined the unscientific nature of previous decennial censuses.

Francis Amasa Walker saw the U.S. Census not only as a way to view populations of states, but to expand the vision of and the likeness of the nation by the more arduous measure of density per square mile, and to then use that image to chart the distribution of the national population as a demographic tool.  He worked with the census to conceive of the map as a measure for mapping complementary sets of data, by mapping relations between density and select quantifiable variables, mapping population density against wealth distribution, literacy, childbirth rates and disease–but not voting preference–in maps that created a legible record of the country, whose public good he convinced the US Congress to fund Atlases in 1872 and 1873.  By transferring statistical observations into a detailed picture of the nation, he began from a base layer of the contours by which its population was distributed, without focussing on jurisdictional bounds, in ways that effectively augmented the independent authority of maps as media of sociological investigation and public communication to an extent that had never before been the case, but established a central place for detailed choropleths in the American Grain.

Walker's Image of the Nation's Population

The maps are stunning choropleths that exploit lithographic techniques to picture the national population in great detail.  Walker started from the initial map of density, using the census of 1870, of which he was superintendent at the age of 29, and whose possibility for converting into cartographical form he seems to have readily perceived.  The plans led to the publication in 1874 of the Census’ data, in an initial atlas that totaled just fifty-six pages, each map of which has a degree of detail never seen as a visual embodiment of the nation, but emphasized its distribution of population and industry to an extent never realized–and, at least among its readership, posited questions of national coherence that concretize concerns for the country’s political economy:

Mapping Density in US

Density of Population in 1870–including African-Americans as well as Whites

For the first time, they also offer a mode to integrate African-American former slaves within a national economy, and posit a detailed, comprehensive and analytic image of population density across the north and south that suggest the value not only of statistics but of imaging the nation and its divisions in a decennial census.  The embodiment of issues formed as Assistant Secretary of the Treasury placed issues of political economy before the eyes of their readers in especially effective ways.
The fine grain of variations provided a new way to look at the nation, as the compelling lithographic choropleths of Alexander Bache, by using line-engraving to chart the population rather than topography as their concern, or coastlines or hydrography, than the shifts that the 1870 census revealed.  If riverine paths were noted, the South looked distinct when one saw the vast “gaps” or absences of population in much of the rural areas of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Georgia, and indeed the concentration of the population most entirely along rivers where agricultural trade grew.
Population Distribution chloropleth
The image of population density dramatically grew in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, in ways that charted the new image of the nation, and must have posed questions of how  population density mapped onto the distribution of wealth, or, an extension of it, childbirth rates, in order to refine and better understand the picture of national population it put forth.
Virginia to Georgia Chloropleth

Things got more complicated and more exciting when Walker mapped the distribution of wealth among these densities of population, in ways that helped reveal the uneven distribution of incomes across the post-war nation, and revealed a conspicuous ongoing divide between northern and southern states that related to industry but also to the extreme impoverishment of much of the population in the southern states that would continue to be a contradiction and difficult conundrum in the nation:

Mapping the Distribution of Wealth

The sort of graduated shaded in maps that Walker created provided something of a counter-map to the symbolic uses of mapping as a way to envision national unity, and pinpointed questions of the intractable nature of differentials of wealth.  If pockets of wealth extended deep West into Iowa and Kansas, and lit up Illinois, Ohio, and Pennsylvania in deep auburn hues, the Mason Dixon line was a divide in how wealth was distributed whose light ochre and pockets of white were rarely interrupted by redoubts of wealth, almost entirely along the coast or select segments of the Mississippi River.  His maps adopted the recent precision of mapping population density against its distribution that had been pioneered by Alexander Bache’s compelling visualization of the records of the 1860 Census with the German emmigre engraver Edwin Hergesheimer

The detailed cross-tabulation of population and wealth seems a bit of an odd ancestor of the modern infographic, although their kinship is clearly recognized.  For the image of Walker demanded the sort of detailed attention as a picture of the nation to which the compacting of information or metadata in the range of infographics generated by GIS programs rarely provide.  If Walker anticipated GIS in a fashion, the rapidity of generating the infographic that synthesized metadata with amazing facility and rapidity rarely demands the sort of attention that Walker’s images command.  In part, the lithographic medium habituated viewers to the parsing of refined distinctions in the economic landscape that variations of shading revealed:  the starkest of our blue/red maps with some pink or light blue question marks are removed from the fine-toothed sort of distinctions drawn in the census, or from a similar statistical subtlety.

But the proliferation of the infographic so readily produced and tabulated provides less of a reference tool than an attempt to hold onto the permanence of a snapshot provides within the rapidly shifting and changing landscape that often seems adrift in the electoral sea.  The questions that Walker asked–distribution of wealth, literacy, disease rates–are rarely raised in the infographics we see most frequently, even excepting Fox News’ proclivity for the infographics that perpetuate stark divisions.  The ‘mediazation’ of the modern infographic as a labor saving device not for observers, but whose construction demanded a more limited investment of detailed attention, has created a new assembly-line production of images of limited refinement, whose authority rests on their mapping substrates, rather than on the measurements they mediate and encode.

The limited subtlety of the infographic suggests not only their ideological points, but a shift in what might be called, with the late Michael Baxandall, a “period eye” to express the tastes of interpreting images from media to the viewing map–the habitual practices by which we look to maps in an age of the rapid-fire production of new infographics each day for broad consumption and, also, ratings appeal–or how infographics snappily  process an argument in a bottom-line nature, rather than approach the social topography whose complexities we’d maybe rather not want to detect or explore at close range:


Most items that bear the name of infographics might not be data visualizations, or even use the map as a tool to construct the meaning of its contents, since the map is so often and so readily abstracted from the territory. Maybe a map might even suggest what we might want to keep distance from, rather than to consider up-close:

Top Party Schools

These pilfered objects are a bit extreme, but their divorce from any sense of geographic meaning is somehow telling.  Sure, these are something like visual jokes, but they make the point I want to make about the liabilities and deceptiveness that the using maps to organize contemporary infographics reveal that adopt maps to bolster their suasive abilities as much as frame a problem.  The mock-maps–the second based on an episode of Ira Glass’s “This American Life” by E. J. Fox, from a series he titles “This American Infographic”– illustrate the problem of the need that cartographical infographics fill, of both adopting the authority of the map (without containing much geographic information) and of using it to display the ready access to metadata that most images of GPS presume–or, in the most banal but most common case, the weather maps on the Weather Channel–and that most folks expect.  Data-mining becomes replaced by graphic design tools imported from the world of advertising, and the maps are a blunt instrument to make blunt arguments, or present an image of the status quo:  the big parties happen at big state universities.

Maps are especially powerful tools to process information for viewers.   Some less ridiculous examples of infographics reveal some surprisingly similar attempts at using mapping forms or mapping syntax to preserve an illusion of omniscience and often to illuminate or make a comment about national unity.  But they also often use maps in ways that, unlike the maps  derived from government censuses that Walker examined with considerable care to demographic variables, conceals an absence of  analytically meaningful argument.  They treat the map as a form of metadata that reduces analytic specificity–from a map of the “battleground states” that effectively uses a format of mapping in order to suggest either the limited support for the Democratic party in the nation (by using a shade of yellow closer to red than blue) or indicate the deeply flawed nature of the democratic process to their viewers.

Recall the sort of maps that were all the rage when Schulten described Walker’s innovative practice, if you can bear it.  Rather than resting on numeracy or the tabulation of relative measures of difference by a statistical model, the map foregrounds the indeterminate nature of places where polling was within a margin of error, rooted less in mathematical literacy but in pollsters’ relative ability of prediction.  The mediazation of the map is removed from a mathematics of mapping or an expectation of refinement, for it is almost more of a symbolization of a politics of stasis or an electoral divide:


The greater refinement of other maps that shaded “tending towards” in lighter colors foregrounded the unpredictable nature of voters’ preferences, more than the composition of the electorate, as they seem to table the question of national coherence or cohesiveness as a whole other issue.


In each of these admittedly varied cases, mapping indicates an aura of accuracy or invests a sense of stability in the face of indeterminate data.  The map is a totem by virtue of its processing of information from varied diverse sources, but the map blunts potentially far more precise tools that seem to divide the polity and focusses on electoral results.   The questions of numeracy that divide the nation are less based in a tabulation of data or statistical familiarity; the block-hues of states mute meaning analysis.

Blocks of red in the map seem possible of being emptied of geographic meaning.  One famous FOX infographic purported to identify a strategy for Republican victory, but undermined the very legitimacy of this potential scenario for the attentive few by mislabeling the states it purported to count with accuracy–as well as deceptively reinterpreting polling trends:

%22Western Path%22

The absence of an expectation of reading measurements beyond numerical addition are evident in a map more reminiscent of the refined criteria of a jigsaw puzzle than in puzzling questions of national unity or ideological difference:

electoral colors map

In part, ideological differences are just not that pronounced, and the maps are oriented to processing polling numbers that were changing like a stock-market ticker-tape, rather than providing a firm basis for a national portrait.  But the father of the infographic would most certainly not be pleased.  The adoption and diffusion of mapping forms in infographics provide metadata constructions perhaps most significant for how they quash related questions or discussions, by ordering a massive amount of data whose impression of preponderance is more likely to take away one’s breath than pose a question, and is almost always likely to conceal an argument.

To some extent, of course, the new elevation of infographics is the creation of the new media economy.  There’s an odd dynamic of devaluing of the analytic power of the map at the same time as elevating its explanatory power.  The map, in an age of reduced news content, seems to substitute for the strength of an analytic news story, as a GPS program produces a snappy infographic that seems both content-heavy and a pleasing amuse-bouche.  The need to process different news sources or on-the-ground informants might be both excused and avoided, where we can come up with a symbolic rendering of what happened, even if we don’t need to look so closely at what its causes or its actual ramifications were.  The absence of analytics in the infographic–which presents, as with the weather, the state of things as they are as an actuality that does not need further analysis or attention to local variation–is perhaps its most pernicious feature as a medium.  They stand at a remove from the maps that the great nineteenth century statistical geographer Francis A. Walker so valuably labored to design.

We develop infographics such as the following by crunching some obtainable numbers–in an image that unsurprisingly perhaps uses the residue of a weather map as its base–to tell a story that collapses multiple different narratives into a single set of information that the viewer can quickly process.  The iconic map that was diffused after the last election was less about fault lines or divisions in the nation, than a cartogram of the new image of alliances in the nation, where the entire midwest stood as a block of blue with the Western states:


That is not to say that infographics can tell a subtler story of similarly chorographic proportions, to describe the image of unemployment in 2003, for example in the country:

choropleth of unemployment in US 2003

But at what cost?  Choropleths such as the below seem to remove individual experience from their comprehensive picture–and provide a “big picture” that is actually difficult if  to comprehend for all the metadata they synthesize.  And they present an intractable image of a social divide whose dark bands of dark blue reveal a density of those out of work that only grew by 2008 in the very same areas:

choropleth of unemployment in US 2008

There was a similar crunching of numbers at a remove from individual experience of tragedy in a map of electric outages suffered as a result of Hurricane Sandy, providing a purview of outages from Augusta to Raleigh.  The map is powerful and striking, but also elided the stories of its destructions or narrative of its meteorology with an easy infographic of a sort of least common denominator to everyone can easily relate of the lights going out.

infographic on power outages from Sandy

These maps erase their inhabitants. So what, then, we might ask, is the territory?

The ghost of Walker, and continued prestige of his aesthetics, have led Nathan Yau of Flowing Data to provide a comparable set of visualizations that embody our national territory, based on the ongoing statistical surveys of the American Community Survey of 2010, to “revive” the project of a Statistical Survey in the footsteps of his august predecessor, noting with some evident pain the absence of any plans by the US government’s Census Bureau to produce one after 2000, perhaps due to the high costs of the Census itself–and the recent Republican-led effort to even claim that the decennial Survey is an unconstitutional invasion of privacy–even though it provides the best basis for the apportionment of government funds, and one of the clearest demographic portraits of the country–that tarred the survey in no uncertain terms as “intrud[ing] on people’s lives, just like the Environmental Protection Agency or the bank regulators,” according to Daniel Webster, an inspiringly named first-term Republican congressman from Florida, who questioned the random nature of the survey as illustrating its “unscientific” value, despite its assessment of over three million American households in considerable demographic detail about their occupations, housing, literacy, languages spoken at home and at work, and levels of education, as well as their approximate computer use.

Perhaps with some premonition of the dangers of resting our democracy on the thin infographics consumed by watchers of television news, the self-published Survey Yau published online imitated the august elegance and clarity of Walker’s maps to point up the absence of needed visualization of the data that the Census compiles.  The images–able to be bought individually as posters–suggest the deep presence of Walker’s idiom of visualization within our current media circus, when the proliferation of news maps from various outlets and Graphics Depts. seem dislodged from the interest of the public good.  Yau’s project was may seem to have obviated need for an impartial assessment of all the data that the Census compiled.  Indeed, while the Times, which once offered Walker a seat on its editorial board, created a brilliantly colored set of interactive visualizations based on data from 2005-9, Yau offered nostalgic images that embodied the images of the nation that the government has puzzlingly withheld, with climatological and agricultural data that provide a similarly detailed atlas of the coterminous United States which, in an age overflowing with data visualizations, remind us of the need to preserve a picture of the nation to ensure we keep the public informed.



The detail of the maps, set in a sepia background with shadings that somewhat approximate the exacting palette of Hergesheimer’s half-tones, provide a set of gradations of population as revealed in the data of the 2013 ACS,



Or, to depart from the demographic and verge into the statistics of the environment, the distribution of levels of rainfall,




or landcover:


The data waits to be visualized, and the simple monocular visualizations capture its complexion with quite understated elegance.  While less rooted in concerns of political economy, the visualization hearkens back to a unified choreography that we often seem to lack–even if it only pictures tornadoes–in ways that go beyond the existential qualities of weather maps as records of the present day.



To be sure, the political economy of the nation has become so fragmented that it is hard to visualize by such clearcut lines or shadings, even though the Times’ visualization of the American Community Survey similarly uses the map as a surface on which to throw the composition of the nation–and the nation’s cities–into relief, here drawing on the Survey to present the complexity of the population of an actually quite segregated New York:

ACS 2005?

from New York Times–“Mapping America: Every City, Every Block

Should such mages serve to whet your appetite for better visualizations that embody an accurate image of the nation, folks based in the Bay Area might want to check out how the students at UC Berkeley’s I-School stack up against Fox News, Huffington Post, the New York Times, and even Francis A. Walker, by looking at the results that are now showcased at  (The website promises to present recent graphic charts of Changing BehaviorsEnhancing Information Systems, and Information Organization and Tools that have been refined over the last three years.)

Leave a comment

Filed under data visualizations, GIS, infographics, political economy, statistics

Map-Inspired Madness: Reading Maps in the Solitude of Ahab’s Cabin

‘It is not down in any map; true places never are,’ Herman Melville wrote to describe the origins of the fictional Queequeg in Moby Dick, who hails from the South Seas, but the obsession with mapping places that haunts the novel haunts the obsessive ship captain who leads his ship to the same area of the globe in search of the whale.  Melville wrote with a particular sense of spatiousness in a chapter that first tells the story of the Great White Whale–“Moby Dick” (Chapter XLI)–poses the question of preserving collective knowledge to gain bearings on the location of the White Whale, that suggests the onset of the first mapped knowledge of whale routes.  While legends of sightings are dispersed among whaling ships “sprinkled over the entire watery circumference” in disorderly fashion, each “pushing their quest along solitary latitudes,” sharing knowledge about whales’ locations was prevented given the “inordinate length of each separate voyage” and “long obstructed the spread through the whole world-wide whaling fleet of the special individualizing tidings concerning Moby Dick.”  

The sightings of sperm whales of uncommon magnitude provoked rumors and fears of encounters with the whale, as one might expect, even if they were recored at a fixed time or meridian.  For, Melville reminds us again of the unique space of the open seas, “in maritime life, far more than that of terra firma wild rumors abound, wherever there is any adequate reality for them to cling to;” in the “remotest waters” or “widest watery spaces,” whalemen are subject to “influences all tending to make his fancy pregnant with many a mighty birth.”  Such an expansion of legends of the White Whale on the open seas contrast to the single-minded focus of Ahab’s tracking of Moby Dick, and the certainty that the Captain possesses of his ability to find Moby Dick on the open seas .  Such a fixation is opaque at the book’s start, but is perhaps most manifest in his obsessive desire to track the individual whale by the sea charts kept in his cabin, to which he retires to read each night, and seem to provide the first point of entrance into his psyche–and what Melville calls his “monomania.”  As the ship moves over the seas, Ahab returns often to his cabin to read charts, maps, and logs, as map-reading becomes a keen emblem of monomaniacal fixation–as the belief that maps will help him track the whale that he is committed to kill.  The maps may magnify the sense of monomania, the psychological diagnosis of an undue expansion of mental attention on one object; if repeated reading the maps serves as an emblem of the growth of his fixation despite the survival of his intellect; trying to pursue the whale on charts seems to serve to focus his vindictiveness, as if materializing how the “White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all this malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating at them, till they are left living with half a heart and half a lung.”  Ahab’s fixation on the yellowed charts he unrolled on his cabin table express the monomaniacal tendency defined in nineteenth century psychiatry of how an inordinate fixation persists in an otherwise rational mind; the fixation on mapping the course of the whale obsesses his attentive mind.  

Is the hope of locating the White Whale by the rutters of past whaling ships and collation of mapped observations an emblem of nourishing an undue fixation of his pathological preoccupation, despite his apparent ability to reason the possible path of the whale’s path?The extended narrative of the ongoing search for Moby Dick that Ahab leads Pequod that fills the content of the novel becomes a sort of psychic profile of the obsessiveness with which Ahab takes the Pequod, and the novel’s narrator Ishmael, to encounter Moby Dick in the South Seas–taking the ship to the site of whale spawning where the novel culminates.  The retiring of Ahab to the solitude of his cabin matches his withdrawal into his mind and serves to nurse his preoccupations.  What provides a more gripping image of Ahab’s inner psyche than the obsessive attention that he gives to tracking the White Whale by maps?   Ahab retires to consult log-books and charts to cull sightings of sperm whales that almost substitute for an actual map or rutter–and for the trust that sailors might place in maps and charts to guide the ship.  The problem of locating the whale s underscored by mention of the “wild suggestions” of many ships that have given the whale chase of an “unearthly conceit that “Moby Dick was ubiquitous; . . .  had actually been encountered in opposite latitudes at one and the same instant of time;” if”the secrets of the currents in the seas have never yet been divulged, even to the most erudite research,” Ahab seeks to challenge this sense of ubiquity through his obsessive consultation of charts, by following of the outlines of naval courses.  His intensity comes to transform his very brown and visage into a lined map, tracing out courses, so that his forehead comes to resemble a chart; reading maps with such obsessiveness to track his prey seems to remove Ahab’s single-minded pursuit from any oceanic transit, and from the common good of the ship that he commands.

Ahab’s monomania may seem sui generis.  But it is closely tied to the mapping project of Mathew Fontaine Maury and the contemporary project of collating open data on whale migration in Melville’s time, and the promise of investing legibility in a global space of whale migration.  Even more than the bodily injury of the loss of his leg that left him tormented with visions of the White Whale, the obsessive tracking and persistent consultation of charts and maps with other records manifests the idée fixe by which Captain Ahab is obsessed, and indeed the solitary consultation of these charts while his crew sleeps at night stand for the single-minded madness of tracking one whale on the open seas.  The folly of tracking the White Whale on a map embodies Ahab’s monomaniacal pursuit of a way to track its course by a paper map.   So fully does map-reading come to consume both his mind and his body as he ponders charts every night in his cabin, drawing new lines and courses by pencil, and revising them, “threading a maze of currents and eddies, with a veiew to the more certain accomplishment of that monomaniac though of his soul, so focussed on a map that, in a brilliant image, his tormented face even becomes a map, bearing the traces of the pencil lines traced on the charts, as if the subject of his fixation rises to the surface of his skin, so entirely consumed his mind by the conceit of mapping the course of Moby Dick.  The appearance of these self-inflicted lines as if engraved on Ahab’s brow–in Melville’s brilliant image–echo the captain’s obsessive tracing of multiple marine courses on the charts he keeps in his cabin; the courses that are so intensely pondered seem to rise to lines inscribed on his own skin as if in as a consequence of the imprint that tracing possible courses  of the leviathan has brought.  

The conceit of the tracking of whales on maps appears an emblem of Ahab’s madness.  The utter hopelessness of locating one whale in an ocean map seems apparent; Ahab has indeed so often red maps to transform himself into a map hoping to locate Moby Dick, and the conceit of mapping whales has filled his mind.  Yet, as the “hidden ways of the Sperm Whale when beneath the surface remain, in great part, unaccountable to his pursuers, . . . the most curious and contradictory speculations regarding them, especially concerning [how] he transports himself with such vast swiftness to the most widely distant points”    Melville presents the problem of mapping the course of whales as one by which the crazed Captain Ahab is increasingly consumed, pouring over charts in the captain’s cabin, increasingly isolated at a remove from the crew including Queequeg and Ishmael, and the fate of his ship.  Although whalemen by their expert knowledge often came to the conclusion after the White Whale so often escaped their capture “Moby Dick not only ubiquitous, but immortal,” the presumption of mapping the course of the White Whale’s course is perhaps the clearest illustration and emblem of Ahab’s hubris, and monomaniac obsession with tracking the whale above the expert knowledge of his crew, as he “led upon the whale’s white hump as the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race,” so violently did he come to see personified in the whale that had once torn off his leg all evil in the world, and pit himself against it.  Maps provide Ahab with a basis to nourish and expand the “monomania  in him [that] took its instant rise at the precise time of his bodily dismemberment.”  If such a mania began he returned home, stretched in a hammock on his homeward voyage, swaying in a straitjacket in the rocking boat returning across the tranquil tropics, as “his special lunacy having stormed his general sanity,” he obsessed after returning to Nantucket with the one aim of hunting the White Whale.  Monomania had almost fallen out of favor as a diagnosis by 1850, when Melville wrote, but novelists from Balzac to Bronte adopted the image of mental fixation and unhinged rationality that Ahab’s reading of maps convey.  

Nothing in Mellville’s novel is so great an emblem indicating Captain Ahab’s madness than his obsessive consultation of nautical charts and maps of which he is a jealous custodian, and which provide the basis to nourish his determination to locate Moby Dick.  Maps may feed Ahab’s relentless compulsion to track the White Whale.  Ahab’s obsession with maps reflects contemporary attempts to map the open seas:  indeed, the superstitious value of the leviathan held a special place in the “wild, strange tales of Southern whaling,” and the deep sympathy of whaling men for their prey, who they know far better than those naturalists who have perpetuated false legends of their fierce animosity for humans, from Palsson to Cuvier, distorting the actual awesomenes of pursuing any whale tracking the Great White.  

Ahab’s obsessive reading of maps to track Moby Dick seems a figure for his monomania, but reflects an actual mapping project tracking whales on the open seas, which Melville knew well, and a project of mapping the logs of whaling ships in legible cartographic form.  Ahab’s use of maps to track Moby Dick mirrors the cartographical project of Matthew Fontaine Maury, the nineteenth-century Virginian polymath and early hero of open data, who in 1851 sought to map migratory routes of Sperm and Right whales or the benefit of the whaling economy.   If Melville often consulted histories of arctic searches for Northern Whales published from the 1820s, the appearance of an authoritative map of the courses of whales that Maury had accumulated from ships’ logs provided a model that attempted to impose human reason and fixed continuity on a whale’s migrating itineraries and paths, in order best to predict its actual location.

Ahab’s obsessive hope to track the course of the great white whale Moby Dick in the ship the Pequod may mirror the scope and ambition of M.F. Maury’s project–a project that led to one of the odder maps of marine population and migration that appears below, but which is one of the monuments of open data.   For Melville, however, Ahab’s mania seems driven by the hope the map carried for being  able to track  the course of the great white whale that his prey, and to arrive at the moment of confrontation that will in fact never appear on any map.  For unlike the observations Maury graphically collated, the specificity of Ahab’s tie to Moby Dick is not on the map at all.


Whale Chart 1851Maury’s Whaling Map; Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library


Ahab’s self-imposed sequestering on the voyage of the Pequod in his cabin, surrounded by a variety of charts, seems emblematic of his single-minded obsession to track the elusive Moby Dick.  It is emblematic of a uniquely obsessive sort of map-reading emblematic of his particular sort of hubris:  as he will never know the true path of the majestic whale, his study of the map symbolizes a contest between the mapping abilities of man and whale.  The consultation of the map reveals the sharp contrast between the whale as an innate cartographer who migrated across seas and the knowledge of routes inscribed in lifeless nautical charts, and the inability to plot or plan the intense longing for his confrontation with Moby Dick within the range of observations of all whales by traveling whale ships.  But it is also an amazing fantasia of the reading of nautical maps as if they were guides to habitation, and a reflection on the nature of map-reading and the comprehensive claims of encompassing known space within engraved maps, and specifically of the colored charts of sea routes, whaling and sighted whales that Matthew Fontaine Maury produced in the 1850s that compiled nautical logs of whaling ships.

We have little sense of the amassing of data in Ahab’s cabin, so much as the intense relation that the captain develops to his charts.  Melville describes how Ahab retires to his cabin to open “large wrinkled roll of yellowish sea charts, spread them before him on his screwed-down table,” ready to set himself to “intently study the various lines and shadings which there met his eye,” and escape into the paths that they trace.  The memorable episode in Ahab’s own cabin focusses attention on how the captain’s obsessive consultation of the maps, as a sort of emblem of his search to capture the whale in them.   Ahab processed information in the map as best he could, and “with slow but steady pencil trace additional courses over spaces that before were blank,” while consulting log-books of previous voyages and noted sightings of sperm whales in a desperate attempt to locate the migratory path of the white sperm whale Moby Dick–whose own route he so obsessively seeks to understand and on which he fixates so obstinately. The reading activity is isolated and isolation, because the map is essentially mute, a second order of spatial knowledge with which he has no literal traffic or exchange, but becomes a way to wrap himself in further isolation from the mammal that communes with the productive fecund waters of the sea.  “While he himself was marking outlines and courses on the wrinkled charts, some invisible pencil was also tracing lines and courses upon the deeply marked chart of his forehead,” as every night, “in the solitude of his cabin, Ahab thus pondered over his charts, . . . threading a maze of currents and eddys, with a view to the more certain accomplishment of that monomaniac thought of his soul.”

Such a collective map of the sightings of whales is both the focus and talisman of Ahab’s monomaniacal will:  both as the transcription of the paths of hidden submarine itineraries, “with the charts of all four oceans before him,” and the hubris of understanding the concealed migratory course of that noble whale with which he is so obsessed and that has long evaded his search.  For Melville confides that “it might seem an absurdly hopeless task thus to seek out one solitary creature in the unhooped oceans of this planet” to many; “But not so did it seem to Ahab, who knew the set of all tides and currents; thereby calculating the driftings of the sperm whale’s food, which whales were imagined to follow; and, also, calling to mind the regular, ascertained seasons for hunting him in particular latitudes; could arrive at reasonable surmises, almost approaching to certainties, concerning the timeliest day to be upon this or that ground in search of his prey.”

The map serves not as a nautical chart, to plan one’s voyage to a geographical destination or actual port, but rather puported  to locate the individual location of the whale on predict its migration.  In Moby Dick, the maps seem to chart the food supplies that Moby Dick will follow, holding value not deriving from its own cartographical accuracy or precision, but the functions of probability that will allow him to track the whale:  “So assured, indeed, is the fact concerning the periodic migration of sperm whales to specific mating grounds, that many hunters believe that, could he be closely observed and studied throughout the world; were the logs for one voyage of the entire whale fleet carefully collated, then the migrations of the sperm whale would be found to correspond in invariability to those of the herring-shoals or the flights of swallows.  On this hint, attempts have been made to construct elaborate migratory charts of the sperm whale.”  Such a scheme of mapping the paths of the leviathans fit with the larger plans of Lt. Matthew Fontaine Maury, the Superintendent of the Naval Observatory and founder of modern oceanographical mapping both of famous wind and current charts in the 1840s and a comprehensive map of the ocean floor in 1855, who had sorted data from sailors’ “actual observations” into isothermal charts of ocean temperatures and currents, into a comprehensive map of its floor that tracked the physical geography of the sea “as the main spring of a watch; its waters, and its currents, and its salts, and its inhabitants, with their adaptations, as balance-wheels, and cogs, and pinions and tools” (Physical Geography of the Sea (1855), 54).  Maury’s bridging of natural history and physical geography in his pioneering treatise comes close to treating the ocean’s depths as its own living form–that would facilitate the very sort of human interactions with oceans to which Melville also returned.


MauryM.F. Maury, “Bathymetric Map of the Atlantic,” Physical Geography of the Ocean (1855)


As a sailor and writer, Melville must have reacted in part to the huge collation of shipping routes and the observations of whaling ships, one of the largest and most ambitious open data projects of the late nineteenth century.  When in April of 1851 Lt. Matthew Fontaine Maury (1806-73) announced his fabrication of a chart designed for charting migrating whales he served as the Superintendent of the United States Navy’s Department of Charts and Instruments, and was one of the best-known oceanographers and cartographers in the nation. Maury issued the map when he worked at the Naval Observatory, and his cartographical productivity and activity has led him to be championed as hero of open data on the order of Charles Babbage.  Maury’s monumental charting of safe routes of navigation had focussed on winds and currents, allowing sailors to chart the most convenient shipping routes, in an attempt to lend a cartographical legibility to the seas in works such as his Wind and Current Charts, to make legible opportune paths of oceanic transit, as in this map of voyages to the coast of Africa from 1847.  Maury collated the available records stored in thousands of ships’ logs and charts to plot winds and currents issued form the US Hydrographic Office so as to determine the most advantageous routes of sea travel, and also to derive the general “laws” that he believed governed transit across oceans, by preparing a map whose surface would create “the field for observing the operations of the general laws which govern the movements of the great aerial ocean,” effectively embodying meteorological data from notations kept on trade-winds, pilot charts, and thermal charts in readily constable form for commercial use, to record of “a system of oceanic circulation” for pilots to consult.

Maury would subsequently come to construct the map of whale migration that Herman Melville attributed him from nautical logs, synoptic oceanographic data, and charts, collated by retired whaling captains.  He announced plans to publish a whaling just six months before the publication of Moby Dick, which appeared the following year, and Melville acknowledged its appearance in a relatively small “Author’s Note.”  But Maury’s earlier maps from the 1840s already stood as monuments of the description of oceanic travel and sea-going, mediating collective accounts of winds–if not sightings of whales–that served to condense data from nautical logs in ways that not only captured the tacit knowledge of seamen but synthesized their collective observations in thick descriptions of nautical experience in collections of “open data” that he took as a summation of the expansion of shipping routes.

Maury took advantage of the medium of color charts to trace a record of the observations of individual ships, by their respective ports of call.  His accumulation of a collective content stands at a considerable remove the experience of navigating the choppy seas, which he collated through the start of the Civil War, was animated by a deep desire to map what he believed was the “uniform character” of the surface of the Great Ocean, treating its natural observations as revealing a set of absolute rules of the circulation of the force of trade-winds and currents, seasonal variations, horse latitudes and equatorial calms, as if a coherent picture of their variations could appear from the synthesis of collective observations of almost mathematical harmony:


Maury maps trade windsMaury, “The Winds” (1858)


The mapping of “wind and current” charts were based on the mapping of collective observations along shipping routes, through the synthesis of data observed along shipping routes from 1785 to 1860, the courses of each of which he recorded in multicolored lines corresponding to their ports of leave, in ways that served to distill something like a residue of tacit knowledge in graphical form of collective itineraries:


US Hydrographic Office


The amassing of individual logs of specific ships was placed in clear evidence for consultation in color charts, which amassed individually dated voyages, color-coding each dated and identified voyage in correspondence with individual ships’ ports of call, in a manner he would continue to use to transpose individual findings of mariners to give his subsequent maps of whale-sightings a readable form:


dated voyages1847 map; courtesy Barry Lawrence Ruderman, Rare Maps


The project for mapping the seas was analogous to a monument of modern description design for principally economic ends.  Maury’s ambitious announcement, Favorite Haunts, included a preliminary chart that was later expanded to a Whale Chart of the World, provided an unprecedented mapping of the open seas.  The map was a sort of extension of his belief in the benefits of publishing open data in print.  Herman Melville praised how Maury’s map divided the world’s oceans by five degrees of latitude and five degrees of longitude, and charting the number of days that whales spend in each region in each of the twelve months, and to note the number of days that sperm or right whales seen in the course of the year.  (The incident occurred the same year Melville published Moby Dick).  But the motivation for charting the courses of ships and the paths of whales constituted two halves of a deep concern–or obsession–that motivated Maury’s work, provoked in part by the evocation in scriptures, in Psalm 8, of “the paths of the seas,” which inspired the deeply religious Maury’s hope to delineate currents, track winds, and indeed track ocean-living mammals in their paths across the ocean’s expanse to ken the pathways he attributed to divine design.  His hopes to transcribe such a record provoked the intensive tracking of ocean voyages in the South Seas, off Western Australia, by 1852, immediately before his 1857 monumental Physical Geography of the Seas (Washington), amassing individual measurements of American and non-American ships, an area of intense whale hunting and spice routes:


1852 Western AustraliaBarry Lawrence Ruderman, Rare Maps


The notion of being able to preserve a legible geography of oceanic pathways, currents, winds, and indeed tracks of whale-migration suggested a trust in statistics to provide an almost alchemical attribution of a “physical geography” to ocean waters, which he believed to be–as the currents–a creation of God rather than Nature, and for that very reason supremely legible.

The project of data collection was monumentally ambitious in its own right.  The striking enjambment of the Maury’s ambitious act of data-collation and the perverse reading that Ahab makes of it to trace not one breed of whale, but to find one specific whale in it, is a sort of mania of map-reading, rooted in a magnificent imaginative leap of the sort that maps provoke, in which one looks for a single voter in a data distribution, or find one’s building in a city view, as if searching for a needle in a haystack but compelled almost by the map’s comprehensive claims to continue in the belief that it can be found:  the White Whale has assumed so great centrality in Ahab’s imagination that he is convinced it will appear, and that he can find it, in Maury’s map, which positioned sightings for observers, designated below by icons of individual whales, on a rectilinear grid, to guide the whaling ships on the cusp of a significant depletion of whales from the ocean waters.




The map of whale sightings corresponded, no doubt to the huge expansion of whaling routes from the eastern seaboard (and from Nantucket) in the 1850s, which had allowed Maury to compile one of the first repositories of open data, drawing from the largest historical collections of shipping records ever assembled.

The tables were later digitized, apparently in Tianjin, China, between 1993 and 1996, in a set of digitized records Ben Schmidt mapped, preserving the coloration of routes that Maury used to distinguish different ships’  ports of call.  The visualizations captures and maps growing knowledge of the open seas, as both American shipping routes spread in the Atlantic and whaling and other routes in the previously unexplored Pacific and South Seas in ways that put places like Salem, New Bedford, and Nantucket on the global map.




Feb 1845


Dec 1845

May 1841

Feb 1843

March 1844


jan 1846

July 1852



Sept 1851


These visualizations created from Maury’s dataset tell a story of the expanse of American shipping–before they ceased about the time of the Civil War, in part because of his Confederate loyalty, and lack of access to the full dataset he had at his disposal previously, hiring not only old captains but old whaling masters to transpose and copy the results of old log books and observations, not only to map the seas but to determine the best paths for navigational routes and speeds, noting as they did, both current, wind, cloud cover, and directions in a single standardized format and made them readable in printed form as data in ways.  (Schmidt writes that the printed books were so persuasive to encourage European national shipping agencies in London to send log books to him to abstract records of their data by similar distinctions.)

The result is to create an abstracted but legible record of shipping patterns, if one that we are able to visualize digitally in ways that are more successful that Maury’s very useful maps of the directionality of ocean winds could prove to modern eyes, mapping ships by their ports of destination by different colors to display the shifting proportions of shipping boats that set sail from different Atlantic ports in the United States:


may 1852


March 1854

August 1852

Jul 1853

March 1854


Sept 1858

Oct 1861


The charts that Maury prepared of ocean charts were able to reduce times of ocean transit by up to several weeks, or so he boasted:  they provided keys to plan sea travel whose collation of data was intensely popular among trained readers for their ability to imagine advantageous meteorological conditions on the open seas–for which there existed no collections of data, and on which sailors had to rely on individual or collective experience to determine advantageous routes of travel, “reading” the winds from a fixed position, and lacking any communication of weather changes.




Perhaps pressed by commercial reasons, as much as his ambitions to provide a clearer map that would better facilitate sea-commerce, but perhaps captured by hopes for a new sort of nautical omniscience that he believed transposed the concepts of a benevolent Creator, Maury acted as the medium to translate sailor’s first-hand observations to legible form by amassing or “opening” data on whale sightings in the 1850s, in order to refine existing maps of ocean currents.  The preparation of legible records offered an unprecedented conversion of trade secrets to a repository of “open” data on the sightings of whales in the hopes of mapping commerce on seas–if not a dream of the transformation of individual logs to a comprehensive ocean chart.

The publication of Maury’s maps of whales spotted at sea did not in themselves in fact provoke the depletion of whales in the world’s oceans from the 1850s–nor could they have, as they responded to a problem that was already afflicting whalers, and was probably not caused only by over-fishing.  But, as Ben Schmidt noted, Maury’s logs revealed the extent to which whaling provided a seasonal driver that contrasted with fixed routes of commerce:  the distinct rhythm and narrative flow unlike that of shipping routes or the global commerce across the Atlantic.  Indeed, whaling tells a specific tempo of nautical travels Melville whose distinct rhythm Melville sought to narrativize across what he called the “watery prairies,” as if they were a modern extension of westward exploration, based not on fixed commercial routes of travel or trade, but the pursuit of moving targets on large ships destined for expeditions in search of whales–hunts such as those Melville experienced on the Acushnet and Essex, which was the model for the Pequot’s sinking in Moby Dick.  The networks of whaling and shipping can be surveyed at Schmidt’s visualization of US Shipping routes:

Schmidt plotted the courses of two ships on which Melville sailed based on Maury’s mountain of data:


Melville's Voyages on the Acushnet in context


But the charting of whales–and conditions of fine whaling–provided Maury with the far more elusive subject of mapping by transposing log books of Nantucket whalers into a form of open data that would enjoy considerable popularity.  Can one imagine Ahab’s consultation of maps in his cabin as a sort of initial, albeit manic and single-minded, individual confrontation with open data that he believes allows him access to the whale of which he is not able to let go?  Did the comprehensive ambition of mapping two halves of a story–that of whales’ migrations, and the travels of its sailors–open an effective absence of narration that Melville moved to fill, by telling a story not of the currents created by God, but of the ship commanded by human desires?  Is the reading of such currents, collated observations, and open data for Melville a form of something approaching the hubris of over-confidence?

Maury’s chart boasted the ability to collate from the courses of whaling routes the ability of tracking sites of whale populations for ready consultation as if it had acquired the status of fact.  The masterpiece of publishing open data cannot be blamed in itself for the fearful depletion of actual whales by the 1850s in ocean waters,–which led Melville himself to worry “if the Leviathan can long endure so wide a chase” after being pursued so systematically by whalers in the novel Moby Dick.  The map that Maury had crafted, if perhaps slightly more visually legible to modern eyes than his maps of winds at sea, as much as providing a basis for the oceans’  depletion of whales, may have well provided Melville with a model for that of Ahab’s obsessive use of maps to track the whale of which he was in such hot pursuit, and his consultation of maps to guide the Pequod so single-mindedly obsessed.  The map may have even provided a model for the intensity–and map-inspired madness–that drove Ahab’s manic search for Moby Dick, lending credence to Ahab’s perverse hope for tracking a whale across open seas.


hale chart, with quadrantsSmithsonian Institution


What sort of space of possible routes for whaling did the Maury map provide, if not for the near-obsessive observation of whales?  Did its totality evoke the dream not only of the ongoing search for whales in ocean waters, but the prospect of finding and mapping one particularly identifiable whale, based on a similar collation of previous reports of whaling masters, now undertaking by a somewhat crazed captain?

But the relation between the novel and the map, which might have provided Melville with a sort of guide or template to write his novel, have relations that are considerably more complex.  Maury’s subsequent map, of far greater scope, was intended to allow sailors to better locate whales with facility in the course of their migrations, to intersect with them in their own maritime pathways.  He situated the routes and itineraries of whale migration an even more refined grid, as well as color-coded approximate ranges of travel, as if the path of the whale were both predictable and well-known, in ways that would lend some credence to what would otherwise be the somewhat preposterous project of setting out to track one sperm whale across the sea:


Whale Chart 1851Leventhal Map Center in Boston Public Library    

Did the predictive element of Maury’s plans for maps seem a deranged hope for

Maury had hoped to increase the commerce of whaling by tracking the migration of whales across the seas for whalers.  By using extant logs to chart their population of the oceans, his was a rudimentary economic statistical chart of sorts, save that it did not chart commerce or products, save the routes of migration that Melville both mythologizes and ponders as natural mysteries.  Did the 1851 map also give some credence, in an odd way, to the obsession that Ahab is able to develop?  The paths, Melville was quick to point out, were indeed far more precise in their collation of routes, that wind-propelled ships which were brought to different places by oceanic currents, could hope to profit from, and represent the paths of marine mammals that human ships could never hope to replicate.

The paths or “ocean-lines along which whales travelled” were, Melville tells us in his text, of “such undeviating exactitude, that no ship ever sailed her course, by any chart, with one tithe of such marvellous precision,” but Ahab trusts, hubristically, in the charts he has gathered, even though “the direction taken by any one whale be straight as a surveyor’s parallel,” as a guide to “place and time himself on his way” that allowed him to hatch “his delirious but still methodical scheme.”  As the projection of the desire to track whales, this maps itself combines something similar to Ahab’s method and madness, by which “crossing the widest expanses of water between [separate feeding] grounds, could Ahab hope to encounter his prey.” The map becomes something of a topos for a contest between nature and culture, or the limits of human comprehension of the magnificence of the wild. On the map, Ahab had noted with his customary obsessive care all sightings of the whale, and, most meaningfully of all, perhaps, because in it lay the root of all his madness of mapping Moby Dick:   his own intersection with Moby Dick’s path at “that tragic spot where the monomaniac old man had found the awful motive to his vengeance,” and lost one of his legs to the cunning Leviathan and with is the place from which the narrative of Melville’s novel essentially takes its spin and motive energy, and which unlocks the secrets that Ishmael only comes to perceive.  (Grim Ahab was particularly effected after “he found himself hard by the very latitude and longitude where his tormenting wound had been inflicted” in Chapter CXXX.)  This absent center, which will be matched at the end of the book by the drowning of the ship Pequod, and of Ahab’s death, remains a mystery to us, but was the site of the creation of Ahab’s crazed drive, which the expansive narrative of the novel weaves itself around.

Such maps are the imaginary fields in which Ahab isolated himself and maddeningly withdrew from his crew.  They created the very space and field “with which Ahab threw his brooding soul into this unfaltering hunt” from which he would not permit himself to rest, giving a semblance of meaning to the pursuit of “the scheming, unappeasedly steadfast hunter of the white whale” in a crazed act of willfulness that perpetuates itself with unhinged obsessiveness.  Having charted the waters, he grew obsessed with his hope track the great whale in its course, as if the charts allowed him to materialize the elusive whale itself.  This cartographical fantasy of omniscient knowledge may lie at the root of Ahab’s madness, Melville suggests, if it is not analogous to it:  “God help thee, old man, thy thoughts have created a creature in thee; and he whose intense thinking thus makes him a Prometheus; a vulture feeds upon that heart for ever; that vulture the very creature he creates.”  Starbuck later finds Ahab, in his cabin, as the Pequod approached Japan, “with a general chart of the oriental archipelagoes spread before him; and another separate one representing the long eastern coasts of the Japanese islands–Niphon, Mastmai, and Sikoke,” studying them obsessively “with his snow-white new ivory leg braced against the screwed leg of his table, . . . wrinkling his brown, and tracing his old courses again” (Chapter CIX).  This is the very moment when he obsessively refuses to turn back from his chase of the whale, even on hearing dangerous indications of a leakage among the oil in the ship’s hold, and the first mate counsels returning to Nantucket–who is not say that he is not possessed of the fantasy of a map?

Maury Title Page Cartouche


That demonic searching of Moby Dick seems partly born of the map.  The polymath Maury, like Melville, was a southerner who had circumnavigated the globe, and in his work as an astronomer, educator, geologist, cartographer, author, and astronomer was in odd ways far more a public citizen than Melville in the mid-nineteenth century.  Maury’s career (and perhaps ambitions) came to an odd end as he joined the Confederacy to serve his native Virginia in the Civil War, as Chief of Sea Coast, River, and Harbor Defense–and ended up traveling Europe in search of naval materials for the Southern states, and hoping that European intervention could resolve the Civil War’s devastation. This odd projected voyage to secure international help for the Confederate fleet was in its own way Ahab-like in its obsession and pursuit:   Virginia benefitted little from secession, although his introduction of naval mines wrecked detestation for the Union and commercial shipping routes, and Maury, after waging unsuccessful campaigns in the newspapers and public speeches, retired after the war to Lexington, Virginia, a steadfast friend of Robert E Lee and professor at the Virginia Military Institute.  He served both as Lee’s pall-bearer and he set for himself a future burial plot in Lexington directly across from that of his former comrade in arms Stonewall Jackson.

The marine maps that offered such comprehensive coverage of oceanic expanse provided little road map to his own career, and he remained based in Lexington until his death, sort of–though Melville could not have predicted–Ahab consulting maps in his cabin in the Pequod.  Maury had dedicated himself to writing a monumental physical geography of his native Virginia in the hopes to revive a local economy war had so devastated by means of a map for regional geological prospecting.




Herman Melville had of course detailed with grimmer precision how Ahab descended into madness in the hopes of chasing and finding the white whale that he had long pursued.  In a particularly desperate moment, Ahab seems to throw a final gauntlet at  the very project of mapping the locations of whales that Maury had optimistically sketched in the proposal that Melville well knew:  just after Ahab “calculated at what latitude he might be at this precise instant,” he fell into a “reverie” he looked up to the sun and in what might be better described as a moment of rage was murmuring to himself, just before the chase for Moby Dick–addressing the sun in the sky as he held the quadrant in hand. “Thou tellest me truly where I am–but canst thou cast the least hint where I shall be?  Or canst thou tell me where some other thing besides me is this moment living?  Where is Moby Dick?  This instant thou must be eyeing him.”

It is not a coincidence that for his first mate Starbuck, Ahab’s madness is most revealed by his haughty dismissal of nautical instruments “in his fatal pride”:  “gazing at his quadrant,” Melville wrote, “and handling, one after the other, its numerous cabalistical contrivances, he pondered again, and muttered:  “Foolish toy!  babies’ plaything of haughty Admirals, and Commodores, and Captains; the world brags of thee, of they cunning and might; but what after all canst thou do, but tell the poor, pitiful point, where thou thyself happenest to be on this wide planet, and the hand that holds thee:  no! not one jot more!  Thou canst not tell where one drop of water or one grain of sand will be to-morrow noon; and yet with they impotence thou insultest the sun!  Science!  . . . Curse thee,thou vain toy; and cursed be all the things that cast man’s eyes aloft to that heaven . . . .  Curse thee, thou quadrant!’ dashing it to the deck, “no longer will I guide my earthly ways by thee; the level ship’s compass, and the level dead-reckoning, by log and by line; these shall conduct me and show me my place on the sea.'”  Melville later described how “For a space the old man walked the deck in rolling reveries,” and when “he saw the crushed copper sight-tubes of the quadrant he had only the day before dashed to the deck” would crow that ‘Ahab is lord over the level loadstone yet.’ (CXVIII)     Starbuck worried:  “‘Has he not dashed his heavenly quadrant?  and in these same perilous seas, gropes he not, his way by mere dead reckoning of the error-abounding log?'” (CXXIII) Maury’s own chart mapped the courses of whales similarly derived from logs and sightings, and provided something of a model for Ahab’s own obsessions of predicting the White Whale’s course.  Maury’s own particular obsessiveness with charting the paths of whales was something of the mad genius of the south–from where Melville of course saw himself as hailing–and a model of militaristic advocacy of secession so unlike Melville’s own path.


Filed under American literature, data visualization, Moby Dick, statistics, US Coastal Survey