Tag Archives: Facebook

The Revenge of the Infographic?

Long before he himself was a candidate for President of the United States, Barack Obama evoked the danger of a red-states/blue-states divide that seemed to have come to define the electoral map.  When announcing John Kerry’s 2004 nomination as the Democratic candidate to run for the presidency of the United States, Obama had sought to reassure  the nation that, evidence to the contrary, “We’re not red states and blue states; we’re all Americans, standing up together for the red, white and blue.”  So powerful was the visual image of unity as a rebuke to the map to announce Obama’s oratorical eloquence to the nation.  So powerful was the image that he would rebuke the danger of such a chromatic divide retained in a 2012 tweet sent in the heat of the Presidential campaign, asserting that “There are no red states and blue states, just the United States.”  The figure Obama had first penned in 2004, before John Kerry adopted the powerful image in his own speech.  Obama had openly chastised pundits for presenting a picture that served only “to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states–red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats.”  He sought to target the harmful vision that two-color maps wrongly perpetuated, since they mislead voters’ sense of own ability to effect the electoral map, and to diminish voting agency, by inscribing the results of an election on a static map dividing the nation into fractured blocks of apparent like-mindedness.  But Obama’s phrase have gained a surprising second life as words of caution in the 2018 election.

When he so eloquently endorsed John Kerry as a presidential candidate, Obama’s words struck such a chord not only as an effective image of patriotic identity that he returned to it in his 2008 victory speech in Grant Park, and welcomed the good news of what seemed a remapping of the United States, and he took the time to congratulate American voters for having “sent a message to the world that we have never been just . . .  a collection of red states and blue states” and which confirmed that, appearances to the contrary, we “are, and will always be, the United States of America.”  The words had reverberated in many ears with a sense of freshness, from when they were first uttered, as if seeking to disabuse television audiences of the image that had haunted the nation from before the 2000 election, but which had stuck uncomfortably in the background of the nation’s cerebral cortex, creating an image of sharp divisions,–even if those divisions were far less clear on the ground even in 2004, as Obama had suggested–but full of chromatic variations, even when they appeared entrenched, with some eighteen to twenty states mapped in varied shades of purple.  The blurred nature of this dive into voting habits as much as patterns suggests a point-value to political preferences that is misleading, but as a snapshot of the body politic, it suggests diagnostic tool that was valued in altering electoral outcomes as much as the image of individual agency Guffin worked to create.

 

purple_nationBascom Guffin, “Purple Nation”

 

As much as Obama honed a rhetorical device, his phrasing gained new meaning and relevance in Robert S. Mueller III’s recent indictment charging thirteen Russians of waging information wars during the election, and from 2014, that aimed to splinter existing political divides to foster increased dissensus and distrust in the political system.  Indeed, the vulnerability of the political imaginary that foregrounded a red state-blue state divide for the global image of American politics made something of an unforeseen return, when it was announced that the Russian operatives who had toured several states to conduct something of a political ethnography of the abilities to create greater political divisions and distrust in the political system focussed on the sensitivity of “purple states” as a sites to increase political divides, and create increased political tensions in the United States through the results of its elections.  Taking the occasion of the 2016 Presidential election as an occasion to increase political distrust, and for slicing and dicing the nation For the targeting of what were described as “purple states,” in an unforessen appropriation of maps of a less polarized “Purple America” made after the divisive presidential election of 2000, by Robert J. Vanderbei.  The new visualization was widely adopted by the news media as a dynamic form of infographic, using colors exclusively to communicate the political temperature of Americans.  Yet the image gained a new second life as it provided a ground-plan for planting social media interventions, Mueller’s indictment reveals that the figure of speech, as well as a concrete metaphor, served to target disrupting political consensus from 2014.

If purple can come to seem a sign of vulnerability, this is in large part because of the possibilities of warping through the electoral college produces clear divides, but which indeed offers a sense of stability–affirming a sense of continuities all too easily disrupted by the dogmatic prism of a red state/blue state electoral map, with a brightest red–actually pink–in the Texas panhandle and Dakotas, but the nation is decisively mottled; even in the divisive 2004 electoral map, “red” only dominated Wyoming, Utah, and Idaho, and redness was evident in blue states, as bluenesses in reds.  Drilling down so far is not, in many cases, an adequate picture of the political process, but offers a counter-map to the electoral map, that reflects a sense of cartographical insufficiency.

 

PurpleStates.jpgEmmie Mears, “These Purples States of America”

 

Emmie Mears’ deeper dive into the data is a striking photoshop map and suggests an even greater expanse of purple.  The contiguity of purple shades that run the vast extent of the nation pointedly challenged the polarities shared by pundits, and reveals, even in the 2016 Presidential race, a widespread admixture of voting tendencies.  Although Obama’s stirring image of overcoming political divides is often retrospectively cast as pandering to patriotism, it increasingly seems an accurate prognosis of a problem waiting to happen.  While Mears’ visualization was intended to affirm the plurality of political opinions, to undo the tension of oppositional confrontation that was generated already in the nightly news, the danger of adopting such a syntax of a census–familiar from the Dustin Cable’s Racial Dot map or the American Community Survey, which show both diversity and stark lines of ethnicity, education, and income, the danger of the vesting of political preference as a question of character–and not a selection in a given time and place–of course dilutes the representational institutions, and poses the problem of whether a two-party system can ever be able to refract our political diversity.

But it also suggests the broad openings for undermining that consensus, as the recent indictment of thirteen Russians who conducted preparatory ethnography as they planned a long-term project of disrupting American political consensus that would intersect in unforseen ways with the candidacy of Donald Trump–a long-time fringe candidate, whose ascendancy to the oval office had been represented as an unsavory alternate future in Doonesbury, but whose own deep hunger for approval, recognition, and adulation seems to have created a tenacity to court  audiences without much attention to the public good.  Whether or not Trump shared the vision of the electoral map as ripe for exploitation, although his own deep attachment to the two-color outcome of the electoral map hints at how overjoyed he was with the results, the echo chamber of social media certainly helped dilute the deep purpleness of America that political scientists had mapped.  If it is the case that Trump proudly selected a framed map of the distorted division of electoral votes in the White House as one of the first images to be displayed to visitors, he certainly took deep satisfaction at the outcome  which was in part the result of targeting public opinion in divisive ways, even if many of the most powerful and divisive images that announced his campaign promises to the public seem to have derived from suspiciously identified social media sources.

The gap in population density between flatland of the regions of red America is thrown into a relief in a prism map that offers a county-results in a tiltable 3D electoral map between counties voting Trump from those voting Clinton, a gap evident in economic integration, education, and lifestyle, that reminds us of the gap in media coverage increasingly centered in cities; but if it corrects the distorted flatland of an electoral map,  it surely exaggerates that yawning gap, as its blue/red dichotomy erased the purple nature of so many counties where social media news feeds helped worked to fill that gap, allowing Facebook feeds to play an increased role in forming a surrogate public opinion that could effectively intensify existing political divides, so that they appear even more extreme that in previous elections with the sort of “political intensity” that indicted Russians planned to foment.  Did the extension of first amendment Free Speech laws to cover data-driven bots and platforms designed to work by keeping viewers engaged help  expand the blue/red divisions that we’ve come to accept in the electoral map?

 

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County-level Margins of Victory legend.pngBlueshift

 

Indeed, the current rash of twitterbots that issued viral memes from #ReleasetheMemo to #Guncontrolnow and #Parklandshooting that hail from Russia–if not St. Petersburg–need to be held to different standards than First amendment rights, but under if seen as speech acts, protected First amendment, although originating in foreign lands, they are able to gain a pressing reality in our politics for their consumers and followers.  The shape of such activity seems especially prominent in creating an apparent groundswell of the alt Right in the last election.  When Mueller’s indictment forced social media giant Twitter was forced to purge thousands of newly suspected automated bots posting from overseas that Twitter’s legal division had seen as protected by Free Speech, deleting 50,000 accounts linked to Russian bots created such sudden drops in the numbers of the followers of figures like white nationalist Richard Spencer or long-time Trump promoter Bill Mitchell that they were suspected as victims of a purge of followers of figures in the alt right.  If the move provoked cries of censorship, we were reminded how much they shaped the election, mostly in the valleys of areas colored red, with a third of pro-Trump tweets among over a million tweets issued by automated bots, and pro-Trump rallies belying his lower standings in most polls save on Facebook, as millions of bots nudged the geography of the map from behind the scenes through an unforseen barrage of propagandistic images and texts that directed the mental attention of a Durkheimian collective.

Many images displayed by accounts suspected of originating overseas, as of the platform ‘Secured Borders,’ create a quite viscerally striking image of the very geopolitical imaginary that the Trump campaign openly promoted.  But if they echo Trump’s rhetoric, the deeply offensive images identifying migrants as vermin, as if to deny them of legal rights, derive from a right-wing imaginary already current in central Europe, as other images used in Trump’s political commercials, showing hoards of immigrants racing across border, and  betray historical roots in Nazi visual propaganda.  These images created a geographical imaginary rooted in fear, indeed, and promote a geopolitical imaginary–a divide made visibly clear in cartoonish ways in the contrast between the barren lands to one side of the wall and the green lands across it, where the suited Father Figure Donald Trump stands wearing his red tie and flag pin, in a new and creepy image of the defender of the nation.

 

 

Secured Borders: immigrant as vermin?

 

Vermin.png

 

Such a reality seems to heighten not only the “political intensity” but heighten divides along what we map in red/blue terms, despite the limited explanatory power of an electoral flatland’s gaps between blue peaks of populated centers and the far redder flatlands. Even in refining the flat electoral map by adopting opacities to render margins of victory, retaining a contrast designed to foreground sharp differences fails to register the range of purple regions that turned red, driven toward an intensity of political involvement or disaffection by memes of social media still protected as “free” speech.

The overlap between many purple regions and regions with distinct patterns of consuming news in print or online media would have only magnified the divides where social media platforms spread disinformation–that infamous “fake news”–to gain a purchase as real in our political system.  Even if the possibility of infection by viral posts can’t yet be traced or measured with certainty as a map, the disinformation moved by bots or “troll factories” created a pitched battle of electoral intensity, that was staged around electoral votes or at least along fomenting clearly defined geographic/regional divides that Russians charged with visiting states in the United States to gain a sense of their ability to exploit a divided political landscape didn’t even need to travel to America to apprehend, as infographics clearly served as a readily available primer on how best to foment increased divisions.  Indeed, even by creating a distracting static whose constant beat eroded dialogue or trust, from internet accusations of the murder of Justice Antonin Scalia, deep distrust of naming a successor, and a year-long vacancy of his seat, as Mitch McConnell forced the sort of divisive deadlock only able to intensify political opposition.  (While the diffusion of the demand among Republicans began from McConnell’s quick tweet of collective resistance, issued soon after Scalia expired in Texas, amidst numerous internet-driven questions about conspiracies of the nature of his death that circulated online.  The  false populism that in many ways echoed Trumpism, issued an hour after Scalia was confirmed dead, generated disruptive memes on social media–“OMG They killed Scalia” “I hope an autopsy is done to make sure Obama didn’t have him killed”– which supported an unprecedented, as Glenn Thrush and Burgess Everett reminded us, “rebuke of President Obama’s authority” and “categorical rejection of anyone Obama chose to nominate,” irrespective of their merits, to disrupted trust in political consensus during the Republican and Democratic primaries.

The entrance of this gambit within the context of the political election indeed led all Republican nominees to adopt the issue that drove a wedge between red and blue states and their respective media outlets, in what was cast as a rebuke to President Obama’s lack of respect for the institution of Congress to pursue “his personal agenda.”  A yawning gap between red and blue counties reveals the disconnect in our social fabric but of the consumption of news, and sources of opinion, about which the “troll factory” charged with launching disruptive messages into America’s Presidential election from St. Petersburg were able to play a disproportionately outsized role.  The divide was plain in this 2013 map of print news consumption, where yellow shows the swath of land getting news principally from USA Today, a year later by online outlets Huffington Post and TMZ, where the investment in social media may have had particularly pronounced leverage.  And in a period of increased attachment to divisive news sources that intensified an absence of dialogue between political parties, the expansion of divisive posts on social media platforms helped to undermine civic discourse.

 

print-news-consumption-2013Media Map Showing Most Shared News in Each State (2013)

 

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Although it was habitual to take what seems Obama’s fondness for the phrase as a sense of its particular rhetorical effectiveness, a more charitable interpretation of his attachment to the phrase might be intimations of the deeply corrosive nature of the metaphorical divide of the nation.  The image of an electoral divide perpetuated by pollsters and pundits was shown to haunt the nation not only in the 2016 Presidential election but, as we have heard in the recent expansive indictment that Mueller issued accusing Russian operatives who travelled the United States seeking strategies to sew discord “in the U.S. political system” from 2014.  Traveling in Colorado, New Mexico, Michigan, Illinois, Texas, they defined their mission as  oriented along that very divide.  Defendants Mssrs. Krylova, Bogacheva, and Bovda were charged with conspiracy for not disclosing the motivations of their travels in the United States posing as tourists, developed the idea of targeting “purple states” as sites to foment the greatest divisions–seeking to “create ‘political intensity through supporting radical groups” and transform fictitious personas into “leaders of ‘public opinion’ in the United States” by hundreds of social media account.  While traveling in America a “real U.S. person” advised that they

 

should focus their
activities on "purple states" like Colorado, Virginia & Florida.

 

–and the principle of “targeting ‘purple states'” returned in later months as a ground-plan to disrupt the election, and sew a deeper sense of distrust within our democracy.  Even if the term “purple states” that emerged as sites of targeting may not have been seen as sites where social media platforms could have substantially increased authority, the success of increasing divisiveness readily responded to stark divisions on the map.

The parlance learned in the United States was shaped in the media sphere to enlarge factional divides, if the notion of “Purple America” had been born to give complexity to a blue state versus red state divide.  Avatars on fictitious social media accounts used the categories of political scientists to amplify existing prejudices from troll factories in St. Petersburg, often pedaling prejudices that gained greater reality in what seemed public opinion as the election approached.  The “information warfare” waged on social media that was an odd spin on globalization, that kicked into gear with racial prejudice channeled by Russian hipsters working round the clock in twelve-hour shifts from a designated “Facebook department” in Taylorist fashion within a “troll factory”:  the surprising success of targeting voters in the United States was based on extensive mapping of political divisions, and a design to exploit them through social media.  Were the addictive apparatus of a medium that seeks to command the attention of observers part of the plan?  The production of images, texts, comments, and posts designed to stoke divisions were based on ventriloquizing Americans, but pushing the envelope on the standards of address:   in a scene straight of Adam Smith’s pin-making factories, the web of disinformation that was spun from Americans’ social media fabric extended not only what seemed to the Russian who created them incredibly “believed [to be] written by their own people,” and even worked directly with the Trump campaign to coordinate rallies in purple states like Florida.

If Donald Trump did not detect that the divisiveness Russian trolls devised on Facebook feeds was incriminating to his campaign, because Mueller did not reveal direct ties between the desire of the Internet Research Agency to sew disinformation and division was distant from his own campaign–“Obama was President up do, and beyond, the 2016 election.  So why didn’t he do something about Russian meddling?”–what Trump confidently imagined to be a wellspring of popular support for his candidacy may well only have intersect with the more successful than anticipated adoption of the Russian trolls’ stories in Facebook platforms that created the intense emotional involvement which drove an under-the-radar aspect to the campaign, from images linking Hillary Clinton to Satanism to targeted voter suppression to diffusing enthusiasm by openly promoting third-party candidates as effective protest votes.

Indeed, Facebook and Twitter did the heavy lifting of ensuring that trolling from St. Petersburg were sent out across America, and to effectively mask the diffusion of messages along various social networking platforms to create something like a surrogate for public opinion–even as Facebook was foreign to Russian social networking when the Internet Research Agency was begun in 2014.

 

world-map-social-networks-dec-2014

 

The Internet Research Agency, perhaps an acronymic pun on the Irish Republican Army, worked to foment what seemed a similar faith-based war by manipulating styled prejudices to “spread distrust” to online communities they had infiltrated, warning of misleading “hype and hatred . . . forcing Blacks to vote for Killary” to “Woke Blacks” Instagram accounts in October 2016–weeks before the election–and adding “we would surely be better off without voting AT ALL” than cast a vote for the Democratic candidate.  As well as  unleashing an unprecedented epidemic of trolling, the St. Petersburg “troll factory” staffed by 900 employees posted over thousand times each week at the height of the election from over one hundred Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts, in ways that magnified the rifts in the isolated filter bubbles had previously existed in order to turn them against one another.  When Eli Pariser in 2011 coined the phrase to describe the dangers of isolating information ecosystems in selective news feeds forming virtual echo chambers of false comfort in an insulated information bubble,

 

atomization.png

 

the tools of social media sites enabled the splintering to actual communities in an almost mechanical fashion of cause and effect, as if sending ripples able to create the sort of electoral disruption in strategic ways.  In doing so, they mirror the very danger of which President Obama in his final public speech cautioned against “retreat into our own social media feeds” as rendering Americans uncritical information consumers [who] start accepting information, whether its true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on evidence that is out there.”  The warning delivered after the election of Donald Trump and delivered in Chicago saw Obama trying to move out of the bubble, and was delivered near to where his 2008 victory speech celebrating an America able to transcend its image as a nation divided between red states and blue states.  But the bubbles in which selective calls to not go to the polls or demonize the Democratic candidate were launched as narratives may have made them difficult to detect or counteract.

The rapidity of the sort of fragmentation that troll factories Mueller has charged by being run through reconnaissance in the United States could have been as easily gleaned online, but was described as something that the charged operatives had to travel to the United States to discover.  But much o the sort of prejudice that was pedaled in postings crafted in St. Petersburg to disrupt the Presidential election seems to have imported a deep suspicion and oppositional racism as much as it mimicked back prejudices observed in ethnographic study of American social media Facebook groups.  Indeed, the stories of Russian hipsters working twelve-hour days on posting divisive comments on Facebook from 2014-16 in St Petersburg, posing as Americans, and required to write an essay in English on Hillary Clinton to determine whether their suitability for the job, suggests just how invested the foreign government was in addressing social media to purple states to influence the election’s outcome, and doing their best to dissuade blacks and other minorities from supporting Hilary Clinton, despite an overall eligible voting population that was more racially and ethnically diverse than ever, according to Pew Research, but for the first time blacks declined as a share of voters since 2004.   Black voters were not only among the “three major voter suppression operations” Trump advisors worked to lower turn-out, with white liberals and young women, but one of the most successful efforts seemingly tied to Trump’s director of data digital operation in his San Antonio headquarters, Brad Parscale, whose nightly electoral simulations seemed aimed at providing a basis for to partly its data into a new news organization, mirrors techniques of turnout suppression adopted by destabilizing social media divides.  Facebook accounts such as the Blacktivist page that urged that voting for Jill Stein, a candidate with close ties to Russia, was “not a wasted vote,” recycled historical images of African-American nationalism to decrease voter turn-out in Maryland, to re-engineer the degree to which black voters energized and drove past Democratic Presidential victories. With other accounts urging Muslim voters to boycott the election, they aimed to dilute and splinter the very coalitions that the Clinton campaign assembled by sewing distrust.

495E9D0100000578-0-image-a-13_1519024685201.jpg

 

The studies of social media patterns that began from at least 2014, which were, as if by coincidence, marked by huge Republican gains in Senate and House under a banner of the most angry national midterm elections to be directed against a sitting President, was effectively amplified with the encouragement and traction that the bitterness of 2014 elections had set across the southern states and deep south, southwestern Texas along the US-Mexico border, and in formerly ‘blue’ or ‘purple’ states–creating a particularly obstructionist House of Representatives that succeeded to obstruct so any of the policies President Obama sought to pursue in his final two years.

 

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National results of the 2014 House races, showing Republican gains in bright red

 

The divisiveness continued by injecting increasingly radicalized terms of political debate, and even fundamentalist notions of apocalypticism, that seemed foreign to American political debate, depicting Hillary Clinton as increasingly satanic and promoting open borders, promoting division and distrust around bizarre social media memes.  The increased profile of IRA-sponsored “Secured Borders” indeed adopted the icon of the United States Border Patrol to create an image that not only recalled its official insignia–

 

 

 

–but did so to link a specific presidential candidate to patriotism, rejecting refugees and asylum-seekers and border protection, creating a false equivalence if there ever was one, and straining any logical linkages.

 

 

 

Rusian FB ad for Secrured Borders.png

 

 

Indeed, an ethnographic study of Facebook groups might target alone groups living on the southern border, Christian fundamentalists, white supremacists and Black Lives Matter as potential groups to manipulate to stoke divisiveness on partisan lines, and sow disorder on the performance of a two-party system by gaming electoral geography.  There is hope in puncturing the filter-bubbles of Facebook groups, however, by the increased calling out of the need for resolve on a true issue–gun control–too regularly and dismissively side-lined by the staged political debates that were shared in posts, and which seems, if only because of the strength of its blunt actuality, to puncture social media with an urgency that can’t be denied.

The decision to direct a social media focus on purple states as sites where divides would stand the greatest chance to disrupt or even to tweak the electoral results reveals a bizarre recycling of what was designed as a classificatory map to increase divisions, and gave a distinctly new ideological flavor and torque to the left-wing concepts of swing states that were so successfully promoted within the 2008 Obama campaign.  By recycling attention-getting image of chromatic divides developed for television audiences, purple states emerged as targets for online spooking, and Facebook aggregation gained traction around affective ideas like casting the color red was a form of patriotism.   But the notion of pressing advantages on social media in states purple, but maybe able to be nudged Republican, provided the deepest rationale for division.  Defendants, posing as members of the group “Being Patriotic,” under the guise of that patriotism offered the idea of pressing their advantage by the notion of a wedge in purple states.  The defendants offered in emails, “we’ve got an idea.  Florida is still a purple state and we need to paint it red.  If we lose Florida, we lose America.  We can’t let it happen, right?  What about organizing a YUGE pro-Trump flash mob in every Florida town?” on August 2, 2106, and offered, “We clearly understand that the elections winner will be predestined [sic] by purple states.”  While not brilliant as strategy, as a selective basis to sew distrust and disorder in one of the most over-polled elections ever, where we watched the results of multiple daily polls as if to deliver the odds on horse races, tweaking the electoral map toward a new color combination was enough.

The “purple” region gained the most striking new sense as sites of information warfare in the United States over a period of years–in ways that might be detached from the actual campaign.  The figure of speech born of data visualizations gained a newfound torque as a form of divisiveness, and the chromatic metaphor operative force, as “focusing on purple states such as Florida” became, for the fictional identity “Josh Hamilton,” a strategy proposed by a false grassroots efforts that was communicated to Trump campaign officials.  White most tracks were concealed, a few were not.  And although the Trump campaign didn’t need to be advised, necessarily, “to focus on ‘purple’ states like Colorado, Virginia, and Florida,” the targeting of areas where there didn’t seem a clear polarity promised to create a starker one.   But Russian use of a language of infographics served to materialize, in a starkly divided map, existing fault-lines that one needed only to exploit, push apart, and throw into relief to engineer a surprising electoral result, using images that recovered more subtly shaded areas where blue met red as tools that were able to be exploited to show the world a far more bitterly divided United States, as if even raising the specter of a deep red region could sow considerable distrust in a Democratic system, or just vacate whatever appeal its constitutional rights held in Russia and Central Europe.

 

countymappurple512

New York Times:  2016 United States presidential election results by county 

 

The organizing of false grassroots efforts according to the Mueller indictment not only to organize rallies that would “focus on purple states,” but to create a divide in doing so that best exploited divisions in our electoral maps.  Indeed, the notion of such a divide that had been picked up by Nate Silver and across the art of political forecasting was not something that would have had to come from any sort of special informant, being in the air of 2016 and widely broadcast on the airwaves, as the “Purple America” coined right after the divisive presidential election of 2000, by Robert J. Vanderbei, as a way to come to terms with starkness of the opposition between Bush v. Gore; Vanderbei recast what seemed a polarity in the context of a variety of political opinion, leading to articles after 2004 to insist that America is not divided into sub-nations, or on the brink of a second Civil War, and continued to map the mutation of purple America in subsequent elections.

The conceit of Purple America rescued to some extent the simplified opposition implied by a chromatic divide between red v. blue.  Articles ran entitled “Most Americans live in Purple America, not Red or Blue America” rather than in a blue or red state, created a sense of consensus and diversity, befitting a democracy, but the yawning gaps in areas of intense redness meant that purpleness provided a language of opportunity for those seeking to craft dissensus.  Vanderbei offered the original “Purple America” in order to help refine a clearer statistical image of the dynamics hidden between the political polarization of a body politic, and to give greater agency to the diversity of opinions embodied in the nation.  By embodying a red flyover zone, or a blueing of the coasts, the intention was to encourage a deeper dive into the national vote, as well as to retire the tired glossing of the electoral map:  the bridging of a division that Obama would make in his speech in support of John Kerry’s Presidential candidacy fenced the hegemony of a similar symbolic divide, and cast it as at its root dangerous to democracy.

 

 

PurpleAmerica2000

Purple America (2000)

 

But it didn’t remain there.  The migration of a language designed for a broad market of TV news infographics to a language of political operatives interested in subverting the democratic process is perhaps instructive.  The map was perhaps replayed in the media as it contained sufficient dramatic tension to foreground problems of crafting political consensus, as if social policies and political opinions were identified with an area in the country, and as if every issue in the political platform was fundamentally designed to capture a divisive issue of political debate–around abortion, social security, gun control, climate change or global warming, environmental regulation, and monetary policy or fiscal restraint–whereas the options on the table were not, in fact, that divergent.

The maps however naturalized the divisions, and, paradoxically, left them open to be exploited, perhaps not so much since we were fractured into filter bubbles as because pundits wanted to create the necessary degree of dramatic tension, and to craft and foreground the dramatic arc of an election season, as if the notion of a ground-plan and an electoral strategy could be portrayed and represented as a military as much as a political one.  The guiding metaphor of divisiveness and division that was foregrounded in this map–as if blocks of population existed with one preference, despite the subtler variations in voting, despite the blue/red divide imposed by majority victory–

Mark Newman Red:Blue ma.png

–even if such a decision, a sort of hold-over from a pre-parliamentary languages of democracy, that privileged the notion of a ruling party in a quasi-monarchical way, obscured the variations once one drilled down into voting patterns–

 

votes- red v blue, by county and interest level

 

–but obscured the huge number of “ghost votes” across the less inhabited areas, where isolated communities, suspended outside of the metropoles, were magnified in an electoral college that robustly enhanced their political voice in ways bluntly reflected by the flatness of the two-color map in stubborn wasy.  But as Chris Howard, inspired by the blended voting maps created by Robert J. Vanderbei of the 2012 election that showed purple America, and the cartograms of Mark Newman, transparencies could capture the magnification of political voices of low-density in the electoral map, in ways that might have suggested the potential for electoral disruption to those seeking to do so–even if such a perverse reading of the language of infographics was hard to imagine.

 

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The graphic language, migrating from electoral processes to the nightly news, may have provided a basis for newscasters to naturalize a drama of political  contestation, more than conversation.  Whereas we are increasingly talking not of “states” that suggest the fragmentation of the union, we live in an increasing economic divide largely oriented not along pitched lines of battle, but by urban/rural divisions, if the divide is belied in the flat pasteurization of space of electoral maps.  The growth of megacities across America have raised multiple divisions electoral maps fail to capture, with its fundamental insistence on the county as a unit of voting, despite the increasing evacuation of its meaning as a unit of political representation.  But as a metaphor, or master-trope, the fracturing of states was something of an invitation to a foreign nation to seize up and try to pry apart, however, as Luc Guillmot showed in an alternative cartogram, sized by votes in red states in the so-called heartland of the midwest, in the manner of Ben Hennig’s cartograms.

 

deep-blue-cities-hennig

 

But President Obama’s own words come back to haunt us.  In the electoral maps for the 2016, indeed, the masking of gradations of division produced the sense of a democratic result we were bound to accept–

 

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–even if it brought an intensified red that was really clinched at the margins, or in Texas, Florida, Michigan and Virginia, but whose deep red “heartland” created the sense for the victor that he was indeed recognized by the “real Americans” he so desired to court.  Trump was so taken with the electoral map to have it framed, and has been so personally obsessed with imagining the scale of his supposed victory to be present in the intensity of the square mileage of red hued states to take a truly personal offense at the idea that voters swayed by Facebook pages and Instagram groups are seen as diminishing the status of his victory, and an election he imagines a total victory he pulled off by bravado, and dismiss concern of dangerous effects of foreign disturbances of the voting process.

Did the exploitation of such divisions, and indeed the language of opposition, subvert the democratic process, and did the maps help present such a vision of polarization, where consensus was ready to be flipped, and all precedent of civility turned on it head, by exploiting that narrow margin of purple states of the nation with an enthusiasm that few saw as even in reach on the eve of electoral night, as America seemed to fall into two camps, but with the electoral collect staying clearly in Clinton’s camp.  (The hold on the lighter blue states like Florida and North Carolina were tenuous, however, and the loss in Colorado, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania tipped the scales.)  If the blue states seem able to hug the red core to prevent it overflowing to both coasts, the glare of the divisions between blue and red states was so starkly naturalized to masquerade the extent to which flipping purple states would in fact flip much more of the nation red, and alter the outcome of the electoral count in ways that renders the flat dichotomy of a two-color prediction irrelevant.

 

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The fact stubbornly remains that it wouldn’t involve that much demographic science or pinpoint precision polling to know that enough pressure in the purple states could create a crisis in consensus enough to blur the outcome of the vote.

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Filed under 2016 US Presidential Election, American Politics, Donald Trump, electoral maps, Presidential Elections

The Less Visible Paths of Economic Giving

At the same time as Pope Francis elegantly entreats all to view the world less through the distortions of economic markets–and without forgetting those who are all too often overlooked–we rightly grapple with ways of imagining global inequalities, working to view the world less in terms of economic markets of commercial exchange or banking centers.  For Francis asks us to find a way to map the debt the producers of greenhouse gases owe to developing countries, lest their weight fall on poorer countries, rather than industrialized countries bearing their cost, and as well as a way of correcting the usurious rates of lending money, by guarding against those “oppressive lending systems . . . which generate further poverty.”  The United Nations served as the  setting to stage a dramatically and radically revised ” Urbi et orbi” address by the first transatlantic pontiff, and one deeply conscious of that status.  Francis enjoined us to imagine a common good–chastened by the harms of seeing social needs only in terms of economics.  The moral injunction to consider the deepening economic imbalances of national debt recalls the difficulties of picturing a more equal and more ethical distribution of space, taking stock of the globalized world outside dominant patterns of economic exchange.

If oppressive systems of lending create states mired in relatively equally distributed poverty, and others increasingly less egalitarian–as JapanSouth Africa and the United States–poorer individuals or countries all too easily fall through the cracks and off the mental map that privileges dominant economies.  Indeed, so obsessed have we become with noting, accepting, and internalizing property lines that we seem trapped into forgotting the actual distribution of inequalities in our country.  The warping of economic conditions in the United States alone–a warping toxic for local politics, and compassion–are nicely illustrated in microcosm in a glorious if grotesque GIF Max Galko offered, via Metrocosm.  In its warping of a planimetric image of national space, it seeks to track the terribly troubling distortion of civic space by wickedly substituting residential values on land to reveal hypertrophied concentrations of capital in a few regions—mapping value onto land in ways that display the drastic diminution of housing stock in far more regions of the lower forty-eight that contract out of sight.

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Metrocosm, based on data from US Census and Lincoln Institute of Land Policy

 

The bloated property values of urban and exurban areas are hardly signs of a healthily beating heart, but a Rabelasian image–if it weren’t also such a very accurate illustration of our current national political quagmire of using a map to create consensus when concentrations of wealth looks so different than the one which determines our representational government, and a clear social commentary and scathing socioeconomic critique.  For how can we create a clearer map of priorities, when the very levelness of a playing field is so distorted beyond recognition?  The cartographical contraction of so many areas that seem overlooked seems also a metaphor, as tNew York City, Miami, San Francisco, Seattle, Orange County and Chicago acquire hideously gargantuan proportions to seem countries of their own, as they assume their relative values of residential properties, leaving the majority of the country to disappear within the folds of their overvaluation and market-driven expansion, as if to show the difficulty with which market valuation maps onto our own space.  All this to raise questions of how a map of global economic relations might best begun to be traced, or how we might imagine the disruptive inequality on our perceptions of space–and, indeed, the inequalities that spatial orders increasingly come to reflect and perpetuate?

Does this image of a “beating” heart only map the absence of empathy in a map?

1.  For economic exchanges seem strikingly complicit in perpetuating inequalities, if only by diminishing those very inequities of economic productivity perpetuated in most maps fail to adequately attend or obscure.  One might hope, with geographer Andrew Linford, and Martin Lewis, the benefits of a map illuminating the inequities of global disparities in economic productivity–and try to use such a map to address how both regional and national disparities, often oddly dividing coastal areas from poorer interiors, might be overcome, and the ways that what pass as concerted attempts to do so often only shore them up. But such a map only confirms the sorts of distortions that most are only too aware already exist.

GDP Density

Geocurrents global  map of GDP Density (2011)

The illusion of equality is more often maintained by the belief that by mapping all aspects of the earth we are ensuring a sense of equality for all, or allowing no inequities to be hidden from view–as if the projects of world-mapping, and exposing to the public eye, is a means of responding to global needs–rather than obscuring these inequalities.

2.  Or can this even be captured in a map?  It bears noting that even if we have a totalistic map of global coverage, we tend to not come to terms with the depth of inequities and wealth, so obsessed we’ve become with what we can record as if it was a picture of the status quo.  In an age where outfits like Planet Labs or their friendly competitors at DigitalGlobe readily provide satellite-generated images that map the surface of the earth from space for their client base at an astounding resolution of two to three meters, what’s being mapped omits the truly important transactions, exchanges, money-laundering, and other financial transactions that underlie the ever more globalized economy.  Even as the platforms of Geo Big Data may appear comprehensive in detail, the undercurrents of these claims provokes questions about what they fail to communicate. Perhaps the very promise of totality for such claims of whole-Earth imagery–to be sure, at lower resolution for the state of Israel, by a ‘flock’ of “Dove” Satellites–only confirms that the real action lies elsewhere:  maybe in those shifting currents less readily subject to be seen, tracked or so readily surveyed, as much as on the edges of urban and rural life.  After all, if one accepts a uniform mathematical grid as a way of mapping, one omits any local knowledge of place, andy any notion of representation.

Satellite Dove

There must be more that resists such ready capture–from the rampant inequalities of wealth that organize our cities to the disparities of wealth around the world.  What other underground streams of electronic or financial transfers can we trace?  These streams constitute the new mare nostrum, the non-territorial terrain on which both worldly power and economic activities are waged, and run across the boundaries of either a settled or defined geopolitical space.  But the space of climate change is one that is best rendered as transcending a map of territorial bounds or geopolitical space that is rooted in the antiquated notion of “countries,” which not only seem increasingly removed from our planet’s fate–

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–but from it’s actual experience.

3.  The map “Money Trails” traces the actual paths of the disbursement of funds by the UN, World Bank, and 11 industrialized nations to reveal the distortion of global ties transcending geopolitical space.  So much seems revealed in the major unmapped pathways that structure our increasingly disturbingly decentered globe–which infographic artist Haisam Hussein used to map the distribution “foreign aid” in the pastel hues and curving bars reminiscent of the London Tube Map that the engineer Harry Beck so cleverly devised on the model of a simple circuit board–but which suggest a decentered lack of familiarity, and raise the stakes on processing how foreign aid is allocated, as much as to explain the circulation of funds with an air of transparency.

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Lapham’s Quarterly

Hussein’s uncanny infographic tacitly calls attention to the status of Aid as an artifact of the Western World (to which Beck so clearly belonged), even if the destinations of most of the billions tend to arrive at destinations whose open circles peripheral to or far outside the west, from Afghanistan, Myanmar, Vietnam, Brazil, Kenya or the West Bank–as well as India and Ethiopia.  Beck’s design had once simplified the confusion that Londoners faced in confronting underground routes by simplifying the Tub to a circuit’s dense pathways in ways riders quickly came to disentangle:

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What does it mean for huge sums of foreign aid to travel as they do, through such sanctioned if somehow secret hidden pathways of economic exchange?  Can one begin to disentangle their distribution by different agencies and governments, and the parallels sources of foreign aid dispatched to those needy, or to enter into a logic of their distribution?  Can one ever expect the distribution of Foreign Aid to run along such clearly defined pathways?

4.  In an age where the vast majority of financial transactions occur online and data centers channel chains of information with increasing speed, the paths of financial transactions are rarely transparently mapped.  Although we accept multiple ways of mapping and surveilling the world, but mapping the global exchange of money and financial assistance are less clearly established–if only because the mobility of money presents far less easy or a static image and is less about clear relations between place than often undisclosed channels of exchange.  If we know the GDP of different countries, national debt, global debt, or even map government debt as a percentage of GDP–we can rank countries’ relative consciousness of balance of payments, or the ability with which debt is able to be sustained, while those deepest crimson threaten to drop from view or implode:

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Such a static distribution of debt offers a basis not to consider the distribution of productivity; it describes the ability of countries to carry debt even if carrying this load provides the basis to perpetuate their global roles.

The basis for understanding the circulation of money around the globe raise questions of the continued relevance of connectivity, distribution, and indeed the privileged point of orientation to the circulation of power.  For a map that privileges clear boundary lines of jurisdiction serves to regard each nation as an autonomous economic actor, but in an era of the paperless transaction of funds, the map that continues to privilege territoriality seems not only out of date, but increasingly irrelevant to describing the process of globalization.

One might also see the development of aid as a holding pattern or mode for tacitly creating consensus and uniting an increasingly uneven playing field of the economic state of play.  If empires were once seen as controlling the sea and mapping control of navigational spaces, the notion of the “Freedom of Seas” or Mare Liberum that Grotius proposed as the basis for mercantilism in the early seventeenth century have long ceased to be the basis or the illustration of imperial mandates:  whereas the concept of the Freedom of the Seas was in ways an extension of ancient Romans’ control over the Mediterranean, the ocean is no longer the screen to project projects of dominion than are the pathways of aid whose currents more aptly flow from centers of geopolitical power–and can only be mapped in far more fractured, and indeed postmodern, globalist terms, where economic aid is tied to the opening of markets as well as political ties–and might be far more challenging to map.  The sea is no longer the primary surface of economic exchange, and the relatively recent migration of monetary exchanges onto virtual space poses unique challenges to trace.

The less visible pathways and more visible tentacles by which foreign aid is dispensed may not only lend coherence to our national markets, despite the dramatic inequalities that continue to exist across the inhabited world–the expansion of aid may indeed make it ethically and conscionably possible to live in its huge differences of well-being and lifestyles that we wouldn’t be able to otherwise ignore.  An astounding $530 billion was informally sent, through unofficial channels, by immigrants, in 2012, according to the World Bank, in ways that might represent the economy of a sizable nation–and a huge uptick over the $132 billion sent in 2011.  The pathways of finance suggest a new model of global circulation of giving and receiving that offers something like an underlayer of the global economy.

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As of 2006, the money sent home from industrialized countries in the form of individual remittances was for the most part (outside of Africa) significantly larger than the official development assistance and foreign aid worldwide, according to the World Bank, whose donor countries commit to sustainable development or poverty reduction in ways that provide a plan for dealing with economic disparities.

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But the dramatic expansion of foreign aid far more often travels along official currents, supported by a logic that demands some excavation of internationalist motivations that transcend mere economic need.

5.  While the notion of Christian charity was long linked to the local public use of personal wealth, as upper-class Roman elites gave money as they wanted to civic causes in much of Europe and North Africa, the flows of philanthropy that have been increasingly institutionalized have become ever more difficult to trace and complex to map as foreign aid has tried to reduce growing income disparities worldwide.  Giving is institutionalized by governments–and by United Nations organizations with the World Bank and their non-profit NGO allies, but mapping flows of philanthropy are far from the sorts of local giving of the past.  Increasingly mediated by non-national entities, the flow of funds in an era of global cash flows and transfers is increasingly dematerialized or immaterial, even when growing to the inconceivable amount of $160 Billion.

Perhaps rendering them concretely provokes more surprise than recognition as the courses of capital are remapped on a geographical projection.  And when Haisam Hussein chose to map trails of foreign aid against the famous transit map of a city once the financial center of world markets, as if to map the spatial contraction of the global economy to several principal routes of financial disbursement, the map suggests not only the mobility of money, but the degree to which the major economies like the United states and Japan, as well as Norway, Sweden, England, Germany, France, Australia and Canada pump money into a global system of credit that sustain global markets, helped primarily by the World Bank, and basically bankrolled by eleven nations, including Japan, Canada, the US, Britain, Sweden, Australia, Russia and South Korea–who exclude the “other area,” left grey on the map, of the People’s Republic of China.

Money Trails and UN

Lapham’s Quarterly

The money flows are modernistically represented as if to show the progressive possibilities of aid in streamlined terms, the distribution is at the same time  in no way equal and strikingly disproportionate and the larger flows of aid dissonantly disruptive of the modernistic design–the pathways of economic aid are clearly and lopsidedly dominated by the nations of the northern hemisphere.  Despite the modernism of the routes, the disproportionate paths on which aid travels disrupts the symmetry of its so sleek tube lines, as distortedly large baby blue rivers dominate the map as they flow from Japan beside yellow-gold currents from the United States, reminding one of the deeply engrained national inequalities that underpin much “giving” today–and dazzling us with an array of colors and flows that leads us almost to forget the global presence of the PRC, or the grey persistence of global poverty.

But the selective nature of support seems particularly striking–with, as of 2013, the UK tied to Pakistan, Ethiopia and Bangladesh, the US to Kenya, Gaza and the West Bank, and Afghanistan, Australia to its neighbors Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands, Norway to Brazil, and France to Myanmar and Morocco.  The routes for disbursing foreign aid are hardly a process of global circulation, but provide something like a strategy for promoting the possible circulation of global funds.

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Lapham’s Quarterly

The circulation of “aid” is in part a sort of shadow-map that helps shore up and support the  US military’s presence.  The spread of what seems an extended carte blanche to settle the US military in bases abroad has grown steadily since World War II, and has currently grown to spread to over 800 foreign bases in 160 other countries and territories outside the United States–excluding Afghanistan and Iraq, sustained at a cost of over $156 Billion annually.  The current constellation of what Chalmers Johnson called “base world”–a parallel imaging of military extraterritoriality–of which the Pentagon lists not only 174 US “base sites” in Germany, 113 in Japan, and 83 in South Korea, but hundreds more in around 80 countries, including Bahrain, Bulgaria, Colombia, Kenya, and Qatar:  if those countries colored bright red are hosting actual basis, those in purple are hosting US troops, and those in dark blue are countries where the US government is currently negotiating the presence of troops, and the rare spots of a lighter shade of blue mark those with “no evident” US military presence–limited to Mongolia, Tibet, Burma, North Korea and Iran, and the northern and central Africa nations of Libya, Somalia, the Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Sudan.  (But one never knows.)

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While one might rightly wonder why the army, navy, and marines are based so widely over an “empire of bases,” the cost to the government is no doubt not only expressed in the cost of running the bases that are outposts of Americana where one would think oneself to be geographically removed.

A closer look at those sites of centers of active duty of US soldiers–not including the recent theaters of war of Afghanistan and Iraq–shows a diaspora of bases across the globe that the Department of Defense sustains, allowing the US to have a greater presence worldwide than any actual nation, empire, or people, in seems the underside of globalization, as well as the fantasy of a paranoid extra-national archipelago of active duty that may respond to a vision of global danger:

Active Duty Map

Is foreign economic “aid” somehow a tacitly understood bribe to continue to tolerate such an expansive military presence, or to negotiate with nations for the possibility of securing a future base, or some other sort of economic open-ness?  Is it an excuse to overcome resistance to perpetuating ongoing military presences, or a new way of strategically and cynically waging a global war of chess?

Hosting US Bases

The image of active duty soldiers settled in bases across what might be called Eurasia reveals an often unmapped constellation of sites of settlement, far different from the cities that usually appear on a political atlas or any map.

Active Duty in EurASIA

6.  The World Bank does not primarily speak, despite what its name might assure us, for the world, and may charge usurious fees, but a counter-geography suggest the limits of the pathways Hussein so cleverly mapped from a first-world perspective.

For an unspoken and often ignored “other map” of economic aid, as well as, perhaps, of the “soft money” that allows military and economic expansion, flows not from the World Bank or United States, of course, but from China–all too absent from our own eyes, much as the very same region of the world is so conspicuously absent from maps of Facebook “friending” and “likes” in ways that makes one smirk with superiority at the eerily blacked-out region of a world otherwise illuminated by “friendships” and photo exchange.  The same area not so oddly omitted from the map of global foreign aid, since it is not our aid or the sort of aid sought to be mapped, is actually of course not nearly so passive, or lacking networks of giving.  Although Facebook’s ““Friendship Map” tracks networking, as much as it registers an increasingly vibrant emotional pulse of the digital culture of linking that grips much the globe, leaves a blank space of seep blue or empty lacuna in tracing over 1.5 billion friendships–half of its users have successfully “friended” over 200 other users.  The largest hole of social network gapes over China–though one still can’t really expunge its territory from a map–although the map only reflects individual and collective investment in social media.

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Global visualisation of every connection between two people on Facebook

Perhaps the map is far more distorting than admit it to be.

In the more real world of global finances, funding provides an image of governmentally that reigns in the massive economic disequilibria around the world at at time of dramatically curtailed prosperity.  China’s foreign aid reveals distinctly different paths of money to North Korea, Srl Lanka, Sub-Saharan Africa–including Ethiopia and Sierra Leone–and Ecuador; aid is proffered with quite different degrees of riskiness, in ways that suggest the large number of risky bets that China seems to be making in “foreign investment”–described here as something unlike and distinct from “aid” or charitable giving, but as something of a gambit of clearly strategic scope of investing in future markets or potential future sources of food:

China's investment and riskiness of its investing

New York Times

Yet the degree of cumulative investment deserves attention as an alternate visualization of globalization that is not scary, but nonetheless can’t help but be salutary at least in illustrating global imbalances as a counterpoint:
China's Investment, 2005-13:NYT

One can further profitably compare this to the aggregate numbers of Chinese exports and imports go, to see its economy’s global reach, and ask why the range of its “giving” or aid is ommited from the above map–in ways that suggests the degrees of strings attached to it.  The size of exports suggests a complementary set of ties to areas in Europe, the United States, Japan, and South Korea, as well as Australia and South Africa, where a smaller degree of aid arrives–no doubt with invisible strings of its own implicitly attached.

Value of Chinese Imports and Exports Worldwide 2015Value of Chinese Imports and Exports Worldwide 2015New York Times

These somewhat silent and far less evident paths of “giving” and GDP, as well as export values, seek to map a more dynamic image of the current state-of-play of globalization as a sort of state of flux, even if its economic ecosystem is all too often obscured, but also a screen for introspection of the proportions of globalization and its sins.  After all, whoever gives themselves the mantle of global authority most convincingly seems to get to draw the map. Or to decide that it might be time to reconsider the current map of giving, and foreign aid.

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Filed under Foreign Aid, globalization, infographics, mapping economic inequalities

Facebook Tracks Migrations across Borders: Harvesting Data, Ten Years In

The pleasures of all forms of mapping respond to the deeply satisfying ends to which they process ties across space for viewers, allowing them ways to access space through spatial networks that one never before had the pleasure to observe:  and watching these connections and webs appear in a graphic template gives one a new sense of imagining travel across space, but also an almost innate pleasure of seeing how places are tied.  The multiple frogleaps between shores and across countries in the above world map suggests a shifting notion of the inhabited world.  With Facebook at its tenth anniversary, the immense amount of data that the social network generates offers opportunities to map impressive patterns of interconnectedness which shift attention from those borders which have long defined nation-states or indeed the bounds between land and sea.

In ways that might well be signs of the times, and surely aim to chart a sort of post-modernity, the maps of connected identities offer striking ways to see the world less in terms of its divisions than the links web-based communication allows one to harvest.  Indeed, without depending on the nation as the unit of meaning:  Facebook’s project of comprehensive social graphing has maps populations and social networking by tracking a combination of individuals and aggregates over space–at least, across self-reported locations.  Facebook has already showcased its data as a means to map friendships in ways that suggest a new way of reporting linkages in the very sort of social networks it promotes.  If all maps map human knowledge, these data maps also visualize space outside of spatial constraints:  but a new type of mapping emerges by tracing populations on the basis of how its users self-identify as birth cities and cities of current residence.  For Facebook engineers map actual spatial distributions by big data of the sort economists admire measuring, but most have found hard to discern.  They are worth attending to in some detail, not only to ask about the data on which they are based, but to examine the beauty of their construction.  By charting patters so compelling, they also force one to wonder whether the real story they tells go beyond the reach of the world-wide web–and what ways to best understand the geographical connectedness they actually reveal.  Perhaps we can begin by asking what sort of vertiginous views they offer of the world and its inhabitants, and how we can best relate to the stunning images that Facebook engineers seem to have taken such pleasure to produce–and whose visual economy seems so pleasurable to view.

After a decade of storing Facebook-generated data in a thick dossier of computer files, Facebook claims the ability for a sort of aggregate mapping, but one that erases individual stories:   its aggregates conceal the somewhat obvious fact that it tracks the self-selected members of Facebook users, and showcases them as if they offered a comprehensive enough record of the inhabited world to base a definitive social graph of global populations.  Perhaps Facebook users are the population that we want to notice, or the population that it makes sense to track–but this limitation of data is a liability as much as a strength–and because it treats the usual boundaries that have long offered practical constraints to travel and exchange as superseded, aside from the unstated boundary lines that divide China or North Korea from the other countries of the East.  The map suggests a new sort of human knowledge of connectivity and of the different sorts of markets, presumably, that those who are web-connected participate and are attracted by or move within.  The map that results is striking both because of its erasures of the border-lines and boundaries–and maps webs and arcs of population links without clear reference to spatial directionality.  The skein of ties that emerges has become somewhat iconic, and has also provided a sort of template or inspiration for the map of users’ “migrations” or shifting geographic locations in ways considered below.

Given the intentional elision of individual story-lines that is characteristic of the data being harvested, it’s important to try to untangle the maps it makes from the data on which they are based–if only to understand the bias of the picture they present:  a demographic restricted to their users, as well as based on data that is self-reported and without any objective control.  Rather than tracing the unidirectional movement associated with moments of migration driven by famine, slavery, war or ethnic tensions, the strikingly geometric maps Facebook engineers created reveal patterns of connectedness of special interest in tracking geographic mobility, but also in mapping (and perhaps describing) the new patterns of interconnectedness Facebook engineers would probably like to associate with the Facebook networking site.  The oddness of using the self-generated information on a site of social networking as demographic data may reveal a thirst for processing big data; once invested with the aura of objectivity, the collective patterns it reveals can erase individual stories as much as synthesize completely credible and coherent narratives.Connectedness is fascinating to track.  And such information like place of birth and city of residence are not considered categories massaged for personal advancement.  But the internet offers enough screens of concealment and opportunities for disguise that the social graphs Facebook makes tend not only to lack objectivity, but base themselves on data pontentially massaged by users–who, living in the suburbs of one city or in a nearby village, may report themselves as living in the best-known largest nearby city readily recognized, less in an act of deception, but in ways mistakenly treated as objective in character.

If all maps tell stories in how they embody meaning, the stories that the maps based on Facebook data suggests demand unpacking, if only since their numbers are so apparently comprehensive and large, as well as the stories that they submerge.  One story they promote, which we might not accept, promotes an increasingly inter-connected world; others that it conceals is the specific stories about who is connected to whom and why.  With almost half of Facebook users identifying two hundred friends, the webs created by the data purely of Facebook connections reveals an inter-connectivity that privileges the densest distribution of populations in North America and a broad sense of Europe, with a particularly active groups of users also dispersed in Central America, Peru, Argentina, Anatolia (Turkey), Nigeria, South Africa, Pakistan and India, and Indonesia.  This map of global “friendships,” developed by Facebook intern Paul Butler in 2011, offers a “social graph” of some 500 million people, linking users’ friendships to actual coordinates of latitude and longitude to create a visualization in a sort of media mash-up, illuminated by an intense if other-worldly backlit glow of FB blue.  The map of social networking that results suggests not only who is networked, rather than density of habitation but of course also maps the density of the culture of social networking that has come to stand, especially for Facebook, as a sort of index of modernization.  The equality between Facebook use and modernity recalls how closely the ‘Twitterverse’ maps onto the maps onto the global flight-paths of airline routes, as new study has found, suggesting that airline connections between cities provide a statistically valid proxy for twittering to sites beyond one’s own hometown–and the ties that Twitter makes in virtual terms should not be in any way that distinct, after all, since “Twitter is part of the real world” as is the internet, as Matthew Battles astutely observed, and tweeting is shaped by real-world social ties, even if it offers a new media for communication.  But it would seem a misleading inversion of cause and effect to take tweeting as an out-and-out proxy for modernization, equating it with the tracing of ties commerce and capital flows.

The question is not about the data of Twitter vs. Facebook, but about how big data is used to create the multitude of variant maps generated by Facebook media, including this map of ties among its users.  The multitude of variant maps generated by Facebook media seem particularly striking for their post-modernity in how they elide or ignore the frontier as a primary unit of meaning in world maps.  Is this map an illustration of of the acceptance of Facebook as a part of one’s identity, and do the great arcs themselves constitute something of an accurate index or emblem of post-modernity?  While Facebook is actively interested in promoting is own ability for harvesting data, many of the maps of friendship, migration, and social ties of course read a lot like images of its ability to promote social networking.  The arcs of light that map online ties not only mirror the sort of etherial airline map that seems as good a predictor of twitter ties–does this suggest the similar likelihood of access to airplanes as access to tweeting?–but a gauzy penumbra spun around the earth’s inhabitants who sit spellbound before backlit screens, luxuriating in the proxy embrace of on-line connections and affections? It’s always important to ask what sorts of abstractions that any map seeks to communicate through the tenuous bonds they draw linking actual regions.

Paul Butler's map of friendships

Is this a new story the habitation of the select areas of the information-sharing world that Facebook links?   The above image tells one story about the inhabitants of the world, or rather of a specific world,  and a strikingly suggestive one in how Facebook’s data defines the worlds inhabitants as its users.  For there is no doubt a certain amount of estrangement from other forms of communication that this image, linking pairs of cities weighted for how many friendships exist between them, also maps, varying the intensity and brightness of lines’ coloring by the number of friendships shared as a way of mapping “real human relationships” across space in ways that Facebook does not note explicitly:  the map devised by Facebook’s infrastructural engineering team is a map of the very distances that Facebook as a medium is best able to bridge.  If perhaps just as revealing of access to computers, digital literacy, and wealth, the arc drawn across the empty spaces of deep blue that are oceans charts the networks of inter-connectivity among which news travels, memes grow, personalized photos shared, and a sort of quasi-information society exists, by the construction of the social network on which it travels.  This “globology” reflects less the currents of cultural contact, migration, and exchange that define global history, but something analogous to the cartographical flattening of it, viewed through access to the options of like, connect, dislike, or share that Facebook offers its users.  It charts the options that have shaped, to one extent or another, a transnational psychology of communication.

Which makes the ambitions of Facebook engineers to map patterns of “coordinated migration” an interesting case in mining of new trends in geographic mobility from the massive amounts of data that they collect, if only because of its goals to map actual spatial position over time.  The somewhat-recent maps of what FB term “coordinated migration,” based on the patterns of relocation that emerge from self-reported data of the site of birth and current location of FB users.  The result of the database’s collation is to track and define the lines of the global phenomenon of urban migration, once reserved for larger industrial cities or metropoles, but not significantly broadened across the world, both to population growth and a drying up rural prospects and jobs in the magnets of urban metropoles.  The idealized format of these arcs of migration create a social scientific aura of explanatory simplicity, and serve to affirm the notion that individual itineraries respond to an economic marketplace.  The boast of Facebook to chart such pathways with accuracy has been critiqued for its use of private data without evaluation through the scrutiny by peer review, and may deviate from standards of impartially objectively derived data, or by using publicly listed self-identification to endow with the graphic objectivity (or appearance of it) on a map.  The maps make tacit claim to reveal the real attraction of populations both from neighboring cities in the same country, or, in South East Asia and India, from neighboring countries, by the web of tiny green arcs discussed in greater detail below, provide a useful filter for sort of big data economists have problems measuring of global migration, and indeed to distinguish quantifiable migration numbers and patterns in different regions of the world.  Once again, frontiers are less significant than the ties of cities that the data input by Facebook users enter into their pages, and which they map.

Underlying questions remain, but seem to be waiting for further or future analysis.  For one, how, Sheryl Sandberg, do these patterns of migration map out along gender lines?  In mapping “destination cities” by red dots, and “origin cities” by blue, the design group Stamen has helped render a smooth arcs of migration as a set of naturalized movements, in order to throw into relief the relative density of a phenomenon of “coordinated migration” around the world, but creates a naturalized web.  They give one useful key to read meaning from these idealized arcs by setting them against a global map coloring regions of relative urban growth in 2000-12 pale yellow, in the sort of compelling image  compressing a density of variables to simple graphic forms of which Tufte would be proud:  routes replace cities that they link, or that appear as numinous purple blurs that remind us of the messiness of mobility; the crossing of frontiers replaces frontiers, which must be deciphered by the limited role of crossings from China, whose very existence is only implied by paths of emigrants abroad.

Coordinated Migration #2

The mottled blotches of blotting-paper blue to which the thickest green trails lead indicate the fastest growing markets of production that provide the magnets from nearby countries as well as for regional residents.  The linking that the map tracks suggests a sense of populations in flux, and of the market-driven nature of the migrations that Facebook’s data tracks, and whose intense mobility is a sign of relative modernization as much as social unrest.  The broader linkages such data implies between Facebook and the global process of modernization is, certainly, good publicity, no doubt, if largely on the level of a subconscious association.

But the emergence of what Facebook has christened in quasi-sociological jargon as “destination cities” might be taken with a grain of salt.  But the data that Facebook has so far collected is also an inversion of a somewhat embarrassing incident that occurred at Facebook back in 2010, when Pete Warden devised with the inventive project to scrape the public Facebook profiles of 210 million users in the United States to derive the clustering of networks that divided the country according to FB ties, creating his own national map, but then withdrawing the offering of the data as public when Facebook threatened suit, but had to allow him to keep up the map he derived from the data–brilliant if only for its definition of clusters that would never be rendered in a printed map, with eponymous if imagined toponyms as SocialistanMormonia or winning ones like Stayathomia, designating the greater northeast and midwest–a region viewed by most as revealing less geographic mobility, but which wouldn’t appreciate that name.

United FB regions

The map, soon taken down, may have encouraged a sort of counter-posting of a heat-map that announced the world-wide distribution of Facebook developers, which seems designed to celebrate their global geographic diversity, rather than social or geographic segregation, to dispel the notion that they are concentrated in the United States or, in terms of the city where most FB developers live, San Francisco.  (The coloration of whole countries based on local concentrations of software developers finds all of North America painted red.)

Facebook-Developer-Heat-Map

But the huge amount of data that Facebook has developed in a decade-long harvest is hard not to want to map, if only to see what sort of visualizations it produces.  And the three or four maps they issued tracking the benefits of ten years of social networking have led to the claim to reveal new patterns of social migration to cities or urban metropoles that are the equivalents of hot-spots in a globalized world.  The shading yellow of regions the World Bank found marked by high “urbanization growth” over the same period–2000 to 2012–creates a simple context to situate the migration, although it would only really make sense to chart that growth in population over a broader period  corresponding pressures that impacted those who were migrating in ways tracked during this period as a way of registering, or so Facebook would like us to think, some of the primary forces that have reconfigured a globalized world on which Facebook has a clear take.  The cities noted as cross-national destinations reveals a sense of global mobility and inter-connectedness with which Facebook wants to promote, to be sure, linking a sense of globalism with its product’s global reach, but wrap the world in a skein of green lines link with differing intensity selective cities an towns, suddenly giving prominence to the links of a potentially economically prominent demographic.

Coordinated Migration #2

The elegantly arcs of migration charted from original residences are quite impressive localized illustrations of geographical mobility:  if the result might not be truly comparable to how Aude Hofleitner, Ta Virot Chiraphadhanakul and Bogdan State have decided to evoke the many “large-scale migrations [that] are an important part of human history,” the chart reveals micro-patterns of geographic mobility by neat green lines would make a social historian turn green with envy, mapping “flows” from hometowns to current cities.  The responsible social historian would ask whether those nice curved swirls map along a symmetry misleading in portraying actual paths that those migrations took–many, one could speculate, were routed through multiple other cities or post-modern metropoles, as the line connecting any two points anywhere is rarely a perfectly smooth trajectory or arc:  the visualization betrays, in this sense, the data-centered models from which they derive, and are, in a sense, less revealing of a picture of actual populations.  But the floral patterns they create, spinning from blue-dots of geographic origins to red dots of final destination or current habitation, document a fairly radical shift toward urban in-migration, reminiscent of nineteenth-century Europe, and a huge attraction to sites in coastal west Africa, not only Lagos, whose urban population’s growth by almost one-fifth reflecting the expansion of the city and oil-production, but also Dakar, Accra–whose urban growth also approached 20%–, Ghana, the Gulf of Guinea, and Nairobi, as well as Dar es Salaam.  (One suspects that this is but a shadow of the true migration of populations, since it only represents data from the social network that Facebook runs, and is silent about its very selective picture of folks with internet access and net-literacy.)  But the migration of Nigerians it tracks to Lagos is nonetheless prominent.

Could this data not be usefully cross-mapped with the growth or social compositions of destination cities in more provocative ways?  What sort of visualization would that create?  Can it be refined, by accessing data like the changed place of Facebook users over time, creating a somewhat more messy, but perhaps more informative, way of tracing patterns of migration, than a graphic that seeks to underscore as well as illustrate the notion of a “coordinated migration” from smaller towns to metropoles?  To be sure, the arcs used to denote the alleged concentration of migration area a way of softening the image of Facebook’s data, making it more organic part of the map, and not serve as an apparatus of any accuracy.  The arcs are aesthetically engaging as a way to illustrate each “destination city” by its reach to its hinterland–or to other cities of origin–to visualize and showcase the massive amounts of data that it has collected, much in the way that Facebook has engaged in multiple ways to visualize the scope and extent of data that it generates over a huge expanse of the world, if not to suggest it forms a way of tracking the inhabited world, under the name of Data Science, always keeping that data anonymous.

The map of major destinations of folks in the two year period of 2010-12 is striking for how it reveals a changing face of global socio-professional mobility that seems specific to some classes.  The usage of circle arcs in the streamlined OSM cartographical data is almost as misleading as it gets if one thinks that the arcs mirror the messiness of routes of actual spatial migration.  But the abstraction of defined population currents offers an abstraction of presumably “eminently hirable” individuals looking for more profitable lines of work, linking the Facebook populations with the up and coming professionals of the future, as much as with job mobility.  The yellow highlighted areas of notable urban population growth create a backdrop that increased the legibility of this slightly restricted map, and others below–one  wishes for a bit deeper patterns of urbanization and rural pressures–at times far preceding the decade we are describing in these maps.

Coordianted Migration--Africa

The graphics are particularly striking visually, and effective as compelling images of global patterns, even if they also might not be that deeply informative:   they trace a collective social history of urban in-migration in Istanbul, the city Facebook’s researchers found to have the greatest “coordinated migration,” largely as it is the greatest metropole in a largely rural but rapidly “westernizing” country whose infrastructure has greatly transformed–as if Facebook use was a predictable index of economic modernity and, by extension, growing markets for its advertisers.  The foci Facebook’s data has illuminated here indicates as “growth towns” such destinations as Nairobi, Lagos, Port Harcourt, Accra, Kumasi, Kampala, and Dar es Salaam, but purged of the living conditions in those sites.

But a more complex super-imposition or layering of not only urbanization, but annual rates of populations’ change worldwide, in ways that the United Nations has also charted in ways that would be of particular importance for such coordinated migrations, which focus, say, not only on Mali’s and Kenya’s urbanization, but growth in Zambia, the Central African Republic, Chad and Tanzania–and explain why these are to differing degrees loci of the very migratory pressures that Facebook has detected.  (All data deserves to be mapped, but the Facebook seem to privilege almost exclusively the very data that they generated, in order to showcase the trends that its use is able to detect, but some maps are misleading enough that they are perhaps less better drawn.  This leads to some complications, both since the data is not made public and controlled, but also since it is not able to be combined by other data or metrics in responsible ways.)

Population Growth UN Charts

The transformation that these maps chart might be one of the huge expansion of internet users–the maps map their own data, after all.  The clustering of such users in a rapidly growing city like Istanbul is particularly compelling, and interesting reveals the huge amount of in-migration from the less sparsely populated areas of Anatolia around the Black Sea that led to the city’s growth by almost 12% in 2010-12.  It would especially profit from a charting to areas of the city–if possible–or the expansion of the city itself, as well as the growth of other Turkish cities from which those arriving in Istanbul hail:  are these towns declining, and just dying, or are they also growing at a comparable rate?  Do folks moving to Istanbul list actual home-towns, or the nearest large villages?  Istanbul is perhaps also unique in being a modern metropole drawing educated populations from many nearby Macedonia, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Albania and Hungary, as well, it seems, the Ukraine–in a sense of the rebirth of the Ottoman Empire, but in ways distinctively lopsided to the East:  a blanket of green gauze of strings of differing intensity whose arcs blankets the northern regions of Anatolia bordering on the Black Sea.

To Istanbul!

The simplified elegant light green arcs in the above map and its above counterparts stand in quite sharp contrast to the rapid circulation of populations mapped in what is by far the densest and in senses most complex map groups India, South-East Asia (Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Philippines, Singapore, and Malaysia)–almost a data-overload itself–or of the specific stories of these immigrants.  Of course, the question of why this region–embracing really at least three, but probably four sub-regions, should be seen as a collective is not clear, but it is essentially “the rest of the world” aside from the main regions Facebook has parsed.   The graphic suggests a far more massive amount of mobility that is almost difficult to distill to a single image or map.  (China is absent from the dataset, because internet use is so less common; public self-identification is also no doubt far more rare, and foreign, anyways.)   There was quite explosive growth in this period in Bangkok (significantly over 10%), Hyderabad (a bit under 15%, or 14.4%), and Chennai (also slightly under 15%, or 14.4%); one wonders more about the social demographics that motivated this growth, and how much of it maps onto the Facebook users who it maps.

The loss of the stories of individuals who are immigrating to cities is almost part of the point of these maps:  there is no story that needs to be told about this immigration, because it is a process of migration that responds to uniform global pressures we all recognize, which are specific to the demographic of Facebook’s users.  This sense of a story is far from Satyajit Rays’s vision of “The Big City” of the immigration of rural villagers to their new life of searching for commercial employment in the banks, mechanical sales, and lawyers electrified Calcutta.  For the migration to the city that dominates each regional state–rather, the data charts the growth of emerging metropoles as Chennai, in southern India:  it charts mobility from cities to cities, inter-city mobility, among a I-think-that-I’m-probably-quite-employable demographic of relatively educated Facebook users who are most often online, and would coincidentally provide a selective demographic for advertisers to reach.  Indeed, large swaths of rural territories are essentially unmapped, save by the intersecting bright green arcs that cross over their terrain, as if without Facebook users, they did not deserve to be mapped–or, at least, without necessary data, fall out of it–as if to locate the intensity of migrations around its rim, although quite a few sole threads of migration originate from its empty interior.

The image of a growing South Asia is, however, particularly interesting for the number of itineraries it traces out of China, migrating to Taiwan and Hong Kong for the most part, as well as South Korea and the Philippines; the active clustering of Facebook users along the coast suggests that it is were the true action is occurs, as if to rewrite the attention usually paid to charting China’s escalating economic growth.  The vibrancy of ties across borders (and across seas) is striking, as a certain demographic seems irresistibly drawn by Taiwan, and others to Thailand (Bangkok) or Cambodia and Vietnam, whose arcs reveal notably dense ties of geographic mobility.

Coordinated Migration--Asia

Whose stories is revealed in this amazingly dense map of neat green arcs, which, if they simplify the messiness of the individual stories they collectively track, seem intended to create a sense of a coherent network of meaning that might not be present in the area’s economy but is actually extra-national in nature:  these migrations seem links of like to like, and of educated to industry.  One however wishes for greater resolution in an image such as the above:  what is going on in the Philippines, for example, where Manila is not so much the central hub one might expect, but that each island seems to have its own centers of aggregation and congregation, is unclear; out- and in-migration also seems mixed, as it does around Djakarta and to an extent in southern India and Sri Lanka.  Would a close up, say, of Polynesia or at least of the area around Singapore be of help in discerning what patterns of “coordinated migration” might emerge? The huge urbanization of Java, Bali, Indonesia, Laos and Vietnam, and the circulation in populations in the rapidly growing region, as well as any other political and economic pressures on this sea of population shifts.  Many of the arrivals in Bangkok are from within Thailand, moreover, rather than from other countries, suggesting a very traditional pattern of migration within linguistic and cultural units, rather than the global circulation that such maps might be expected to chart, or might at first glance appear; similar interior migrations characterize Vietnam and, it seems, the Philippines, where much migration even appears specific to each island.  How, to use a metric that Facebook has cleverly adopted in its map of friendships across nations, can one view these ties through the lens of shared languages or linguistic similarities?

Philippines

There appears considerably less defined patterns of migration, it bears observing, in the United States.  What does this mean, or might it indicate?  (Or, which seems likely, are Facebook users in the United States just less interested in noting the cities where they live after they geographically relocate, by updating their profiles?)

The patterns provide a new way of reading ties within the map that trump, or erase, geographic proximity, in ways that seem of interest in tracking, for example, the shifts of economical mobility that might be tied or associated with NAFTA.  What is one to make of the far lesser webs of connection or migration in the North America, where there seems, save for the Cubans who have arrived in Miami, far less social mobility or a zero-sum game?  Facebook works–and thinks–in coordinated networks in this case, and finds little similar coordinated migration within North American cities; even in the international migrations from Mexico and Cuba, which seem to be potentially overstated–they reflect the number of Cubans in Miami that state their origin as Havana or Cuba; one can detect less of a coordinated action than a mass movement, in the case of migration from Mexico, than what might be  of a phenomenon chain migration, rather than one independently coordinated, and determined more by family links than economic need.  Three different patterns of migration seem to be evident in the three countries shown below–even though the Stamen projection seems to erase national boundaries or borders by rendering them as equivalent to regions or states:  Canadian cities draw amost exclusively from the surrounding province,  unlike most of the US, save North Dakota and New Mexico; Mexico shows active cross-national migration patterns, perhaps based on familial ties, the engineers note, to such major destination cities as Chicago, Houston, Dallas, and Los Angeles.

Coordinated Migration in US

So do the above mapped elegantly detailed distributions, given the selective nature of their self-reported data, mean anything definite at all? The skein of green lines of differing intensities wrap the world in a variety of ways that contrast, for a start, with a simple map of flight paths:  what remains untold, however, is exactly what demographic the Facebook family has been able to attract.

It is hard to say what they mean exactly, as a result, or how much they provide indices of mass migrations, even though this quite valuable data should by no means be dismissed.  Since it depends on self-reporting of information, they capture a small number of the actual migrations that occur between countries, by migrants who are less likely to log their travels in internet profiles or lists of friends, but the data that the engine of Facebook has, ten years into its existence, managed to compile, and is now eager to show the world that they are able to track.  Of course, the data is only data–and it’s of interest to create a map of data, if only to see what results.  And the somewhat over-determined data of who uses Facebook–folks who are geographically removed from their loved ones?–may be difficult to map as a trend.  It provides a compelling collective visualization among folks who belong to that demographic that often reveals the persistent meaning  of the local and regional in a so-called globalized world.  Perhaps it doesn’t really map a world that is less rooted in geography–Google, after all, generates the GDP of a small country in itself, after all–and where place isn’t supposed to be so great a determining factor or constraint in most markets and lines of work.  The question is what such trends of migration–if that is what’s being charted–mean, and what corner they raise on a map of larger trends of relocation.

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March 5, 2014 · 3:04 pm

Empire of All You Can Survey

In writing on Google Maps’ ambitions to map the world, Adam Fisher invokes Jorge Luis Borges‘ one-paragraph fable of how the Cartographers Guild “struck a Map of the Empire” at a 1:1 scale with its entirety, “On Exactitude in Science.”   Fisher evokes it in comparison to the massive collation of geographical coordinates in the virtual map Google Earth and Google’s project of remapping the world:  and although he does not note this, in Borges’ story, the map “which coincided point for point” with the empire is abandoned by generations “not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears.”

The map of the imperial cartographers Borges described stand as something of a reductio–or perhaps extensioad absurdam of the very sort of large-scale mapping that was first adopted in the English Ordnance Survey–a large-scale project of highly detailed national mapping begun in 1791 prototypically English in its character, ambition and scope.  What might be the largest (and longest lasting) mapping project ever undertaken might be worth some retrospective comparison.  The ambitious project of the Ordnance Survey of offering a highly detailed national map of six inches to the mile–since the 1950s, continuing at a scale of 1:10,000–set something of a standard for protecting the nation.  Originally aimed for one inch to 1000 yards (1:36,000), its framework was set by the Principal Triangulation of Great Britain (1783–1853), but its product served to record a legible record of all British lands.  The aim of the Ordnance Survey was to create a comprehensive record of Britain for ready consultation for defense against potential (French) invaders, and the instantiation of mapping of the nation has long been tied to military ends, whose tabulation of an exact correspondence to place provided an account of national resources and needs.  Borges’ evocation at the end of his tale of the continued presence of shreds of the paper map in remote deserts of the empire that he described is so very apposite because of how the comprehensive map-weaving in Google Earth renders any state-run project of paper mapping as so antiquated to be unrecognizable–and leaving any in shreds–although what the massive and glorious project reveals about map reading might be better explored.

The global map of Google assembles is of a qualitatively other order:   for one, it is an interactive exercise of letting the consumer decide what to map, or providing a selective map for their preferences or needs.  But more broadly, it is mapping for world-domination of the market for maps, which has no clear end-product.  And not only the market:  the interactive nature of Google Maps aims to make it inseparably fused to the minds of its users, suggests Michael Jones, chief technology officer at Google and co-founder of Keyhole, one of the first companies to offer online satellite views  suggests in a nice interview with James Fallows in the Atlantic.  For Jones, Google Maps  provide an “extra-smartness” due to their ready availability as interactive media,  effectively ramping up everyone’s IQ by 20 points and working toward offering a “continuous stream of guidance and information.”  Most users have so internalized the interactive map, the founder of Keyhole argues, that “they get so upset if the tools are inaccurate or let them down:  they feel like a fifth of their brain has been taken out.”  The aim is not to unfold Google Earth over a territory, but situate the map’s readability in our heads:  after 6,000-10,000 years, we’ve turned a bend and mapping has become both interactive and personal, or there is far less of a boundary between the personal and the map.

The map is no longer static, but both only and constantly being framed in an interactive fashion.  As well as change the nature of maps, it alters the nature of map readership in profoundly interesting ways, because of how it organizes and translates data into a new sort of platform.  Unlike a project of mapping national coherence, seems designed to offer a model for marketing maps that includes the ability to toggle directly into a visible record of place–“Street View”–that includes the now-familiar tagging of addresses, locations, and monuments that seemed once to be the semantic dominion of Facebook.  We can now see everything in the map, at incredibly high resolution, so we can prepare for trips of business, commerce, or pleasure by taking a look at the always-sunny record of the topography of wherever we might be heading when relying on Google’s Street View to take us there.

Whereas Borges described how the remnants of that hugely expansive paper map once coextensive with the empire that the cartographers created as lying only in the outlying deserts, Google hopes to overturn the notion of the paper map itself–leaving it shredded, or rather recycled–with everyone pulling up maps of their own on the screens of Android smart phones.  (Think of the cache of searched maps that one leaves, as a sort of paper trail, complete with search history and places navigated:  such information is not stored, Google says, but would give a veritable system of surveillance that the NSA must be eager to get its hands on, no matter what the recent ruling of Judge Richard J. Leon’s recent rebuke of mass surveillance practices, by questioning their violation of constitutional rights–no matter how ill-fated their attempt to mine big data to geo-locate global populations.  The “personalization” of the map as an interactive medium is widely seen as a surpassing of its static medium and becoming a web interface, introducing functions of zooming, panning, and rotating 360 degrees on a pin, qualitatively unlike a road atlas and even threatening to dethrone the TripTik.  For the “view” that Google aims to synthesize, linking the technologies of Keyhole and Google Earth and creates its illusion of continuity by how the alchemy of how digitized photography seamlessly melds images tagged with exact geographic coordinates.

The excitement of translating global meridians as a scheme of reference are gone, as are the excitement of working from a single base-line, to be extended outwards by triangulation, that so distinguished the Principal Triangulation and its American emulator, the Point of Beginning–a starting point of the calculation of rectangular land-surveying that took on somewhat suitable evangelical tones for the New World, after the Royal Society tracked the Mason-Dixon line.  For the mapping of the territory of the US shaped the configuration of states from the ascertaining of the base-line that determined the rectangular surveying of the United States further West–

 

map_point_of_beginning

 

One thinks of a similar line not at the Continental Divide, but the line surveyed dividing the continents of Asia and Europe at a precise point in Russian lands–a point that was cause for continued debate from the time of Catherine the Great as to the European location of Russia’s capital cities, viewed from a train on the way from Yekaterinberg to Vladimir, one encounters a simple obelisk to note the division.

 

obelisk:  Europe is to the left!Derek Low

 

The stem division is inscribed along this frontier in monumental form at multiple sites, or in elegantly neorealist terms at another site, similarly in a wilderness, as if a monument that few would view until they arrived to see it or passed by:

 

p1030748

 

These material markers use statuary monumentality to remind passersby of the definitive nature of the line between continents that they traverse.

Google Maps (and Google Earth) is less concerned to create a correspondence within the conventions of maps to order space within a nation than to create a map outside sovereign bounds.  If there is a clear spatial marking of the “Point of Beginning” where the survey that determined state lines and lots drawn east of the Mississippi, the folks at Google have no interest to place a place where their mapping project begins; the premium is rather to capture all the points of view so accessible a mouse-click away.  There will be no reason or interest to mark an actual boundary line, was the case on the centenary of determining the boundary of 1786:   the marker celebrated the triumph of the conventions of the cartographical line in ways that Google won’t ever need to do, since their world mapping is entirely virtual, dispensing with or downplaying conventions like map-signs.

 

 

Beginning_Point_of_the_U.S._Public_Land_Survey_Ohio

 

When Google maps, there is no need for mere monuments–or the practice of verifying base-lines.  The empire of the visible that Google aims to construct is animated by the indexing of digital photographs that can be reassembled at the viewer’s will; Google will offer them upon demand.  The paradox is that little actual measurement is expected, but rather that lines of data flow must be secured:  programs can synthesize the photographs that are uploaded into Google’s Street View or Google Earth, and provide a way of moving from the street map to a representation of what it looks like to be outside the map–allowing one to toggle between “Map,” “Terrain,” and “Street-View”–the holy trinity of their App–to immerse oneself in the map wherever one is, without any need for future surveys, and in ways that show to all who care the skeletal nature of a simple map.  The map is dead, in the sense of a drawn map whose conventions are about translation, but long live the map as a visual record!

There is something like a back-end move in Street View, or Google Earth, as the photograph (or a million digital photographs, seamlessly woven together) substitutes for and comes to replace the map.  The symbolization of space in a street plan or road-map becomes a heuristic device for exploration, in ways that is only a hollow echo of the photographs synthesized in Street View, which are so much more satisfyingly real:  the innovation of the satellite views of Keyhole, acquired by Google and the basis for Google Earth, allows the direct proximity for viewing place, and exploring space, that seems to go through the other side of the map itself, or be a proxy mirror on what the map maps.  Google began its quest to assemble the world on the slippy screen by downloading–or purchasing–the newly declassified LandSat satellite photographs of the world’s surface, and by purchasing and synthesizing the U.S.G.S. surveys of our nation’s road maps:  little was newly mapped here, but the world was newly mapped, in the sense that it was now made available to a larger audience than it had ever been mapped for.  The empire of map-signs did not live long, however, because the unique marketing vehicle of Street View, which set Google Maps off from others, afforded viewers something more palpable and immediate (and more gratifying) than a mere map, and whose skeletal form is revealed by toggling among alternative views:  the map as the ultimate eye-candy and as the vehicle of voyeurism, where one wouldn’t have to be content with lines on a piece of paper, but could gloriously pan around and, yes, turn one’s attention to a perpetually sunny record of whatever one wanted to see.  (“Keyhole” technology all too appropriately allowed the very zooming into high-resolution satellite views of Earth that Google now provides, as if to engage the voyeuristic interest in reading maps that the static map did not allow, and has become central to the interactivity of Google Earth.)

Why would one chose to go back to the map, or explore the map as a medium in itself?  In a neat slight of hand, there suddenly is no map, in the sense that the map is trumped as the primary register of negotiating with place, and one can suddenly see through it.  The question then becomes less a map that is co-extensive with the world, but an image-mine that dispenses with the need to make any maps.  Sure, Google is going around and checking the relations of roads and one-way turns on their road maps.   The end of doing so is to create for its users a point of view that never needs to be redefined:  much as Denis Cosgrove argued the point of view of medieval maps was often understood as the eye of God, Google Maps provides a point of view somewhat like a Leibnizian eye of a God ever-present everywhere.   OpenStreetMap is often cast as a competitor to Google Maps, is pushing in the quite contrary direction not only in the open-ness of its A.P.I., but in preserving continued relevance for the map as a collective compilation of data and meaning–and preserving both the activity of transcription we all call mapping, but is always also mapping to help us better figure out our relation to how we occupy spatial expanse.  For as much as Google Earth might be seen as the modern corollary to “the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City” in Borges’ story, geo-caching Street View images in Google Earth suggests another parable.  Much as Yertle the Turtle, King of the Pond, proudly proclaimed himself Emperor of All He Could See, until Mack burped, Google feeds our inner Yertles, more than maps the spaces we occupy.

While the evocation of The Principal Triangulation of Great Britain may seem odd, the massive project of data collation set a standard that has long driven our notion of the land-map.  Google Maps creates a persuasive illusion of totality of the visible world that often does not map human networks or their environmental consequences, and which may leave us blind to them even as it champions map-reading as something like a spectator sport.  Google Earth’s dominance as a medium raises questions about what other sorts of networks are left unmapped, or what other methods of dynamic mapping might represent social networks, but that are less clearly revealed in its maps–or are obscured–in the seamlessly knit sunlit world that we track in the slippy maps of the open screens of our androids and other Google Earth browsers.

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Filed under Google, Google Earth, Google Maps, Keyhole, OpenStreetMaps (OSM), Principal Triangulation of Great Britain