Tag Archives: Ecumene

Maps, Mapping, Globalism: Imaging the Ecumene’s Expanse

That most ancient of words, Oikumene, expanded from the Greek “oikos” to designate a dwelling or residence, or ecumene denoted less the technical abilities of mapping or tools for describing of the world than the demarcation of inhabited lands in which civilized people or members of the church existed:  but the divulgation and expansion of the notion of mapping abilities have in recent years, since the explosion of information databases and during intense globalization since the 1980s, extended the notion of the ecumene that has grown to extend beyond the map.  It increasingly is invested as a terms with ethical connotations to understand or foreground humanity’s relation to its environment–or retake the human from the map–at a time when virtually no part of the world is not inhabited.  Indeed, the possibility of drawing frontiers between an uninhabited and inhabited world–or of defining limits of the inhabitable world–is so diminished that the concept of bounding areas are not clear; the areas of the earth that are no longer inhabited, its “open spaces” or unsettled areas have catastrophically declined in the past twenty years.

But the continued interest we have in describing how we occupy the world, if not demarcating the boundaries of the world, is at the center of the data flows and databases we process in GIS and that increasingly lie at our finger tips.  The instant generation of maps of the inhabited areas of the world have paralleled the catastrophic decline since the 1990s, when a tenth of existing wildlife declined and the catastrophic losses of wildlife confirmed at the  IUCN World Conservation Congress:  the shocking fact that only 23 percent of wilderness remains doesn’t even include the future effects of global warming, the current crisis in history’s tragedies mankind is currently in the process of having created or on its way to create.  Indeed, the destruction of wilderness–what are deemed intact landscapes that are mostly free of human disturbance–has perhaps most radically changed the nature of the inhabited world.  Since the “Last of the Wild” map was first published in 2002, the loss of almost a tenth of formerly uninhabited lands in the last decade is the most rapid expansion of human settlement of the planet, with some 3.3 million sq km of once-uninhabited lands lost, of which 2.7 million sq km2 are considered globally significant–a loss of some carbon biomass in forests destroys a resource that offsets atmospheric CO2.

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But let’s return to maps, such realities being to painful for me to contemplate.  Even as the entire earth is now inhabited, much is to be gained in the concept of actively mapping expanse both by preserving an analytic relation to that image of expanse, too often rendered abstractly in computer-generated cartographical media, and encouraging an analytic relation to how the material contents of maps embody space.  Crafting an image of the inhabited world as a bound expanse enjoyed a somewhat neglected historical lineage as a form of knowing the nature of an inhabited world and of orienting viewers or readers to the expanding unknown from the Roman empire:  the considerable intellectual heft of the term inherited from ancients–Eratosthenes, Ptolemy, and Strabo–and its signification of the inhabited and inhabitable earth informed most Renaissance maps and atlases, in which practices of mapping gained new epistemic ends as mediating comprehensive knowledge.

The comprehensive genre of the atlas, an illustrated set of maps promising true global coverage of lands linked by seas, developed in concert with the knowledge that the inhabited world extended beyond earlier imagined confined, and borrowed an expansiveness previously limited to nautical cartography or mapping.  The description of the distance to the edges of the world, if inherited from antiquity, provided a model for understanding the nature of the discoveries for the educated audiences among whom the first maps of the terrestrial ecumene first circulated both in manuscript and print–from the illuminated codices produced in Florence to the massive twelve-sheet wall-map announcing the Columban discoveries that the erudite Martin Waldseemüller compiled in the early sixteenth century Strasbourg from the school at nearby Saint-Dié-des-Vosges.

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The visual qualities of mapping, symbolized as an expansive landscape, cast the embrace of the inhabited world with qualities of perceptual transcendence over its variations and divisions.  Ancient geographic treatises included few maps; but mapping the ecumene created a relation of expanse and an observer’s eye in the late fifteenth century by organizing and ordering the globe’s inhabitation.  And although it’s odd to think of the ecumene as an inheritance of ancient geography that’s still employed, the inheritance mapping the inhabited earth resonates with Geographic Information Systems–although fashioning an image of the world’s geography has little of the ethical intent it seems to have enjoyed in both the ancient and early modern worlds.  When we daily orient ourselves to how space is inhabited on our computer screens, iPhones, or androids, we frame an image that bounds a record of how space is inhabited either to orient us to where we are going or how the presence of cars, people, bacilli, or weather defines the inhabit world.  Paradoxically, the growth of GIS technology has increased the manner of ways we can chart the inhabitation and presence of man in space, if it has not increased how we define its continuity, it has also provoked both a Renaissance of mapping and a crisis in the authority of the map as a representational record of the ecumene and its bound, as well as its bounded nature.

While the rest of this post isn’t exactly heavy lifting, but is stuff I’m still processing and finding my way around.

1.  The assemblage of maps in a sequence of global coverage was identified with the cultural distinction Ptolemy gave to the project of world-mapping on a graticule of meridians and parallels, to be sure, both compressing a growing sense of the world’s navigable expanse and indexing its toponymy along climactic zones.  The term ecumene challenged the mental imagination by encompassing local variety in a capacious global category, ordering a global map in a neatly bounded surface beyond the Indian Sea, and up to the limits of known land, in a feat of mental dexterity as much as precise or accurate map of exactly determined scale.  The lower boundary of the map copiously noted “terra incognita,” as later projections–and left it at that, as an expansive white space that exists beyond the sea and lakes of the moons, as this Florentine map includes, adopting the notion of an extensive northern ocean to frame the inhabited world–even while seeing the Indian Ocean as closed.

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Indeed, even as the world grew more detailed and other continents were registered as inhabited, as in the Ortelian planisphere, the growth of regions of terra incognito expanded, as if to parallel the known regions which were designated by naturalistic landscapes:  the unknown regions of “America dive India Nova” were paralleled with the imagined “Terra Australis,” a later configuration of the mythical Java la Grande.

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The ancient Greek astronomer and scientist Claudius Ptolemy proposed using terrestrial maps on geometrically derived parallels and meridians as tools of portmanteau-like capacity to comprehend terrestrial spaciousness, by segmenting the world’s inhabited surface by degrees of longitude.  The notion of mapping totality was particularly fertile for early map-readers a decade before 1492.  The tools for mapping the ecumene or inhabited world provided an ambitious compendium of global knowledge, although the geographic knowledge of the world was limited–and still was by the time of this world map, illuminated circa 1482:  although restricting the ecumene for modern eyes, its capacious reach extends south to inner Ethiopia and northward, beyond its broken frame, to embrace northernmost isles beyond Thule.  Rings of uninhabited islands indeed constituted, John Gillis has recently noted, part of the mental furniture on the boundaries of the inhabited world for most fifteenth-century men, and suggested a comforting bounding of the world that seemed to illustrate its protection and insulation, lying as it did between uninhabitable climactic zones and far-off seas.

The ethno-centered ancient term maintained a sense of charting the world’s recognizable inhabitants or those that mattered to the readers of maps:  so, in the Augustan age, Roman’s referred to the expanse of the empire as the ecumene, beyond which lived barbarians.  But even as it retained a bounded sense for Renaissance readers, the totalizing image of an ecumene provided a way to imagine the population of an expanse greater than lay in the ken of most–and to understand coherence within a world that included information from far-off lands, even if many fifteenth-century people lacked clear geographic categories of spatial division of an inhabited terrestrial expanse.  The edges of the earth were oddly clear for a period that suggests limited familiarity with expanse: the monsters and extraordinary riches found there were included in fifteenth-century editions of Ptolemy’s handbook of world geography, including elephants in the island of Taprobane, beyond India, trees that had leaves year-round, multitudes of serpents, and cannibals.  These were the signs of the world beyond what humans knew, and included the bare-footed gymnosophists of India.

The compendious divisions of this mental map in a sense informed an engraved world map printed as the sixth page of the 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle, or “Book of Chronicles,” a “universal” history that promised a temporal compendium of world history, embracing historical ages in order to be able depict the division of continents from its creation through after the recession of waters in the Noahic flood through the succession of worldly empires that Augustine and Orosius had famously described–a work that captured the early taste for engravings as mediating information in Renaissance Nuremberg.   Romans discussed their empire as the ecumene, imitating how Greek geographers discussed an ecumene at whose fringes lived fundamentally other foreign Peoples, outside the scope of human concern and beyond the limits of human inhabitability; the world-map in the Chronicle placed outside its borders the excluded races of  Cynocephali, one-footed Sciopods, reverse-footed Antipods, bearded women, and one-eyed cyclopean monsters.  These lay outside the three regions divided among Noah’s three sons Shem, Japhet and Ham, or ecumene, and outside its image of the inhabitable world where humans dwelled, but also reflected the new world that the recession of waters in the Noahic flood had revealed to human sight, and the projection of the world that its editor included registered the shock of the prospectus terrarum that the lessening of global waters worldwide revealed–and the ecumene it unveiled:

SECUNDA ETAS MUNDI

 

 

Hand-illuminated versions suggests significant curiosity in these creatures placed outside of the map’s ruled boundary who dwelled in a different space from the river-nourished environment of what one supposed to lie on the edges the habited world:

 

Secunda Aetas Mundi

 

 

The ecumene had of course already expanded dramatically by 1490 or 1493 that challenged thought about its both its boundedness and uniformity and cartographical forms to represent spatial expanse.  It continued to expand dramatically in the following years for readers of maps.  Similar monstrous races were included on its peripheries:  in the northern limits of Asia, a boundary of the inhabited world, even in Martin Waldseemüller’s learned Carta marina of 1516–both in response to literary sources and travelogues as well as the mental furniture of the bounded region of human habitability.  Many of these races were left off of the map as “an empirically known space,” for the very reason that they challenged and threatened a human space, and the boundaries of the world revealed by maritime exploration were unknown–even if sea monsters were increasingly banished from the more the edges and unknown areas of the more refined world maps, as the Carta marina.

 

Waldseemuller 1516 carta nautica

 

The consciousness of limits of habitability or human settlement was a graphic expression of Strabo’s mandate that geographers show the world’s inhabited part, as much as its inhabitants or populations to readers to satisfy curiosity and to respond to a need to describe its limits, as much as its totality:  “the geographer must describe the inhabited world in its known parts, neglect its unknown regions, as well as what is out of reach” (II, 5,5), placing a primacy on describing those parts of the world or communities in which humans live.  Although most fifteenth-century people did not easily domesticate the idea of an extensive space, let alone an undifferentiated expanse, picturing the unity and comprehensiveness of the ecumene became a basis for thinking about expanse, and comprehending difference:  the image of the ecumene in the Nuremberg Chronicle became a basis for continuing a rambling shapeless narrative grounded in a series of embedded or potted histories of place, each defined around an individual city and city view:  the ecumene was the landscape, if you will, in which each was situated.  There is often limited notation of a matrix of parallels and meridians in what might be called a readable fashion in early Ptolemaic maps:  it helped make space legible and material–or a sense that they are conventions of understanding the dramatic contraction of global space, but not indices of way-finding or marking place, as in these gores, identified with Waldseemüller’s school of cartography, ostensibly made for a small globe.

 

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What has happened to the notion of the ecumene?  Even as the Ptolemaic ecumene was expanded, the community embraced in the map grew, rather than being abandoned, if New Worlds were processed into a map that reduced the prominence of Europe at the center of the inhabited world.  But the expanse of the ecumene held together, as it were, a sequence of regional maps, partly because the concept contained the promise that the whole world could be divided and known in synoptic form in a series of synoptic images that reconciled spatiality and territoriality.  Although mapping the continuity of expanse undergirded Renaissance cartographical images, the precision offered considerable wiggle-room, as it was limited only to the known.  But the division of space into bounded records of expanse were influential; the “chorographical” map of community became a counterpart of the totalizing coverage of a geographic projection.  To be sure, such maps responded to the diversity of ecumene that were discovered.  And maps provided models to mediate culturally fragmented collectivities, and fashion coherence across confessionally-divided communities– as the national map Oronce Fine designed of France to the French national atlases of the late sixteenth century to the English maps of Christopher Saxton, or Philip and Peter Apian’s maps of Central Europe, or a cycle of maps of the Italian peninsula that Egnazio Danti organized for a corridor leading to the apartments of Catholic Pope, discussed in an earlier post.  The coherence of each of these regions provided a sort of microcosm to the ancient geographic ecumene as it gestured to the wold that Romans civilized.

 

2.  The second half of this blogpost shifts focus.  In ways that less linked to cartographical models, it uses the notion of an ecumene to interrogate the survival of a  mapped global space in more modern mapping techniques.  We now lack similar boundary lines, of course, and measure contact among its regions rather than being awed by the immensity of the world’s expanse.  But the same term gained an ethical heft  in Enlightened thought to express a mandate for cosmopolitans to inhabit the world to become citizens of its entire expanse and cultures.  This shift in meaning, often thought of as a rupture, suggests continuities with the contemplative uses of globes for ancients as signs of learning or stoic remove.  The modern recuperation of the ecumene, distinct from its sense of the community of Christians (inherited from the Enlightenment) or the community of mankind is more striking as a relation to a lived environment, in ways that recuperates the ontological category of ecumene in order to describe and refer to the “humanized” world in which we now live–whose surface is more fully inhabited than ever before, but its nature shaped and informed by humanity both in regional environments and as a whole.

Augustin Berque has emphasized the benefits of attending to a relation, described by Tissier, between man and the planet in his 1993 article in the journal Persée, striking for how they dispense with the very category of a map if provocative for how they recuperate the ancient term in an ethical sense.  The term “ecumenical” oriented the term to the continuity in a community of believers.  But the ethos recuperated by Berque refers to what is human in the world, and a way of being, stripped of a fixed ethnocentric perspective.  By locating the “oikumenal” in terms of human geography stripped of a cartographical foundation, his sense eerily prefigures the images of the inhabited world that are both the benefits and costs of GIS as a basis for judging one’s own relation to the global world.  Berque has removed this ancient term of encyclopedic or positivistic coverage as a material register of geographic toponomy and the ancient craft of map making that embodied a fixed relation to the world.  His construction of an ecumene encompassing human society and its relation to the environment melds nature and culture in ways similar to the ancient term in its ethical connotations.  But his usage oddly dispenses with its graphic construction in favor of a global consciousness:  for in calling attention to the “ecumene,” has removed mankind’s relation with the earth’s surface is removed from a simple demonstrative function of the map:  much as the medium of GIS  defines the inhabitation of the world from one slant or subject, Berque asks us to embrace the multiple effects of mankind on the planet.

Berque believed that with the humanization of the planet complete, and the physical planet dominated by the effects of human life, more emphasis should be placed on a phenomenological analysis of the relation of subject an ambient by this Greek term, now removed from mapping practices to embrace human geography as a tool to consider the relation of man and his [made] environments. Putting aside the value of Berque’s point, the disposition of this philosophical standpoint  reflects the deconstruction of the privileged place of the terrestrial map and of geographic knowledge in GIS, and the image it perpetuates of the inscription of a human geography.  The relation of man and his planet–or the effects of man on the planet–are now the scope of a wide range of GIS maps of human habitation and Google Earth, or maps of influenza, infections and disease in data visualizations or geographic metadata catalogues, whose aim shift from physical geography to the place of mankind in it.  Increasingly, we are prepped to see the world nightly with a false immediacy of the nightly news, less focussed on territorial boundaries than a token of comprehensive coverage, prepped for consumption much as the newscasters who present an account of the “daily novelties” are prepped and outfitted in the apparatus of a news room.

 

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As put it eloquently (and cleverly) by Bruno Latour and friends, our ideas of territory so clearly derive from maps that the digital ubiquity of mapping places us into a new relation to territory:   we now navigate not based on “some resemblance between the map and the territory but on the detection of relevant cues . . .  to go through a heterogeneous set of datapoints” by which to move from different posts to gain new bearings.  We are always navigating a new relation to territory, or understand territorial models, not assuming defined and predetermined boundaries.  This notion of the environment is based on an ability to read signs of its inhabitation and peopling, rather than with reference to previously mapped territories, and is rooted on the ability to navigate by using maps on a screen, rather than on paper–in which the lack of resemblance indeed has further purchase (and persuasive power) as a gain in both certainty and objectivity.

 

3.  The analytic nature of the reader’s relation to GIS maps is less based on embodying place or expanse in a cartographical manner, because it is not rooted in mimetic qualities.  For the map, in much GIS, is used essentially as the primary field to encrypt variations in data, and removed from any pictorially descriptive function.  Put better, the map is something of a found object, a template, an objective construction in which we sort out the real information that is displayed upon it in an appealingly objective fashion, but one that lacks an orientational power rooted in mimetic claims and indeed turns away from making any actual mimetic claims:

 

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Indeed, the underlying positivism of the objectivity of the map is recycled in most visualizations that are rooted in GIS.  If modernity, as Doreen Massey put it, involved “a particular hegemonic understanding of the nature of space itself, and of the relation between space and society,” drawing expanse on multiple computational platforms in GIS has decoupled space from a precise location:  we now know from a true “view from nowhere.”  The differentiation of terrain or local constructions of space are of less interest than the projection of meaning on a map that is treated as a screen, and several significant local markers may be absent or not noted.  Shifting scale by moving a cursor does not create a more readable space, but provides a very odd reframing of space as a unit that is not comprehended by the reader, but able viewed simultaneously at multiple scales of changing parameters, zoomed into and out of, and adjusted on a digitized scale bar. Our current National Research Council argues in its spatial literacy report on spatial thinking that “the important thing is that they allow for the spatialization of data and use a range of types and amounts of data,” lending primacy to the readability of data over the analytic or representational basis of map-making.

What is physical geography, after all, in many of these maps?  The prime mandate is to map one’s relation to the environment in a readable fashion, rather than to encode layers of local topography or meaning, and to streamline the map to allow its reconfiguration in different datasets that prepare for readability, rather than granularity or density of meaning.  Again, this is based not in mimesis, and no longer based on the notion or mimetic projection of territory:

 

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If we speed this up, to look at a sort of time-stop photography of cabs in San Francisco’s downtown area, as did Stamen design in a pioneering map that combined aesthetics and the abundant database of the surveillance operations of Google Maps, and is based on readings taken from the GPS data of the Yellow Cab Company of San Francisco, available also as a film:

Stamen Cabs

Or, in Shawn Allen’s map/photo, which resembles a direct transcription of the taxicab scene in downtown San Francisco on June 15, 2012:

Shawn Allen's map:photo

Does an impoverishment of spatial literacy or toponymy result from such containers of datasets that use maps as formats?  The omniscience and transcendence of the map viewer is immeasurably increased, but the viewer is the receptacle of data, as much as the perceiver of the scene:  new currents are configured and new flows revealed, as data from a variety of sources are richly encrypted into the surface of any given image, compressing the sort of media to which we might have access to a single screen.  One has a different sort of relation to a screen than to a variegated surface, reading a way of configuring information in different ways:  but the difficulty with the screen in particular is its lack of a sense of spatial embodiment. Compare it to an earlier map of the same region, not at all sparing with information but bending backwards to compress legible content within a description of the city’s environment:

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These are, perhaps, essentially different modes of data compression, based not only on distinct tacit presumptions, with one angled toward data flows, rather than to the ostensible objectivity of a perceptual model.   But the difficulty to embody data flows can generate an oddly 2-D superficiality that forsakes the very quality transcendence to which earlier ecumene aspired.  Data-streams provide a selective mapping that illuminates one angle of analysis, as it were, rather than aspiring to process an image of the entire city’s or world’s actual inhabitation.

Let’s however insist on being more concrete.  When used to display shifts in a census, the map below displays data removed from topography or centers of population density, and is a data visualization without refined conventions to process its content or meaning for viewers, even if its meaning is quite serious and subject quite human, because it displays information on a static template with little interpretive key–since this map is less of an autonomous and self-standing unit of meaning than a map that demands to be read in reference to familiarity with a map of the distribution of the state’s population:

CO2 emissions

 

The above map of CO2 emissions of Northern California households elegantly foregrounds one specific reading of the relation of man to the environment. The challenge raised by such an elegant map is to retain communicative flexibility of the conventions of terrestrial mapping, however.  In any GIS map, there is the anger of emptying the format of project from content such as topographic variations, specific local detail, or the dynamic relations of space and habitation within a map:  the conventions of the format gains an iconic or symbolic register alone, in short, and is considerably impoverished as a description of terrestrial habitation when it serves as a field to display data flows or project a database.  One issue is to combine the data with how the analytic framework of the map integrates word and image or creates a structural distribution–something like the poetics of mapping–rather than employ maps as a passive container for spatial information instead of actively creating a way of thinking about space. The mapping of the results of a census regularly lack a sense of topographic variation or differentiation of urban and rural population which would render it more meaningful, and give a plasticity to its already remarkable contents as readable content.  This partly lies in the lack of a dynamic relation between the visual field of the map and its reading, as in this map of the regional variations in the India’s regional population per square kilometer:

 

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The map does not exploit its own conventions of orienting readers to space or expanse.  But GIS mapping offers a significant range of angles by which to read and explain its content.  The relevance of clarifying readers’ relations to the environment are in fact pressing, as revealed on this interactive map–which even includes an option for the reader to learn in detail what s/he can do to help:

 

Scenarios of Global Warming

 

At the same time as this pessimistic picture of the actual eventualities of climate change in the age of the anthropocene, the radically shifting nature of a world which is no longer shaped by proximity, or challenged by distance.  The map of internet penetration suggests, rather than a new map of inequalities alone, the new obstacles to the penetration and responses to messages worldwide, and, no doubt, contributed to the difficulty of the transport of needed goods and medical supplies to western Africa during the current epidemic of Ebola, which seems to have left populations scarred by the difficulty in transatlantic communication, as much as the lack of adequate maps, as OSM-H has shown, of adequate mapping on the ground.

 

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Indeed, the map of internet penetration, for all its unpleasant echoes of a colonializing perspective, where first-world countries receive greatest coverage, reveals the extreme difficulties of penetration of all of the coastal countries of West Africa–unlike Nigeria–where the highly contagious virus has proved most difficult to be contained, and information about  the virus less able to be widely disseminated.

Are the edges of the penetration of the internet the most vulnerable edges of the inhabited world, and as the edges of the accessibility and sharing of human information the most vulnerable to cataclysm?

 

4.  To some extent, this takes us back to Berque’s notion of the ecumene.  But the relative thin-ness of encrypting data projection on the map is so less fine-grained to impoverish the relation between reader and map or registers of engaging readers:  the granularity of the map is particularly great perhaps because the map’s visual qualities are less closely joined with its textual ones, or the hypertext only uses the map as a static schema. There seems the danger of how maps direct our attention to spatial variations and complexity with the proliferation of maps as visual media across different venues and platforms, and a dissipation of the authority of demarcating expanse or of compacting data in a uniform surface.  Perhaps this recalls Berque’s notion of the ecumene as a set of relations to the environment, which can be read in different ways rather than in one way.

The question of habitation has become turned, like a prism, to illuminate new points of view and angles of perception, a topography of habitation indeed seems beside the point.  After all, there are no real areas of the globe that are not inhabited, and the questions of orienting individuals to space seem more pressing than ever on ethical, ecological, and moral grounds alike–if not of just making sense of the effects with which man inhabits space. In a somewhat ponderous post, let’s offer a comic conclusion, however, rather than carping about media for mapping in an age of digital reproduction and increasing vectors of data flow.  The GIS map has become a versatile demographic tool to reframe questions and reveal spatial links, possible vectors of influence or pathways of causation, and indeed maps of emotions or violence.  The question is at root what sort of remove it places the map reader to interpret those vectors on its surface.  There is a temptation to deflate the authority of the descriptive value of such a matrix for its lack of fine grain.  Amidst the attempt to map the Arab Spring there was the inevitable  GIS irony of naturalizing political movements with the ephemerality of a weather map–more a mental map of what the media presented, to be sure, rather than a map designed to orient its content to a reader practiced in interpreting a map’s construction or its conventions.  The map has the value for its viewers of an illusion of transparency and a medium of omniscience:

 

 

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Or GIS-inspired variations on sabre-rattling from the American right, which was openly alarmist (if not antic) in tone, against a backdrop from Wikipedia commons:

 

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These pseudo-news maps come from the GIS family of signs, even if they are not based on actual data.  They orient viewers with a wiki-like remove. It makes sense that at this point ecumene denotes more of an ethical stance to describe man’s relation to the environment, shifting from to what that process of inhabitation might mean; there is no demand for graphically rendering the inhabited world, but rather the ways mankind inhabits the earth and has filled and marked its space.  But there is a loss of mapping habitations. And so map making in the flexible media of GoogleMaps is no longer an expandable portmanteaux of fine grain, but rather a matrix of data streams where one charts multiple consequences of inhabitation rather the local terrain.  If we no longer have Sciopods outside of our human realm, we lose a sense of an ethics of mapping or even of relating to maps when we dispense altogether with practices of map-making.

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Filed under anthropocene, data visualizations, globalism, Google Maps, metageography, Ptolemaic geography

Mapping Friendships? Facebook Maps Social Networks

The recent growth of web-based “social networks” inspire maps no longer rooted in terrestrial relations, but stand to become vertiginously unmoored from them:   maps often help us to grapple with the distance between them, as much as to orient us spatially to their relationships, but the blobs on this series of maps oddly disaggregates the inhabitants from the land, focussing less on their spatial situation than their relative degree of web-presence.   Indeed, in ways that very inventively rewrite the map as a throbbing surface, rather than a static interface, the attachments of folks to the interactive space of Facebook becomes cast as the subject that is being mapped–as well as being the datasource from which the map’s dataset derives.

Thanks to the creative folks at Stamen design, we have a beautiful interactive global map of Facebook users, whose bold colors offer a neatly clickable index of social networking over space.  The map is not an innovative ordering of space, but illustrates the network’s global reach in a twist on the project of mapping the inhabited world, shared by Ptolemy and Abraham Ortelius alike.  But let’s ask what’s at stake in crafting a visualization culled from archived data gathered from users’ profiles–as much as celebrating the virtuosity of the clickable map as a chart of the social network’s reach, as if it were able to map as previously unquantifiable (and indeed ultimately almost ephemeral) value as ‘friendship’ might be.

World's "Friendships" on Facebook

Many maps employ self-reported data.  In a sense, the map of Facebook use–or the self-identified “Friendship Map”–charts global inter-relations, like the global maps of national distribution of GDP, provenance of coffee beans or even pathways of the migrating whales, both discussed in earlier posts.  But whereas  maps objectively mediate terrestrial inter-relations–and inter-connectivity–the notion of connectivity has been re-appropriated in the images of “Friendship” that Facebook commissioned, as has the meaning of the word “Friendship” itself.  On the one hand, this map is a celebration and triumphal illustration of Facebook’s near-ubiquity.  But it is also with clear limits, even if they are unacknowledged.  Anyone not on Facebook is absent from the map, since connectivity is generated from profiles that are registered online.

Facebook connections allowed the folks at Stamen to generate instantaneous images of web-use, making this sequence of clickable maps a truly interactive treat, as well as a visual feast.  But the effect is also to present the data generated from Facebook use as endowed with the allegedly objective criteria of maps, and to normalize Facebook’s criteria of “friendship” in apparently objective terms.  Although the very notion of geographic connectivity is fundamental to map making, the maps that are used as the templates to indicate the “connections” of friending in the Facebook platform invest a sense of objectivity and meaning in trends of friending that elevates the medium as the basis to generate further information to a degree that boosts Facebook’s criteria of meaning, as much as provides analytic tools:  if “the medium is the message,” the medium is not cartography, although the multiple images echo the authority of cartographical forms, but Facebook itself.

This is particularly pernicious, and bears some examination.  The maps on this site visualize aggregate friendships on Facebook as quivering blobs of connections that pulsate as with life of their own.  Although claiming objective authority of a map, the aggregates map “friendship” as Facebook has defined it, and embody and reify the data FB use itself creates and generates:  this is a map of FB use, in other words (rather than of web use in general), and a vision of the interconnectivity Facebook promises and the very “Friendships” that it creates.

Take a look once again at the snapshot of the connectedness of the Marshall Islanders who use Facebook:

World's Friendships on Facebook

 

Such a map is decidedly not a territory–nor could it be confused with one.  But if “all maps are arguments,” in Harley’s words, and conceal interests, as much as show meaning, the interests concealed in these “Maps of the World’s Friendship” demand considerable unpacking.  For to me, the multiple maps that Stamen design unveiled last September 12 are something like post-modern versions of earlier corporate emblems.

The aggregate views of information born of Facebook use essentially trumpet the inter-connected world that Facebook promises as a matrix achieved by corporate interconnectedness, in other words, in ways that update the familiar stream-lined modernist logo of global unity Pan Am once used to promote itself as the “world’s most experienced airline,” able to provided air service to all regions of the world by airline jets.  The Pan Am emblem emptied the familiar format of projection from toponyms or places, as if to illustrate the lack of obstacles to air travel and the global surface that its flights promised to link.  The logo owned by Pan American World Airways erased places in favor of the latitudes that link the world bridged by flight paths and no longer in need of land maps, no doubt intentionally offering the new map the airline corporation promised to provide to its users.

 

277px-Pan_Am_Logo.

The interactive map of Facebook connectivity are constantly evolving and generated at a given moment, and, unlike the static emblem, as if living independently from the viewer, but embodying actual FB use.

The contrast is interesting on iconographic grounds as well as stylistic ones.  The generation between these visions of global interconnectedness has led to a map of greater sophistication and persuasiveness of interactive form, and one that seems, like Facebook, user-friendly and value-free:  but the map of Facebook users is particularly insidious, as ‘friending’ and connections are rendered by the web-based platform itself.  In comparison to the Pan Am logo, rather than merely provide an illusory image of the promise of global unity, the map is a triumphant image of the actual interaction that the web-based platform promised: “friending” provides the metric of global interconnectedness and the sole standard of national interconnectivity.  Although the map can be re-centered at a click in order to map the connectedness from a different point of view, the “point of view” does not really change. In the text above the map, “friendship” doesn’t appear in scare quotes:  it in fact normalizes Facebook use as the sole index of contentedness and inter-connection.

Let’s examine specific cases to ask what is revealed or viewable in these multiple maps, which represent a proliferation of different data visualizations as much as providing a basis for geographical or spatial orientation. To do so, return to the “map” of Facebook connectivity in the Marshall Islands, which maps Islanders’s global connectedness via Facebook friendships:

World's Friendships on Facebook

 

 

The notion of mapping an emotion or state of mind–friendship–suggests the sort of positivism of early twentieth-century phrenology, or the comic maps of lands of contentment, like the early modern “Carte du Tendre“–an imagined geography described as a “topographic and allegoric representation” by Mme. de Scudéry in seventeenth-century France–as a geography of Love, complete with a river of Tenderness that runs through towns named after different stages of tender affection.

There’s a wonderful paradox of mapping the intangible as concrete, or mapping the ineffable–how often do we invest deep significance in the word “friend” after fourth grade?–in graphic terms, as if to make manifest the good-will that exists as if it were a physical topography.  (The notion of such mythic lands is re-inforced by dividing the map into color-coded continents, as if an emotional Olympic games between different parties.)  But it is more the hubristic belief of Facebook in their own metrics, doubtful in any event, than a positivistic belief in the ability to locate sites of well-being in the body or on the planet.

What’s the metric here?  Hopes of visualizing interconnectedness among Facebook’s users is more of an advertisement for their web-based platform than a visualization of disinterested data, and it’s not at all certain that this converts to a metric of well-being:  the huge number of connections boasted by residents of the Marshall Islands, Guam, Fiji, and the Philippines may derive from a sense of disconnectedness among the American populations in these regions, and a reliance on FB as a platform to remain in contact with their relatives in a different time-zones.  Although the Marshall Islands were only occupied by the United States until just less than thirty years ago–American forces left in 1986–the 10% of the population of American origin maintain extremely close ties to the US, and, more tellingly, the top destination for Marshallese ex-pats is the US.  “Technology bridges distance and borders,” Mia Newman boasts from Stanford on the FB website itself, as, due to the grace of this platform, “Individuals today can keep in touch with their friends and family in completely new ways — regardless of where they live.”  In a world characterized by dislocation and isolation, Facebook provides social ties.

The appeal of the map is of course to advertise how Facebook trumps geography, and one might do well to return to the interested nature of this map as a corporate logo:  “Immigration is one of the strongest links that seems to bind these Facebook neighbors,” the website informs us, if this was a discovery that the platform allowed; having (and maintaining) a lot of FB connections isn’t that surprising given the dislocations caused by such out-migration over recent years.  Flipping to the site itself,

[http://www.facebookstories.com/stories/1574/interactive-mapping-the-world-s-friendships#color=continent&story=1&country=MH],

watch with awe as color-coded aggregate bubbles quiver with connectivity,  as folks update social profiles, making new connections, adding “Friends”, or, as I happened to do last night, de-Friending others.  Clicking on the variable of ‘language’ on the site, we can see or imagine close ties between the Marshallese and the Philippines, and note with some surprise that the dominance of red (English) on the map, the improbability that non-English speakers in the islands nonetheless register the greatest number of connections.  This omits the different uses of “Friending” or “FB Friendship” among each region, of course, we failed to add, as it assumes that use of Facebook conventions is as universal as Facebook’s global reach.

The deepest attraction of the site is its interactive feature by which the map at a click newly configures itself from the perspective of dfferent FB users.  The movable centering of the map doesn’t change the geographic distribution of place, but rather  reveals how connectivity is centered in the globe from different national aggregates, which can also be segregated by language.

Experiment at the link here, to explore the fluidity of this new mode of mapping the world’s population, and abstracting one’s web-presence from the world.

[http://www.facebookstories.com/stories/1574/#color=continent&story=1&country=HT]

In this case Haiti, the “map” correlates the number of Facebook connections in the country and numbers between countries in ranked order that are a bit surprising, given the prominence of Canada, until one imagines the number there of Haitian refugees:

Learn Which Countries Share

The links among active FB users, cast here in terms of language groups, ostensibly responds to the question of who “shares the closest friendship connections,” although the reasons for those connections are not able to be clarified–although the illumination of linguistic ties clearly helps.  The huge prominence of Haitian ties to the Dominican Republic and Canada is not a big surprise; if the slightly lesser ties Haiti enjoys to the United States may be, it is not surprising that the proportional ties to France rank a close fourth.  This is a map, however, of dislocation, and attempts to bridge physical divides, as much as it is of friendship ties–or even a measure of friendship per se–so much as the type of “friendship™”  that Facebook seeks to market and be able to offer:  friendship that is less in, as it were, meatspace than cyberspace.

In contrast, the close ties of Russia to the Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus might be better explained by their recent division from a formerly united regional territory, albeit one that was ethnically diverse:

Russia's %22Friends%22

These maps display salient ties of economic and linguistic relations, to be sure, yet filtered through the economy of Facebook use.  The dramatically interactive map measures different perspectives of the world through the sum totals of FB users in one region or nation–a self-selected group–based on the criteria that that group imposed on the map.  Unlike other maps, where the data is cherry-picked and chosen and balanced by the mapmaker to conceal or pinpoint interests in an objective manner, Facebook has culled the data for this map–created and devised by Stamen Design–based on data that is not only essentially self-reported, but represents not only a portrait, but Facebook’s ability to mine the data archived by user-preferences and to assemble its own data of the aggregate of regional Facebook communities.

The result is a fantastic vision of totality through the eyes of the Facebook network, in which we can “click” on any country to view its population’s “connections” to other areas of the world.  What else does the map tell us?  Little more than the economic ability to dedicate large amounts of time to FB, or the state of emotional dependence on expanding one’s connections–or, more accurately, the acculturation of FB as a way of maintaining ties.  “Economic links, through trade or investment, also seem to be strong predictors of country connectedness,” Mia Newman informs us as she seeks to interpret the map for readers who have stumbled upon it and seek to understand this new configuration of the globe online.

Since we’re championing interconnectedness, let’s look at the potentially more isolated country of Pakistan:

Pakistan 1

The ever helpful text panel–as the legend that must always be read with care in any map–calls special attention to Pakistanis’ ties to Bangladeshis, an effect of their unity in colonial times, but is less than illuminating about what are the classes of Facebook users in the former South Asian colonies, or what are the groups using the platform:  perhaps the emphasis on the fourth largest aggregate site of connections distracts from the comparable ties to users in Afghanistan, or the surprising permeability of the Indian-Pakistani border.

The multiple FB connections of inhabitants of Greece, however, and the generous radii of countries in Eastern and Central Europe, belies the notion that interconnectedness is a metric of economic vitality.

Greece.

There’s a lot of FB activity in Micronesia–but are Bulgaria and Serbia hotspots of economic vitality or cooperation?  Are Chile and Argentina sites of stability, or is Mexico?  Is Argentina really a center of stable labor relations and a model of free markets that we are instructed to read the map as providing evidence of?

Argentina's Friendship and Labor Market

The arrangement of a configuration of bubbles of different colors are beautiful, and the pulsation of colored blobs dramatic, but the group of users are particularly difficult to identify, as are the habits by which they might “friend” their “friends”–or the networks they create.

Does–to chose a limit case–an absence of FB interconnectedness in China really reveal that the country is moribund economically?  In the manner that North Korea drops off Google Maps, although we all know that North Korea is not known for its open-access, there is no point of reference on which to click or metric to view for the largest of the world’s economies.

The limits of mapping FB use as a form of “friendship” rests on a combination of economic benefits, security, and desires for companionship that jointly contribute to online “friending” and the archiving of “friends.”  Not only is there a uniform level of “friending”–so that the necessity of economic “friendship” is equated with the ties of countries of origin among immigrant communities–but the homogenization of these different gradations of “friendship” obscure the potential benefits of legibility in this dramatically interactive map of Swedish FB users’ ties to geographically proximate and distant members of the FB community.

As the test notes, it shows the close ties of the Swedish market to Norway-not surprisingly–Denmark, and Finland, but also the ties of refugees who have arrived in Sweden, a preferred site, from both to Serbia and Iraq.  These recent settlers in the region, unlike the Scandinavian nexus, document a “friendship” to parents, schoolmates, or extended family– the database FB has culled suggests a deep desire to continue an imaginary with these faceless “connections,” and the lack of ability to make easy contact with these ties among immigrant communities, rather than the depth of their connections.

sweden's friendships

In the end, these are wonderful maps of our own making, whose indices are a better reflection (or projection) of what connectedness means to us–connectedness now being a relation that Facebook has now both defined and designed.  Whereas the old Pan Am logo surely maps geographical interconnectedness, as do all maps, the series of user-generated maps of Facebook connectedness map the extent of networked interconnectivity:   they are less truly maps, in some sense, than data visualization schema, that render in pictorially iconic form the data that Facebook is able to collect.  All maps reflect their makers to be sure; the maps of Facebook connectivity, more than perhaps anything else, illustrate the range of data Facebook is able to mine.  Perhaps this is the real function of the maps, which parade the range of information and “closer looks” that Facebook has access to.

For what goes unsaid–and remains unsaid–in this endless sequence of maps is the variations among the penetration of Facebook within each country–it is assumed to be complete, and to rester anyone that one is interested in taking measure of, as if it were the metric of Who Really Counts.  Yet the wide disparities within the extent of Facebook’s currency (or, if you will, adoption) in different countries not only widely varies but might be itself mapped, as something like a corrective to the data streams that the above maps claim to oh-so-conveniently organize.

The distribution of the differential sin Facebook’s adoption in the population at large might be usefully remembered in this far yet brilliantly colored but useful bubble map, which chats the intensity of Facebook’s penetration in the population, based on site-registered active users around 2012 from a variety of sources, from a project of Elvin Wyly and Larissa Zip, which attempts to map the more socially-networked world that Facebook boasts it can offer access to.  Although the ranking of urbanization of countries is problematic–given the local variation in a largely rural nation as India that possesses large cities–the huge size of connectedness that was privileged in the urbanized areas of brazil, the United States, UK, Uruguay, Chile, France, Columbia, Turkey, Argentina, Malaysia and the Philippines, as well as highly urbanized Singapore and Hong Kong–irrespective of actual geography or population size.  (India is the outlier of a largely unorganized country with high FB users, but the undoubted majority of its users are concentrated in cities or urban areas–Facebook does not release or record precise geophysical location; the relatively small user numbers for Iraq, Ukraine, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Uganda, or China seems to show regional poverty.

 

paste74

The outsized boast of mapping “The World’s Friendships” conceals the very absence of the non-networked, the new disenfranchised who the ideology of Facebook erases from the map–and who are poised to become the unnamed hordes of the inhabited world, whose lives are less visible in a globalized world, although we absent India, Kenya, China, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Nepal and Uganda at considerable risk.

Unurbanized Low-FB presence

The “Maps of [Facebook] Friendship” are fundamentally ways to advertise the very sort of datasets that Facebook is able to sell to companies that want its records of page-views, if by orienting folks to the very metrics that Facebook has at its fingertips.

What we get is a sense of the reliability and credibility that the data Facebook possesses to orient us to the webspace that Facebook has created, using the trademark of being a “friend”–that crucial desideratum in an economy when credibility seems hopelessly confused with web presence and social connectedness intertwined with virtual contexts and contacts mediated over Facebook and LinkedIn–is able to be mapped with apparent accuracy, of an almost positivistic tenor, albeit allowing for the fluidity that is itself so characteristic of the web as a medium and of Facebook as a virtual interface.

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Filed under bubble maps, data visualization, Facebook, Facebook Friendship Map, Facebook Urban Penetration, FB users, Interactive Maps, social media, social networking