Tag Archives: Google Maps

On the Road and Off the Map: Maps for Self-Driving Cars in an Over-Paved World

Even as autonomous cars provide a more radical change in patterns of mobility than any change in transportation, the amazing amounts of information that they synthesize suggest a way to process the rapid increase of roadways that have clogged much of the inhabited world.   Yet the new means that they bring to amassing of data to put places on the map comes at its cost.  Indeed, even the hopes to provide a high-density record to be able to navigate roadspace leaves an eery imprint for what it leaves out, and the ghostly skeletal system of roadways that they try to trace, which raise questions about the sort of space that maps serve to embody.  For rather than trace the deserted roads of an imagined landscape ready to explore, the streets blanched of a world where discoveries are made suggest a tracery of recorded tracks removed from local testimony or a concept of place.

The first promise that paved interstates would bring good roads everywhere promised an opening up of national spaces and the economy, just over a century ago–when roads were not uniformly paved at the same level, a situation that the Good Roads movement sought to remedy by calling attention to the poorly paved nature of the nation before World War One, and the lesser wealth associate with unimproved roads–which they presented as a national project.


National Highways to Bring Good Roads Ass'n.png

National Highways to bring about Good Roads Everywhere (1895/1913)

The promise of self-driving cars to internalize an image of the roadways provides a sense of driving experience presupposing pretty perfect road conditions, but promises to provide a smoother sense of driving, removed from accident.  For the patterns of the maps for self-driving cars, rather than fit into a record of inhabited space, or of the natural world, seem to pose propositions of the existence of a purely driven space, occupied less by cars or at least not by passengers but by a visualization of road conditions, in ways that eerily suggest less of a world that can be filled in as a broader canvas of living or nature, but a purely man-made world.   Despite the considerable appeal of a crash-free world of the automated vehicle that the huge demand for self-driving cars promises, the high data density maps being developed to place space on a map presents a terrifyingly circumscribed landscape of roadways that demand attention as a way of looking at the world–and symbolizing space.  Perhaps this is largely due to their machine-readable nature, as much as they increasingly roaded nature of most of the inhabited world.

But it also seems terrifying insofar as one rarely appreciates the costs for what is left off the map, and the removal of the map from the roadways–and the alienated image of the roadways that they seem to present.  For  muchlike the paths of pilgrimage of medieval times, which viewed isolated itineraries in geographic space, or the disembodied paths of nautical charts imagined itineraries across the Mediterranean on compass lines, the skeletal tracery of the roadscape suggests a sense of routes removed from testimony and disembodied, distilled to the information of the roadways and a purely anthropogenic world and removed from its context, as if roads remain oddly stripped of their local references.  If places are where we inhabit, the disembodied nature of the datasets of the maps for self-driving cars are removed from them, and suggest links around them that lack any actual testimony.


ITaly as Nautical Compilation


And despite the possible benefits for autonomous cars, maps made for ensuring safe driverless driving test the not only the huge amounts of data that enter in maps, as well as the problems of prioritizing selective data, that raise questions not only about the richness of these high density maps, but the sorts of world that the arrival of autonomous cars register.  The promises of self-driving cars that range from greater efficiency, fewer accidents, and a comprehensive data of roadways suggest a mapping of roadways alone, albeit with finely-grained knowledge of driving conditions.


1. The eerily ghostly roadways of the maps made for self-driving cars seem quite proper:  for they track the road as inhabited by the car, and not by the spaces around them.  If the intellectual property of tools for processing and formulating driverless maps stands at the cutting edge of recent lawsuits, is the increasingly ghostly character of maps made for driverless cars not also a serious cost?  The fragmentary picture of strings of man-made space erase the notion of a pilgrimage to a detention, providing a real-time record of roads’ obstacles, speed rates and traffic density, offering clues for how the car can move across and over space, but does so in the context of distilling the roadways to the basic criteria that cars will most especially need to know, and far less about the spaces that we might visit.  While made for autonomous driving vehicles, the absence of testimony and the lack of differentiation among places seems poignantly and particularly wanting.

The roadways that entangle much of the inhabited earth with transit corridors demand a complicated set of tools for their mapping, but does the erasure of the experience of driving, converted into a matrix of data, also register a deep danger in how we have come to inhabit space?  For if the proliferation of interchanges show the growth of roadways and arteries of automotive transport, some including up to fifteen lanes, branching out into eight directions, inspiring one netizen to ventriloquize, “Car GPS: ‘I can only take you this far, the rest is up to you,‘” imagining frustrated befuddlement at this Chongqing interchange, whose curving on-ramps and shifting elevations can hardly  be untangled by data from motion sensors or GPS.   The radically curtailed influence that the map offers readers stands in uneasy juxtaposition with the fears mazes of manmade roadways may even outstrip navigational capabilities.  One imagines not only the sort of dialogue that might occur with automated navigational services as Siri, their GPS coordinates overloaded by the multi-directional arrival of cars on different lanes in the freeway exchange, but the difficulty–and the need–for the data density of a map for automated cars that would process the possible courses of lane changes and arcs of on-ramps in ways that the driverless car would be able to navigate.




2. All maps are made to meet demands, and the expanding market for maps for self-driving cars is no exception.  But if we have become able to map traffic and routes for some time, the ghostly sense of inhabitation in maps for self-driving cars seem worth reflection–for the image of the world they create; the ethics of mapping the road conditions, and how theses maps orient us to the world. Fort he intelligence of such maps, made to be machine-read rather than read by humans,  propose a different notion of the “inhabited world” that is in truth increasingly closer to the road-covered world that we increasingly inhabit.  While the safety of such maps effectively allow us to be passengers in such self-driving cars, they also render a new sense of the worlds in which we are inhabitants.  For the haunting ghostly worlds that maps for self-driving reproduce and create provide an odd record of our increasingly paved-over world, where roads-free landscape is ever shrinking.  Are the maps for self-driving cars a premonition of a paved over future?

Driving is among the most familiar extension of an embodied experience, and the most familiar experience of navigation and way-finding that we have today.  But as maps are increasingly present behind the wheel, as it were, and built into many cars, today, both in the form of dashboard monitors, handheld devices, and disembodied voices, the relation of the map to the experience of driving has changed.  As maps have become data and datasets, we have no only constructed far more visually elegant renderings of roads and driving conditions.  As the maps for driving have departed from the over-folded pieces of paper, often ripped or worn at the crease, that used to be stuffed into the romantically named “glove compartment” and migrate underneath sun visors or into  the side-compartments on front doors, into interactive experiences that we read, they have in many ways transcended our abilities for attention.  And the increased demands for attention in our society and even for our drivers has led to a new market not only for for data rich maps, but for the maps that would help guarantee the safety of self-driving cars.

In an age where Google dominates mapping, creating the tools to develop maps for autonomous vehicles–“self-driving” cars that navigate by LiDAR software, real-time radar and laser sensors, streaming data libraries and programs–


perched processing directions for URBER.png


–which stands to prove the most important mapping innovation since the satellite, and perhaps the most valuable ever, as over thirty companies are applying to test-run their own self-driving cars in California, seat of the future, and the winner seems destined to be the one with the most complete and sophisticated mapping tools.  The tools planned to allow the cars to navigate real space don’t provide anything similar to a recognizable landscape, but Google’s driverless car division–Waymo–used the code-name ‘Chauffeur’ to refer to the armory of LiDAR tools as if to humanize the tools by which autonomous cars will be instilled with the ability to develop an effective cognitive relation to space.   Although autonomous cars may threaten to overturn the hegemony of Google has retained as a mapping engine,  the new remapping of the freeways also threatens a changed relation to most all extra-urban off-road space.   Is the growth of the market for self-driving cars not in itself emblematic of a new relation to space, where the car is less the instrument of exploration or navigation–the Keruoac’s image of being “on the road”–but a now bulky mode of transit and commuting, whose increasingly mechanical modalities of operation seem to be best performed by an artificial driver, built-in to the car.  Even as it is foretold AI is destined to replace increasing numbers of workers with world-changing effects that are only “50 or 100 years away,” we have kept fears of economic shocks and needs for massive retraining at bay, but face a profound fear of decreased human agency.

The diminished agency of the human is perhaps no more apparent than in the rapid race to design maps for self-driving cars–maps read by cars to familiarize themselves with traffic conditions and their routes, in ways that dispense with human judgment behind the wheel–one of the most privileged sorts of agency in existence–even if the maps for self-driving cars are now limited to the most mechanical forms of transportation on “smart highways” and shipping routes.

What sort of intelligence is lost, one might well ask, and what gained?  The promise of improving the navigation of roadways is analogous to the Good Roads movement, insofar as they promote a new notion of travelled space, and a new notion of mobility in it, but suggest the notion of a cartographic intelligence removed from the map-reader.


I.  The Intelligence of the Map

While not likely to ever be as dense with pictorial detail as a topographic map, but seeking to provide the crispness of an older road map shows a matrix of paved routes of shifting thickness that seem so eerily modern in their configuration in a Pennsylvania Road Map of 1926 that seems to invite roadsters to explore Western New York–





While the configuration of this disembodied network of pavement recalls the instructions for a map for self-driving cars, the range of maps that are currently being crafted for self-driving cars condense not only roadways, but road conditions, lane-changes, stop signs, speed limits, curving interchanges and current traffic conditions, all absent from the creased maps drivers once stowed in glove compartments to keep at hand, as well as the content needed for lane changing, intersections, speed limits, and navigating unforeseen obstacles that lie off the map.

But if the map is often imagined as an open book, rich with a variety of places and spatial reference points that can only be distinguished by diverse fonts and typography–




–the far more intangible nature of the algorithms and instructions comprising maps for self-driving cars are necessarily far more prescriptive than they invite exploration, as machine-readable texts.   Despite their high data density, such maps avoid the topical details encoded in early 1915 highway maps of local topography to suggest their continuity, that announced the cartographer’s art at encrypting information on two dimensions–





–maps for self-driving cars rather combine a somewhat skeletal sense of extreme data richness of local road conditions, to which they assimilate real-time information of the roads themselves, fading out all non-essentials, without any expectation of addressing a human eye.  Indeed, they can’t be described, perhaps, as forms of authorship, in an individual sense, because they are “written” and “surveyed” by sensors of the very cars which accumulate data needed for their content.

These maps raise the question of how the set of instructions that they will give cars to navigate roads and relate to the highways on which they travel and the traffic they also have to navigate can be a text–able to be claimed as a form of intellectual property and as a product–rather than a set of instructions, and, indeed, what sort of liability will lie within the maps for any possible accidents that occur within autonomous vehicles.  Indeed, although the questions of culpability and liability are all too absent from the sleek maps that promote the range of data in such “high density” maps of the roadways, the questions of liability could not be far off the minds of their designers.  But they demand to be explored, anyway, for the powerful nature of the contents of their design.

The functionality of such maps reflect the sort of traffic-maps that have long been provided to human drivers, but are radically pared-down versions of the same.   Take, for example, not only Wayz maps–but the improved maps of traffic intensity that are produced in strikingly color-coded precision to foreground traffic flows, rather than human buildings or monuments, but offering an immediately striking means of showing the traffic conditions of a city and its routes of traffic in Washington, DC to a human eye.  The strikingly lifeless nature of these arteries seem to register degree of obstructions, by color-coding roadways in terms of personal convenience which remove judgement from the reader of the map in ways that suggest a new paradigm of map reading:  rich with information, the “smart” map dictates course of driving, and demands a quite different from of map-reading–one that can be imagined to transfer more far more easily to machine-readable maps.




Mapbox cartographers have worked hard with their style sheets to create a new iconography able to distinguish prominent the tunnels, show intersections of traffic and onramps, that blocked out the habited areas of lower Manhattan, unlike most any maps that were made of the area, but link driving routes to transit lines in ways that improved the legibility of routes, improving on the right-hand 1.0 to the 1.2 to the left.


tunnels, intersections mapbox.png.jpg


But if the problems of rendering the notion of progress or itinerary is already revealed in these color coded and sized streets, the density of data in the maps for self-driving cars, which dispense with the pictorial symbols in favor of parsing the density of data dots for ready access.

Similar sorts of rendering of interchanges have been developed by online mapping agencies that seek to render traffic flows and in real-time, as a way of providing the sort of up-to-date information for human drivers that are especially challenging in New York, where they seem to update radio traffic, but condense a wide range of news about relative traffic congestion in ways that can be readily grasped, so that drivers can maybe not use them to navigate city streets, but at least to survey the lay of the road.

The roadways indeed have been gaining an increasing entity of their own in some of the traffic maps provided by Mapzen’s Transitland, which offer a way to imagine driving in ways that almost verge on the ability of a self-driving car, although it is fair to say that maps as the below seem to use a human capacity from moving from the general overview to the specific interchange that autonomous driving cars cannot enable.


Manhattan Dumbo.png


The considerable beauty of these renderings in real-time lighting offer their viewers suggest a particular chromatic appreciation of the salience of the roadways that offer a further pleasure of map-reading–here combined with a sense of building heights and shadows–to capture the time-sensitive notion of traffic conditions that can be readily appreciated and intuited, as if to make the map a “smart” surface, from early morning to night.


Lower Mtananhat AM.png

Lower Manhatan MapZen.png

Night Time Manhattan .png


Yet in capturing the essence of travel in the map–and distilling the voyage to the essence of road conditions–the maps for self-driving cars create an oddly isolated sense of the roadway, largely limited to the paved surfaces without much inclusion of the overall pan.


2.  The Road and the Path

The disembodied nature of the maps for self-driving cars provide a new avatar of the extended of artificial intelligence and its challenge to displace an embodied experience.  If maps remain among the most human of creations to orient viewers to place and space, allowing us to navigate and master a spatial continuity we can’t otherwise readily perceive, training cars to read this space depends on the challenge of conveying the tacit familiarity with roadscapes into machine-readable form.  While such maps are not often considered similar graphic embodiments of space, the embodiments these maps offer of roadscapes demand to be examined.  For the notion of driving as wandering–or wanderlust–seems to be skipped over entirely in the maps for self-driving cars, which one could only say that Jack “Nothing-behind-me,-everything- ahead-of-me,-as-is-always-so-on-the-road” Kerouac would find queasy-making if not downright repellent.  Rather than wondering insistently “what’s in store for me in the direction I don’t take?” the adventure of rolling on for the man who preached that “the road is life” would find the denatured aspect of the roadways and roadscapes all too much akin to disembodied instructions.

For the interest in making maps singly for self-driving cars is so removed from human skills of map-reading to make them profound alienating landscapes, and yet eerily inviting to inhabit, raising questions about the safety of their use but also awe at the level of details gathered and organized in their visual fields.  These are not landscapes occupied by humans, to be sure, but may suggest an increasingly common aspect of the landscapes which we are creating for cars, and the ways we are learning to navigate an increasingly paved world, where roadless areas have not only diminished but are increasingly rare and indeed unfamiliar.  The ways that the landscape that will be used by the self-driving car seems to register on-road experience for self-driving cars are ghostly landscapes of the “roaded” world, as much as they place us in a space where we are increasingly removed from reading maps.  The contrast to the human landscape through which we might walk to orient ourselves, as Jeremy Wood sought to render by showing personal travel as a sort of “geodetic pencil or cartographical crayon” that registered his familiarity during personal travels around London by combining GPS tracks over seventeen days of walking–



Jeremy Wood, “My Ghost” (2009)


–the maps for self-driving cars are less concerned with intensity of travel, or pulled by the interest of sites of pleasure, work, and curiosity, but they define a set of pathways abstracted from place, but designed to ensure safety.

Indeed, in contrast to the contingency of navigation or exploration in a world we know by traveling, and learn while walking, the maps for self-driving cars are a sort of synthesis of streets, stripped of cities or sites–rather than the sort of matrix of spatial relations to which we are accustomed.  We’ve long expected maps orient human readers to the continuity of inhabited space that affirm regional integrity and offer needed cognitive way-finding tools.  The continuity maps create makes them among the most humanistic of documents, extending cognitive skills and establishing needed frameworks for understanding space and place as less than abstractions but in concrete terms.  The cognitive magic of embodying spatial relationships to be grasped at a glance functions in large parts by the success of their selective conventions as tools to place ourselves in a form of vision accessible to the human eye, condensing markers that often lie in the land to a form we can readily engage.  The new maps that promise to orient self-driving cars to the roadways rather focus on charting data on flow, and the constraints of space, rather than they organize space as a recognizably continuous record of the roadways.  They offer what one might call the “First World” perspective on our changing inhabited space.

And so the dramatically curtailed nature of the mis en scène of the maps for made for self-driving cars offer seems to demand attention:  to be sure, such maps make less appeal to human cognition, offering a purely machine-readable sense of place and of space oddly removed from human habitation.  But they condense and transpose a human relation to the landscape into readable form that, in the end, serve to orient us to how we navigate and voyage through space.   Is this mapping from a machine point of view, or is evidence of the new dominance of road space and roadways in an increasingly over-inhabited world, where a sense of place has been increasingly eroded within a continuum of constant transit, far more sensitive to flow than place or space?

A rendition of the spatio-temporal database. Source: Zenrin Co.

A rendition of the spatio-temporal database. Source: Zenrin Co.

The uncanny absence of engagement with the natural–and the transformation of the map, as it were, to a network of man-made roads that is removed from a human landscape.  Once stripped of the real mosaic of place and removing human settlement from a web of forests, landscapes, or wilderness–and indeed entirely from the natural and non-man-made world:–the concentration on roads filter out any sense of motion through space from any experience outside a car.  In an overly detailed armature of isolated itineraries, organized from discrete data points, the maps designed for autonomous cars present a denuded landscape, stripped of context that is not immediate, and without any accreted human knowledge preserved in place-names.  If the map is often described as a text, Hi-Def maps replace text with rich data points and a feeds of real-time information from sensors.  Rather than locate oneself in relation to space by successive markers in a landscape along a road or pathway–



D.T. Valentine and George Hayward, Common Lands between three- and six-mile stones (1799) (Museum of the City of New York)

–the condensation of road signs and driving conventions seek to allow a car to orient itself to space in ways that strip space of its tactile surroundings, doing the work in many ways for orienting oneself to signs located along the roads.  Rather than chart location for a viewer, HD maps for self-driving cars are sensitive to capturing the constraints and flows by which a car can orient itself to the shifting traffic and crowded lanes that organize the changing terrain of highway space, an area to which so much increasing land cover has been dedicated across the inhabited world:  the HD maps take the space of the highways something like as a proxy for the inhabited world.  As records of the shifting space of the speedways, these maps promise to register the complex calculus of highways to promise a safe trip for future passengers.  If J. B. Jackson famously suggested the rise of “auto-vernacular” landscapes in the United States whose deceptive sense of ‘placelessness’ reflected the changing middle class lifestyles of suburban tract homes and suburban subdivisions and strip housing located along highways, the maps for self-driving cars are cultural landscapes stripped of signs of habitation save the roadways.

But it also seems terrifying insofar as one rarely appreciates the costs for what they leave off the map, in the selective attention to roadways.  For the removal of the map from the roadways–and the alienated image of the roadways that they seem to present.  For like the paths of pilgrimage of medieval times, which viewed isolated itineraries in geographic space, or the disembodied paths of nautical charts imagined itineraries across the Mediterranean on compass lines, the skeletal tracery of the roadscape suggests a sense of routes removed from testimony and disembodied, distilled to the information of the roadways and a purely anthropogenic world and removed from its context, as if roads remain oddly stripped of their local references.  If places are where we inhabit, the disembodied nature of the datasets of the maps for self-driving cars are removed from them, and suggest links around them that lack any actual testimony.


ITaly as Nautical Compilation


And despite the possible benefits for autonomous cars, maps made for ensuring safe driverless driving test the not only the huge amounts of data that enter in maps, as well as the problems of prioritizing selective data, that raise questions not only about the richness of these high density maps, but the sorts of world that the arrival of autonomous cars register.  The promises of self-driving cars that range from greater efficiency, fewer accidents, and a comprehensive data of roadways suggest a mapping of roadways alone, albeit in finely-grained knowledge of driving conditions.  They contrast to the hype with which the Good Roads movement promoted economic development, in short, because if the boosterish boast for economic development through road improvement advanced a national highway system as a way to re-imagine routes of commerce in a newly paved nation as a new way to see the nation by the efficiency of its system of improved roadways that allowed states to generate wealth.




–the gospel of improvement and advancement seems removed from a sense of place in the machine-readable maps for self-driving cars.


3.  Reconsidering the Broader Risks of HD Maps

The provision of these maps by sensors register real-time accounts of spatial relationships that suggest the range of tools by which we have come to orient ourselves to the world’s paved highways:  yet at a time when Google Maps register space universally, from a synthesis of local surveys and satellite imagery, the maps for self-driving cars offer a downloadable cognitive framework, preserved on the cloud, for how cars can orient themselves to space by surveying their real positions on roadways, and depend less on human drivers in an age when, the distracted driving is so widespread, according to analytics company Zendrive, that American drivers use phones on 88% of the journeys they make on the road–and in spend 3.5 minutes per hour looking at their phone, and not only for directions.

In an age of mass-distraction where drivers can’t be as trusted to watch the road, maps for self-driving cars are perhaps needed to reduce risk–even two-seconds of distraction on your phone increases individual drivers’ risk by 20 percent; the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently counted almost 3,500 people deaths in distraction-related car crashes in the United States in 2015, and almost 400,000 injured, and the problem stands to worsen as after a recent trend toward declining numbers of driving fatalities, fatalities due to distracted driving are substantially rising, and especially among teens.  The statistics are unclear, as accidents involving cell phones are under-reported by authorities.  At a time when paper highway maps are no longer consulted, and in fact rarely sufficient–and navigation has migrated to the hand-held phone, if not Siri, it’s no surprise the need and market for maps for self-driving cars has so markedly grown.


Screen Shot 2017-04-18 at 11.38.22 AM.png


The response to such distraction has been to provide a newly comprehensive map able to interface with self-driving cars, in ways that might allow our existing habits of distraction to grow.  In a sense, this is a local–as much as a universal–recuperation of the perspective of the single surveyor, providing a local automobilistic model of mapping with advantages one can’t gain from satellite/LiDAR alone, or a filling in of the gaps.   But the maps for self-driving cars are not made for human audiences, and as much as orienting individuals, offers perspectives of an inhabited world that is defined only by the extent of traffic on roadways–and which consumes increased cognitive attention of commuters–but which offers an extremely alienated perspective on the world.


The shift from the schematic detail of most road maps and atlases reflects the range of 3-D topographic displays motorists using Navteq consult on dashboards, which include skies, buildings, and real-time information about traffic and road obstructions, similar to Wayz. Going far beyond GPS, the prototypes for “high definition” maps of increasingly expanding data density move from 3-D to an enhanced maps rely on local surveying in what suggest a new eagerness to make maps to move to fully automated cars, giving maps a centrality to the commercial enterprise, tied to monopolistic schemes of corporate enrichment to better life analogous to what Daniel Defoe famously called the “Age of Projectors” plagued by self-interest.  Maps for automated driving claim authority by converting roadways to a new legible form, less  dependent on personal surveying or extant maps, than the rapid creation and provision of a corpus of maps–or, rather, competing libraries of maps, depend on extracting data from sensors and cameras from a fleet of several thousands of cars, trying to embody a collective dataset of every option of driving on existing roads, and compiling little information outside the road-system.  Are their costs, as well as benefits, in this massive assembly of a record of space?



The format for mapping space purged of place-names and distilled from earlier traditions of encoding knowledge may always risk providing an overly thin notion not only of place but of history, and a marginalization of environments from maps, but in amassing the data-intensive rendering of road space–in which rendering a highway or road may require 1.4 billion data points, from medians and road barriers to curb height to tunnel breadth to sewer grates, in ways that codify the tacit knowledge drivers daily account for, the potential data overload depends on parsing a data rich record in effective ways–and raise potential questions about the interruption of data flows from the sensors of autonomous car due to weather interference, from ice to snow to pollution, And even the integrity of what we are left with as onboard HD maps of the everyday.Yet even artificial intelligence that most adeptly parses relevance of road signs and real-time images of a region’s traffic won’t necessarily align with the interests of drivers or of how we understand and live in space.

The maps for self-driving cars in a sense respond to the promise of speed, by imagining the lattice-like structure of roadways as a space of themselves, and fluid lines stripped of place or home, but focussing on abilities to sense and integrate real-time traffic flows: relying on graphic processing units–GPU’s or visual processing units–they use electronic circuitry to rapidly create real-time images of traffic conditions, able to be mapped onto templates of roads.  Such chips, already used in many cars’ navigational systems and dashboards, now being developed to allow driverless cars to store massive amounts of data on the progress of cars in traffic and space–cataloguing human driving habits in ways that many Americans–and especially many American men–seem eager to buy.   Yet few are certain that artificial intelligence is to be trusted more than human intelligence, most think they will dramatically cut fatalities.)

Yet safety depends on the quality of maps.  Maps for driverless cars open perspectives on the basic cognitive operations of maps, and of autonomous cars–“An autonomous-driving vehicle without good maps is like a human being with a missing part in his brain,” says an engineer trying to explain the need to augment existing map databases with complex algorithms of enhanced computer learning.  The amplification of data in maps for self-driving cars must be paired with engineering filters by which self-driving cars will define their selectivity, prioritizing meaning to efficiently view the world.   Maps have long imitated human perceptions of space; in considering the maps created for self-driving cars recently promoted as the “future of mapping,” what they exclude seems as important as what they include.  While offering 3-D maps of “end-to-end” travel in HD maps, these machine-readable maps offer shifting networks offering cars the ability to navigate roads, traffic signs, and highway traffic.  They may seem artifacts of an age of ADD or inattentive driving, ad actively foreground features from more data far surpassing tha existing road maps–absenting human agency from the car.  A large part of the problems and promise of such maps is to parse information about road conditions, hierarchically sorting and ranking their relevance to driving, by using “deep learning” software to train the cars to best judge intersections and lane changes.  The abstracting of itineraries from place is not only alienating to a human viewer, but seems mapped in ways oddly stripped of human presence.

For despite their synthesis of such a map of considerable granularity, they depend on filtering the overabundance of detail accumulated by sensors in decisive ways.  Oddly, and unfamiliarly, they create a somewhat terrifying unpeopled landscapes–rather than providing signposts a human eye would recognize as orientations or guideposts in the ways that roads were long historically defined.  In amassing a huge amount of quantitative detail on how to navigate, they use sensors to encode a rich density of spatial information in what is rendered as a weirdly flattened landscape, limited to routes of vehicular transit that occupy an increasing share of our ground-cover in expanding megacities whose edges stretch out to the start of interstates in center less urban sprawl.  A large part of the problem for such maps is to filter out information, and point the car in a direction by end-to-end coverage.

The primary problem of such maps is to prioritize relevant information on the roadways; the mandate to chart the road systems alone, at a remove from local context, filters the world in what seems a fantasy of speed, allowing self-driving cars to navigate the paved world from behind the wheel, rich with the immediate signs and pavement-markings that simulate the semantics of the road, independent of human habitation or local environments.

The changing nature and subject of these maps may suggest a change in how we understand roads–in many agrarian societies, the metaphor of the “path” or “way,” the Chinese dao, describes a path discovered, and not followed.  If maps suggest the possibilities of paths of travel and routes, “end-to-end” HD maps proscribe precisely the way that must be followed by cars to reduce risk  For the format of map making can be compared less to a landscape than “roadscape” driven through.  And if we take it seriously as the future of mapping, the costs of limiting its content deserves to be examined.  Rather than describe places along the way, or situate place in a field, these 3-D maps suggest a road-bound notion of continuity, prioritizing and parsing the vast amount of detail that might be sensed on a system of roadways to allow the car to situate itself on speedways without accident, and to navigate roads earlier navigated followed by human intelligence and judgement.  The primary problem of such maps is to rank relevant information on the roadways; the mandate to chart the road systems alone, at a remove from local context, filters the world in what seems a fantasy of speed, allowing self-driving cars to navigate the paved world from behind the wheel, rich with the immediate signs and pavement-markings that simulate the situated semantics of the road, independent of human habitation or local environments.

US Roadscape and transcanada highway.png


4.  The Fate of Place

The fate of place is increasingly difficult to assess in a globalizing world.  But it’s tellingly absent from most 3-D map of what appears an abstracted “roadscape”:  place disappears in the 3-D maps created for automated vehicles, which despite data-richness offer a phenomenology of the roadways that substitute “roadscape” for landscape–constructing a quite unfamiliar notion of the inhabited world by isolating a network of roads and the conventions of driving from their surroundings in quite spectral ways.  In privileging paved roadways and managed traffic over place, such maps seem to say important things about our changing notions of space.  Rather than marking distance points, or the embededness of routes in a landscape, as the trails in the American West or the geologic ridge that served as the basis for the Natchez Trace from Mississippi to Tennessee, used by Chickasaw and Chocktaw before it became the “Colombian Highway,” the network of roads are reduced to traffic signs and abstracted from local settings save elevation changes; in contrast to the man-made scale of ancient networks of trading routes, such as the Silk Road, whose rich historical palimpsest re-emerged only after the fall of the Soviet Union, as active signs of its survival as a cultural corridor remerged.

But historical signs of habitation disappear as lines of navigation are disquietingly disembodied from place, stripped from historical texture or depth, and rendered as a isolated paths:  the historical texture of the three-lane El Camino Real, which snakes through Mountain View and Palo Alto, some of whose right-hand lanes are wide enough to sustain and invite two lines of traffic, becoming the site for a crash for one of Google’s autonomous vehicles, which predicted erroneously that a bus would in fact yield as it waited to turn. Perhaps until every car is autonomous, similar  glitches are to be expected occasionally.  But the image of traffic and mobility it creates seems scarily thin:  roads loose far more than historical resonance in maps for self-driving cars, as they omit or elide accumulated judgement shared between drivers.  The highly conventionalized pathways by which roads are rendered in such maps show a peculiar  relation to the land, removed from walking, or from a sense of the meaning that is invested in place, home, or sacred site.

A more extended contrast seems to the point.  If the overland trails and  itineraries across America were travelled on foot to the American West, from the Mormon Trial to the California Trail, as documented by personal accounts, and moving across space at different rates over time, space and time seem conflated and combined in the maps for self-driving cars as data of different if related registers for the car to process and learn for its spatial orientation.  Unlike the overland trails that follow topography to trace ties for carriages that went West in the late nineteenth century, with different rates of survival and at different speeds, the maps for self-driving cars allow the maximum possible driving velocity within limits of safety, and remove agency from motion.

OVerland Trails.pngAmerican Panorama: The Overland Trails

In ways foreign to the framework of maps for self-driving cars, the interactive atlas of “Overland Trails” shows the place-bound nature of carriage-driven migrations when moving along overland way-stations from Independence, MO to Oregon or San Francisco along the California Trail or Oregon Trail–and which reveal the multiple varied iterations of progress recorded in diaries, stopping at forts or pausing at rock formations along the treacherous western topography, long largely defined by water scarcity, but evident as a form of exploring the local terrain and its landmarks.

Time and space are flattened in the maps created for self-driving cars, which than filter high data flows about space and time to cars to foster an artificial intelligence of the roadways, and prompt the question of whether AI will provide the sort of records in drivers’ own interests after all.

Likening the “huge gap between making current navigation maps and maps for autonomous driving,” to “comparing climbing Mount Fuji to climbing Mount Everest,” Zenshi Takayama, President of Zenrin Co., which has the dominant market share of tools for car navigation in Japan, said in Tokyo.  Zenrin has  transitioned from paper maps to digitized navigation systems, hopes to provide tools for moving in three dimensions on crowded roads to the expected 12 million autonomous vehicles that will be driving from 2035 worldwide, in what may be up to a tenth of total automotive traffic, by amplifying existing map databases with deep learning capabilities to orient self-driving cars to a system of roads, other vehicle, weather changes, and the eventual accidents.  Takayama may seem to use a landscape metaphor to naturalize the subject of the map, but if Mt Fuji is a Shinto shrine in Japan, preserved from development and a sacred forest below the tree-line, moved across by well-known paths, an ascent of Everest depend on ice-conditions, moving glaciers, Icefalls, and earthquakes on which the decision of any route is contingent–the routes of ascent need to be constantly calculated and assessed.  The analogy is not only meant to convey the sheer difficulty of the task, but practical problems of synthesizing such a diverse range of data.


Yet the analogy may minimize the qualitatively different nature of maps for driverless cars, by treating them as if they addressed a human viewer or audience .  Indeed the notion of climbing a path by practiced routes of ascent along ridges or “magic lines” suggest the sort of situated itinerary that maps for driverless cars don’t try to recreate, and the different nature of end-to-end maps that trace an entire route in real time.  Risk does not exist in the different routes to the peak, but rather in the chance of a collision with a driver.



For rather than suggest the sort of tactile relation to space that maps exceed in providing, the discrete data-points they gather embody less of a coherent image than a calculus of spatial relations and relatedness.


5.  The New Roadscape

If the maps primarily describe two dimensions, maps for self-driving cars seek to are orient cars in 3-D, parsing of spatial information that translates into axes of data density, mobility, and risk.  The demand for real-time generation of maps for self-driving cars raise some serious questions about their selectivity and about the conventions and coverage they adopt, and how maps will be augmented with fresh information with sufficient speed to be risk-free.  All maps depend on what their users expect to find, but the maps for self-driving cars gain value because of their frameworks for prioritizing information that will replace the range of actions that most drivers internalize, and register the constantly changing conditions of roads and traffic, a by prioritizing the information on the road far above the local landscape.

The maps for autonomous vehicles focus on a roadscapes alone, creating a new experience of the roads oriented to cars, and not drivers, by filtering information from LiDAR surveys and sensors that relate to conditions of traffic and road signs–the sites of traffic lights; their heights; the size of cross-walks; the curvature of roadways–so that the cars, rather than their drivers, can assess where they are.  In mapping images that privilege the roadscape, over a landscape where place no longer exists, and which is only habited by roads and automated cars.  For such high-definition maps seek to redefine the experience of driving, promising to re-orient ourselves to the congestion of highways, offering a perspective of the roadways that determines and privileges the place and position of the individual car.




The maps for so far designed self-driving cars offer machine-readable images of space, privileging frameworks of highways but able to incorporate real-time data to train automated cars to drive with low risk.  Their content privilege and magnify systems of paved roads in anthropocentric ways that increasingly structure our sense of the inhabited world.  By removing the “roadscape” from other perceptual contexts, they suggest the overbuilt nature of highway systems in the inhabited world, winnowing away extraneous details from an autombilist perspective on our roadways, and manifesting something like a fantasy of the unlimited expansion of driverless cars in the future:  as much a marketing device as a way finding system, the promise of driverless cars is boosted without any attention to the image of a road-bound world that they offer, and the anthropogenic space of highway expansion they seem to enable.

Needless to say, the “work” done by such maps presumes the infinite expansions of roadways soon to be navigated by intelligent cars, altering our infrastructure without ever describing the costs or technologies of road systems increasingly in need of maintenance and worse for wear.  As many other maps, maps for self-driving cars are idealistic constructions, removed from practice, and from spatial travel.  Already, an Audi SQ5, festooned with autonomous driving technologies from radar to high-end microprocessors drove coast to coast  from San Francisco to New York covering 3,500 miles over nine days.  The automated caran Audi SQ5, made a trip the was 99% automated, carrying six engineers in changing weather conditions, across fifteen states.  Delphi announced its radar, cameras, and collision warning systems set a new standard for driving–and a promise of product development–and collected some three terabytes of data on highways across the southern United States, creating a new image of driving with no one at the wheel, in a car that was named “Ottomatika.



Audi-SQ5-Delphi-autonomous-car-rear-876x583Car and Driver

These maps suggest a radically new relation between car and driver, and man and machine, concretized in the remove of their maps from human intelligence or judgement.  The cartographical operations allowing real-time feeds of information to be included in maps, together with road conditions, is a primary problem for the high-density maps created for self-driving cars.  Their content reflects a spatial ontology of greater impact on the world and on our changing sense of space than we are ready to acknowledge. South Korean plans for the creation by 2020 of a system of “smart highways” for automated driving vehicles are promised to ease problems of traffic congestion and cut emissions., suggesting worthy hopes to reduce car accidents by instituting a virtual structure of traffic monitoring.

The planning of routes on its already quite extensive national road system are to be replaced by “smart highways” able to accommodate traffic flows, reducing all appearance of human agency.  Indeed, the mechanization of the roadspace that the South Korean government has promised will eliminate toll booths, allowing a smoothly-moving flow of cars which are able to gauge speeds against one another, and to function in a constant perpetuum mobile of the roadways, in ways that recall something like a system of die-cast cars on multi-lane highways with the by-product of ending congestion, traffic jams, and long commutes.  The big promises of such maps raises questions of whether they can alone deliver a new notion of commuting and highway travel, from a system of “smart tolls” allowing cars to move without stopping along the f 1,000 kilometers of new highways that will join the system of over 5,000 km by 2020, and which promise to ensure that no South Koreans will need to drive more than a half hour to enter.




Such a new system of roadways may seem far off in the United States, which must now be accustomed to lag behind in adopting a network determined by cloud-based sensors of wide-area motion imagery, creating accurate 3D maps, as much as networks of “smart highways,” seems to stand at the cutting edge of cartography.  Rather than rest on web-based maps, combining the cloud and Graphic Processing Units (GPU’s) and Cloud Moving Target Tracking (GC-MTT) system suggest a front-end web-based server that could offer the real-time target recognition and tracking needed for fully automated self-driving cars to navigate road space, to avoid the un-American notion of road space rationing, even if it means redesigning our national highway systems.


6.  Virtual Navigation

The maps that are being designed for self-driving cars are designed to make sure autonomous cars can navigate space, they rather uniquely organize space from the perspective of the car–in the hope to build abilities for cars to orient themselves to the growing expanse of our national road-space.  As much as offer navigational tools, maps produced for self-driving cars seek to assure us of the safety of their future of such automated automobilist experiences.  For the ghostly maps of roads capes that are disembodied from a broader context or landscape seem to offer the promise and fantasy of speed that underlay much of the twentieth century, of which the self-driving car is to an extent the apotheosis and end-product.  For the maps embody a promise of speed, as they map for the growth of road space during the twenty-first century.

The stand-alone virtual spaces that let self-driving cars to map their positions on roads chart a different way of looking at the world by transit routes, organizing space about roads as much as buildings, signposts, or human habitation, in ways that focus on infrastructure as a separate world.  The models of mapping “smart highways” are organized as they are less in terms of landmarks, and more in terms of routes, focussing on the features of the road that they privilege above all else, concentrating a far greater range of data in the streets.  Indeed, their richness of data almost discards the very notion cartographical selectivity–perhaps the basic premise of a map–in ways that seem to saturate the viewer with more detail than an individual glance than might be reasonably expected to readily process, inundating their mechanized readers with a floodgate of data that seems so comprehensive in its detailing of three dimensions that it might seem to, in virtual form, recreate the total landscape through which a car moves–or might meaningfully drive itself without risk–mapping the length of a cross-walk, the height of a traffic light, the angle and curve of a turn from one lane to another–in ways  that map out the options of driving for automotive vehicles by registering the options and alternatives on road systems in a spatio-temporal database.

0*NQI1hHJZudK_nV3L..pngWaymo Team

The skeletal framework of driving lanes that is the basis for the driverless map provides a more explicitly detailed account of the roadways than is likely to exist, mapping the alternatives that would exist for a human driver into a template that can translate data into a comprehensive account of the roadways that cars can access in real-time.  The maps promise to be augmented in real-time, by rich data feeds that themselves eliminate the confusion of overly large data flows registered by sensors or light detection and ranging (LiDAR) to see and map the world.  They are in a sense a fantasy of a world of increased ADD, promising a machine-readability that focuses only on those things relevant to the driving experience, by prioritizing relevant aspects of sensed space.   Rather than depend on cartographical selectivity, the software used in self-driving cars will be able to perform operations of selectivity in real-time.

The maps will effectively themselves prioritize urgent matters from stop signs to lane signs to pedestrians and bicyclists–rather than note and include the full range of all objects, garbage, and overhead trees or building windows, an information overload of remote sensing which would slow down the generation of real-time maps that self-driving cars are in most need.  Hence, the need for a new semantics of mapping–recognizing the most important signs needed for driving, and doing so in a way that might be eventually universalized in maps, and be able to compare sensed objects to the preloaded maps or GPS that is already in the image-banks of self-driving cars.

Civil Maps/Wired.

Most visualizations seek to make people “smarter with data.”  But rather than orienting human audiences to the massive accumulations of data that self-driving cars register, the stripped down data-dumps of maps for self-driving cars offer a cognitive overload, by concentrating entirely on the roads often rendered only as lines in most highway maps.  For maps for autonomous cars seek to integrate GPS measurements within a framework for reacting to road conditions, lanes, traffic signs, and accidents, read by real-time sensors.

Such real-time monitoring will allow cars to accurately map its place in a shifting road space, as much as a terrain, or imagine the problems of mapping a terrain focussing on the systems of roads on which it is likely to drive–and predict what lies on the roads by the amazing degree of precision of within ten centimeters.  Are such maps even safe?  That depends on the degree of density of data that they can accurately include.  The data of distance and dimensions of each road together with other prominent features to let addition of an increased range of road condition features in real-time, from accidents, intersection density, driveways, and weather changes, as well as pedestrians.  The data-rich framework would allow for crowd-sourcing a richly augmented plastic if necessarily limited record of routes, providing the sense of an infinite options of travel, and articulating a busy system of driving on roads.  Maps historically concentrated  on the inhabited world.  But the goal of such maps is a textured account of the inhabitation of the roadways–not a selective record of space, extracting and encoding an expansive amount of local detail in order to manage the unmanageable  density of traffic that clog highway systems.




7.  New Navigational Tools for an Overpaved World?

The maps for automated cars suggest a new register for mapping in interesting ways.  While removed from any sense of “marking” or identifying place save for the space of the roadway and mobility across its lanes, the resulting maps of three dimensions creates a framework that seems to embody hopes for speed, from  which any off-road landscapes recede, and the pre-eminence of paved space is enhanced and extremely data rich, to allow the car to place itself in the world.

Of course, the focus is on the road-system because the stakes are so exceedingly high, and the map assumes a determinant weight of the sort that it rarely has:  whereas in “a car navigation system, the liability is still on the driver,” as one of the thousand surveyors working for Zenrin navigation, a firm that originally specialized in mapping therapeutic natural hot springs and old-style public baths–onsen--which are such sought-after tourist destinations, and so numerous that the existence of over 3,000 in local communities in fact demands a map of considerable data density.   But while the Edo citizens used to trek between local hotsprings in Hakone or Atami to seek out their pleasure from a geothermal spring–local onsen run from Hokkaido in the north to the Okinawa islands of the southernmost islands–modern Tokyo is dotted with onsen made by drilling to geothermal springs.  But the sense of walking along a path seems removed from the traffic streams in maps for self-driving cars, although the notion that the car should be trained to notice local details seems somehow Japanese.

The notion of the naturalization of the map As the surveyor Fumiaki Kohguchi, put it, “But for autonomous-driving cars, the liability could be on the maps.”  Such natural springs are a far cry from the data streams required for navigation, but the the local surveys provide the secret to a more comprehensive treatment of the roadways.  Yet the displacement of all detail to the road system suggests a concentration on our future roadways allowing the software of automated cars of the future to augment with recently sensed items and moving objects, from pedestrian, vehicles, and construction zones, completing a picture of where they are located on the roads.

Zenrin Co. is the largest mapmaker in Japan, and has received a large investment to translate its detailed knowledge of Japan’s topography into driverless maps.  A surveyor at Zenrin, Kohguchi was assigned to complete in the Bunkyo district of Tokyo, by a specially outfitted car monitor the roadways.  The car allowed him to gather sufficient data for a 3-D map as its high-precision lasers measure lanes and traffic signs for a spatial architecture of Tokyo’s roadways.  So different is the map from all earlier forms of street mapping that surveyors have effectively re-surveyed Japan’s road space for its product in what it sees as a form of “thinking highways” to allow cars to re-think its road space–that translate road space into a navigable system.  The premium on translating data of roads to a three-dimensional record of roadways use “structure-from-motion algorithms” to create a sufficiently detailed 3D mapping space for cars to situate themselves while driving.


A high precision sensors on car gathers data on lanes and traffic signs.

Zenrin Co.


The hope is to create a framework for mapping that was destined to compete with the maps made by Mobileye, an Israeli firm which has made software for driverless cars from before 2014, partnering with General Motors and Volkswagen, and German-based HERE, a mapping unit purchased from NOKIA by Audi, BMW, and Daimler.  So carefully calibrated must these routes be that HERE boasts of an accuracy of mapping to four inches; an even greater level of detail is needed for imagining risk-free fully automated vehicles.  The mapping tools Zenrin has concentrated on are designed to gather crowd-source data in real time from sensors attached to automaker’s cars.  Zenrin hopes to fashion such 3-D roadmaps for clients at Google and Toyota by 2020, and has already intensively re-mapped much of the Japanese road-system by its own surveying cars.  To expand beyond tourist maps of onsen, sites of natural springs that were long transmitted in the landscape, the expansion to a map for self-driving cars is in a sense the next level of mapping routes for a market for automated cars.  Spurred by investments from Toyota, Zenrin has grown as a way to market local knowledge in a market for maps of self-driving cars.

Zenrin is working on a system to translate data that vehicles gather from mounted cameras and other sensing equipment in real-time to enable autonomous driving in much of Japan, as if to create a constrained sets of ways for driving.  Whereas the twelfth-century Buddhist monk Shenrin Shonin described the path of a “single, unobstructed way to salvation and Buddahood and Enlightenment,” the collection of obstructions encountered on Japanese roadways were traced by Zenrin for Japanese highways, in a valiant attempt to calculate the multiplicity of obstructions cars might avoid.  Such maps give rich models of the world’s roads and highways.  A real-time portrait that may enable a fleet of automated driverless cars, but offer the portrait of a world that privileges ribbons of road space as the basic network of navigation a fundamentally anthropocentric fantasy, even if its machine-readable nature is created to offer automated cars the best means to place itself in space?  The painstaking compilation of skeletal information about roadways offers an attempt to privilege the variations of road space with a detail that is rarely registers in selective maps of roadways.  (Of course, the risks of error in the maps for driverless cars are potentially terrifying, even if responding to the future market for driverless cars that seems destined to expand, driven by consumer desires, that stretch the borders between states and regions, and indeed so elevate paved highways and subsume all sense of place to the network of roads that they register.)

Orienting cars to an expanded road space corresponds to the increased over-crowding and land cover change that the growth of national infrastructures has created in the twenty-first century, when land cover world-wide has so intensively segmented a great extent of the most densely inhabited world–


Global Roadless.png

National Geographic., from Ibisch, et al.,  in Science

–which partly provided the basis for crafting frameworks of maps for driverless cars.  Such map will, no doubt, help orient us to a globe increasingly crisscrossed with road space that the driverless car will be able to freely navigate, presumably no longer bound or constrained by the limits of human attention spans.  But we anticipate the mechanics of harvesting the information for such maps and the sorts of spatial cognition that they offer–and the complex portraits of an ever-mobile world that these three-dimensional maps create.  The absence of selectivity in maps for driverless cars or autonomous vehicles is as important as the degree of precision that is necessary for such a cloud-based map.

The maps leave much of the space other than road space off the map.  Roadless areas are dark areas of the map, inverting the manner that many maps privileged sites of human habitation:  for the habitation of the roads is the subject of these map.  By allowing cars to compute their locations from a combination of sensor-derived and GPS data, and even exploiting LiDAR remote sensed surveys of roadways, the firms create maps removed from human cognition, if drawing on the most human-engineered of structures–roads–to understand space..  Indeed, the hope to calculate real-time records of spatial position and create its own internal map have led to the structure of the map being rethought as a plastic cognitive web of assembling data that is always moving, and is of necessity data-driven, since the plasticity of the map is their basic selling point.

HD-Live-Map-3Zenrin Co.

For the maps made for self-driving cars are something like armatures of the roadways, which would allow cars to use AI to orient themselves to the automotive world.  They offer little off-the-road context, but evoke pure directionality, in a fantasy of speed and autonomous driving from which coherent landscapes fall away.  Rather than allow human readers to name or recognize place, maps devised for self-driving cars offer non-human readers a model to order what are fluid and mobile positions in the world:  these maps transfer the calculations of place to the automotive intelligence of the car, offering the possibility of automative mobility.  They are unique documents of a culture envisioning how driverless cars move across paved space, navigating the networks of paved roads clustering around our megacities and urbanized areas.  The car is equipped to drive with little localized perception of space, in which data processing will be located in the vehicle alone, and the times of communication between vehicles and cloud shrink to something like effective real-time.  The disembodied nature of such motion on a road-scape seems designed to allow increased acceleration, and allow autonomous cars to communicate with one another.

This is, of course, quite a different notion of autonomy the one might associate with a human subject.  As much as offer signposts that human readers would recognize, the information relays that maps for driverless cars encode suggest weirdly flattened landscapes, not able to be inhabited but designed to ensure they are driven through without incident–a map without clear or fixed destinations, where roads are able to measured in real-time to reflect traffic conditions, lane closures, road repairs and obstacles:   place is replaced by ribbons of roads.  The directionality of the roads and the speed of travel trump place; the hope is to create highway maps whose data richness has enough flexibility to allow cars to track their place in a road space–paved or unpaved–of which paved intersections are most carefully mapped.

Zenrin-3d-mapping-1.jpgZenrin Co.

Maps designed for driverless cars, using data gathered from vehicles mounted with sensors and cameras to create a sense of road conditions in real-time, provide the possibility for autonomous cars to “learn” the limited, if semantically quite complicated highways and “roadscapes.”   One would not like to imagine much room for trial and error.   In contrast to a landscape we inhabit, and describe a road-scape that is in itself fluid–as the images that Zenrin creates of real-time roads that create a landscape ready for deep learning, and other crowd-sourced real-time maps that will furnish requisite levels of information for autonomous vehicles to navigate streets and harvest information, and invite users to develop increasingly detailed maps over time that register data processed offline for cars’ ready consumption.


8.  Road Density and Self-Driving Cars

The maps made for driverless cars untangle the landscape of an increasing density of roadways we’ve built–of which the self-driving car is to some extent the reflection, end-product, and which becomes the framework that the driverless car needs to internalize to navigate the national road space.  Rather than map space as it exists for human cognition, cloud-to-car relays filter a huge quantity of immediately amassed data effectively to make sure safe navigation as well as orient cars to paved space–amassing and relaying variations on road conditions of the sort which we rely on traffic reports over the radio, but hope to make internal to fully automated cars.  Roads are among the most-mapped networks of human communication, and provide a surrogate for commercial networks and habitation across the United States, whose glorious density this map including 240 million segments of individual roads across the lower forty-eight impressively synthesizes, and which in 2009 was redone with TIGER/Line shape files from the U.S Census, which strikingly suggests the deep irregularities of the spatial distribution of roads of every road in the United States–paved or unpaved alike.


Every Road.png

Each and Every Road in Mainland United States/ WestCoastBestCoast94

The massive shape files of coordinate data maps only the basis where self-driving cars would orient themselves, and use as their basic spatial framework and frame of reference–and be able to bind temporal variations in traffic flows in a form to be able better to navigate, as much as correspond to familiar notions of legibility.  Whereas a road maps shows clear clustering around cities that defined extensive road density reflect centers of population and huge urbanized expanses, as well as the density of car traffic and automobiles congestion.  The map by Reddit user “WestCoastBestCoast94” to suggest the relatively open areas on the west coast–save the Los Angeles-San Diego highly trafficked shores–in comparison to the east coast, as if in a polemic statement about the coasts:   we are increasingly in danger of confusing the road and the coast, but can see one is far more darkly defined by the congestion of cars.

imrs-5.phpEach and Every Road in Mainland United States/ WestCoastBestCoast94Fathom’s All Streets 

The landscape for self-driving cars are not meant to recreate a human perspective, after all, but driven through; to that extent they are an alternate embodiment of the road map, although they go far beyond it in local detail.  Despite the incredible detail of this skein of paved land cover, the activity of the country and its social fabric lies not in the road network alone–despite the rich infrastructure they offers, but the sites that they link and bind, and traffic flows that they contain.  (One remains struck by the relative inefficiency of its dense tangles, and the problems of an utter absence of selectivity–despite the obstacles to roads against natural obstacles, the web of infrastructure suddenly encountering open spaces in the natural world, or bunching up in black webs of increased road-density around centers of population.)  The success of binding data to the system of roads and highways across the country offers the best index of the scope of data that maps made for self-driving cars.  The country rests more often in gaps within this network–the blank spaces on the map, including rivers, mountainous topography, and lakes–as well as their balance with the dense black nodes of urban and extra-urban agglomerations able better apparent at a local level, if not in print.

imrs-5.php.pngFor a mouse over version of the map, see Fathom’s All Streets

Indeed, a closer examination of the national road system may help to unpack the sites where such a system of self-driving cars evolved, and the sense of an interlinked network that enabled the self-driving car.  The irregularity of roadways more clearly appears in regional maps.  New York State nicely reveals steep discrepancies between the paved and unpaved, and extreme and disproportionate density of the concentration of roads in inhabited space, concentrated at select sites of densest habitation.

NY State Roads.png

The chromatic variations of grey reveal deeply diverging local perspectives on space, that an image of road space in Colorado renders in similarly pronounced ways, suggesting the hugely different ranges of data that a self-driving car would need to be able to quickly draw upon, as in Colarado–


The designers of maps for self-driving cars face the problem of mapping not road density, of course, so much as road navigability–and doing so in data rich ways that include questions of up-to-date road conditions that can be processed with spatial accuracy, and even depend on the precision of local accuracy for their value.

The authority of the maps made for self-driving cars and autonomous vehicles rests on their ability to allow cars to process a concentration of the data of the roadways at any place in space, in ways that create problems of composing a machine-readable map quite unlike those for maps that orient human readers to their content.  This is even clearer in looking at local regions in west coast urban agglomerations as the Bay Area, particularly in the peninsula, with its dense roadways–the site where the imagined driverless car originates, and on whose dense overly trafficked highways the driverless car was imagined:

detail-allstreets-bay-area_1024x1024.jpgFathom’s All Streets

or L.A., where many regions seem to simply fade to black:

coverphoto-008c.jpg Fathom’s All Streets

But the huge density of traffic–and inability to accommodate even the largest multi-line highways to traffic flows that never seem to stop from commuters–seems to have made commutes almost impossible, and whose broadly based provision of internet services provided a new basis for imagining commutes.

Average Inboudn Commute

Time:Inbound Commute

For the commute-times that have worsened beyond even Los Angeles in recent years have created an incentive for imagining automated driverless cars, encouraged by a broad expansion of wifi across the region, far more linked to the web and cloud than most of the United States remains.




For in the Peninsula, Google had, in fact, already confronted some of the very same questions about how self-driving cars would actually navigate the street ways–particularly intersections and traffic accidents, let alone road conditions.  The minimal hands-on input has been a major obstacle to their development, as would be the sort of glitches that crop up quite regularly in some mapping apps.  Google has played up the hype and the boasts of Google’s Waymo and its predecessors:  “Imagine if everyone could get around easily and safely, without tired, drunk or distracted driving,” Google entices us to desire the driverless Waymo; its website earnestly appeals to clients, “Time spent commuting could be time spent doing what you want to do”–spending less time Googling directions, even in the sunny tree-lined suburbs of Sunnyvale.  Indeed, as distracted driving has been directly tied to an increasing number of fatalities–standing to rise to a number above 4,000 in 2017, as growing numbers are lost yearly on national highways, in a 7.2% increase from 2014 to 2015–and traffic fatalities grown 14% in two years, with an 11% growth in pedestrians killed; with the most pronounced growth in distracted driving among newly licensed teen drivers, the problem of driver distraction stands only to grow more serious.




The claims to have based its maps on some 300 years of human driving experience is pure hyperbole, and of course is largely confined to city streets.  Even claims of 1 billion simulated miles driven in 2016 alone, and raises questions of how a sufficiently plastic map could be readily redrawn to allow drivers to feel safe, however–in ways that went beyond the network of a select range of city streets.  And it is this problem of a relative paucity of groundcover quality of road networks that cloud-based mappings of the routes of driverless cars aims to somehow remedy, by excluding them from its map–another set of mappers might be tasked with finding ways to preserve that local knowledge, while drivers relax behind seat belts in automated cars.


Waymo.pngWaymo Team

So far, the four regions where Google has focussed in mapping car routes have compiled an only partly sufficiently compelling road atlas to make customers sufficiently confident about the abilities of a prototype.  The maps have been made without raising questions of liability for any eventualities of accidents occurring when driverless cars might hit unsuspecting pedestrians, or collide with other cars, to the shock of human drivers.  Yet the lack of a large coverage of open roads raises questions about how such information will be compiled, stored, and updated over time or in real time, and chosen spaces that seem particularly well-paved.

Google Maps on City Streets

Four Cities in which Google has Mapped Car Routes/Waymo Team

The combination of a map of routes, however, and a comprehensive real-time high-density data feed of traffic conditions and flows remain the elusive target of the maps for self-driving cars.


8.  Historical Reflections

A point of interesting comparison is the charts of navigation of the late middle ages, and the first attempts to reconcile nautical technology to space by means of compass lines.  Such charts imagine directional axes of nautical travel between ports, or coastal cities, and foreground networks of a nautical space with only limited reference to the inhabited world.  Such detailed detailed portolan charts, showing the shores of the Mediterranean and probably composed of composite of individual coastal maps, seem to have helped orient ship routes when they first emerged from the thirteenth century, offering a basis to imagine Mediterranean sea routes in oceanic space, and  allowed sailors to return home or long shipping distances to be imagined.  They provided some of the first synthetic maps of shorelines.

The charts are not properly descriptions of space–or of a known world–but orient ships’ captains and mariner on the largely commercial travels that they increasingly planned by the fourteenth century, in ways that called into being the creation of ‘portolan’ charts, which served to supplement written directions for nautical itineraries or routes or “portolans.”  The secondary status of such charts has created considerable historiographic debate as to whether the trajectories of compass lines sketched on charts were used by pilots to orient themselves to open seas–or what sort of concept of space, or ontology of space, they encode, largely because they prioritize individual ports against a broad schema of compass points, repeated in the motif of the compass rose, that appear to orient pilots on courses of nautical travel.

But the maps that were kept in trading houses seem to have offered the ability to plot courses of trading routes, or possibly suggest the extent of voyages, as well as orient pilots to the shores and the waters over which they travel.  The presumptions about nautical continuity they contained may have created something of a cognitive obstacle to charting terrestrial continuity, as such charts primarily privileged a notion of nautical travel.  By orienting the itineraries of Mediterranean travel on rhumb lines oriented on a compass, and privileging coastal ports and cities as their primary way stations, they saw the oceans as the primary surface of spatial transit–and spatial travel, or suggested the shores as a set of points that constituted the range of possible destinations or ports of call available for nautical itineraries, imagining spaces of travel, rather than terrestrial continuity.

Genoese nautical chart of Albino de Canepa

For distances to be measured on a sense of terrestrial continuity that didn’t privilege marine travel, terrestrial maps increasingly turned inland, sewing the coastal regions as limits, and less as ares of exchange.  The growth of maps that oriented viewers to inland inhabitation often privileged fluvial networks of travel, taking rivers as major points of orientation to space,  and viewing the coast as a far less crowded site of habitation or orientation.   Such maps are striking in their differences because of how they provide collective frameworks for collective notions of continuity and points of bearing.  They remind us of the absence of destinations in the sorts of interfaces of self-driving cars will rely, and the motion-based nature of these maps.

The different sort of continuity is faced by designers of the maps meant for driverless cars, rooted less in a human experience of spatial travel.  For the synthesis of data points to orient self-driving cars to roads abandon points of reference that foreground human habitation, as they have far less interest in recording or transmitting anything external to road conditions.  Unlike most any map that has been made for human audiences, continuity only has meaning for the driverless car where it lies on the road–such maps hence dispense with notions of continuity encoded around human settlement or topography, even if the topography they chart is man-made.  Rather than the embodiments of a coherent space maps present to human readers–and led many to define the map as a “human” medium that presents one’s own place or spatial location in a broader canvas or interface of a densely detailed geography –the perspective of the driverless car omits pedestrians or points of view.  In binding data to graphic elements, maps for driverless cars only include data from sensors that the car needs to know.

The lack of any coherent framework that the self-driving car would be asked to judge or evaluate, as well as the difficult hybrids needed to translate human-made roads into code which replaces space.  It makes sense that few maps for self-driving cars will include markers of the inhabited world as we know it.  The computer-generated images of ribbons of roads offer an up-to-the-moment record of traffic conditions and real-time records that can assist in moving along the roads with ample time for turn-outs, lane-changes, and potential weather conditions, but have no need to create a clear embodiment of space in the manner of maps made for humans–much as the maps for driverless cars omits any place save that on the road.   Such cloud-to-car mapping system that will allow self-driving vehicles to be created register only the options for navigating lane changes at an interchange and are made for cars–rather than people–in one of the first instances of real-time maps not made for human audiences.  (The important question of how to include pedestrians or humans in such maps is not able to be addressed.)

Although the space that they map are designed for cars, rather than people, they privilege space in terms of speedy itineraries–motion across roads–to the exclusion of the their surroundings or even land-cover surfaces.  As it moves through space, the sensors on Google car’s internal map at an intersection create a “screen” that orients the car to three dimensions by laser range finders, aggregating information on its own to develop new forms of way finding–although the very high-tech principles that allow the car to navigate through “space” prevent accurate readings of distance beyond a hundred meters, in large part because of the limits to encoding reliable data within a single comprehensive map, already enriched by almost 1 GB of data gathered per second, which must then be filtered and digitized for driving purposes.  While much of the LiDAR data may err, as the GPS data that cars use to plot their courses, the use of sensor derived data algorithms to update vehicle position is crucial to reducing uncertainty–and danger or risk.

BJEXYWlCMAEEAsuGoogle car’s internal map at an intersection/tweeted by Bill Gross


Despite a worthwhile focus on questions of liability, the world that is being mapped for autonomous cars bears some reflection in itself.

The problem of how to map time and space–and to bring them into harmony on the map–has never really existed in a non-localized way with such particular urgency to the detail:  weather maps are broadly based; local guides to traffic like Wayz are apps that are designed for specific situations and drivers.  The challenges for rendering continuity is confronted by the designers of cloud-based computer-generated maps for self-driving cars that synthesize multiple points in a skein of travel conditions.  They include few markers of the world, and note no pedestrians or wildlife; cloud-to-car mapping system will allow such vehicles to read roadways and driving conditions, in one of the most ambitious cases of “real-time” maps made for non-human audiences, that bridge the map as a human artifact and its machine readability by orienting automotive traffic to space.  Hence, the sorts of maps that are currently produced to map “end-to-end” travel for self-driving cars like Nvidia are a new frontier of mapping, providing real-time records of the conditions on ribbons of roads, able to be kept up-to-date and comprehensive by providing an architecture able to assimilate new types of data in the cars that will be provided deep learning algorithms to detect lanes, signs and other landmarks.




The conditions of roads that can already be read up to twelve hours in advance, leveraging greater than a trillion data points to tabulate the length of a trip taking into account real-time traffic conditions, traffic flow in recent years, and local temperatures, provide an effective database to suggest the far greater range of information a diverges car can effectively access.

Is this way of taking the roadways–a central site of tacit and collective knowledge, transmitted collectively among generations, tantamount to altering their character by isolating them from space?  While based on creating a machine readable architecture of navigation from GPS data, the image of space that these maps for self-driving cars pass on is stripped of recognized sites of interest, signposts, and local context as if to streamline a spatial architecture of the road.  What does the creation of such an architecture of space tell us or say about the cultures that produced it, which places a premium on machine-readability of up-to-the-minute traffic?  The focus on routes suggests a focus only on motion, where the system of roads and conditions of traffic replace the inhabited world in ways that oddly echo our increasingly paved-over world.


9.  The Challenge to Process the Increased Dominance of the Road

The status of roadways–the quintessential human creation, even when one speaks of inter-linked highway systems–has so rapidly intensified over fifty to seventy years that the growth of webs of car space have shifted most of our attention from the in-between, as the expansion of roadway views, routes for interior penetration and roadside advertising and attractions has created not only a landscape for distraction, but overlooked many of the habitats that one might have thought remained in the sides of increasingly complex cloverleafs or the medians of highways, but are effective “dead spaces” where no habitat remains.  The decline of urban gardens is as radical, but the growth of paved land cover is less noticed and, from the car, less seen.




The expanding growth of national highway systems (NHS) to some 160,955 miles (259,032 km) starting from the Interstate Highway System offers perhaps a quintessential register of man re-made space as automotive, or designated for human-driven cars.



Although this space is not often urban, in a city like Tokyo, where much of this post was written in Azabu-Jūban, a residential part  of Minato City, Japan, where cars run up on-ramps to raised platforms of terraced freeways and urban expressways, whose tapestry of concrete platforms twist overhead as if they might contain driverless cars,  moving  at an orchestrated combination of speeds across the city.




13238240884_1f4cd29e52_b.jpgView from Tokyo Tower, Minato City (Tokyo)

tokyo tower freeways.jpg

The perptuum mobile of the city cars seem a shadow population, always in motion, in multi-level traffic patterns whose arced on-ramps and curved borders in Minato-ku eerily recall the dioramas of model die-cast cars, blurring urban and suburban in a liminal space not really part of the city, but are subtracted from its space.

The spaces of roadways and urban expressways are not only foreign to urban life, but outside of it, and at a tempo of their own that is disjoined from the surrounding landscape not only in land cover or use.  Indeed, the growth of such urban highway systems seems almost to reflect a setting aside of space for cars, and for transport lanes, analogous to the train systems that similarly exist for JR rail in Tokyo, and almost in a mirror reflection of the dedication of garden spaces, spaces for temples, and spaces for cemeteries that seems to continue to define Tokyo.  The segregation of such spaces is unlike the spatial design of modern American cities, where cemeteries, parks, and green space have been pushed aside by modernity.

The continued romance of the road, in other words, and the optimistic ideal of ever-increased speed, has continued to animate the expansion of highway maps from the first interstates.  The same ideals have provided a view that privileged the routes we regularly use to move among our communities, with the dangerous result of diminishing attention to measure the rapidly reduced integrity of the areas in-between, those interstices of the roadways interrupt the fewer and fewer habitats that remain, leaving few regions of the land designed for driving, but where roadways threaten to marginalize the in-between to such an extent that few space is any more in-between at all.

Highways are indeed imagined in the United States as not only an infrastructure but a circulatory system of its own– animated not by passenger cars but by trucked freight, may offer the spatial imaginary for the self-driving car, filing multi-lane highways that span the nation, and offering a contracted notion of space–




–that may respond to the already crowded congestion of daily truck traffic that crowded the nation’s highways by 1998, according to the US Department of Transportation, emitting a huge amount of CO2, and creating a gamut of environmental problems not registered at all on the map which sees truck traffic as something like the nation’s life blood.




and standing to create something of an almost apocalyptic vision of overcrowded freight traffic by 2040 of long-haul traffic across the continent.


The expansion sion of such huge tonnage of freight traffic suggest not only a huge source of carbon emissions, but a dystopia against which the self-driving car provides a sort of needed relief, reducing the hours logged by truckers, if perhaps at an unknown cost.

The huge density of passenger traffic in Europe’s roadways have similarly fragmented the livable space of much of the continent, not to mention the health and integrity of its ecosystems.  Driverless cars will not change this–they may indeed only intensify this loss and augment the growth of road space–if one hopes they might be combined with something like a break on it, it is hard to imagine a decline in daily road traffic without huge market controls.



10.  If these spaces sometime seem as if they might as well be driverless, the possibility of smooth traffic their raised ramps offer has created something like a collective framework for driving through space on smooth surfaces:  the huge amount of money invested in developing driverless cars may distract from the absence of a comparable investment in infrastructure on which cars could so readily move; the maps seem to hide the absence of any requisite investment in asphalt resurfacing or road quality, all absent from and elided in the cloud-based road maps created from driverless cars, which oddly imitate the optimistic idealism of highway maps of the 1950s, and to imagine that the vehicles of the future can move on roads, bridge, and freeways that will maintain themselves without cost, although the pace of their increased erosion of ecosystems and subtraction from public space are increasingly acknowledged, as the costs of such a dramatic expansion of road space is increasingly recognized.

Slide 1


10.  Our New Paved Continuity

The maps made for self driving cars create continuity by synthesizing a gamut of optional itineraries, to allow future developers to create and crowdsourced information that will allow self-driving cars to map their courses in relation to other self-driving cars, and be updated.  The aim is to note in particular plastic ways the calculus of road closures and construction projects, as wells traffic jams or meteorological conditions.  The sort of dynamic maps that cars would depend on gathering information from sensors embedded in cars, in ways that mean the map would be, in an extension of the ways that all maps register a collective knowledge about space, a sort of neural network animated by a huge data flows that far exceed what a human audience would be able to process, and for which to real template or model in most real-world maps now exist:  the expanded ability to incorporate and code data within the surface of the map, and indeed to give it greater plasticity is being pushed most dramatically in the maps that are being created for such cloud-to-car relays create new communicative webs for future cars that don’t yet exist.

But the problem of road-building is something that these maps seem to presume, or skip over–presupposing the surfaces and setting up potential liabilities by directing our attention only to how we might measure traffic flows, without transmitting any sense of road conditions.  There is no claim to take such considerations into account, but the idealized forms of cloud-based mapping for future cars omits any human judgement of the consequences of road wear or uneven pavement, creating a closed circuit of car-to-car communication that seems to challenged the man-made nature of maps.

The machine-readable and -generated cartography developed by groups as Here,  Civil Maps, and Nvidia will require abilities for the easy localization of multiple vehicles in the most economic form, but synthesize huge ranges of data in new forms of machine learning and graphics cards able to synthesize high levels of data streams in a sort of multi-lane perpetuum mobile of the roadways.  The dynamic platforms that are poised to evolve with the introduction of self-driving cars may be hard to imagine, but a range of companies are trying to create the mapping platforms that would be needed to allow them to grow.  HERE uses the sort of “Predictive Traffic Maps” that can help plan journeys up to 12 hours in advance, by using more than one trillion GPS data points to estimates how long the trip will take will take by factoring in real-time traffic with historical traffic flow data and other factors such as seasonal conditions, creating a skein-like map of color-coded routes of individual automotive itineraries.

The skein of routes seems oddly removed from their surroundings, and, oriented only to driverless cars, removed from the effects of the roadscape or the surfaces of the roads, providing a means of mapping by automotive movement alone, imagining a universe of cars taking to one another.  The resilience of 2-D maps to describe the routes of self-driving cars is amazing, given the considerable complexity which they are able to process.  The continuity that exists in computer-generated maps from data points that orient self-driving cars to the roads that they travel similarly include few markers of the inhabited world,  since they register only the options for navigating lane changes at an interchange; the continuous lines offer optional itineraries, as it were, in hopes to allow developers to create and crowdsource information to allow self-driving cars to map courses in relation to other self-driving cars, and be updated in particular plastic ways to reflect road closures and construction projects, traffic jams, or meteorological conditions.  The dynamic maps in such cars depend on gathering information from sensors embedded in cars, in ways that mean the map would be, in an extension of the ways that all maps register a collective knowledge about space, a sort of neural network animated by a huge data flows.  While suggestive of three dimension, the two-dimensional nature of the mapping of travel seems a bit of a throwback in an era of data-driven projections and complex mapping.

HD Map Interchange.png

The dehumanized nature of the roadways, vegetation, and signs of human interest, which seem reduced to a spectral negative land world out of the early days of night-vision glasses  or the Twilight Zone suggests a landscape evacuated of the human, or just a crude version of VR.

But the map that is designed for the self-driving car is primarily designed only for its routes–so its fit with any imprint of the manmade nature of the map seems more like a remnant or an obligation, and an atavistic survival that will soon fall apart from the sleek organization of the map, which fittingly if  uniquely privileges the directional paths of cars over all other aspects of space, showing their trajectories in an oddly disembodied landscape that augurs a future world foregrounding cars against a washed out world in an Mad Max, but where cars talk to one another through maps, knowing the world as it is meant to be driven across and privileging only the paved parts of the inhabited world.

The aim is to complete a set of data on road travel would supercede Google Maps by driverless, Siri-free mobility.  The data that the computer platforms in cars would digest, sift, and correlate routes to produce a readable map may merit the tag “HD Maps”–meant to suggest “high data,” instead of “hi-definition,” which is more of a tweak than a different mode of collating or assembling readable information able to be stored in the cloud for instant use.  The car would itself become a node to relay augmented information, amassed through forward-looking cameras, forward and rear radar sensors, and OEM’s for transmitting the harvested data to a cloud, to create a readily updated map each and every day that includes the needed traffic updates in data flows and to localize themselves in traffic flows, far surpassing the level of data that might be registers in Google Maps cars, and include roof-mounted sensor mast packing 96 megapixels’ worth of cameras, a 32-beam Velodyne LIDAR scanner, and highly accurate Novatel GPS Inertial Measurement Units to generate sufficient data for a sufficiently flexible road map for other driverless cars.  The resulting readable map able to  record current traffic flow conditions would be relayed other self-driving vehicles, who share among themselves, as it were, a record of real road conditions.


11.  The Ubiquity of Road Networks and our Sense of Space

The ambitions of the HD maps of roadways start from a new model of mapping, unlike the sense one has that Waymo is building on the platforms of Google Maps.  The sense of rebuilding the nature of the map from the ground up for cars to talk to each other in ways able to be accessed from the cloud has created considerable excitement about the innovative nature of maps that need to be devised for self-driving cars among Google’s less secretive competitors.

“We’re essentially building the road network in order to have this map available for the first fleets of cars that are going to be leveraging this technology that are going to be showing up on the roads around 2020,” explained Sanjay Sood, Vice President at Here, one of the companies now building platforms and gathering the enhanced level of data necessary for such a map to include and encode to allow self-driving cars to make decisions not only about directions, in the manner of GPS, but enhance the network of roads with constantly updated information that would allow the car to read, include, and process the necessary information on road traffic and conditions in regularly updated ways that one hope convince future clients of their reliability.


But it makes sense to consider the implications of such a collectively harvested map, for the very reason that it ignores what lies off the roadway or paved landcover.  The road conditions of much of the paved world is, of course, changing our own ecosystems in ways the one only begun to be mapped in ways that fully accord complexity to their impact on the land, or to be visualized in relation to roadless regions.

Maps for self-driving cars in a sense may map the fury roads of the Mad Maxes of the future, where a crisscrossing roadmap of self-driving vehicles expands to exclude other ecosystems, literally dividing the inhabited world into fragmented ecosystems, most too restricted to furnish habitat to wildlife or allow ecosystems to emerge:  the splitting of the inhabited world into some 600,000 fragments is in a result of privileging a map on which one drives from the landscape–and indeed of the altered space of landscape which has morphed into the scenery which one drives by, and does not inhabit.

The danger that we obscure the existence and value of the dramatically decreasing extent of roadless areas of the world seems the flip side of the portrait of the world that is offered in maps for self-driving cars, which focus only on the roads that connect human habitations, and offer what may in fact be the most anthropocentric maps ever made.

Roads in world:roadless world.pngPierre Ibisch, as published in Science

Since the map is hard to read in such reduced form, it might help to scrutinize the degradation of ecological value in areas, as measured by proximity to those regions removed from roads, or at a proximity greater than a one km buffer, and consider the regions in Europe, Japan, and America where driverless maps are most centrally being designed, in order to capture the world-view that they inherently perpetuate:


North America roadless.png

Ibisch,et al.,  Roadless Spaces in North and South America



Roadless EurasiaIbisch et al., Roadless Eurasia

The expansion of roadspace on the world’s surface is slated to expand by 2050 by some 60%, creating a scenario that will be doubtless fueled by the growth of the technology of self-driving cars, in ways that should force us to examine the sort of maps that such cars stand to use, and the limited worlds they portray, despite the richness of data that they are able to encode.



The mirror on national road space that is generated in North America excludes not only the roadless spaces of the world.  The global context of the expansion of road space is of course also absent in the cloud-based road atlases being fashioned for the driverless car.  The current rapid expansion of complexity of the road-scape has already led to the obliteration of the prominence of spaces of ecological value, however.  If one wants to be pessimistic, the remove of vast areas of roadless space–barely 5% of which have any legal protection from the tundra to rain forest–in ways that have splintered wildlife populations.

Estimating that land within a km of the road is affected by its presence, scientists at Ebserwalde University for Sustainable Development, in Germany, argue that the striking failure to conserve, restore and monitor roadless areas stands only to increase the rising pace of mass extinctions which increasingly threaten our ecosystems.  For Pierre Ibisch, only some 7% of roadless areas remain greater than a hundred square km, and his teams analysis of open-access maps of 36m km of road space across the world’s surface allowed him to compute rather quickly the quite scary fact that based on the Global Roads Open Access Data Set (gROADS) of mapped roads–a very conservative estimate, in fact.  For over half of the 600,000 fragments into which roads now divide the world exist as marginalized spaces of less than a square km., not offering significant ecosystems–in ways that place the United States as among the regions of the most dramatically reduced roadless space worldwide.

North America roadless.png

National Geographic/Ibisch, et al.

The prospect of mapping car routes with almost no attention to the spaces outside the roads seems a dangerous privileging of the paved surfaces for road travel that have already restricted not only open spaces, but habitat.  The problems of privileging the ribbons of road that run criss-cross the planet’s surface ignore the huge impact of land cover changes that asphalt introduced, of course, or the expansion of road-rich infrastructures that not only allow the exploitation of resources and pollution of most regions of the world, but dismember the ones able to support life:  the eastern seaboard of the United States and the nation of Japan are without regions unaffected by the presence of roads.  To be sure, greater low-emissions vehicles may cut vehicular pollution, but the crisscrossing of a network of paved space have left much of the inhabited world with no sense of areas populated by animals.  For roads have increased the areas able to be inhabited by insects, removing them from natural predators, and remove all remaining roadless areas from any legal protection in ways that the maps of leaderless cars echo in not deigning to record or orient viewers.

Roadless Regions.png

The sustained failure of governments to map the expansion of roads, and to privilege roads as arterial frameworks facilitating economic expansion and infrastructure, have blinded us to a sense of their environmental consequences.  The generation of machine-readable maps of the mobility of driverless cars along a similar road space suggests a diminished and compromised world.  The nature of movement the along similar pathways exist for the neural network generated by self-driving cars exist in isolation once again from they impact of roads on environments, and the mapping of the external world from the vehicular point of view stands to only increase the extent of our remove from a roadless world.

Perhaps the two-dimensionality of the maps of road space that result place us at a further remove from monitoring the existence or presence of unpaved lands, or even acknowledge the border between the paved and unpaved.  For the world that they represent is the world is it is paved.  The danger that it remains both overlooked and underrepresented in the maps that are made for self-driving cars reflects the increased fragmentation of ecosystem that have become a characteristic of our increasingly road-divided worlds.

An already-crowded web of national highways makes up the NHS seems unruly and often inefficient as a way to divide inhabited space–


half highways


–and, as the comparable heightened density of the crowded roads in Japan, to provide a framework often incommensurate with traffic flows—




–are not only already congested our national infrastructure in unhealthy ways–

fig22Federal Highway Administration Freight Analysis Framework/Federal Highway Administration

–but are only posed to grow increasingly in coming decades, so that by 2020, or not soon off at all, we were predicted to arrive at an over-congestion of national highways, as road networks that already exceeded capacity meet the needs for freight transportation even as they suffer increased wear:

fig26Source: Federal Highway Administration Freight Analysis/Federal Highway Administration

Which brings us again to the quandary of mapping the road system that stands in danger of deterioration and congestion for the driverless cars that  so many are working to produce to remove people from the inevitable road congestion of combing years, or at least from behind the wheel.  The problem of growing congestion of America’s roadways are not likely to end, but rather grow in unexpectedly complicated ways with the technological changes posed by self-driving cars.  Whereas the demands for increasing roadways and road lanes to accommodate such a surge in automotive traffic will depend on the ability to create more miles of paved roads, the costs of such creation are not clearly able to be funded and lie far off the map–as do their impact on our landscape will be a significant step in an even more dangerous direction of terraforming.


Is an actual danger that the automotive perspective of driverless cars maps stand to accelerate further the absence of attention to areas off paved roadways?  To be sure, the notion of mapping driving routes at a remove from human pathways, and alone, only remind us of the dangerously growing scarcity of what Herman Melville famously used to describe a Polynesian island that was one of those already rare “true places” that are not down on any map.  These are the interstices one might discover by chance, and not find written down–the places at a remove from anthropogenic noise and lying in the roadless landscapes we can discover.

1 Comment

Filed under 3-D maps, autonomous cars, HD Maps, machine-readable maps, self-driving cars

NORAD Maps the Flight of Santa’s Sleigh

Where is Santa Claus?  The question is perhaps preposterous; Santa is imaginary, after all.  But every Christmas Eve for over fifty-fie years, the North American Aerospace Command–NORAD–has invited viewers to track the gift-laden sleigh of Santa crossing the night-time sky at the speed of starlight on NORAD’s Santa Tracker, an annual collective exercise in mapping of increasing popularity–indeed the mind-boggling proportions of its popularity, attracting upwards of 20 million individual users in 2011 alone, is a statement not only to its improved UX, but to the versatility of its incorporation of mapping servers better to imagine the itinerary of Santa’s airborne sleigh.  For while we once envisioned the night-time flight of Santa Claus far-off and against a starlit sky and full moon, to accentuate the surprise of a magical itinerary–




–the Santa Map brings that journey up-close for everyone before a computer monitor.  The remapping of Santa’s itinerary has been done in a way that tracked, as the sleigh’s global progress is intercepted and relayed online in real time from posts of remote observation to viewers around the world.  And in an age of global surveillance, there seems to be no reason why Santa’s sleigh cannot as well be surveilled for the interests of children everywhere.

There’s a huge appeal in the ways that the Santa Map creates and imagined community, as much as it embodies an annual itinerary.  The interest in tracking Santa’s sleigh has grown considerably in recent Christmas Eves.  The huge interest in tracking Santa’s sleigh–and effectively mapping the visits of the airborne sleigh into our hearth–is a way of bringing maps in line with pleasure at a time when we need to look for solace where we can find it, and where we can find a comfort that the onslaught of most maps of contemporary events in fact rarely provide.  Christmas has been a communal but solitary experience–located in the hearth and around the tree, and gift-opening a ritual of individual families–but somewhat serendipitously, the collective witnessing of the Santa Map offers a vicariously removed experience for crowds of viewers, removed from one another but creating the illusion of comprehensively witnessing the arrival of a fictional character to homes everywhere, as if to knit us together in holiday wonder, suspended for the evening in an imaginary international airspace of momentary world peace.

The interactive map is a new way to conceive the itinerary of gift giving Santa Claus uses to deposit gifts in every chimney and hearth, giving a virtual presence to the fictional Father Christmas making his annual voyage of gifts for children from the North Pole.  And at a time when drones gained popularity as holiday gift–some 1.2 million drones were sold during in the 2016 Christmas season, according to the Consumer Technology Association, often to novice pilots–their popularity reflects the prominence of drones in mainstream America’s spatial imaginary.  The many drones lost and found drones over Christmas week for two years suggest the appeal of remotely guided aeronautics, in which mapping the course of Santa’s sleigh by a drone not only enhances the UX of Santa Maps, but lends materiality to the wondrous arrival of Santa’s sleigh.  The amplified user experience offered on the website provides views akin to virtual drone, by which viewers can observe the expected arrival of Santa Claus as if from an unmanned object beside Santa’s path.


Leaving th eNOrth POle.pngSanta Leaves North Pole on YouTube (2010)


tracking-santaSanta Trackers in Colorado


Santa to Wash.pngViewing Santa arrive in Washington, DC


Santa Maps invite viewers by web-based technologies to  map of the sleigh’s route in two- or three-dimensions, or chose an option of receiving regular updates on the progress of gift-giving on a global scale all night long.  The curiously intangible map sustains the questionable fiction of Santa’s arrival to each household from the North Pole:  and if all maps stand at a remove from the world, the Santa Tracker seems to stand at a particularly odd angle to the world–especially in a period where the number of international borders defined by physical obstructions and apparatuses of surveillance have grown 48% since 2014, and border-crossing has become an increasingly politicized and even a desperate act for refugees or those without economical opportunity.  The increasing popularity of Santa Trackers provide an upbeat narrative all the more needed in a time of global dissensus–at no cost to tax-payers, with the tracking map, and telecom services donated by sponsors.

But if the Santa Tracker seems something of a a metaphor for globalism it keeps up with the pace of the naturalization of the authority of map providers:  for the speed of mapping real-time motion, and indeed of tracking fast-flying objects, as the sleigh that moves at the speed of starlight, is in a sense the other side of the project of mapping Santa’s sleigh:  the instantaneous transmission of the path of Santa’s arrival is as much the promise of the Santa Map as the tracing of the path that Santa’s sleigh takes.  While once the promise of protecting the course of Santa’s sleigh on its way to deliver gifts became the job of NORAD, and the arrival of gifts the proof of NORAD’s authority and power in the hemisphere, the mappability of the rapid course of Santa’s sleigh is as much the promise of remote tracking of the atmospheric gasses, weather patterns, icy air streams and wind-currents by orbiting satellites:  we are promised to be able to follow the speed by which Santa condenses the project of visiting every hearth world wide on one night, as if to capture that night’s magic, as if from cameras stationed directly over or behind his Sleigh.


Continue reading

1 Comment

Filed under globalization, mapping technologies, military maps, Satellite maps, satellite surveillance

Sleeping Roads, Ancient Highways, and Paper Towns

What’s the significance of names on a map?  Do they register roads that belong to the territory or only reflect continued use?  What sort of authority does a mapped road, byway, or highway retain in common law–and for how long must it be recognized as a road?  The existence of place-names and routes on a map have become an increasingly contested way to preserve a sense of place, and the survival of the “sleeping roads” of Vermont, threatened in an age of the division of the long predominantly rural state as a  market of construction threatens to obscure local knowledge and a long-valued sense of place.  The deep sense of injustice in the prospect of loosing the legal status of “ancient” and long-pathways preserved in records of in local townships face possible obliteration in the legal memory as such unpaved roads–often more tacitly known than still used for commerce–are going to be reclassified.  Indeed, as the state’s legislature has decided to reclassify common law roads to homogenize property records across the state, the outburst of local mapping seems not an act of antiquarian obscurantism, but a defense of local knowledge in an age of globalism and satellite mapping, where few of the older roads might appear from the sort of satellite-based mapping systems on which we increasingly depend.

The plan for a massive reclassification of “ancient” highways on the books but actually dormant in much of the state of Vermont may be a pro-development land grab, but suggests that the struggle for designating once common lands as private property (and resistance to it) are waged on maps.  The recent promise to reclassify registered but unnamed byways in the state–a mass of roads which were at one time used or previously surveyed as common-law byways, but have since fallen out of use to different degrees–has unintentionally generated a set of local storms about public memory.  In a state where many current town roads remain unpaved, and many more have faded into the largely forested landscape.  The drive to reclassify the diversity of unpaved roads and common law byways once preserved in local jurisdictions reveals the rise of property development for whom the retention of old spatial classifications obfuscates the exchange of private lands.

The local resistance to such a reclassification of roads in the rural state, which has attracted its share of fierce defenders of the local rights of communities long granted precedents to federal or state law, make the proposed elimination of “Ancient Highways” from local law a matter of contention.  The proposed reclassification of a multiplicity of roads poses a problem of having ceased to reflect the sort of use of landscape that developers want to encourage and private home-owners want to ensure.  Given the shifting nature of land use in Vermont, where older houses are increasingly on the market, as smaller agricultural farms close and die out, a premium has developed for the clear definition of ownership without any liens or qualifications.  Hence the increasing tensions between local municipalities in the state and any move by state government to abolish roads they long oversaw.  In a sense, the increased interest in helping demand for fungible residential properties that can be sold without qualification have run up against the multiplicity of roads that have continued to remain on the books.

As the real estate market in Vermont seems poised to heat up in much of the state, and smaller towns face a demand for brisk sales and a large pool of properties arrive on the market, the state seeks to remove any obstacles to development or become notorious for arcane property laws, remapping the “ancient” roads of Vermont opts to treat them as ancient, and, far more than unpaved, not part of its future landscape.  Yet the quilt of county regulations of roads that existed for most of the eighteenth century and was retained in most local maps before World War II reflected a local landscape of counties and townships rarely challenged before the arrival of interstate federal highways across the state during the 1970s, erasing the varied paths, trails, and common-law roads, long overseen by local city Selectboards and regarded as parts of the local landscape.


A Quilt of Counties


Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under engraved maps, GIS, GoogleMaps, Vermont

Into the Woods? or, Is Big Data Simply Enough?

The pressing problems of how visualize our rapidly growing environmental footprint–and map the concept of a footprint over time–have found a new answer in the rendering of topographical and thematic layers to chart the degradation of forests world-wide.  If deforestation is hard to get one’s mind around or grasp effectively, the tracking of the quickening pace of the loss of forested regions and indeed of the carbon sequestration that forests provide are elegantly tracked in a set of web maps that provide new cognitive tools to measure the effects of such abstract entities as globalization and free markets on the expanding losses of forested land.

Indeed, such interactive web-based maps provide something of a needed stimulus to the stewardship of intact forests, by offering ways to chart intact forest landscapes worldwide and survey anthropogenic disturbances in forested lands, and inviting analysis of existing forest cover, agricultural conversion, loss of forests to lumber, man-made fires, and industrial conversion, so as to render the planet’s surface area in newly readable form.  While offering an interpretive surface unlike the symbolic forms or indexical referents of most existing GIS maps, the Google Maps base map offers a basis to render a uniform record of human activities on a rapidly shrinking range of forested lands–and the rapidly shrinking carbon storage intact forests provide.  At a time when forest loss spiked in Russia and Canada, even as forest losses have grown worldwide, the map offers an exposé on forest management and best practices of conservation of forested lands, as well as a record of our global footprint in sites of carbon storage.


Forest Loss, Canada 2013

Forest losses in Canda, mapped by Global Forest Watch (2013)

The ability to indicate forest losses with striking precision provides a welcome if unforeseen assistance from satellite surveillance whose data can help visualize the growing footprint of global forest loss.  Although the necklace of satellites that necklace the earth are now more often associated with espionage of cell phone metadata, NASA satellites record the biomass of global forests by measurements that can construct a comprehensive muliti-dimensioned map of the balance between forest growth and loss.  The zoomable map marry technology to ecology to chart a terrifyingly revealing record of incursions into natural resources worldwide, whose detail provides something closest to a tally of global lost and a record of the footprint of our globalized economy on the fragmentation of forests with a startling degree of accuracy.  Remotely sensed data from MODIS satellites has allowed Global Forest Watch to bundle geolocated data for ready consultation by manipulating colorful detailed layers of an interactive map to visualize the effects of recent forest loss with an immediacy and precision not earlier possible.

The comprehensive interactive map of forest loss effectively materializes a global footprint in startlingly effective manner:  for rather than merely mapping the amount of carbon emitted into the atmosphere in ways that reflect GDP, visualizing the scope of the depletion of forests–and of trees that offer reserves of carbon–suggests a true wake-up call by tracking the progressive effects of forest loss over a global expanse.  The relative distribution of tree cover gain and loss can be readily scanned, beside the density of intact forests, or natural catastrophes, at a level of zoomable detail that stands as both a barometer and a chart of the unprecedented scale of forest degradation over the past fifteen years.

The extent of forest losses since 1960 have been estimated at over 180 million hectares, and the consequences of an estimated greatly diminished capacity to generate new forests of almost twice as many global hectares.  The collation of a detailed map of forest degradation worldwide boggles the mind for its ability to comprehend the accentuation of forest loss in recent years, when inroads were made into the forested areas of Indonesia, Amazonia, and Central Africa–as well as the Canadian north–in increasingly rampant ways.  The map Global Forest Watch has created and featured in their dynamically interactive website invites us to re-examine a global picture of forest change since 2000–of which North America is shown below as an example–translating big data into a set of actual traces and scarring of landscapes, marked by incursions of sensed biomass loss in bright magenta:  at a time when the US federal government may auction off hundreds of millions of acres of national forest, wilderness areas, and refuges, projects the potentially disastrous consequences of sanctioning “increased resource production.”  Whereas often classified satellites are better documented as creating a record of global surveillance, the remote sensing assembles a picture of the increasingly fragmented landscapes of forested land that suggests an often concealed inheritance of globalization, difficult to visualize or conceive on a global scale, that serves as a deeply monitory image of the growing global footprint that deforestation creates.

Does the footprint that these maps trace reveal a more complex dynamic of forest loss than earlier provided?  Might the map offer new tools to understand the threats to the survival of not only old growth forests but intact forests worldwide?  The image surely serves a somewhat stoic function for looking back, retrospectively, at the incursions into a planetary ability to store carbon worldwide, and of the dire lack of restraint and of the enforcement of policies of forest use.

1.  Global disequilibria of legal forest harvesting and trade reflects a global difficulty to meet demand for wood. Structural imbalances are more often mapped as the consequences of population growth, as by Global Footprint Network:

NEt Trade in Forest Biocapacity

National Footprint (2014), http://www.footprintnetwork.org

Yet the differences in the distribution of wood losses worldwide are not necessarily linked to wood market, but a wide range of potential reasons for the degradation of forested lands.  Indeed, the problems of mapping both the expansion of agriculture and the illegal logging trade has created problems of accurate modeling of forest loss, in part due to the lack of an effective system of monitoring.  The web-based maps of the Global Forest Network identify the world’s greatest exporters of wood–Canada, Brazil, and Russia–as not exclusively lying in sub-equatorial tropical rainforests, however, and indeed suggest the broad range of forested land that meets a demand for wood products worldwide–even as the demand has more than doubled since surpassing the biocapacity of forest land from the 1970s.

The intensification of deforestation has dramatically increased since 1995–the conventional date of the social effects of the globalization of markets from 1993-5, even if the process can be traced to earlier precedents, rather than 1492.  As the need for carbon protection by forests has effectively surged, the pronounced patterns of forest loss reveal a lack of controls on forest loss, even at a time when we would require twice as many forests as exist to absorb the carbon emissions generated worldwide.  How can such an expansive loss be fully comprehended?  The layers that map wood losses in the Global Forest Network’s interactive visualization marks the extent to which we have pushed the ecological limits of incursions on forested lands, anthropogenically expanding the effects of natural fires or climatological disaster:  the austere visualizations embody inroads in global forest-cover and intact forests, by tallying forest change by marking gain in blue and biomass loss in pink.  The resulting pockmarked pink landscapes focuses viewers’ attention on the increasingly fragmented condition of forested lands, and raises big questions about their consequences.  Indeed, it offers a definitive and geographically specific way to tally the results of the increased scarification of forested lands, linking the loss of forestsnot only to the extent to which high-income countries are expropriating natural resources of tropical lands, in Brazil or Central Africa, but the extent to which widespread practices of illegal logging has grown globally.

The suitably austere layers the map suggest a voracity of the fragmentation of many formerly intact forest, fed by demand for agrarian lands or lumber,  in a form that gives a plastic and material evocation of the expanding losses of forest over time.  The layers of the interactive web map effectively translate some very big data to create an image of lands are rent by natural and rising global demands, offering a new way to view the  inhabited world or ecumene less in terms of sites of habitation or population, than map a loss of biomass that is almost elegiac in tone, despite its stark finality.  Viewers are invited to scan interactive layers of the web map and take stock of the balance forest loss and growth over the earth since 2000, detect areas of deepest deprivation of tree-cover, and scrutinize the scale, scope and sheer size of forest loss to measure environmental change in an age of globalization.  The Global Forest Network converts data to map the quickly expanding global footprint in forested lands, measuring the ecumene as it has rarely been seen and charting the fragility of forests in which we will now never walk.

tree cover north america

The expansive and expanding degrees of degradation are difficult re cognitively quite difficult to contemplate or process. But the spatial collation of disruptions on local habitats creates a new sense of the readability of the map and of attending to the widespread degradation of forested lands that seem an unnoticed–and somewhat elusive–counterpart to the growing globalization of the demand for wood and for agricultural land, by mapping the disappearance not only of habitat but of wooded lands–and even providing tools for actively engaging with a rapidly changing world.

2.  Cartographers have long worked to render a “mathematical figure of the earth” viewers could readily scan, translating spatial distributions to accurate formats despite the multiple and inevitable distortions of any map and wresting with questions of accuracy.  Interactive visualization wizards of web maps showcase distributions by a spectrum that filters experience in multiple layers:  visualization wizards seem particularly apt tools of responding to problems of embodying data trends–and ffiltering data to generate images which embody exact distributions of forest degradation along roads, rivers, in regions of timber harvesting, and even in currently protected areas. The maps of forest loss provide a record of future archeology of the anthropocene, akin to maps of temperature change or of our overheating world.

The destruction of some 250 million acres of forest since 2000 by human development threatens to bring the fragmentation of forests, compromising not only integrity of ecosystemsanimal habitats, and tropical rainforest, as well as increasing erosion, but the sequestration of carbon in ways that have irreversible impact on the planet.  We see the world with new eyes by measuring the extent of timber lost by something that approaches real-time measurement in the dramatic amps the World Resources Institute and Global Forest Watch have created online.  Although satellite measurements more often identified with surveillance, the high radiometric sensitivity are able to pinpoint a record of biomass loss across the world’s forested lands that set new standards for a running-time comprehensive map for charting the distribution of dramatic losses of  forested land–similarly to the detection of forest fires–in an increasingly expansive and loosely regulated market for wood.  Even without describing or identifying the causes of forests’ fragmentation, the layers of the web map offer an almost inevitable and irreparable image of the scope of forest loss even in protected lands.

Amazon Cattle Graze:Daniel BeltraCattle Grazing in Amazonia (Brazil)/Daniel Beltra

British Columbia Clearcut:Garth LentzClear-cutting in British Columbia/Garth Lenz

The collation of growing forest loss within these maps raise questions about the sustainable practices in forest regions aptly characterized as the planet’s lungs.  Ten million sq km of forested land have been estimated to have been cleared between 1890 and 1980:   a further 500,000 square miles of lost heavily forested land were lost since the year 2000 that can be watched in stop-action accelerated real time in the web maps that display forest data, by geotracking the loss of a further million sq km of intact forest through 2013, in a sort of stop-action map that includes Indonesian forest fires, land clearance in Brazil and the Amazon, and the increased commerce in wood and forestry in Canada, Honduras, Indonesia, and much of South East Asia that seem an inexorable result of a voracious market for wood in a globalized economy.

As well as documenting the loss of some 8% of the economy since 2000, Global Forest Watch has embodied remotely sensed data in dramatic and disquieting to map the ongoing fragmentation of forested lands in a time-lapse map of some thirteen years–mapping the surface of the earth at a time when the range of anthropogenic incursions into forested lands, and the planet’s history, rapidly grew provoking discontinuities in previously intact forests and forested habitats of which we are only beginning to take stock, and whose disruptions threaten to radically change the planet’s lived geography. The layers of forest change that are distinguished in the interactive web maps the Global Forest network devised present a color-coded basis to gauge the incursions into forested lands of the world by human industry and economy as well as fire.  They offer an image that is both the tabulation of a benchmark and a memory map that reminds us of the loss of forested land over thirteen years which is a cautionary note about the need for better stewardship of forested lands in a globalized economy–and, indeed, those sites that are most intensely aggrieved in the modern age.

3. In a less frequently cited monuments of cameralist thought, Saxony’s Chief Inspector of Mining, Hans Carl von Carlowitz described forms of the conservation and cultivation of native trees where his family had long run mines; the Sylvicultura Oeconomica which in 1713 perceptively responded to fears of a shortage of wood after the Thirty Years War, to benefit the common good by advocating sustainable practices of forestry.  Nachhaltende Nutzung provide a set of responsible practices, or “a blueprint for the guiding principle of our time,” and something of an early recognition of the intentional planning of practices for the conservation of wood “for posterity” that we might look to at a time when the fragmentation of intact forest rapidly grows, as the remote registration of the distribution of decreasing forest biomass detected remotely by MODIS satellites reveal that go beyond the sort of aerial photos of forest degradation below seen in the Rondonia in Brazil over a mere six years.

aster_deforestation_brazil Rondonia over six years

Although the reasons for the degradation of forests due to alternative anthropogenic causes–land conversion; timber extraction; degradation of land–is not clearly distinguished from loss of forests to fire or catastrophe, individual layers allow the reader to distinguish between potential factors that precipitate forest lost, and uncover varied reasons for the growing crisis in sustainability of forests worldwide, as technology provides a useful medium to measure effects on the natural world. The dynamic qualities of static maps is enhanced by  suggestive chromatic variations, the ability of LandSat 8 to create a remotely-sensed picture of the world in but sixteen days allows dynamic records of land change to offer the chance of intensive reading and investigation not earlier possible.  While the causes of wood loss cannot be clearly discriminated, to be sure, the layering of maps provides a basis to take stock of the extent and locations of wood loss.  The layers of web-based maps invite viewers to investigate multiple potential narratives about the shifting ecosystems in a rapidly changing world. The layers of the map suggest a new way to embody data to view its palpable effects.  By importing data that they open or stake directly on the surface of a map or spatial database,web-based mapping offer a supple interactive medium to situate narratives in a global expanse–from situating the relative geographic densities of sightings of hummingbirds–


to relative geographical variations of biodiversity–


Remote sensing of incursions into intact layers of tree cover by Modis satellites provide an even more sensitive tool to display data of habitat change and ecosystems alike, and indeed to trace the incursions of a clandestine economy of wood on areas of forest that remain threatened, from clearing for agricultural areas, prospecting for palm oil, chainsaw logging, or bring of peat.  For remote sensing can record at startlingly high resolution disturbing incursions, breaks and absences in forest expanse and the distribution of intact forest and tree cover at the considerably high resolution of thirty meters, creating a tragically compelling record of anthopogenic disturbances of subtropical and other forested lands regions that comprise some 37.3% of the world’s total land area.

The record stands in inverse negative image of the expanding consumption of wood in the world’s more populated areas, and sets something of a watermark in the growing dangers of the apparent lack of oversight of the global consumption of wood. The stacking of layers of data reveals a particularly striking record of natural degradation and loss of forests, that details the increasing intrusions into intact forests and tree cover worldwide in ways that suggest the continued value of synthesizing an almost pictorially present record of our increasingly poor management of the valued resource of forested lands–both for the species who live in them and the biodiversity they nourish, as well as the atmosphere they help preserve.  These losses are materialized in especially compelling graphic terms in renderings of the comprehensive record of the incursions of lands that have created a steep loss of wooded biomass.

Global Forest Loss since 2000-13Global Forest Change, published by Hansen, Potapov, Moore, Hancher et al.

The colored layering of data in the web maps devised for Global Forest Watch create a legible balance sheet for accurate viewing the disappearance of forested lands, coloring tree cover gain and loss at an amazingly exact resolution of up to thirty meters.  The cartographical accounting of tree cover loss–and forest degradation–for viewers to begin to process and come to terms, balancing magenta losses of biomass with planting of new trees in deep blue.

Tree Cover Loss

The global purview of this data Global Forest Watch is effectively rendered in CartoDB offers a point of entrance to a dramatic narrative of loss. The mapping of forest loss can be measured against the globalization of an economy for wood that knows relatively few restraints, creating a compelling visualization on scenes of clear-cutting that might otherwise leave their viewer speechless.

Industrial Forestry in WilametteNational Forest, Oregon--Daniel Dancer

Industrial Logging in Wilamette National Forest, Oregon (USA)/Daniel Dancer

4.  Globalization increasingly forces us to try to conceive as well as calculate the steep variations in the consumption and use of resources worldwide.  The increased variations–and variability–in geographical description of how we consume resources suggests the need for new ways to imagine geographic space that foreground its alteration that reveal the huge losses of biomass worldwide over time with a precision that sets new notions for the accuracy and possibilities for the persuasive powers of maps as images.  The charting of the lost biomass of forested lands creates a constructive relation of tragic narrative of loss, to be sure, using thematic maps of the physical changes in the global landscape to direct attention to a range of narratives of loss, and alert us to multiple possible narratives of both loss and potential ways of averting impending future losses by rendering visible the loss of forests and  invite investigation of their causes and origins.  If in many ways the history of the most recent periods is both hardest to tell and to try to comprehend, the multiple thematic maps of tree cover loss highlight the changing landscape of tree cover and carbon stock–and the threats to intact forests that wood use poses–that provide an investigative tool to examine the emerging threats to intact tropical forests and wooded ecosystems in ways that viewers can visually process and cognitively digest.

For the totality of forest loss that the interactive thematic maps of the Global Forest Watch synthesize and render reveal a record of intersecting ecosystems that foreground questions of the continuity, density, and loss of connectivity in forested lands that raises serious questions of concern about their increased fragmentation.  By providing a global synthesis about the use, degradation, and replanting of forested areas and trees worldwide, the tally of global biomass that they reveal provide an elegantly  color-coded record of the limits of sustainability of our forests.  The sustained silence about the contribution of the destruction of worldwide forests to the release of greenhouse gasses in the planet is a deep deception that the illusion of the limitless potential for the expansion of a market for wood and wood products perpetuates in a particularly insidious way.  The global thematic maps of remotely sensed presence of wood and forest density in a remarkably accurate manner provide a necessary corrective.

By revealing the loss of forest cover and the fragmentation of forested lands in a zoomable fashion, the thematic maps invite not only reflection on a tragic narrative of the memory of loss–as they do–but might perhaps incite similarly global strategies of protection and conservation, helping to ken the steep risks that globalization portends to the possibility of a truly sustainable future.  At a time when industry increasingly rests extracts revenues in whatever ways possible, the sacrifice of forest lands demands increasing attention.

Global Forest Network has opportunely responded to the need for mapping a totality of forest degradation by assembling a remotely registered image of the scope and extent of biomass loss in forests worldwide.  By mapping an effective tally of trees planted and forested land lost over time in a time-lapse fashion, one can visualize the unsustainable rhythm of an all too rapidly growing footprint of the loss not only of habitat but of reginos that might be called the planet’s lungs.  Their web-based maps reveal offer indices and tools to reflect on the impact of globalization on forested lands.  The 2013 map of the shrinking forests of the world sensed remotely from 2000 to 2012 used the first high-res comprehensive global map of forest degradation to craft an alarming story by directing detailed attention to the question of costs:  synthesizing 654,178 individual images to model human and natural forest loss, the result is a persuasive record of human geography, delineated in the rich color palette of CartoDB, inspired on one devised by Cynthia Brewer:  losses of forest are strikingly rendered hot pink to purplish magenta, fire red-orange, tree-cover pea-green against intact forest rendered a rich kelly green.  Rather than retain national boundaries as the prime units to parse ecological change and man’s impact on the environment, these maps of the sustainability of forested lands provide multiple layers to examine the use of wood worldwide–and contemplate the ecological and economic implications of a huge reduction of over 500,000 square miles of formerly healthy forests by for the first time charting the local loss of forests in an accurate and globally consistent manner–conspicuously marking variations in land use in a year-by-year distribution, discriminating between forest land lost and gained to shine a lens on the question of the sustainability of forests and the fragmentation of forests, tracing the expansion of our carbon footprint through the ongoing scope of forest degradation and loss that has expanded with a demand for wood worldwide with major risks to the surrounding environment.

The survival of a coherent network of forested land is a central to the survival of ecosystems, and to local livelihoods of a large range of humans, as well as to the global storage of carbon in the ecosphere:  the hugely negative effects of forest degradation stand to contribute to upwards of a fifth of carbon emissions, as well as to have disastrous effects of animal habitat and local ecosystems and biodiversity, and an image of the loss of forest cover and the fragmentation of formerly intact forests provides a compelling record of human-made and natural incursions into wooded lands from 2000-2013, revealing the uneven distribution of the exploitation of forested lands in a globalized economy.  Although the largest regions of intact forest are located in Tropical and Subtropical Forests (45.3%) and Boreal Forests (43.8%), and almost 64% are located in Canada, Russia or Brazil, they face distinctly different challenges of industrial logging, oil and gas extraction, and natural clearing:  even without distinguishing patterns of land use, the maps suggest the incursions of human influences on these and other particularly fragile forested landscapes, in ways that trace a narrative of the distribution of forest losses in the new millennium, and more importantly the balance between forest loss and gain.

If the loss of forests truly accounts for more than the sum total of carbon emissions of all cars, trucks, planes, and ships every year, and create a more compelling way to combat climate change, as well as acting to purify air, preserve watersheds, and foster biodiversity, and prevent impending dangers of erosion, the shrinking area of forested land provides a particularly sensitive barometer that demands to be on the global consciousness and a site for restraining consumption.  Indeed, once stewardship of forests are included within measures of carbon emissions, tropical rainforest-rich countries like Brazil and Indonesia–both growing economies, to be sure–jump into the group of the top ten global polluters–a fact concealed by the expansive international market for wood.

Rather than only measure the metrics of forest loss, the rates of forest degradation in different areas create an interesting record of the inequities and incursions into forested lands, which has striking parallels to the disappearance and lack of protection of community land-rights in the face of economic demand. How to calibrate the role of pollution that results from forest degradation?  The layered web maps raise the possibility of tally that could lead to better stewardship of forests, and pose a call to manage “carbon stocks” of which we have few comparably accurate measures. The maps offer a quite significant key to curb global greenhouse gas emissions, indeed, by charting the threats to carbon stock of sensitive areas from tropical forests–from the Amazon to central Africa from Equatorial Guinea to Rwanda and to Indonesia–to North America, by visually highlighting the balance of intact woodlands unlike a static map, by conspicuously marking loss of woodlands in pink/magenta and using orange to note carbon stock threatened by tree-cover loss to trace the all too human incursions in the tropical forests, balanced against the scattered tree-cover gain noted by periwinkle blue.

The result is to make the land speak in an almost palpable way by inserting crucial layers to map the shrinking landscapes of intact forest, continuity in tree-cover extent, and note protected regions, biodiversity hotspots, current fires, and regions used for logging, mining, or wood fiber plantations, so that we can, even with the introduction of only a few layers, sense the risks to forests in Amazonia or Indonesia that are particularly sensitive to globalized markets for wood. Tree loss to 2013 and tropical carbon stock Wood biomass in INdonesia One can as easily add a layer revealing the primary forest of Indonesia that maps the extent of its coherence, and allows continued depletion of forested lands in the region to be read in relation to its most densely forested regions, beside the depletion of forests in the Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand and Papua New Guinea: Indonesian Forests and Thai:Philipines

The result is a brilliant visualization able to mediate the concept of sustainability in its multiple layers. The idea of such a comprehensive map of forests derive from synthesizing the MODIS images on a Google Earth engine to trace the contours of such a footprint. They can be read interactively by adding, removing, or toggling between specific layers displaying the ever-shrinking quantity of “intact forest landscapes”–regions untouched by human economic activity, settlements or industry of 500 sq km without evidence of habitat fragmentation, regions distinguished by tree loss or gain, and regional tree cover.  Although much wood and fiber has concentrated on economic value rather than ecological effects, the interactive map brilliantly illuminates the changing contours of forest landscapes worldwide, including land-use change, log forests sawn for lumber, fires, and clearcutting over time that provide a baseline for stewardship and management, revealing the extent and nature of the loss of forest extent in South America and sub-Saharan Africa. Global Forest Watch has assembled stunning interactive web maps that invite readers to investigate the relative imprints in each region over twelve years, creating a valuable historical document of deeply monitory functions, if as well as a stunning record of historical change on a global scale.

The significant role of forest in contributing to the livelihood of over a billion of the world’s the poorest dwellers suggest the economic as well as ecological imperative of restricting losses that would be impossible, if not difficulty, to ever recuperate or restore.

forestsEndangered Amazonian Forests in French Guyana

The geographical remoteness of many vulnerable areas of forestry creates a clear need for the globalized mapping of forest loss–if only to offer a needed corrective to the globalized market for commodified wood, which enters markets with almost no sense or measure of its site of origin, and with few reports of the degradation of forested lands that result in such particularly sensitive ecosystems in tropical forests.  The interactive web maps may address the considerable alienation of most commodities markets–or even markets for wood and wood-products–from the very habitats and ecosystems that forests create, and the levels of unsustainability of the current market for often indiscriminately forested wood and wood-products. Indeed, many early modern maps reveal the situated nature of local interdependency between peoples and forested lands–and the commerce with wooded lands–that is so often abstracted from market of wood, characterized as they are by the relative alienation of patterns of consumption from the survival of forests.

5.  The sensitivity of early modern notations of forested areas nicely suggests something like a need to change our practices of global mapping to track the  interdependence of urban economies and patterns of consumption on forests that are increasingly far flung rather than surround our lived environments, or the absence of a clear sense of forested areas as rich resources of life and commerce on which a built city–such as this image of the merchant city of Nuremberg, drawn and painted on linen by its own early sixteenth-century surveyor, Erhard Etzlaub, which suggests a particularly complex understanding of forest management and use in depicting the considerable levels of forest density proudly preserved around Nuremberg. AKG98341 Erhard Etzlaub’s View of Nuremberg from the North with the Sebalder and Lorenzer Wald, opaque colors on parchment (1515)

If the Nuremberg surveyor Erhard Etzlaub conveyed the wealth of the surrounding forest to the city’s economy, drawing the clear boundary between the forests and cleared land, Venetian surveyor Christoforo del Sorte attentively sketched the forested regions of the especially rich interior hinterland, or Terrafirma, that would continue to provide so much of Venice’s timber were detailed with a similar care in his 1556 map of the northern Veneto, whose aestheticized painted view reveal a similar consciousness of a relation to forested lands, even in a time of land-clearance:
C Sorte north of Veneto 1556

As well as provide images of a landed patriciate, the mapping of forested areas suggested the lustrous habitat that many modern drawn maps lack. Da Sorte GuardaLake Garda and Surrounding Areas (oil on panel) by Cristoforo Sorte (fl.1510-95)  —  Museo Correr, Venice

The relative absence of maps that effectively preserved an affective record of forest loss has been designed to meet the hugely magnified loss of forests worldwide, and especially in equatorial regions where they seem to have fallen prey to a growing global hunger for consuming wood that cannot be easily sustained.  The series of zoomable maps offer an invaluable basis and provocation to reflect on the virtues of data and the limits of best rendering data in visual form.  More specifically, they provide a basis to use maps as a tool to model the levels of sustainability that exist in forests worldwide, by the actual mapping of both forest loss and forest degradation worldwide that has been increasingly conceived as the growing ecological footprint created through a decline of worldwide forests that have never been able to be satisfactorily visualized or conceived of in their totality.

6.  The Canadian economist William Rees introduced the conception of ascertaining the impact humans exercise over natural surroundings as a “footprint”–using a term developed by his student Matthis Wackernagel with him in hopes to conceptualize the undeniable traces that they left on the environments in which they live, by analogy to the “footprint” of a computer resting on a workplace desk.  The rapidly accepted currency and quick adoption of the term was striking. Its ready adoption reveals apprehension of an unsustainable set of practices to consume resources that exceeded natural abilities for their replenishment, long before the archeological definite that led our own age to be described as the anthropocene.  Although Rees introduced the term of a “footprint” predominantly as a conceptual tool, it has also begged visualization due to its concreteness, and ready connotation as a tangible record of impact–and as such demands to be mapped–it has often been taken too literally as a guide to creating data visualizations.

The linking of levels of emissions to the lifestyles of residents of individual countries is telling, but risks the sense of reminding one of the difficulty of changing differences of consumption as if they were an inevitable cultural choice–and have the odd consequence of removing the figure of speech of the “footprint” from a logic of sustainability, in this image of Stanford Kay, which relies on a bubble map to pose a charge to the most popular polluters, but tends to obscure the scale of the question and its possible impact on the world–the rainbow colors allow us to parse the relation of pollution to continents to some extent, but make it truly difficult to assemble a picture of sustainability, or of the global consequences of the expanding carbon footprint of the earth’s inhabitants.  While we don’t doubt that China creates the largest carbon emissions in Asia, what measures of sustainability need to be taken or could be proposed?  Need we only accept the habits of consumption adapted in the world’s most populous nations or can we curb them? Kay Two Feet-  national and per capitaStanford Kay 

A static if cumulative atlas of carbon emissions was produced by the Energy Information Administration and ran in The Guardian in 2011, in the form of an actual terrestrial map, which charted both the relative contribution of countries to the global footprint in the millions of tonnes of carbon emissions it generates, and a notation of their relative augmentation or decrease in 2008-9:  the infographic provide a document used as something of a running tally of CO2 emissions per country, as a way to measure the reduction of emissions agreed as a goal at the Kyoto protocol, and was imaged by artists Mark McCormick and Paul Scruton of the world’s distribution (available as a PDF file) that took a traditional terrestrial map as an alternative visualization of the greatest emissions by continent–and laying the blame at the doorstep of specific countries.

An Atlas of PollutionThe Guardian

Chuluun Togtokh of Ulaanbaatar invested considerable forcefulness to similar statistics in a pointedly polemic manner when he effectively retabulated a the levels of countries’ levels of sustainability in a brilliant revisionary cartography, including control of carbon emissions within what constitutes the United Nations’ Human Development Index–a metric synthesizing life-expectancy, literacy and purchasing power–but which omits sustainable growth as a relevant criteria of development:  by reminding readers of the ethical imperative to cease ignoring the costs of the greatest polluters in the world, lest we fear to acknowledge the ever-steeper competition for dwindling resources that “growth” perpetuates, Togtokh’s measurements present the ability to remap the question of “economic development” in ways that include environmental stewardship as a criteria:


As vice-chair of Mongolian IGBP Global Change National Committee, Togtokh chastised as much as reminded the UN and other international agencies of the folly of ignoring sustainability or carbon footprints in calculation development.  The map reveals the importance of what data we include in the map, and what story we decide to make it tell.  The visualizations of forest loss provide a far more finely grained story of carbon emissions, less artificially flattened along national lines, and focusses on one variable in need of urgent response.  And at a time when humanity’s demand on nature exceeds natural resources by twice, such footprints might be more compellingly visualized and communicated.  Forest degradation provides a particularly relevant index of global impact, both a record of compromised carbon storage and since the destruction of biomass in land-use change creates a massive 17-29% of global greenhouse gas emissions and irremediable loss of habitat for vertebrate animals.

7.  The vivid contrast between geolocated data within the interactive web maps create a dynamic panorama that tally tree loss to reveal an actual imprint of the human economy on deforested lands–far beyond what it was during the entire twentieth century due to new techniques of clear-cutting.


Darius Kinsey (1861-1945), Crescent Camp Number One (c. 1930)

forestfragmentationMAINSavannah River Site Corridor Experiment examining the effects on habitats on the edges of forest  

Photograph:  Ellen Damschen

The global and regional maps parse local data changes in the size, fragmentation, and density of forests over different periods of time that provide a crucially informative tool to examine the rapid pace of our apparent losses and rabid degradation of forested lands–losses of which many, if not most, are blithely unaware.

The striking coloration of the interactive map jointly charts the diminution and growth arboreal expanse worldwide to alert viewers to the impact of the footprint of forest loss and clearings.  In ways that are easily apprehended, bright colored magenta pink call attention to the relative loss of forests in different areas that one can scrutinize in zoomable fashion, to generate legible maps that show forest degradation that convert available data with a precision that seems almost instinctively legible far more dynamic and more legible than a bubble map that is abstracted from the land. The zoomable record of terrain allows one to track the points of forest loss against intact forests in such disparate regions as Amazonia or around Lake Victoria in the Congo or the Northwest Territories, tracking the extent to which such loss outstrips any areas of forest gain (highlighted in periwinkle blue) and allows one to observe the intensity of loss across land.  Even if they include few words, the variability of color and hue provide a case where the land speaks, and the cumulative loss of tree-cover can be examined in detail across borders, and over a twelve-year period of time in which the forces of globalization have made their impact felt worldwide:

Amazon Footprint? footprint in Central Africa

And to observe the scale of the “footprint” at a considerable high resolution, taking into account the losses of tree cover that are registered in relation to the areas of “intact forest landscape” that is registered in dark kelly green, with small areas of forest growth noted in periwinkle blue, in ways that synthesize a record that shows the degrees to which tree loss is exceeding the capacities of local ecosystems that may be particularly fragile indeed, and forever transfigured:

lake victoria pallette

Weirdly predictable patterns of tree loss line what seem to be rivers that run into older intact forests in the Central African Republic:

tree loss in CAR

The areas devoted to lumbering across the Northwest Territories can be noted in an overlay of tan, setting it off from the areas of considerable tree cover loss that are relatively widespread within it, but spread with a terrifying concentration of clustering in areas of intact forest landscape as well:

Canada forests lumber

The very visibility of a footprint in these satellite maps materialize the concept of a sustainable footprint that Mathis Wackernagel first developed, and is associate with both Wackernagel and his teacher Rees as a fundamental critical tool of ecological economics.  The recent definition of “intact forest landscape” provides a crucial parameter by which the maps invest materiality in the notion of a “footprint” which build upon desires for sustainability, and a mapping construct that allows one to ascertain and observe forest degradation in new ways, and indeed the extent to which most industrialized countries have far outstripped their “carrying capacity” of their lands.

Indeed, the problems of sustainability have been deeply exacerbated by globalized trade that Rees and Wackernagel’s demand to reduce our ecological footprint–too readily directed at a few nations, rather than recognized as important as a global imperative–demands an ability to confront the problem of ecological overshoot that would have as its most obviously persuasive source the form of a world map whose uniform distribution allows us to target the biomass in need of protection.

amazon_soil-Guenter Fischer:World of Stock

It is striking, however, that if the notion of a “footprint” provides a reflective tool to take consciousness of outstripping global resources, it has been widely adapted in ways that almost excavate it of the attention to ecosystems.  Most recently, the notion of the “footprint” has enjoyed far wider currency as a cartographic conceit, diluting its original intent in an almost comic turn, when adopted by the US Department of Defense in 2008 to illustrate the global dominance of the presence of military forces over an unprecedentedly far-flung portion of the globe, in an apparently odd appropriation warping Rees’ original intent.

DoD Footprint 2008

If one feels need for taking break from the depressing metaphorical use of footprints global and military, a nicer appropriation of the footprint lies in how vineyard-owner Bonnie Harvey decided in 1968 to include her personal footprint as the playful logo to evoke the stamping of a grape harvest, before the widespread adoption of Wackernagel’s phrase–in this “wet” footprint, if its connotations of local eating carry far more self-satisfied semantics of the California coast–albeit in ways that are now marketed by Gallo wines–as well as a sponsor of fun-runs across the state, playing on the image of the former tradition of treading grapes in vats by foot to extract their juice in annual crushings:


With the sort of untrammeled demand for commodities and consumption that has led us to double the Gross World Product in less than twenty years, driven not only by population growth but a rapid expansion of per capita energy expenditure, the importance of acknowledging and recognizing the accelerated appropriation of global resources and natural capital seems increasingly tied to crafting such an “ecological footprint” analysis in adequately persuasive terms. Yet it is reassuring that the growing footprint of the globalized economy on forest worldwide have encouraged the adoption in Canada of a Plan Nord, in which the same government often challenged for protecting foresting rights has promised to protect some 50% of the forested land above the 49th parallel in the province of Quebec, in a major accord to protect intact forests in the northern part of the country from mining, industry, lumber and development, that commitment to conservation that provides a possible basis for similar program of protecting forests in the Northwest Territories, and much of the world. Plan Nord

8.  The peculiar construction of the maps of forest degradation prepare a record invites examination through the concept of a “footprint” as both a metaphor and figure of speech implying an ecological balancing act.  If Longfellow described the hope to “leave behind us/ Footprints on the sands of time” able to inspire exemplaric lives that “can make our lives sublime,” the maps of dramatically diminishing forest-cover detail a threat that, while the public commentator and self-styled linguist William Safire once disdained this apparent “March of the Metaphoric Footprints” as a migration of meaning that seemed sloppy in its claims, and Safire, although long pro-corporate, may have been upset by the ready currency that it gave a metaphor which barely indicated the scale of its actual impact and, even moreso, the notion that an Emersonian image of untampered nature that “shines into the eye and heart” to create a “perfect exhilaration” was far from what Safire sought it worth the time to preserve.

But the incommensurability of the image might have been a large part of the problem for the New York Times pedant. The conceptual tool of Rees and Wackernagel, however, did not build on the notion of the “virgin land” and “untrammeled” landscapes as free from human impact, pace Howard Zahniser, as would be evident in not leaving evidence or footprints from a visit, but to suggest a recognition of just how great such footprints could be.  Wackernagel adopted the more pedestrian metaphor of the spatial footprint that a computer left on a desk, to suggest an empirical index and analytical tool that could be quantified.  The economics of ecological footprints provides less a figurative than an analytic tool, able to be identified and measured by global hectares, rather than by marks in the sand, and measured against the biocapacity of the earth, and a question of the consciousness of individual impacts on the environments in which one lives.  As Togtokh calculated, the footprint seemed to decisively grow in countries where levels of consumption seem so widespread to outstrip consciousness of environmental impact.

Emerson imagined the glory of nature from a subjective position, “my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,” as triggering a place where “all mean egotism vanishes: and “the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God” in a transcendent moment, where in the “line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature,” the notion of an ecological footprint returns to the material dependence of man on nature.  How to map that dependence, and describe the amount of land required to support a person, and indeed the ecological footprints of economies, and the appropriation of land in each, poses a question that the MODIS satellite images help map in a cognitively persuasive fashion.


It is hard to see how such an ecological impact could be adequately visualized or grasped.  Safire may have been intentionally obtuse in pooh-poohing the footprint’s use as a figure of speech.   Wackernagel and Rees strove to indicate the impact humans exercise on the environment, the image of an idyllic erasure of egotism and uplifting to infinite space was less the aesthetic than a hope to minimize the impact of human activity on the landscapes.  The constraints or limits on hopes for sustainability have often been charged, based on data of national policy, as a failure of ecological responsibility, or of running against the limits of what is able to be sustained by natural resources:  and the sensitivity of the biomass of forests as a reserve of CO2 provides a uniquely tangible instance of such a national responsibility.  While often not included in the maps we make of carbon emissions, which distinguish countries by directly translating data of million metric tonnage of carbon produced–the map’s tones suggest a scolding of lifestyle, habits or inefficient policy controls, but fail to render the emission-levels in tools of critical response.  Indeed, most maps root emissions them in levels of industrial production and population density that provide limited possibilities of being grasped save in a very broad sense of differences of lifestyle or something so broad as if it were a cultural choice in consumption patterns. map_CO2_emissions_Patz05University of Wisconsin Cartography Lab

The alternative of parsing data in slightly more sophisticated manners on a scale of sustainability can foreground surpassing an threshold of biological capacity of local resources, alerting us to where the planet exceeds its biocapacity in hectares, which shows, again, the concentration of populations within those areas that individual consumption exceeds the biocapacity of regions, creating a heuristic tool to understand the inadequate relation of markets to levels of natural goods worldwide.

footprint:biocapacityGlobal Footprint Network–Wikipedia

9. Although there is some value in giving a embodied form to Wackernagle’s metaphor for measuring the regional release of gaseous emissions and carbons in the popular infographic of Stanford Kay’s Information Graphics Studio, intended for the international edition of Newsweek, but popularized in the Atlantic, the foot-shaped bubble map metaphorically removes the “footprint” from measuring environmental impact on the globe.  It seems a playful reference to the measurement of gasseous emissions, able to be perused to note the extent of the problem, but not to communicate the impact of emissions on the world–and hence perhaps of more elegance than either hortatory or monitory value.


Kay’s quite colorful mapping of carbon emissions quite unsurprisingly located the most populous nations as the greatest emitters–China is at the ball of the foot and the United States as its heel.  A complimentary view of per capita emissions instructively altered the picture a bit–suddenly, the Virgin Islands appear at the foot’s ball, and not the populous United States.

Kay Two Feet-  national and per capita

Despite the infographics’ elegance, does there remain a risk that such a statistical distribution of emissions distracts us from the changes that globalization has wrought in our environment, and the drastic degradations of the forests that are themselves the consequence of such elevated levels of consumption?  And does it detract from the degree to which the destruction of biomass and carbon storage provides an equally looming biological danger, of proportions that we have not been able to fully grasp?  Indeed, by revealing the shared nature of what remain common problems of the loss of carbon storage worldwide–and animal habitat–the map departs from a nation-by-nation mapping of dangers, in ways that might seem to inherit nineteenth or twentieth century classifications incommensurate with a problem of truly global proportions of the loss of biomass, by spacing and ordering of uniquely obtained data of forest loss that the viewer can readily grasp, rather than being forced to confront in all its monolithic immensity. The problem is one of organizing data in a suitably readable form.

For such powerfully damning visualizations, while embodying a footprint, often remain quite disembodied from the nature of the losses of resources or generation of waste that they imply, and ask whether the display of data is enough:  the limitations on engaging with the maps suggest that the display of data is so overwhelming to ifrustrate or press against the limits of representation, and discounts the effectiveness of how meaning can concretized in maps that direct attention to the disappearance of resources and the alterations of carbon footprints on the land.  The detail of the Global Forest Watch web map is brilliant in the ability to investigate a uniform global standard for accelerating degradation that help us grasp meaning in all the mess, in ways that almost make one start to think good things about Google Earth, as surprising as that might be.

10.  The image of loss of forested lands–and loss of trees–provides a concise statement of the growth of our collective carbon footprint.  Although one continues to wonder whether data is enough to represent the compromise of the biosphere, or how global footprints can be more crisply visualized than the bubble maps of carbon footprints, the loss of lumber is revealed with indelible accuracy on these maps’ face that make them more readily graspable, their content most cognitively persuasive and suitably compelling in impact to impel viewers to navigate local details in their surface:  the distribution of data in this map is rendered more transparent and uniquely able to preserve a sense of local impact in less disembodied manner.  The below distribution indeed concretizes the local lossses of tree-cover that MODIS has registered over twelve years–or from 2001 to 2012–in ways that remind us of the reduction of tree cover over that decade not only in the American south or shores of Mexico, but in much of California, Washington, and Oregon, and across British Columbia with a texture difficult not to admire. loss:gain north america w:o xGlobal Forest Watch By the insertion of layers, the map’s snapshots of the earth’s surface can be investigated by drop-down menus, allowing one to map tree loss across regions of intact forests or tree cover, to calibrate the nature and consequences within a picture of existing treecover loss in, say, California: tree cover loss california GFW 2001-13Global Forest Watch or to map the targeted intensity of wood losses on the edges of denser woodlands in Central American forests in Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras against regions in Mexico, using data that might otherwise be less often assumed to be interchangeable and equally valid: Deforestation in Central America and Mexico against tree coverGlobal Forest Watch

11.  The huge value of the dynamic cartographic synthesis by Google Earth Engine lies in the comprehensiveness and accuracy with which it allows us to start to comprehend forest loss.  Indeed, elegant search functions allow users to detect, despite some questions that could be raised about the ability of the MODIS satellite to detect lighter forests and brush, rapidly advancing variations in forest-loss worldwide. The visualization allows one to scrutinize the relative extent of the forest cover’s local degradations worldwide and over time:  the amassing of this data on a Google Earth Engine was achieved in several days that offered both a compelling advertisement for its readiness to process geospatial data, and the possibility of modeling the relative intensity of losses of forest land in a brightly vivid dayglo green, creating a compelling graphic that testifies to the depletion of forested lands worldwide that clearly coincides with globalization:  indeed, the comprehensive tracking of the lost of forests in fluorescent green areas from Malaysia and Indonesia to the Congo and Brazil, and from Cambodia to Russia to Central America and northern Canada reveals substantial clearance of forests, independent if linked to forest fires and protected forestland.

The layering of degrees of forest loss moreover creates a compellingly synthetic record of land-use. waterspace in world?World Resource Institute The chromatic variations among our shrinking forests worldwide was remapped to model the loss of tree cover worldwide from 2000-12, courtesy the World Resource Institute, is perhaps more shocking–and more easy to know how to respond to–than global warming.  The illustration of a loss of tree cover since the year 2000, which has doubtless progressed far more extensively since, suggests something like a plague of deforestation, which far outweighs tree cover gain in the same period–over this period, the loss of 2.3 million square kilometers constitutes something like an atrophying of the forestlands worldwide, approximated by the WRI to equal the disappearance of some fifty soccer fields of forest each and every minute of every day, for long over a decade, at the same time as only .8 million square kilometers of forest was replanted.

If by 2005, about 30% of the land on earth was covered by forest, just under four billion hectares, the increasing loss and degradation of forests poses an ongoing challenge. The data reveals what is happening to the world’s forests in a globalized economy.  If the amount of energy expended on clearing forests alone has been estimated to constitute between 12-20% of global greenhouse gas emissions between 2000 and 2012, the storage of carbon in forests–and the forest’s value as a source of economic livelihood–are both threatened by the dangers of deforestation worldwide.  The detailed interactive map that was produced by real-time feeds of a MODIS satellite and synthesized by a Google Earth engine combines sensed layers of forest depletion over time to create a suitably sensitive platform to monitor forested land, using work of Matthew Hansen of the University of Maryland to map forest cover  in that suggests a dramatically new way that we might understand and comprehend the effects of globalization on our concepts of the inhabited world, by toggling back and forth on a sliding bar to reveal the scope and scale of forest depletion from 2000 to 2013. The data is striking–but is it ever enough as an effective embodiment of the scale or varied concentrations of such an expansive loss of biomass?

tres loss 2000-2012Forest Loss World-Wide (Global Forest Watch)

To an extent, the maps of tree loss that were created by the Global Forest Watch, a partner of the University of Maryland, use satellite readings to refine the forest/non-forest global mosaic that the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) assembled from Aperture Radar aboard the Advanced Land Observing Satellite DAICHI.  The composite imaging of an accurate global distributions of forested land, at a resolution within ten meters, called attention to the degree to which forest degradation increased CO2 emissions created for a 2010 summit of the Group on Earth Observation in Beijing that set a new standard in remotely observed calibration of earth cover that starkly foregrounded threatened areas.

20101021_daichi_1 20101021_daichi_3

The unprecedented resolution of these images created a compelling watermark for future forest loss, and directed attention to deforestation that provoked the United Nations to declare 2011 as the Year of the Forests that celebrated heroes of local land management.  The layering of measurements of forest loss over time in the MODIS maps offered a comprehensively view the effects of forest loss  and view tree loss over time. What can explain such a radical augmentation of deforestation, concentrated in relatively specific areas?  Despite the improving curbs on forest loss in Brazil, for example, the deep increases in forest losses in Indonesia, Cambodia, and Malaysia, as well as Paraguay and Bolivia, offset any gains across the earth, and suggest a lack of orientation toward conservation or stewardship, or an economics of sustainability of the sort that is only beginning to be championed–if Paraguay had the highest ration of forest loss to gain, Cambodia and Malaysia among the highest rates of loss and Indonesia the greatest increase in forest loss in the period under study, when the rate of local annual deforestation more than doubled, suggesting the complete lack of any safeguards for sustainable forestry.  And rather than being based on self-reported numbers, as is often the case, the Landsat picture that emerges is effectively able to balance the objective disappearance of forested land in ways that the principal scientists broke down by year, with the aqua and red corresponding to 2013 and 2012 respectively, and orange noting years between 2000 and 2012, and yellow 2000: forest losses 2013 At times, such as in Indonesia and Malaysia, the effects can be particularly dramatic, if not traumatic:

loss of forest over time teee loss legend

The maps suggest the very limited weight carried by notions of forest growth conservation worldwide. To examine the loss of forested land alone, highlighted below by a bright magenta, the drastic diminution of forested lands lost, alone, in North America that occurred was concentrated predominantly in Canada and Alaska, including the Boreal Forest, as well as an unprecedented destruction of forested lands in much of the American South, suggests a huge shift in the human relation to the environment, and was matched with a vigorous and systematic degradation of forested lands in Russia and Scandinavia, to suggest an almost obliviousness to the losses incurred in forested lands and their habitats, as what seems a truly free market eats, rather like mildew, into the forested regions of what have been aptly called the planet’s lungs.  The rather unprecedented decade-plus long expansion into forested areas is not only a displacement of natural habitats, but a severe compromising of tree cover in our lived environment, that undoubtedly contributes to the increase of global temperatures.

Forest losss-forests lost

And to model the impact of tree losses, noted above in magenta, against the layers that mark regions of sanctioned lumber (tan) and forests that are intact (kelly green)–and even introduce layers of areas that are designated focusses of conservation.  The impact of the deep incursions in Alaska’s forests is as striking as the expansion of lumbering in British Columbia, the Northwest Territories, and Saskatchewan of formerly intact forests. Canada forests lumber The isolation of forest loss alone suggests a broadly shifting Eurasian landscape, with the deepest incursions on outlying areas of Scandinavia (Sweden and Finland, to be precise) as well as the expansive forest cover across the far eastern lands of the Russian Federation–regions with forests denser and holding far greater amounts of carbon that other national forests. Eurasia Forests LostGlobal Forest Watch, 2001-13 MODIS information might be placed against intact forests mapped in Russia: intact russian forests diaspora And identify its relative density and biomass: biomass forests Russian Fed within a record of those dispersed protected areas in Russian parks: Forested Russian Parks

The modeling of satellite data amassed at the the University of Maryland‘s Department of Geographical Sciences, with a Google Earth Engine, has led to a far more detailed interactive map to be published by the newly founded Global Forest Watch to document that shrinking lungs of the planet, when one balances the imbalances between contrasting tree cover gain (blue) and loss (pink) from 2001 to 2013 offers a way to register interaction with our environment in stunning local detail, that reveals the extent of the aggressively pockmarked surface of forests in much of northern Canada, in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, inland of Hudson Bay.  Despite a degree of forest gain, the deep incursions of tree cover loss create a grim picture of the future landscape of the continent, and suggest the benefits of layering levels of growth v. loss of forests, and revealing the clear imbalances between the two.  If sustainability is about maintaining a level of balance–and of ecological equilibria–the virtual assault on the forest, that last refuge from urbanized space, increasingly seen as an obstacle to growth, reveals both an abdication of responsibility for environmental impact, and a broad scattering of the extraction of forest growth from the globe:  the scattering of forest loss in remote areas, perhaps subject to less rigorous oversight, makes such a mapping of the global impact of deforestation over time particularly pertinent.

loss:gain Nafta areasGlobal Forest Watch 

For the impact of deforestation, if we might begin from North America, is truly globalized. The concentration of tree loss in the US South is not only pronouncedly accentuated, but seems to have occurred without restraint as “wooden pellets” were gathered, often for exportation across existing wooded areas, removed as a layer of in the first map, but shown in light green below.

Tree Loss in US South

widespread forest losses in South East

The northern regions reveal an even more pronounced targeting of forested areas in northern provinces jut below the Northern Territories. Despite dedicated spots for foresting in Ontario, there seems to have been a much greater expansion of regions of something approaching clear-cutting to the farther north, that tell a story of large-scale licit forest degradation in the particularly pock-marked lands of northern Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan, stained with blotches of magenta that record the intensity of forest depletion and sites of local degradation:

Canada clearcutting

The same region where matches the areas of tree cover across North America.

tree cover belt in canada below NT

Layering of areas of conservation reveals how several protected regions closely intersect–and indeed overlap–with the extent of forest loss, in ways that could provide a prompt for investigative journalism, as well–potentially–an illegal wood trade that is quite difficult to control: protected canada The local degradation of forests to the north can be placed in the context of both tan regions denoting zones that are dedicated to lumbering and the kelly green regions of intact forests, often bordering on ocean waters–

intact forest Canada:logging:tree losss

or, thanks again to Global Forest Watch, balanced against the degree of degradation of forests and range of intact forests in the data bank over an eleven year period from 2000: 2000 forest levels The strikingly similar selective inroads into forested areas are evident across Russia–where severe inroads in pockets of the deep forest lands north of Mongolia–seem to suggest the global character of an almost systematic program of deforestation, far exceeding the intense lost of forests in other areas of the country.

Russian incursions

Above Kazakstan and Mongolia

If one is to map the same region against protected forests, the composite revealed of protected areas that are often violated by loss of forests and odd balance between scattered regions of protectionism and deep inroads of forest loss are difficult to reconcile.

protected areas?

Or map the widespread absence of tree cover in relation to the shrinking intact forests of the region:

Russian forests

Or the limited growth of new forests, shown in periwinkle blue, against the lost tree cover and intact forests:

Russian forest cover, blue cover gain

Is the concentrated incursion into forest lands–and resulting loss of forest–a shared condition condition, a result of laissez faire economics, apparent deregulation or lack of coordinated protection of forests, that is a consequence of globalism?  For if globalism entails, as Giddens has it, not only ‘the intensification of worldwide social relations which link distant localities in such a way that local happenings are shaped by events occurring many miles away and vice versa’ but a shift in the understanding of place and localisms with distinct bearing on geographic understanding, the depletion of forest cover in concentrated but widely dispersed regions suggest a new understanding of forest loss.  The years from 1990 has seen a dramatically unprecedented expansion of CO2 emissions, especially in developing nations, that may be closely tied to the depletion of tree-cover worldwide.

12.  The loss of tree-cover quite constructively is mapped against the gain in forests, contrasting losses in bright pink/magenta against blue growth, as a means to track local variations in a spreading environmental catastrophe that suggests a colonization of former forested lands, not only due to deforestation but to the disregard for arboreal habitats, with deep losses in the boreal forest and pacific northwest that will haunt the continent to come–despite some repeatings, leading areas to be colored purple, the acute absences of forests has progressed over the interval of twelve years tracked by the LandSat images to an extent that the local environments may never recover. It may be the case, sad as it seems, that we are actually increasingly tied together and to one another in an age of globalized economies by the disappearance of forests at multiple spots across the globe:  if there is a clear consequence of the 1992 trade agreement that lifted all tariffs between the US, Canada and Mexico known as NAFTA, for example, it is evident in the dispersal of trade in wood pellets and chips–at times a notorious means of smuggling–as previous duties on wood products from Canada of up to 16% on softwood and lumber were eliminated, expanding the amount of hardwood lumber imports to the US, US imports of wood more broadly, and trade of US wood to Canada (including hardwood lumber, veneer, plywood) as their prices lowered or decreased.  The large amounts of oak and hardwood from Mexico to the US in pre-NAFTA days would definitely increase. While the government has encouraged such trade as an economic benefit, the expansion of forest degradation that results–and which the below map tracks–they mask the considerable global problem of greenhouse gas emissions that are due to forestry and land-use change, and the troubling finality of a change in greenhouse gas emissions hat the degradation of forests–and especially old growth or boreal forest–creates.  (Clearing and burning forests creates a fifth of such emissions worldwide; the loss of trees constitutes a deeper damage on the global environment.)

n + c americasGlobal Forest Watch

And purely by mapping loss, and noting the pocking of the northern forests due to inroads of depleted tree cover:

los n and   ameicaGlobal Forest Watch

The relation of the degradation of forests to globalization is perhaps most sharply revealed when moving to the Central America, and the regions of Guatemala and Belize mined for forest wood: targeting central america over 11 years The widespread compromising of local environments can be read through the foregrounding of layers that creates quite compelling narratives about forest-cover even for those who had limited sustained interest in the economics of wood:  despite some densely intact forest landscapes inland in Malaysia, for example, and regions in Indonesia and Thailand, the tree cover loss from 2000-2013 suggests narrative of expanded logging for lumber, oil palm, and wood fibre, indicated by tan, ochre, and brown, in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore and a picture of economic squandering of resources:

despite dense with logging

The degree of loss by forest fire might be isolated, moreover, to determine which sort of loss of regional carbon is described in Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines:

fires vietnam malaysia singapore

Deforestation in central Africa seems more due to a combination of mining and logging, and seems to have grown up surrounding the remaining intact forest landscapes in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and conceals multiple narratives of commercial sacrifice of landscapes to an international demand for wood, as well as for the monies of other countries, the forests of Western Africa long depleted:

deforestation in Central Africa

The areas of Brazil and South America that constitute the Amazon suggest a growth of compromised forests on the edges of intact forest in 2013, concealing the far greater expanse of tree cover just thirteen years earlier:

intact tree cover amazonia

Intact forests in 2000, noting also tree cover expanse in lighter green:

2000 forest cover  brazil amazonia

Tree cover in 2000:

2000 forest cover  brazil amazonia

One is, in the end, overwhelmed by the range of maps and layovers, in ways that are almost as difficult to process as the data on which they are based.  How to hold onto it, or ascertain the economical exchanges that are, so to speak, lying under these maps?

13.  There has clearly been a pronounced warping since 1990 of local attitudes toward wood and forestry, and a rising appetites for wood:  and despite the value of the time-lapse visualizations of forest growth or loss in a truly world-wide picture, the maps provide a point from which to raise questions about how global markets for wood are hastening the degradation of the untouched forest lands of specific environments, they also remove that data from a larger picture of economic exchange.  A counerpart is offered in how the Worldmapper tool and website valuably reveals regional imabalances and discrepancies through its warped cartograms, highlighting, based on FAO statistics, the disproportional nature of the appetite for wood, and the increased reliance on international markets that concentrate the decimation of existing forests in an ever more disparate trade of woods from China, Indonesia, Scandinavia and Brazil–as well as Canada, Malaysia, and the United States.  (Indeed, the specific imbalances of areas like China, which is known to buy up wood from neighboring regions and then resell wood products to the United States and Japan, offers evidence of the degree to which economies of wood are removed from woodcover questions, although wood purchases often originate form nearby areas Malaysia or, in the case of the United States, Honduras, Canada, or Belize.)

The compromising of local forests is not only due to professional farming of wood or “forestry” production of “farmed” wood, which has been nicely plotted for the year 2011 by Worldmapper in the form of a cartogram which reveals a large and flourishing industry of forest growing, using data from the FAO, in a warping of nations’ relative sizes that reflects the large-scale outsized business in forestry in China, Japan, and Indonesia, where wood seems plentiful, and across much of Scandinavia and the United States.

who produces forests?Worldmapper

If the process of globalization has been pegged as convincingly as elsewhere to the consciousness of climate change around the summer of 1988–and the first collective calls to cut greenhouse gas emissions–the process of deforestation is a nice cast of the the impact of what Anthony Giddens aptly and succinctly described characterized as ‘the intensification of worldwide social relations which link distant localities in such a way that local happenings are shaped by events occurring many miles away and vice versa.’  It reveals distinct change in how we experience localness and place, and indeed a distinct change in the absence of attention to the devastating local effects of the consumption of wood–and entitlement to continued access to a perpetual availability of wood products–in an increasingly globalized economy of natural resources.  Although the Worldmapper maps have the unfortunate effect of warping countries to erase place, the maps that were designed to show global imbalances in forest production, consumption, and growth provide a regional context in which to understand the losses of trees in many regions of the world, and the deforestation of particular places.

Whereas the statistics don’t include the considerable illegal wood trade, the limited nature of forest growth worldwide–nil in Canada or Russia, slim in Central America or Brazil, and significant only in some regions like the US or Vietnam where wood is an important cash crop. The production of forests in different lands seems proportionally concentrated in China, doubtless to meet local markets for wood, and is reflected in the mapping of forest growth from 1990-2005–a time over which the range of forests in much of Brazil and Mexico was rarely augmented to great extent, despite the heavy loss of forests in those regions, and a pronounced lack of the sustainability of forests in Indonesia:


The scale of planting forests surely respond to deep differences in the consumption of forests, outsized in industrialized nations, no doubt for tastes in consumption, and particularly bloated in Japan, Germany, England and the United States as well as Brazil, each of which–particularly England, Japan, and the US–seems to outstrip its production considerably; Canada clearly destines most of its produced wood for export, but China was using an outsized share of wood worldwide –given the near absence of extensive forests in its territory, after the destruction of much of the forests in the South:

Forest Consumption--2005

The consequent degradation of existing forests worldwide might be nicely visualized, in a map generated also by the University of Maryland, this time with Greenpeace, by situating the areas of marked degradation against forests lands as of 2013, against the spectre of those forests that are now no longer intact–against which we can orient ourselves and imagine the scope and scale of the loss of woods–and no doubt the economy and ways of live that the woods provide, as much as their role as lungs of the planet that allow for its very habitation.


The issue of wood exports is clearly an issue of sensitive proportions for the hypertrophied regions of Southeast Asia, as well as North America, and one that suggests particularly pronounced effects of globalization on the wood market in both Sweden, Indonesia and Malaysia, as well as Korea, which suggests the distorted nature of the market of legal trade in wood that motivates the degradation of the forests in those countries–and to some extent in Brazil:


The effects of the loss of forest-cover seems among the most prominent–if rarely discussed–aspects of the arrival of the anthropocene, in which the subtraction of forested lands has explicitly altered the nature of the environment.  Hennig was quick enough–as well as ever-industrious–to create a range of a stunning cartogram warped by the relative depletion of forests  of the loss of forested environments between 1990 and 2005, which was not offset by the growth of forests in the same years.  The cartogram is particularly stunning for how it depicts the disproportionate nature of the depletion of forest lands across the southern hemisphere, especially in Southeast Asia, Mexico and Brazil as well as central America and Central Africa, whose disproportional distribution amounted to a loss of 7.3 million hectares over those fifteen years alone.

forest lossesAmount of Forested Land Lost in Each Country of the World, 1990-2005

At the same time, few forests grew in the southern hemisphere in that same period of fifteen years:


But the most convincing map of the global disparities that arose in the last twenty-five years is what is evident in the most distorted of cartograms showing the relative depletion of the resource of forested lands, based on the irresponsible felling of trees without provision for future growth:  for the world doesn’t exactly fold in half, in this map, but the pronounced lack of responsibly sustainable growth in Guatemala and parts of Central America and much of Malaysia, India, Pakistan, and Central Africa and Ethiopia, reveals a world where poorer countries seem the largest losers, less habituated to practices of sustainability as they are, and more driven by market forces against their own interests–or at least against the interest that the cameralist Hans Carl von Carlowitz would be able to recognize.

Hennig maps forest depletionWorldmapper/Benjamin Hennig

A compelling Worldmapper cartogram maps tree cover against local population is particularly powerful in the suggestion of how disproportionately the survival of forests is endangered by high areas of population–the very areas with an elevated populations, if not necessarily “global footprint,” are among the least forested areas of the world.  And the spread of globalization often threatens precisely those increasingly isolated areas of intact forest marked in light green, revealing the relative lack of forested regions in the most popular areas–and the low concentration of intact forests in the Amazon, Central Africa, and parts of Russia.


To be sure, the scale of the radical reduction of global tree cover in a similar transformation are far withdrawn from centers of economic growth, but the remove of forests at an even greater degree from the equator constitutes a dilemma of global consequence. treecover population hennig It is striking, after a somewhat exhausting world tour of the disproportionately skewed nature of forest loss and arboreal compromise, to return to the United States, that remaining densely forested areas in the continent mirrored the striking distribution of the recent map modeling the spread of highly audible levels of anthropogenic sounds across the country, based on data released by the National Park Service, and offer a telling sign of how we inhabit the land in which we live.

green areas on map

USA sound map in decibels

The relative rarity of areas of dense tree cover that remain today in the United States–together with the significant loss of wooded areas in just the past decade, and the marked degradation of forest–suggest a clear record of environmental compromise, if not an evacuation of what might be called the nation’s living landscape–even if the map indicating tree cover noted below it suggests a further diffusion of greenspace in the lower forty-eight:

intact tree cover US

tree cover US

The loss of tree cover in a sense stands out most prominently in the context of what degree of tree cover exists–for the spread of a loss of trees across the deep south, especially notable on the eastern seaboard and in much of Louisiana, as well as outside Denver, in Idaho, and parts of California and Oregon–suggests a loss of the local landscape that may well come back to haunt us.  The spread of forest degradation is not so visibly pronounced in the US, but the extent to which the region is haunted by the specter of long-lost healthy forests or “non-intact” forests surely is–the modeling of our current forest cover is being eroded less by a rapacious economy for wood products than it is concentrated in fairly specific sites of large-scale clearing.  But non-intact forests seem in clear danger of greater compromise.


14.  It is striking that although the origins of the word “sustainability”–Nachhaltigkeit–and the concept of sustainability have often been traced only to recent years, expressing ideas linked to the 1969 US National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and for some was first coined in 1972 in Blueprint for Survival as a concept that related to man’s future. But when it was introduced in the Enlightenment, the Saxon nobleman Hans Carl von Carlowitz employed Nahhatligkeit in an illustration of his cameralist thought as a matter of good sense back in 1713.

Von Carlowitz apparently coined the ethical charge of sustainability in the context of sustained-yield forestry, Sylvicultura Oeconomica, a monument cameralist thought in forestry affirming responsible stewardship of forests.  If responded to deep fears on the continuing ability to derive a sustainable economic value unless one refrained from over-forestation and depletion of lumber stocks.  If written out of deep concern as a civil servant and mining inspector who sought forest ordinances in the Electoral Saxony to conserve resources for the common good, von Carlowitz deliberated the forest ordinances in theElectorate of Saxony where he served as Chief Inspector of Mining, introducing an ethics of economic conservation of nature that preceded the Tharandt Forest Academy in 1811; in calling for conservation of forests for lieben Posterität, he communicated a powerful notion of bequeathing a world undisturbed by unwisely aggressive or opportunistic interventions. Von Carlowitz’s message framed the concept of mitigating human intrusiveness on the landscape as a “sustained forest yield” around his native Saxon lands, Ulrich Grober has observed, with an intentional of the present’s responsibility to future generations, and as a reasoned reaction to the shock created by wood shortages after the Thirty Years’ War.  The war created a contempoorary crisis in the availability of wood prompted assuaging of fears to ensure that the “great wood shortage . . . be pre-empted,” and awareness that “more wood was felled than grew over many ages” that were more reasoned than the deep-seated apocalyptic fears of the humanist Melanchthon’s prediction that in  “the end of time, man will suffer great need for wood [am Ende der Welt man an Holtz grosse Noth leiden werde].”  It is likely, Grober suggested, that von Carlowitz wrote with knowledge of John Evelyn’s hope to manage England’s forests in Sylva or a Discourse of Forest Trees and the Propagation of Timber, where he advocating the need to coordinate replanting forests to secure future ships for the navy, the “wooden bulwarks of the kingdom.”  Evelyn cautioned that”Men should be perpetually planting, that so Posterity might have Trees fit for their service,” but did not do a map to chart the losses of trees that had occurred; Evelyn however articulately feared lest “we thus continue to destroy our Woods, without this providential planting in their stead, . . . felling what we do cut down with great indiscretion, and regard to the future.”  These dire warnings shortly preceded how Colbert initiated a similar program for protecting forests for shipbuilding in France to calm fears about wood shortages, leading him to be cited by von Carlowitz as a model for responsible conservation.  But von Carlowitz’s cameralism went farther in calling wood “essential for the conservation of mankind [daß das Holtz zur conservation des Menschen unentbehrlich sey, (p. 372)],” and constraining consumption in relation to the resources forests could support, and intentionally managing a forest’s limited resources as an incumbent responsibility and an ethics of good stewardship.


US Forest Service

The importance of continued responsible stewardship is no longer only based on academic expertise for the common economic benefit, and transcends the concerns or training in administrative expertise.  Indeed, the maps of global losses in biomass are both more shocking than the fears of an impending lack of supply for wood markets, since they reveal the steep consequences of the disappearance of tropical rainforests and subtropical biomes to meet the needs of a growing global population–both by wood extraction and the conversion of forested land to pasture.  

But they provide an effective embodiment of the ongoing loss of forests that go far beyond the needs of an individual state.  Even though the United Nations only used the world in a document in 1978, according to Charles Kidd, and “ecological footprint” entered public policy papers as a sort of benchmark and measurement in later years and perhaps widespread usage only after 1987 in the UN World Commission on Economic Development, the lack of a common metric of sustainability no doubt led William Rees and Mathis Wackernagel to advocate the importance of an “ecological footprint” as an ethical imperative, and its adoption as a criteria for the responsible harvesting and planting of trees (as well as, of course, in the economics of forestry).

If we have been increasingly blinded to the sense of such a footprint–even despite the continued ability to map its occurrence for decades–the rise of disproportionate deforestation of the subtropical biomes in the globalized economy finds a counterpart in the measurements of a MODIS satellite–an instrument more widely associated with surveillance and spying, to be sure–to preserve an eerily unimpeachable public record of environmental loss.  Although the loss of wood is not effectively embodied in the above maps, the concept of sustainability and sustainable practices demands comparable efforts of mapping, as is partially suggested by the degree to which we risk warping the use of our resources, lacking much sense of the language of sustainability or biocapacities, absent a clear visualization of the extent of forest degradation worldwide–and an awareness of the intense over-foresting of areas of critical habitat, as well as of forests critical in their storage of carbon.

15. Those remaining areas of intact forest landscapes has receded outside many of the areas of the habited world, as the cartograms designed by the Sheffield group and Worldmapper that map forest growth against population on an equal projection reveal, suggesting how astronomical levels of population growth occur at considerable remove from forested lands in much of the world–in ways that have large consequences for the lived environments transmitted to future generations extremely significant in the maps of the future we might imagine.   (It is far more difficult to visualize or imagine the loss of forests on a local level, so tremendous are they in scope.  One must consider, however, the loss of forest around the areas so severely afflicted by the recent outbreak of Ebola virus, however, to start to do so.) The naming of 2013 as the Year of Intact Forest Landscapes sought to direct important attention not to the conservation of forests, but the need for the protection of the increasingly isolated islands of intact forests across the world–an image that becomes especially scary if one thinks of forests as the world’s lungs.


It is particularly worthy and jarring to remember the relatively recent date of many losses of formerly intact forest, as we consider how to use maps to start to think–or to try to start to learn how to think about–as well refamilairize ourselves with and recognize where the greatest continuous areas of tree cover in the world are located–both in the band of tropical forests along the equatorial regions of Brazil, Central Africa, and Indonesia, as well as the Russian plains and large stretches Canada above the central wheat fields and south of the Northwest Territories.  These tend to be the same areas where an uneasy balance is occurring between loss and gain of forests, and the losses of of specific regions have been strikingly surpassing gains since 2000.

forest loss since 2000

Leave a comment

Filed under data visualization, forest cover, forest degradation, forests, sustainability

Mapping the Inequities of the Anthropocene

The notion of the Age of the Anthropocene has inspired an attempt to pinpoint the thresholds of contemporary environmental change.  The recent maps that register the shifts in the Air Quality Index at specific sites offer a way to register the impact of anthropogenic impact on the breathed environment that are especially compelling in tracing the momentous impact that man-made industry–and specifically the burning of coal–has in propelling global inhabitants into an age of the Anthropocene, and indeed in impacting local environments.  The changes of global climates pose peculiar difficulties of mapping by placing ourselves as viewers outside of the momentous changes they describe.  For the notion of mapping the arrival of the Anthropocene–or the signs of the visible impact humans left on the environment raises questions of how a map can trace the footprint humans have left on the earth’s biosphere.  If the epoch of the Anthropocene challenges one to position oneself outside the very processes in which one knowingly or unknowingly takes part, or indeed capture the consequences of a geological change in the biosphere to human life.

Do the differences of the AQI provide a sufficiently compelling map of the local dangers of potentially catastrophic environmental change?  Recent “revisionist ecologists” or self-styled pragmatists have called for forging or discovering possible “Paths Toward a ‘Good’ Anthropocene,” as Andy Revkin discussed at his New York Times Dot Earth blog, which stresses not the ecological evils of a narrative of global pollution, but the potential that values determine necessarily tough choices, striking debate that has reverberated in the Twitterverse as a perilous promise or a necessary evil under the hashtag #Anthropocene.  Revkin’s “Paths to a ‘Good’ Anthropocene,” has struck a nerve as subverting the core beliefs of Environmentalism by tweaking it with the prefix New, under the banner of eco-pragmatism.  One part of the basis for such “eco-pragmatism” seems to be the tired nature of the narrative of environmental ecology–or rather, of the alarmist hue that, for Keith Kloor, has morphed over the years from talk of a plundered planet a sixth extinction, and a baked planet to characterizing a planet under severe ecological pressure from multiple directions.  The narrative of the anthropocene, an odd term adopted in common parlance, narrates less a disaster than a widespread constellation of impacts of the human on our notions of nature, of sexual reproduction and differentiation, of genetic transmission, and on the geological record or livability of the atmosphere.

Can maps help this debate, by charting a differentiated view of “impact” and its geographical differentiation and spatial distribution, or in other words tracking anthropogemoc changes in hopes to mitigate its effects?

Can practices of mapping offer means to capture and conjure that constellation of changes, or tools visualize the momentous mechanisms of climatological change in which the human is folded into the environment–and economic activity inscribed in nature–that might most effectively communicate its arrival?  Can effects of the Anthropocene be tracked over space?  As Shakespeare imagined “his cheeke the map of daies out-worne” in Sonnet 68, as if the face were a map of temporal changes wrought by time,  so that “when beauty liv’d and dy’ed as flowers do now,/ Before these bastard signes of faire were borne,/ Or durst inhabite on a living brow,” the maps below of local levels of air pollution bear the scars of time and global capital. To track the disparities that mark the close of the Holocene is to trace the introduction of previously unforeseen limits on the expansion of human activities and indeed the sphere of human freedom.   While the entrance into the Anthropocene has been laid at the footstep of industrialized nations with considerable justification, rather than being understood only as a category of geological time, the odd currency of the geological term with a geography of the earth’s habitabilty.  

The difficulty–if not near-impossibility–of returning to a healthier presence of CO2 in our atmosphere “from [current levels] to at most 350 ppm” voiced by climatologist Dr. James Hansen–and the organization 350.org– might be less easily solved than they hope, and might even risk orienting discourse on the Anthropocene toward remediation and restoration of equilibria.  Indeed the hope for such a return to a level of safety from current levels surpassing 400 ppm are not only a huge change from early eighteenth-century levels of 275 ppm, may distract attention from the deeper consequences of the enmeshing of the human in the biosphere:  the deeper inequities of our globalized economy are revealed in a more variegated map of our entrance to the Anthropocene.   The disproportionate contribution of industrialized countries to carbon emissions create well-known ethical questions of the distribution of shared responsibility for a crisis in climate change given the unequal distribution of the anthropogenic origins of climate change, emblematized by the disparities in fossil fuel emissions worldwide–which most ominously ballooned from the mid-1960s to the present day.

Carbon Emissions

Despite the use of maps to localize disparities in fossil fuel emissions, map smog map smog or define localized ozone holes, no greater detail is available in maps than disparities in air quality.   As we struggle undertake to trace such disparities, it is especially striking web-based maps reveals deep discrepancies in how levels of pollution have constrained questions of habitability at local levels, already evident in the imbalances revealed in data taken from the World Health Organization of the variations in the distribution of local means of small particle matter less than 2.5 microns across the earth.

Global Particulate Matter 2:5 WHO

The challenge of translating changes in the biosphere to a static map is not easy.  Even visualizing the range of changes runs the risk of reducing or distracting the intensity of their impact.  Dipesh Chakrabarty has aptly observed how environmental change constitutes “as a geophysical force, [a situation where] we now wield a different kind of agency as well – one that takes us beyond the subject/object dichotomy, beyond all views that see the human as ontologically endowed beings, beyond questions of justice and human experience.” For the very reason that we are immersed in its changes, we are challenged to read the record of massive changes and shifts in global environment of the sort registered in a map.

But the regional distributions of variations in that manmade environments have been recently readily synthesized on a Google Maps API to provide a scary spectrum of how we alter polluted air quality in real time:  the shifts in select areas of the world–even if these areas which release pollutants that of course disperse worldwide–reveal one image of the uneven distribution of our entrance into the era of the Anthropocene. And although the ethics surrounding the degree to which over-industrialized countries have over-contributed to the advancing of markers of the dawn of the Anthropocene–from global warming to increased CO2 emissions to ocean salinity–the spectrum of the local distribution of air pollutants demands to be read.  The coding of such pollutants in the AQI keys each region by its departure from acceptable levels of health–and indeed the departure from standards of the Holocene, based on different levels or parts per million of contaminants able to lodge in the lung.

legend with promos

If the dawn of the Anthropocene presents itself as a counter-discourse to a globalized economy, raising the multiple specters of the risks and dangers of unfettered economic development and growth, it reflects inescapable constraints on those very practices and presumption of human liberties:  for it articulates “biogeochemical processes which [not only clearly] imperil the human species’ life-support system; it is also the antithesis of a politico-ontological condition central to modernity: freedom,” as Ben Dibley has observed in his Seven Theses on the Anthopocene, and articulate the parameters or constraints in which human freedom must henceforth now be re-understood–constraints in which mechanisms of the market might be able to secure and to perpetuate livable conditions of an easily habitable space.

Mapping real-time concentrations of pollutants offer snapshots of specific moments, rather than images of a geological “deep time” or defining a single tipping point of long-term ecological flows.  But the discrepancies in global air pollution registered in a real-time air quality index map charts reported measurements of airborne pollutants in a Google Maps API to trace a shifting canvas of how we are now engaged in the alteration of the environment. While misleading to some, in its claim that “Good” levels of pollution exist in many regions, the distribution raises stunning divisions in the levels of local atmospheric contamination based on air quality indices.   As of today, the map suggested particularly localized pockets of pollutants, with a surprisingly large number of sites marked red (Unhealthy; 151-200 AQI, as defined by AirNow) and violet (Very Unhealthy, 201-300 AQI), and three sites in Delhi, Finland, Austria, and Coyhaique, Chile viewed of Hazardous air quality levels of over 300, which qualifies for a health alert. This sort of mapping of the man-made environment, where discrepancies in air pollution can be readily registered, offers something of a map of anthropogenic effects.  Variations in pollutants offer blunt tools to trace the disparities of anthropogenic impact on the global atmosphere–or to register a “local” distribution of the geophysical forces of the impact of Anthropocene.

pokets of pollutants

As one scrolls across or zooms in to discern the different distribution of colored placards that dot the map’s familiarly and largely light green surface, one readily flags something like environmental divides across both large regions of the global atmosphere, as well as specific noticeable differences of place, no doubt relating to industry, and shifting standards that raise the question of whether entrance to the Anthropocene is indeed the other side of the coin of globalization, or how much local, regional, and indeed striking national differences persist in this mapping of inhaled air, clustering in individual countries’ different standards of emissions for industry or automobiles.

Mapping Air Divides

The cartographical labels in the above map tracking air-pollutants offers a new grounds for the label “Red China” by the density of its clustering of unhealthy levels of air pollution as of this May 22:

%22Red%22 China

A recent study from the researchers at  Berkeley Earth has measured the devastating effects of such levels of pollution, caused mostly by coal-burning, on China’s population, and does better by discriminating the levels of specific pollutants:  the lack of restrictions on coal-burning contributes a devastating number of deaths of 4,400 Chinese each day, totaling some 1.6 million annually, on account of the diffusion of airborne particles of less than 2.5 microns in diameter–able not only to lodge in the lungs, but be absorbed into the bloodstream, in ways that t take the notion of the Anthropocene to the level of the embodied.  Based on hourly readings at some 1,500 stations in mainland China, Taiwan and Korea, the distribution of almost entirely man-made pollutants can be tied with relative certainty to increasing rates of asthma, strokes, lung cancer, and heart attacks.  And the numbers are shocking, from the concentration of particulate matter in the particularly pungent sulfur dioxide, released by burning fossil fuels, or nitrogen dioxides, a toxic pollutant emitted from the widespread combustion of petrochemicals:

PPB China
Alarmingly high levels of pollutants greater than 2 ppb/hour.

It is no surprise that sites of industry where coal-burning is allowed offer more clearly defined sites of concentration of Sites of industry divide and readily distinguish air quality dramatically worldwide and in North America, revealing the local impact of the human on the biosphere:

Lake Eirie pollutants in air around Lake Bad Air Belt in Georgia, May 21 3 pm

The largely “green” California, whose ocean rim encourages a high quality of air, even with its own well-known pockets of pollution in its Southlands:

California Green? May 21, 3-18

Piled up green rectangles don’t all equally signify healthy air quality, one should again note, but the discrepancies from Los Angeles to Tijuana, Mexico are nice to place in relief.

Southern California Air

Given the increased amounts of small particulate matter of a radius of less than 2.5 microns in much of southern California, whose clickable feature show the somewhat overly bulky embedding of data in this world map–

PM 2.5

the proportion of this particularly pernicious pollutants to entering and lodging within human lungs can’t help but recall a current rash of uncontrolled fires searing southern California’s coastline this mid-May, themselves tied to the effects of human presence:

California Fires mid-May 2014

Such considerably broad variations in air quality force one to wander more broadly over the slippy map’s surface,  exploring ties, evoked in how Ben Dibley’s characterized the Anthropocene as newly emerging global apparatus folding global economic relations in the geographic that creates the “terrestrial infrastructure for global capital.” The arrival of an Anthropocene, Dibley clarifies, “signals a geological interval since the industrial revolution, where, through its activities, through its numbers, the human species has emerged as a geological force now altering the planet’s biosphere,” evident in the exponential growth of the human population and the arrival of new geographical strata of Anthropocene rock built to serve the needs of ever-expanding inhabitants:  concrete highways, sidewalks, parking lots, airports and landing strips, or Superfund sites of toxic waste or garbage patches and trash vortices, steel shopping centers, loading zones, or the earlier mines, garbage dumps, and railroad depots that collectively signify the remaking of the inhabited world, but whose totality comes to create parameters for future growth.  The changing global apparatus to the earth system in which the human is an agent appears the underside of a narrative of modernization, whose inescapable telos is not emancipation from natural forces or limits, but entrapment by them:  freedoms to pursue economic development become the primary threats to the support system enabling human life.  Despite difficulties in relying on Google Maps as a measure of the constraints on that freedom, the measure of atmospheric pollutants lift a corner on the increasingly circumscribed limits that actually curtail individual freedom. Its measurement is particularly compelling for what they suggest about how economic development tied to the project of modernity come to constrain the world’s continued inhabitation by human life–as the pernicious nature of the development of Abu Dhabi throws into relief.

Emirates and Abu Dhabi 5.21, 3-10

This sort of a map is predicated on the numbers on which it is based.  The variations in measurements of air quality are striking on the Canadian border, perhaps revealing different standards or sampling practices.

Lower Canada

Europe offers interesting variations in quality of healthy air, with most danger signs located in the UK and North Sea:

%22Europe%22 in Air Pollutedness   Ireland, North Sea and Germany may 21, 3 pm

Central Europe, thought a bear of industry and coal, seems both highly monitored and at the same time roughly comparable to England:

EU Air

But the pocket of air quality that is literally off the charts one day near to Ankara–999–raises questions about how relatively low readings are in cities quite nearby.

Ankara and Turkey, May 21 3-06 pm

To be sure, Anatolia can also, in other real-time maps, seem quite green on other days:

Anatolia can also be so Green

Real-time air pollution seems egregiously under-reported in South Asia, however, despite real high readings in two concentrations that seem quite situated at first glance:

Southern Asia:india

But a slightly magnified scale reveals greater local detail in a polluted zone:

near Rajiv Gandhi Infotech Park

Even if the readings of unhealthy air quality around Pune and Mumbai, if concern for alarm, are not comparable to Ankara:

Near Mumbai   Pune--Very Unhealthy!

The accessibility of a full report of air quality of any place on a pop-up screen suggest a level of detail, to be sure, that this post does not do justice. But one is impelled to marvel at the stark inequities in the Anthropocene, both surprising and unjust, from Mexico City to Ankara or China:

Mexico City at continental divide   Ankara and Turkey, May 21 3-06 pm

The striking global inequalities of concentrations of air pollution that seem particulate endemic across China cannot, however, help but give pause for the hazardous concentrations of particulate matter that they indicate.

Chinese Cities

Despite a dangerously uniform measurement of particulate matter (AQI) verging on or surpassing 200, the concentration in Shanxi provide is particularly striking near its shore, and reaches an apex of 890 in Shangdong province, despite poor air quality of particular unhealthiness in the gulf:

Shanxi Province, pocketsin ports

The remarkably high levels of air pollutants along the Yellow River is particularly alarming and striking, since pockets of particulate matter of less than 10 microns, particularly dangerous to the respiratory system, approach hazardous levels in Shangdong (890), and even finer–and more dangerous–clusterings of much more dangerous particulate matter of diameter less than 2 microns, able to lodge more deeply in the lungs, reach hazardous levels in Bizhou.  Have the health risks been conceived?

Clusters in Binzhou   Binzhou

In the south of China, from Chengu to Hubei to Anhui provinces, one can trace a stream of red flags along rivers, and multiple regions of unhealthy air quality deep in the interior:

Chengdu to Hubei

The far better air quality in the Guangdong region, in sharp contrast, reveals concentrations of airborne pollutants outside of the port of Hong Kong.

Guangdong Province-outside Hong Kong

But what to make, on the eve of the accord between China and Russia on natural gas pipelines, of the apparent absence of limits on air pollutants in so very much of the PRC?

Mapping Air Divides

The commercial tie-in is rather obvious, and the map may be a marketing device for masks made to filter out particulate matter, in a wonderful example of cartographical product placement:

Leave a comment

Filed under 'Good' Anthrpocene, 350.org, Andy Revkin, anthropocene, AQI, Berkeley Earth, Mapping Air Pollutants, Mapping Air Quality

Crafting an Imaginary Atlas for a Dystopianly Disproportionate World

What is one to make of the silkscreen prints Hong Hao assembles from digitized versions of antiquated printed world maps?  While dispensing with anything like an exact correspondence to the world, each creates a fantasia of borderlands, and offers something of a wry response to the frustration at imbalances of globalization, as much as they appropriate antiquated cartographical conventions and forms.  Hao’s silkscreen prints manipulate scans of older global maps, he’s argued, as a set of confines or parameters to draw the world in new ways, but in doing so deploy the conventions of mapping to empty the familiar authority of the conventions of cartography.  The huge success of his production of world maps in the series Selected Scriptures, which this ambitious and eclectic printmaker began in the 1990s, but dramatically expanded after 1995, have reached a demanding public.  Is there appeal how they question how we see nations as best described on a map as they make foreign–and winkingly poke fun at–the authority of the print map as a register of the nation-state or territorial boundary lines?  Or does it lie in the special appeal of their static form, presented as a classical sewn binding of an encyclopedia, in an age when most of the maps we use are downloadable networked media?  In an age of online and digitized maps, Hao seems careful  to design the sequence of maps as situated and constructed forms, that open to the viewer in the site of a stable book.

But the maps that he produces also chart an increasingly globalized world, no longer subject to the confines of antiquated or inherited cartographical forms he creatively has appropriated, and seem to gesture to the construction of a warped world of a less clear balance of power or status quo, concealing many unseen networks of financial exchange or political relations.  The introduction of corporate logos, upbeat slogans, and fractures of linguistic translation into the imaginary corpus of maps Hao has produced with astonishing invention and rapidity question not only the hold of the power of maps but the medium of mapping, by dislodging the conventions of mapping from a familiar story and by suggesting the outdated nature of narratives of bounded territories and balances of power, as well as to indicate the increasingly skewed nature of global relations.  If Hao has chosen the silkscreened image to be confined by antiquated formats of mapping, unlike the screens we use to view maps on hand-held devices, his crafted silkscreens take the map as a liberatory form to reorganize global space in something of a provisory or provisional fashion for their viewers to contemplate.  In ways that dispense with notions of geographic correspondence or way-finding, and adopt the conventions of mapping to undermine western narratives, Hao distances us from paper Rand McNally maps in ways as appealing as they are successful on the international art market.   In appropriating Western conventions for viewing global space, Hao surely comments on the power of mapping as a symbolic form and graphic practice, if only by undermining and defamiliarizing the coherence of the map as a record of familiar territory:  not only do his silkscreen prints mutate forms of mapping, by altering names, locations of countries, color-schema and mirroring continents in wry ways, but adds weird arrows, graphs, and currents mark the ties of countries and continents.  Rather than confusing the surface of the map, the direction of viewers’ attention to the map seem to reveal fractures and imbalances in the globalized world, even if in ways that seem to undermine–or question–the map’s own claims to reality, by releasing the map from claims of accuracy or indeed truth-claims.

The appeal of these images among his other attempts to synthesize an eclectic variety of scaned brightly colored objects from everyday life seem quite distinct.  For not only do they indulge in the translation of maps to Chinese culture (and a global art market), but they raise questions of how all maps are translations of reality in ways that are comforting in an age of the web-based map.  If Hao severs the map from claims of precision or forms of way-finding, he rehabilitate antiquated structures of mapmaking, now somewhat foreign to our period eye, to orient us to the impossibility of proportional mapping in a truly disproportionate globalized world.  The images Hao defines are extremely popular as a sort of response to the failure of globalization, and indeed the failure to create a new map of the modern world.  The sustained return to the map as a medium seems quite unlike the numerous ways that artists have long referenced the authority–and formal objectivity–of mapping as a register of the political status quo, in how they question the vision of global unity that maps and politics that maps have so long bequeathed.   For if Hao uses the palette of mapping as a clear set of constraints to in Selected Scriptures, an inventive sequence of silkscreen prints that create revisionary maps of the world’s countries, begun from 1992-95,  dismantle the oppressive presence of the map in our world to question the new hybridization of map making by moving it out of a “western” art.  There is a sense for many art critics of a Duchampian inspiration; each seem to announce “This Is A Map,” or maybe even “This is a New Atlas” as a ready-made form.  Hao reached back to the conventions and forms of printed Rand McNally-esque mapping forms–if not an earlier cartographical sublime–appropriating the claims of novelty and reduction of information as an elegant and economic statement of truth to make an artifact that  lies between found objects and the “ready-made,” even as his final products seems to satirically advertise their own cheapness and untrustworthiness as a vehicle:  the translation of the format of mapping in much of these works not only undermines its authority, but suggests an impatient and persistent attempt to find meaning in the map.

Hao’s sequences of silkscreen prints chart dystopia in faux open pages of an imagined traditional thread-bound Chinese encyclopedic text–as if to create the fictional broader corpus of which each form part.  While they do not pose as recreations of an actual experiential world, they seem to comments on the mapping of the world that have particularly pressing urgency to the material presence of the map in an age that is increasingly online.  Hao’s work, including imaginary pagination from the encyclopedia of knowledge from which they ostensibly derive, register glimpses of an atlas that charts the oppressive nature of global divisions, or an imagined atlas of the social construction of space, if not of an attempt to start dialogue with a “new world order.”  The prints appeal s a way of romancing the hand-made map, in an age of the web-based maps and a surfeit of digitized data, however, by recycling such foreign, if familiar, conventions of printed maps to orient the viewer to a disorienting world.  In place of the data visualizations that chart the process of globalization, Hong’s recourse to screening maps to show inequalities and disparities seems by no means accidental.  For Hao takes the map’s surface as a field for further manipulation:  the world seems an open book, in the silkscreen prints shown below, made after the original series, and use the cartographical surface as a charged field for modification, inversion, and inscription, adopting the abilities offered by digitization to create a mock-permanence in his prints.

Take two examples.  The very mutability of the medium of mapping in his work suggest not the tyranny of modern mapping, but the provisory nature with which maps translate space for their viewers, and the indiscriminate nature of how they present global inter-relations as a space that can be read in “Selected Scripture, page 1999, The Memory of Millennium” (2000).  If all maps are translations, these are quizzical ones, as much as physical ones–filled with corrections, misprints, and ways of subverting their own iconic authority as maps, and glimpses of an imagined atlas of a nonexistent world.



Latest Practical World Map


In the first, the excavated distorted “North America Ocean” and “South America Ocean” are dotted by odd arms and insignia, their actual confines warped to create imagined lakes and emblems of airplanes and Microsoft, unlike the “Asia Ocean,” and oceans become land mass.


America's Microsoft Explorers


In the scanned maps Hong has altered and manipulated, America might be expanded, renamed as the PRC, Asia folded into obscurity save Japan, and Canada foreshortened into a swelling United States, all to upset viewers’ expectations for reading their surface, which he reiterated in “New Political Map, 2” (2000), “New Political Map, Which One” or “New World No. 1” (2000), repeatedly playing with the constraints of mapped space in ways that not only skew actual relations, but invite us to recognize the arbitrariness with which we map our mental space or are accustomed to do so.


%22New World No. 1%22 p. 2001


Hong Hao was trained in printmaking, and values the medium of silkscreen prints as versatile tools not only to sort objects and create catalogue, but to treat the map as an ordering device.  The series of Selected Scriptures, which are distinct from much of his work in their ostensible unity, are distinct from Hao’s interest in sequence of assemblages that are characterized as mosaics of found objects, for the maps he has invented are anything but disinterested collections of visual information or compilations of objects.   Hao’s sharply observed maps are not aestheticizations, so much sharply observed post-modern satires, and comments about the recoding of information systems and the processes of the translation of information that occur in maps.  In his powerful series based on the clever appropriation of older maps, the antiquated nature of the maps allows them to be treated as a new expressive field.   For Hao’s Selected Scriptures (1992-2000) seems to ask us to about the role of visualizations in suggesting the global imbalances of networks of power often removed from actual terrestrial relations in an our over-mapped world, treating the map less as a totalitarian constraint or a set of fixed conventions than something like a musical piece that could be assembled, varied, and reorganized in sharply provocative ways.  Hao has created skillful digital transpositions of world maps in his silkscreen on heavy wove paper, as if to recall their craftsmanship and artifice to contrast to the mechanical reproduction of serially produced maps of topical concerns.  The contrast of materials of their subject and handmade production recall the power with which printed maps once assembled the lived world, in ways that masked all its inequalities and absence of proportions, working within the structure of the maps to undermine their content and reveal the very inequalities that they concealed.  Hao has claimed to be especially attracted to historical maps as being “capable of inspiring ideas on what we take as common knowledge” and as “almost the most direct and most economical way to know the world.”  But the economy of mapping by no means limits his variation of his range of artistic expression in this series:  Selected Scriptures exploit this economy of graphic expression and its organization as an inspirational guide for playing with their formal transcription of space, redeploying the map as a new arrangement of space in works that bear such self-titled silkscreen prints as “Latest Practical World Map,” “New Political World,” or “New World Physical“–to cite the prominent English typeface in his Selected Scriptures series.

Several of Hao’s set of maps, which appear below, capture the promises of how maps make new claims to organize the world’s totality in readily legible ways that make us look at maps in new ways, alternately whimsical, quizzical and ironic look at space.   In an age of online and digitized maps characterized by the near-constant mapping of financial transactions, geographic locations, and activities, Hao’s images are less about “found” maps than the rediscovery of the assembly of space from digitized images maps and varied map detritus that he wields and transfers onto his chosen medium.  For he has adopted the particularly copious formal syntax of mapping, preserving the appearance of cheaply printed maps that he emulates, to ask how successfully maps might ever translate an image of our world, subtly reshaping their economy to upset their meanings–evacuating the map of any sense of wayfaring tools, but enriching its symbolic form.


1.  The formats of mapping that Hao appropriates are, of course, removed by several generations from our own notion of map-use or the medium of mapping in modern life.  If it is increasingly confusing how to orient oneself to an increasingly imbalanced world whose inequities have been put on display in how news media often ignores most inequities in the inhabited world–not to mention the disproportionate threats of global warming to ecosystems, regional economies, and global food supplies–Hao assembles more light-hearted–if deadly serious–maps that invites us to engage the mystifications on maps.  Artists have long worked with maps.  But rather than offering an aestheticization of the map’s surface, as Jasper Johns, whose re-used the familiar image of the names of states in the United States, repainted to transform a well-known image,  converting familiar conventions of maps to encaustic, in an etherial blurred space of dripping paint that obscured clear lines of legal divides, and render the conventions of four-color mapping a ghostly haunting blur rather than a symbol of space–




–Hong Hao actively remakes the surface of the map as a map.  And his works demand to be taken for that reason as maps, or at least as interventions in practices of mapping, rather than images that appropriate cartographical images, conventions, and signs.

Hao’s maps map, of course, a globalized space as a space into which the artist makes his own interventions, although his work is in ways resonant with Johns’ evacuation of mapping forms.  For Hao’s maps re-assemble the disparities and tyranny of the globalized (over-mapped) world.  The disparities within the global economy has the danger of being recapitulated, of course, in ways that he lampoons.  The collective atlas that he imagines, which collectively run against the global maps we carry around in our heads, or the maps that we use to try to come to terms with unimaginably complex implications of global military constellations and warming processes.  Already, in a work that predates the Selected Scriptures, Hao’s “The World Distribution of Guided Missiles” [sic] (1992), a monochrome silkscreen print replete with the mythical beasts and figures that recall the figures on medieval portolan charts for ocean travel, shocks us with the explicit charting of state secrets.  It also suggests a new playful engagement of the map as a communicative form, even as he works to expand the boundaries of a map’s informational value.  When he locates the bulk of guided missiles in Antarctica, the effect expands the map as a record of inhabited space, repurposing of the cartographical iconography with which he knowingly plays:  in this map, the effect is oddly to diminish the appearance of the world’s size:  at the close of Operation Desert Storm, of Gulf War, and the inundation of airwaves with images of US fighter jets on a sustained campaign of aerial bombing more extensive than expected, and provoked counter-attacks, Hao imagined the world as cowering from missiles poised for launch in the “World Distribution” silkscreen i seem to translate the cheaply printed paper ink map into his own image that magnified China at its approximate center.  As much as translating western cartography into a new art language of classical Chinese origin, Hao seems to confront the difficulty of mapping power in this and his many subsequent silkscreen prints.


World Distribution of Guided Missiles (1992)


The disproportionate prejudices in these maps are well-known.  Global warming, a concept few can claim to understand, is also the,  most mapped–if perhaps most disproportionately mis-mapped–is repeatedly wrestled with in a variety of maps that try to lend the process a concrete appearance.  Despite the fact that 40% of the world’s population lives within sixty miles of the shore, and  200 million people live within five meters of sea-level, the disparity of the dangers of shifting shorelines that are poised to shift dramatically with global warming are only partly evident in an interactive “Global Heat Map” produced by the Union of Concerned Scientists:  and the extreme dangers that the shifting shorelines poses for low-lying countries is by no means limited to the United States, even if this sometimes seems the case in our own news media or the relative blindness or radical shortsightedness government working papers on shoreline sensitivity–subtitled “American Starts to Prepare–on the impacts of global flooding of low-lying lands.  (Even if there are exceptions in American media publications.)  The deepening disparities of our own mental maps–evident in the apparent perplexity that one out of six Americans in where in the world Ukraine is located, according to the Washington Post, which almost makes one wonder if the survey was credible or if it generated sarcastic responses–the lopsided maps we contain may make Hao’s imaginary  corpus of lost maps apt commentaries on global inter-relations, as much as a formal syntax for creative expression.  But they grapple, if in a light-hearted way, with the problems of mapping the globalized world.


2.  Hao’s work is a retrospective recreation of a cartographical sublime that reaches back to a lost medium of paper maps.  The particular productivity of mapping as a new form of invention in Hao’s work from the late 1990s, suggests a particular neat coincidence of how maps speak to power, or power through maps, that interestingly mirrors the growth of online mapping:  although Google Maps was only launched just less than a decade ago, in 2005, shortly after Steve Coast created a free, editable map of the world, OpenStreetMap, based on Wikipedia, in 2004, the first online mapping service, MapQuest, If OpenStreetMap responded to the inability to freely download government-run and tax-funded projects like the Ordnance Survey in England, as these mapping projects have expanded, the epistemic remove of maps such as those that Hao uses–and the apparent chronological distance of a map created by silkscreen, but belonging to a printed encyclopedia bound as a classical Chinese book–gains new appeal as a rehabilitation of mapping as an aesthetic medium and as a tool for imagining and locating geopolitical abstractions.  Unintentionally, the rise of GPS and geocaching as modes of map making, satellite imagery, digital searchability, the branding of Google Maps and the Google map viewer, and dramatic expansion of use in over one million websites of the Google’s API, have conspired to so remove the five-color map from our “period eye”, that its epistemological antiquity may be increasingly difficult to distinguish from the thread-bound classical encyclopedia Hao’s Selected Scriptures referenced.  (Google’s corporate logo is absent from Selected Scriptures, but the presence of Internet Explorer and other corporate insignia suggest a need to locate the web-based map on the borders of what we once new as the world’s inhabited territories.)

Yet the weird notions of contiguity of a flattened earth that Google Maps has perversely re-introduced–reinstating a continuous block of Eurasia and Africa, for example, isolating China, Australia, and North America–mirrors the  oddness with which Google Maps has rehabilitated its own variant of the long-discredited and cartographically retrograde biases of the Mercator projection, a handy solution to the flattening of the earth’s surface to coordinates of straight lines of latitude and longitude but which amply distorts its surface, irrespective of actual land-mass, but whose convenient centering on Europe provides the basis for all Google-derived web-maps.  (China’s role in this internet society is contested, with most social networking sites banned in the country, including Facebook from 2008, Twitter from 2009, and Google+ as it was introduced–despite relative open-ness to LinkedIn, reborn in China as 领英, pronounced “ling ying”).


Contiguity in Google Maps


For all the personalized coziness of the Google Maps Navigation, Google Street View, or My Maps, this close variant of the quite retrograde Mercator projection has perpetuated a primarily targets that Hong skewers as a frozen model of global relationships of power, which is striking for how it eerily corresponds to Hao’s “New Political World” (1995), whose evocation of the modernity of rewriting the world’s geopolitical structures is not only reminiscent of the early modern cartographers Mercator or Ortelius–the former’s “Nova et Aucta Orbis Terrae Descriptio ad Usum Navigantium Emendate Accommodata” [“New and more complete representation of the terrestrial globe] properly adapted for use in navigation]” of 1569 and the Nova totius terrarum orbis geographica ac hydrographica tabula . . .” of 1570–but also to announce new political configuration of landmasses in relation to one another.  Although Hao didn’t prominently include Google’s logo among the logos of international corporations  in the sequences of maps he has designed from 1995, his work succeeds by upsetting our Westernized confidence in mapping, more than playing with cartographers’ formal conventions.

And if Ortelius prided himself on drawing national boundaries and distinguishing the world’s expanding number of continents, Hao’s silkscreen prints take pleasure in redrawing boundaries, reconfiguring the shapes of countries, and shifting and switching toponyms, as if to describe a world less defined by boundaries than the continued symbolic authority that maps have long continued to exercise.   Indeed, rather than accessing or retrieving data in the format of a map, we are presented a map in the legible form of an open book and private space, even if we are invited to imagine the audience of readers for whom such a map might be mechanically reproduced.

The maps are forms of imagining a conscious redesign of the balance of power and populations that antiquated static maps once mapped.  Indeed, Hao’s reassembly of the map may as a form of memory might even recall the famous translation of the Ortelian project in 1602 by Matteo Ricci, working with the astronomer, mathematician and geographer Li Zhizao (1565-1630), who engraved it, in ways that affirmed the dynamic and interactive nature of the actually static nature of a woodcut print map.  (Although Hao may not reference this famous notion of cartographical translation, his appropriation of the format of world-mapping seems to intentionally reverse the trajectory of Ricci’s importation of cartographical iconography and place-names on a somewhat comparably busy and densely crowded symbolic field.)

Ricci Map 1602James Ford Bell Library

Hao’s subversion of western mapping as a national political tool is often too crudely cast as reaction to the western–and American–dominance of constructing the world map, and an incorporation of traditional cartographical tools within a “Chinese” art.  This is too simple, and too readily essentializes “western” and “Chinese,” and where these works of art lie in relation to map making as a craft–or how Hao’s art relates to the currency of the mash-up as a map.  For Hao works with antiquated maps–indeed, making maps, rather than than only find them, to play new stories out on their surfaces–and indeed its distance from the imbalances of authority in our geopolitical world.  Reading the surface of the distribution of political power in the eponymous “New Political World” (1999) in the Selected Scriptures project playfully inverts the notions of legibility to demonstrate a balance of power regularly elided:  the playful projection of geopolitical values is exploited to present a new way of reading a familiar demarcation of terrestrial expanse divided by naturalized boundary lines, playing fast and freely with some of the iconography from news maps or other cartographical images.

If we love to read maps to move across space, and cross frontiers drawn in space, the shifting toponymy and place-names that we encounter in the imaginary Atlas of Hao’s device opens up a world we’re sad to read but that we can at the same time also recognize as something that the anonymous mapmaker has synthesized.  Hao’s work suggests a uniquely hybrid creation, as well as a satirical relationship to the Rand McNally political atlas, which seems its primary target at first.  Hao, who graduated from the Beijing Academy of Fine Arts the year of the suppression of protests in Tiananmen Square, has specialized in transposing digitized images to silkscreen prints that skew the actual geography of the world in his prints, much as they play with the reproduction of five-color maps in print culture with the format of an hand-made artist’s book, but derive from reproduced images scanned, digitally altered, and reproduced as silk screened images, linking traditional crafts, the Cultural Revolution, and modern digitized media to deconstruct and repackage (or redeploy) the map as a political statement.

The weird translation of cartographical images is part and parcel of the project, evident in the irony of the most “accurate” map in the Selected Scriptures, the “World Defenge Layouy Map” [sic] (1992), a variant based on Hao’s earlier 1992 work:


Scriptures Hao

Hao’s new map of nations illuminates military power by relatives geographical sizes of nations to reflect military power, recycling the map as a metaphor.  As much as it suggests a cheap reproduction, with its title seems suspiciously printed in uniformly spaced letters, the image of a “new political order” is meant to dislodge our expectations for reading a map centered on t:  and on the map, although the pathways of world travel include a sailing junk, but are dominated by fighter jets among large pinyin characters that immediately strike a western viewer, and reminding us that all maps are both constructions and translations and that, indeed, the power of the map in part lies in its success in translating reality to a seamless whole.  In Hao’s Scriptures, the integrity of the map is disrupted by the shifted orientation in the digitized images of names, landmasses, and pastel hues, as if to recall the mass-produced posters on cheap paper that recall Maoist times, the upbeat candy-colored pastels worthy of PAAS Easter Egg paints rather than a five-color map.  They describe a scary surface of disproportionate global powers, with the PRC at their center, now straddling the Atlantic and Pacific, whose places are oddly reversed, as if one emptied a Rand McNally map of toponyms and reshuffled their location, as if to mock the faux disinterested nature of maps from the  perspective of the current PRC, which finds itself somehow between the Atlantic and Pacific, in the place of North America, an expansive Israel to the North, and the United States displaced from its position of power:


%22New Political World%22Metropolitan Museum of Art


3.  Artists have been making maps–or using maps to make art–since before the first printed atlas, if not since the first globe.  But Hao takes the map to excavate it of meaning, and ask about the oppressive world system we have inherited, playing with the oppressiveness of that system and the almost light-hearted pastels of artificial colors (pink, yellow, orange, blue and green) we use to divide the inhabited world in printed maps to suggest that the map has little bearing on it.   The odd remoteness of the historical map offers a “tool to think” that exposes the discrepancies of our mental maps of geo-bodies.  Hao all but ignores the actual geographical contents that are the ostensible subject of a map:   and as the project progressed, the maps he creates have an increasingly ironic organization of space.  Reading the surface of the distribution of political power as referenced in the eponymous “New Political World” (1999) plays with notions of legibility that are regularly erased or elided within print maps, but seem especially pregnant with the distance of time:  the playful adoption of the map’s projection of geopolitical values is exploited in Hao’s work in order to present a new way of reading a familiar demarcation of terrestrial expanse that is divided into naturalized boundary lines, playing fast and freely with some of the iconography from news maps or other cartographical images:  Hao’s map of nations illuminates military power by relatives geographical sizes of nations to reflect military power, but even its title seems suspiciously printed in uniformly spaced letters:  and on the map, although the pathways of world travel include a sailing junk, but are dominated by fighter jets among large pinyin characters that immediately strike a western viewer, reminding us that all maps are both constructions and translations.

The power of the map in part lies in its success in translating reality, so that the PRC now occupies where we expect the United States:



New PRCMetropolitan Museum of Art


The humorous reconfiguration of space in these maps transpose space and place with a flighty flippancy foreign to any actual land map.  Why is Hong Kong now at the mouth of the Mississippi, in the place of New Orleans?  The legibility of the rest of the world is almost made ridiculed, not only as the ocean off of what seem Alaska’s shores is labeled “Atlantic Ocean,” but since the region is actually Uganda, nestled beside the newly bordered Israel and Chad, creating a perverse geopolitical world that seems an absurdist collage of what might be:  as the People’s Republic of China now occupies, save in Florida and parts of Norther California, most of the land that one might associate with the United States; to the north, Israel lies lazily across current Canada; London is dispatched to the South Pole; Canada is relocated to a strip of diagonal land in Eastern Africa, beside the Indian Ocean; Europe divided between Vietnam and Mozambique as if their names are dislocated from the geographic fields in which we are accustomed to find and locate them.

Hong Hao all but ignores the actual geographical contents that are the ostensible subject of a map:   and as the project progressed, the maps he creates have an increasingly ironic organization of space.   Many of Hao’s works trumpet their modernity in analogous, if tongue-in-cheek fashion–“The New Political World Map” (1995); “The New World Survey Map” (1995-96); “The New Geographical World,” Selected Scriptures p. 3085 (2000)–as if they offer windows on a newly registered reality to readers. Is ‘place’ less of a signifier, in the map, than the global distribution of power?   The sizes of countries are ordered, not only in terms of the military and economic power of nations, but in ways that upend the semantics of the legibility of space, despite the familiar color-scheme.  The result is often a fairly scary image whose totality one pays far more attention to, decoding the configuration of countries and assessing their sizes with an eye to power perhaps far more than geographic relationships, which are–witness the fighter jets–of far less import today.  The clearly cultivated flimsiness of a mistranslated map, standing askew to the actual world and placing Asia at its center, pushing mirror reflections of Europe to its margins, and dispensing with America, in ways that not only skew spatial relationships but show the reproduced map as a field for staging imbalances of power.


New Political World Hao

National Gallery of Canada




Selected Scriptures, p. 1999, The Memory of the Millennium” (2000) assembles a grab-bag of cartographical inventions around an inversion of land and water, so that oceans that connect and separate continents now seem landmasses:  as if to exploit the map not only as construction, but assemblage of cultural artifacts that desperately press space into readily legible terms, Hao presses the fertility of the format of the map as a signifier into his service to new extents:  emblazoned with the prominent descriptive legend “New World Physical,” the map is difficult to orient oneself to even more than his earlier work, its oceans (NORTH AMERICAN OCEAN; AFRICA OCEAN; EUROPE OCEAN) erase landmasses, as if to repurpose this most conservative of media so that where once lay land, oceans are overburdened with objects.  Weird graphs erase any familiar promise of the legibility of mapped space.  The didactic iconography of educational maps becomes a repository for graphs, varied iconographic detritus from warships and the logo of internet explorer:


Memory of the Millenium (2000) Artsy Artis


The playful array of translations in the map–both translations among mechanical processes of reproduction, and contexts for viewing maps, as well as translations of map-signs, conventions, and toponymy–play with the “novelty” of the map and its antiquated medium to make a new material object for readership.  By using a base-map, scanned from a four-color map of Westernized derivation that seems printed on foolscap typical of the posters of the Cultural Revolution, which Hao cast in the form of a traditional hand-made book in  a set of individual silkscreens, as if it belonged to a corpus of lost maps in the Chinese tradition, rather than informed by Western cartography.   We are a far cry from the Eurocentric “Map Translator” functions, if the adherence to a cartographical structure and the color-scheme is oddly familiar:  Hao takes the the levels of translation, indeed, in a much more playful and wryly sarcastic direction that exploits the almost generative fertility of the proliferation of meanings in mapping forms, that consciously reveals the power of mapping forms that are left as a neutral backdrop in the image that uses the Google Translate API.  To be sure, unlike the Google API, the maps Hao crafts, if in their collective dizzy the viewer in percussive ways, rather than retrieve or access data, present a fixed tableaux.


Map Translator_Nation State



Some of the other imagined pages Hao designed from Essential Scriptures of 1995, as “Latest Practical World Map,” manipulate and lampoon the sense of practicality of a map, even as they introduce emblems of consumerism as much as militarism within the map the maps themselves, in ways that play with their surfaces by renaming continents so that countries, continents, and cities are no longer recognizable, hydrography abstractly symbolized and an eery globalism illustrated in the surface of the map itself–and slogans such as “Be satisfied” or “Be careful” will later give way to those of free market neo-conservatism, from “Control, gain, own, exploit” to “Fame and fortune:  you can have both”:  these maps have been compared suggestively to a traditional Chinese landscape in which the manipulation of the conventions of landscape become a register for a subjective state of mind, although in Hao manipulates conventions takes aim at their ostensible objectivity, and indeed the images of globalism they present:  the conceptions let silent in the map are used as commentaries on mapping practices, or on the concepts of globalism.  Or, the map becomes a surface for an almost random generator of slogans and injunctions–“BE SATISFIED,” “BE LONELY,” “BE CAREFOL,” “DON’T BELIEVE,” “BE LONELY”–that suggest the alienation of its viewers.   Whatever constitutes the practicality of a map, the combination of odd translations, even odder graphs, juxtapositions of slogans and generic injunctions uses the historical remove of the map-as-image and inscribed surface to puncture its utility and authority, and point up some of the odd ways of reading truth into maps.


Latest Practical World Map bigArtis


4.  What, indeed, constitutes practicality in a map, and how is the translation of the world to “practical” terms defined?  Practicality suggests that it offers ease of ready consultation by readers, but we find a surplus of significations that mimic many maps in their almost distracting quality.  Many of the slogans that are on the map–“NO RELEAE IS TERMITED OTHERWISE WILL BE–subvert any sort of reading for sense.  Indeed, Hao’s intentional layering of odd  translations (BE CAREFOL), odd graphs, juxtapositions of slogans and generic injunctions uses the historical quality of the map-as-image to puncture the very notion of utility, and point up some of the odd ways of reading truth into maps.

Hao’s “New World Survey Map” engages playfully with the ways maps symbolize the proportionality of space in powerful ways, reduced Asia, as it magnifies Japan, but shows the globe wonderfully distorted with the magnification of Europe and America, in a playful accentuation of the disproportionate distribution of weapons and political influence.  Or is this the image of the political order that the West–or an exaggerated and hugely magnified Europe and [North] America and Japan–purports to create and legitimize at such political organs as the UN Security Council?  In the below map, the “legend” is of little help, but the map says enough, shrinking oceanic expanse and magnifying countries that are bloated in the disproportionate attention that they receive from news channels, or in international political bodies, as if to render a map based on their prominence in a world historical record or online news-sources:


New Topographical  World Map


This utterly “othered” “New World Survey Map” (1995) punctures the hegemony of the map, and stubbornly it refuses to relinquish the truth-claims of a map:  if the westernized cartographical tradition to diminish all Asia save the Japanese, which it so greatly magnifies.


5.  The invention of re-inscribing the cartographical surface in these silkscreen prints provided Hao with a particularly rich vein of production among his varied projects, and one that met a large audience.  “New World No. 1” (2000), Selected Scriptures, p. 2001, contracts the known world to a scary picture of three imagined continents or landmasses, surrounded by warships, arms, and satellites that suggest their military might:  where the Typus Orbis Terrarum is a contraction of Eurasia and the United States, who bracket the vastly expanded island of Japan, improbably raised to the status of a Superpower among them, and only a hint of Antarctica to the south.   America is emblazoned by iconic “lounging ladies” between Las Vegas and Texas, this map is emblazoned by the odd emblems of progress from the ancient Skylab to Internet Explorer, as if this “New World No 1″‘s order were antiquated already, its seas haunted by blueprints of jet fighters or warships, inhabited surface surrounded by satellites circulating its perimeter, as if floating in outer space.


New World No ! bitArtis


The image of a new book of world history and global powers is particularly powerful, not only for disturbing the mapping of a stable geopolitical orders that maps perpetuate, in a sort of inversion of the Peters’ projection disturbed our preconceptions for seeing the world as imitating or mirroring a political order, but inviting us as viewers to make and remake the maps that perpetuate political orders and biases in our minds, and how the an atlas for a disproportionately under-represented world might be renegotiated by its readers.   The reproduction of these cartographical orders of representing global powers becomes a sustaining theme in Hao’s work, so infinite and unending is the variety of silkscreen maps that he produced, almost haunting by the disproportionate images of the world and by maps as the flimsiest of representations that continued to be accorded a significant weight for so long:  the map is lampooned as a reproduction, albeit one with deep westernized connotations of arrogating claims for totality to itself, while presenting a diminished image of what it purports to map.  Indeed, the flimsiness of its reproducibility is evident in the difficulties of its translation, laden with “corrections” and odd graphs seem to record the map’s remove from the viewer, lampoon the tyranny of its own absurd assertions.


Latest Practical World Map bigArtis


6.  Hong Hao is by no means alone in questioning the inheritance of mapping forms.  His work is evocative of Ai Wei Wei’s interest in the hybridization of Western commercial logos and ‘traditional’ art forms, apparent in his powerful statement of the naturalization of his “Map of China,” (中国地图) (2006).  Ai Wei Wei’s work that might be said to literally translate a map of the frontiers of China into the stolidity of a classically Chinese material–wood of Qing dynasty temples–that might be verging on sacrilege.  The “map” suggests the consolidation of the official map of China from fragments of the past, as much as a terrifying isolationism, unlike Hong Hao’s odd global refigurations.  Yet Wei is far less interested in the symbolic conventions and legibility of the map than what might be called its iconic form–even if his work indulges in some of the same questions of the synthesis of old materials and practices with modern symbolic forms, and the translation of maps to new media.

Yet rather than present the “fantastic and absurd” world “governed by violence and greed,” Ai’s art-map forces us to find the map in and that is refigured from it, even as it asserts the isolation and frontiers of the unit of the Peoples’ Republic of China, as if a continuous tree trunk.  In translating actual geographic frontiers to something that looks like it emerged from a 3D printer more than a map, Ai Wei Wei invites viewers to linger over the shifts in shading on its face, even as it distances the map as powerful construction, emptying the stale medium of the map of its stale symbolic authority by translating it to another medium:  in the above, the PRC is fashioned out of Qing dynasty wood; the below, out of recycled cartographical imagery.


Ai Wei Wei

New PRCMetropolitan Museum of Art


Both images ask what sorts of opaque surfaces, rather than mirrors, something like a map creates.  But  perhaps the playful irony of distancing any of the positive associations–if any still remain–from globalism in a more engaging view of the legible conventions of a bounded map, Wei comments on the fetishization of the form of the map and its delineation of naturalized frontiers.  Hong Hao’s work seems more engaging, and more familiar, because it speaks more incessantly to our own habits of reading of maps, and the increased business of the making of the map’s surface as a format that increasingly unceasingly begs to be read and re-read.  Hao returns us, with comfort as well as to produce considerable unease, to the reading of the map’s surface, making fun of its transparency and referentiality at a time when online maps dispense with claims for transparency or signification that now seem to be artifacts of letterpress typesetting or print.  Hao’s maps recall objects of serial production–and he indeed seems to be serially producing such artifacts for an eager art market–in ways that recall habits and formats of reading space that are in many ways no longer accessible or familiar, but which register the difficulty of the possibility of undertaking an ethical mapping of the inhabited world.  Not connected, and not networked, Hao’s almost serially reproduced maps gesture to the translation of the authority of the static map from another time.  Rather than offer images delivered by the screen or accessed remotely, even if he does not think so, Hao’s maps translate back to western eyes as cartographical eye candy and comfort food.

Leave a comment

Filed under Beijing Academy of Arts, Google Translate, Hong Hao, Map Translator, OpenStreetMap, silkscreened maps

Local Landscapes in OSM: the Shifting Economy of Mapping Place

A battle-cry of the ages goes out over the internet–Crowdsourced OpenStreetMap Trounces Google Maps!–in a banner New York Times headline so shocking it evokes the battle of David and Goliath of the Information Age.  The battle-cry hinted at the victory of not a company, but of the members of a mapping community who slung myriad shots from the slings of multiple local mappers in Sochi,most of  whom we only know by their monikers, to topple trust in the corporate behemoth’s maps at the same time as the whole world was watching.  And the basis by their cartographical diligence is evident in the juxtaposition of two visuals of the ski runs at Sochi that we’ve been watching on TV, since we can easily contrast it to the terrain on which we’ve already watched so many ski events–and use them to track the skiers whose slalom courses we might was better placed in space.  The on-site demand for maps is so acute that the divergence from the now nearly ubiquitous Google Maps engine is striking, and has caused a bit of a shockwave in the mapping micro-world–“In Sochi, Open Source Maps Beat Google”–as if this was a not-to-be-unnoticed Olympic event, when the “Wikipedia of Maps . . . has bested the corporate giant” at its own game.

The mapping of the Olympic games marked not only a symbolic victory, but a dent in what Adam Fisher aptly terms the “Google Maps-based ecosystem” that has grown out of the widespread reliance of a small and growing sector of the economy on the Google map making machine.  The reliance on map-providers is evidence that even now, in an age of satellite maps and extensive geovisualization, mapping is a marketplace and a business to best orient viewers to an image of the ground in some very interesting ways:  rather than exercising the dominance of organizing “all the world’s information” through a monopoly geo data, fast on the heels of some rather nasty accusations that some yahoos caught using Google IP addresses had set out to vandalize OpenStreetMaps from India, entering false information in their competing images to undermine trust in their accuracy by things from reversing the directionality of one-way streets and altering script in order to dissuade users of expectations for OSM’s accuracy.

As much as an act of random hooliganism, this is a sort of trade-war waged by undermining the credibility of the opposition–a huge change from the days when Google might have sponsored OSM’s annual conference.  Alas, no more, as the two generators of landscapes are at one another’s necks:  at the very time that Google is trumpeted as inevitably on its way to charting a road-map to world domination, cracks in its geo location armor appear.  And the interesting part was, in part, that rather than finding weaknesses or inaccuracies within the many photographs that Google engineers thread together to create a database of terabites that allow us to flip through an apparently seamless photograph of the world, the absences lay in the value of selectivity in labeling the sites, routes, and courses that athletes took, and their exact levels of elevation:  information absent from the outdated photographs Google used in its Earth View.

The two media of mapping provide essentially different landscapes–and a different access to the surroundings that they described.  These contrasting visions of landscape are so readily generated by the Map Compare tool designed by Geofabrik, which actively promotes the commercial use of open-sourced maps.  Designed to suggest the difficult selectivity and clarity that the Google offers on the environments it maps, the juxtaposition of the ski runs from the Google Earth view and OSM map are a triumph in the value of embedded signs and measurements of elevation, as well as potential routes of skiing on the slopes of Sochi.


Despite the authority of the Google Map view, the rhetorical power of this juxtaposition between these forms of mapping shows the extent to what Open Source allows in the recently built environment of the Olympic village:  one is immediately struck by the absence of the Skiing Pavilion on the less-often updated Google Maps views, where not only the routes of skiing on the local slopes are less often noted, but the structures built for the Olympics remain entirely absent, and the far limited points for attending to the landscape and its elevation. There is less data in the Google View, even when one goes outside Google Earth.

Indeed, the comparison and turned up many more signs of orientation than the blank spaces of Google Maps which so strikingly recall the “terra incognita” covered by cartouches in early modern maps of the New World or the icy uncharted regions of polar expanse.


Sochi Ski Center Mapped

What seem open areas marked by the faintest of trails or icy frost engage viewers in concrete ways in the OSM maps, raising questions about how they effectively invite us to see, and what constructions that they use to invite us to contemplate space from eight models of the same landscape.  In an age of the huge expansion of Geographic Information Systems and geovisualization, it is amazing not that different modes of mapping circulate–that’s to be expected–but that their contents will continue to be so diverse, or that the very multitude of information that they’re designed to visualize are available in so many competing models.  The ‘Map Compare’ function devised, in ways that recall the classic art history course’s comparison of two slides side by side each other, provide a slippy-screen template to compare any regions with the boast that the open-sourced OSM version will both be more complete and inclusive in its details, and a better commercial model for anyone interested in mapping any city, anywhere, on demand, on account of the multiple modifications OSM users have made.  The story of the more complete coverage of OSM is anything but new, but the recent focus on the demand for better maps in the Olympic games is a great news story, making the lack of information on Google’s map browser comparable to the shoddy quality of the ready-made rudimentary hotels in Sochi in quite potentially embarrassing ways.  Despite the copious Street View detail, Google’s maps of Sarajevo were lacked in the information and visual detail that OpenStreetMap could readily provide to its users.


Sarajevo OSM Google

For all the innovation of push-pins mapping cities, Google seems to have neglected the Bosnian and Herzegovinian landscape, and the very elements of regional mapping we need for detailed spatial orientation.   The mapping of green space,  rather than the Olympic village and the architecture of the skiing slopes, that OpenStreetMap provides a distinctly different approach, which makes it more valued so often by hikers or outdoorsfolk, rather than the streamlined images of roads of Google Maps that so often cast geographical surroundings only as lightly colored muted blocks.  Is OSM a more geographically ethical mapping of space, in ways that reflect how its composite character derived from a community of mappers, as much as a collective crowd-sourced medium whose users have championed it as an anti-corporate mapping model of map making?

The differences in local mapping are evident in the sextet of views that  Map Compare function offers.  Starting from Geofabrik’s local town, Karlsruhe, which seems the default starting place for Map Compare, one can scan the different levels of information they supply, in a massive time-suck and complex compare-and-contrast exercise, moving a nice view of the area around the town’s central castle, that invites visitors to compare what sort of map they’d rather use to navigate the city’s groundplan and to do so with the grain and detail that best illuminate or shine a light on the fabric of its urban planning:

Central Karlsruhe

Moving around Karlsruhe, away form the castle, one can compare alternate mapping views, which offer their own alternative glosses on the fabric of urban space, and their own points of entrance to it:

8 Maps Karlsruhe

There’s a neat abundance, underscored by a healthy pinch of relativity, in this crowding of a variety of perspectives.  Although there is an association of certainty with the map, each of the above images, using different databases which are often protected by copyright, offer different tags to recognize and navigate exactly the same environments, some focussing on the greenery and paths through it, or the road maps and the presence of the national border near Durmersheim, and others letting the national borderline slip into barely detectable gray.  There is a certain healthiness in this plurality–a plurality underscored, in the case of OpenStreetMap, by the varied contributions individuals have made over time, a la Wikipedia, to its contents.  There is a crossroads at which each stand, between data and design, that reflects an attempt both to give and to parse the most useful information in attractive form, and to create a selective map that give each meaning:  as far as selectivity of its record of urban space, the Stamen Toner map in the lower left gives it the most prominent definition by far:  it is something like a bleached version of a diagram of urban design.  The notation of walking-friendly regions of the city in the “Hike and Bike” map offer something like an index of walkability; the OSM De map, made by local German mappers, provides the clearest model to navigate the network of the largest driving streets in Karlsruhe.

And we can follow each into the nation, at a similarly close scale, toward those regions on the French-German border, near Durmersheim.  The maps foreground the different natures of indicating not only country roads and trails, but the nature of national boundary lines, suggest fairly radically different selective views of the local landscapes.  Are roads more important, or is green space?

8 Veiws Maps of Durmersheim

Or, in a clearer juxtaposed context, closer to home, but with similar concerns for the mapping of green space, contrast the highlighting of lakes, freeways, or greenery of the countryside, which the German OSM details in its lakes and countrysides, whose rather picturesque palette of lakes and greens that contrasts with the blah matte of Google maps, in whose flattened 2D color scheme the lakes stand out, but paths to navigate the landscape are annoyingly muted:

Comparing Info Foregrounded in Mapped Landscapes in Germany

Even if the map in Stamen Toner offers the sharpest contrast, as a strictly road map, the German OSM offers a clearer–or crisper–reading of the autobahn’s highway system and its levels of classification–important to drivers, but mute on Google Maps.  The relatively unprocessed nature of the OSM platform, which after all privileges the local detailing of a landscape in ways that are argued to recover the craftsman like nature of remapping space, albeit in a digital format, and after all process the viewer’s relation to place in ways that champion the individual agency of the locally situated mapper’s techniques.  Rather than deriving form LandSat imagery, even if including the backdrop deriving from Bing to ensure its global coverage, thanks to the new friends it gained at Microsoft, or satellite imagery, the structure of OSM uses a form of illustrator that seek to rehabilitate the familiar values of accuracy and open debate in the creation of a local map:  we are all, OSM users say, digital mappers, and can take back the overdetermined datasets all too often passively read and interpreted via GPS.

It’s well known that the detail put into the OSM maps offer a less synoptic view point on areas without roads–or where one might be more likely to travel as a pedestrian or hiker on a dirt path.  Close to my home, OSM is widely favored by hikers in National, State or Regional Parks.  Moving to one of the world’s most strikingly beautiful areas, around Mt. Tamalpais in Marin, the pronouncedly different views of space offer distinct ways of negotiating place and terrain, from the relatively blanched Google Map view of the terrain of the State Park to the mock-lithographic topography of MapQuest or Bing to the comprehensive detail of OSM–more busy, for some, but extremely relevant to orient oneself to the world-famous green space:  the density of the trails around Mt. Tamalpais in Marin are perhaps extreme, but this isn’t information that one would want absent from one’s world mapping system (or data) and suggests an erroneously vacant image of the park:  and the absence of points of elevation from most all mapping platforms, even if all GIS data is always “imperfect,” reminds us of the importance of finding criteria of selectivity that are comprehensive enough.

Mt. Tam Visualized

The question of cartographical comprehensiveness in a sense resonates with the perennial fantasy of mapping a complete view of place or region, trumping the difficulties of distortion with which mapmakers have perennially struggled.  But comprehensiveness–or accuracy–is less the point than the filters on data that exist in the structures (and databases) of certain GIS platforms.  Questions of accuracy are relative to the sort of point of view that one wants to measure, to be sure, and elevation points or nature walks might not be relevant to some–or ski runs.  But the features of the landscape surely are, and so are the role of maps as tools by which we attend to those features.  Something of the distinction that French theoreticians like Jean Baudrillard made between media of film and television in relation to the human imaginary seems to offer an apt point of distinction between the collective visualizations of OSM and the muted visuals in Google Maps, derived from LandSat photographs:  there is no trace of the imagined relation to the place or region in the platform, which offers far less of a basis to imagine one’s own relation to the places that it maps.

Moving to the greener space of the northeastern United States as a test case, I wanted to examine in some detail the different features of each platform a region that I know well, using the scalable functions of each to zoom into a specific place in the green space of central Vermont.

The distinct landscapes of different mapping media nicely foreground the benefits of Geofabrik’s own Topo map, and the OSM counterparts that suggest even greater detail and differences in the options of roads, paved and unpaved perhaps–for long an important local question–as well as variations of landscape green.  While MapQuest provides some important basic detail here, OSM offers a better view of the greenery and scenery, encrypting more information at a great density, especially in contrast to the generic light greens of Google or Bing.  (Sure, you have the Google Earth function to toggle to, but having a single sheet–either on a screen or paper print out, is an important navigational and orienting tool.)

Map Compare-  Vermont and NH

Moving to a local landscape that I know even better at first-hand, in greenish north-central Vermont, we can alternate among a range of mapped views to foreground or highlight distinct areas of the topography and roads that run through the flattened map:  between the topographic views of a cycle map to the routes of a Hike & Bike, the simple landscapes of an Open Cycle map, or the austere Bing and generic Google Map with its crowding of place names at odd angles, while the OSM offer views of the greenery that few others can beat.
8 Maps Near Montpelier

As we focus on a clustering of lakes further south on the Interstate, scrolling down at a greater scale, the clustering of three lakes offers a specific point to contrast mapping styles and the different data they embody and store, out of which we might focus on the somewhat notorious bridge across the lake that occurs in six of the following eight maps, but which I can confirm exists, a bridge which, while on the other six maps, it’s never noted that one cannot drive across:

Lakes and Ponds near Brookfield VT

The contrast in mapping styles grows more evident around the smaller town of Brookfield proper, where the variety of map-signs offers a sharpened difference in perspectives on place:  the eight different conventions of noting the interstate are not only surprisingly different in color scheme to differentiate their source, but the mapped data seems surprisingly distinct in these images:  OSM Mapnik suggests a bridge, lined in black, and overpass, but both disappear in Google Map, and in Bing Sunset Lake disappears, while in none of them is the fact that the bridge is wood, floating, but mostly submerged, and closed much of the year to driving noted.  Not only is the coloration and breadth of Interstate 89 distinct in each, but so is the presence–or absence–of the small lake, the old wooden Floating Bridge that cuts across the Sunset Lake, and the foliage that surrounds Brookfield village itself.  But the inability to traverse that Floating Bridge, either in winter, when it is covered by snow, or in summer, since it has been blocked to all but foot traffic, made me smile at the multiple absences in the map engines arrayed below.  And, perhaps as important for motorists, which mapping renders the transformation of paved to unpaved roads?

Map Compare-  Brookfield VT x 8

What is the best way for a map engine to engage its viewers?  A slightly tweaked variety in another grouping of maps of the entrance to the floating bridge one can’t traverse by car, at magnified scope, suggests the range of arranging information in only one small intersection, and the need to constantly compare mapping forms for their different level of detail:  from the differences among dirt and paved roads, to the range of topographic detail, to the view that the so-called Floating Bridge is in fact perpetually sinking in Brookfield, VT.  At the end, it will all depend on what we want to see in maps, and the array is simply and increasingly boggling.


Dirt v. Paved in Brookfield VT x 8

For while Google has gobbled upwards of six million miles of streets for Street View, the interest in offering an accurate survey of the land surrounding seems to have eluded, as the aim of completing a complete set of photographs of place–as if to seduce us to allowing Google to maintain a system of location-awareness through it–may be removed from what we want to see when we trust the selectivity of the map. For a generation weaned on video, and gratified by the dazzling display of visuals, the sunny streets of Street View and panorama of Google Earth may be enough eye candy for some, but the need for selective filters and for improving semantic legibility in maps might well lead the best maps to be those that are most carefully iteratively refined.

Leave a comment

Filed under Compare Map, GIS, Google IP

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–




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:




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.





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.

1 Comment

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

The Map is Dead–Long Live the Map!

Participants at the symposium Mapping and Its Discontents debated the benefits of the near-ubiquity of uniform mapping systems sponsored and orchestrated by Google in our lives.  Many of the wonderful papers tried to suggest the benefits that mapping served as alternate ways of making visible the unseen and giving voice to the silenced–but did so with deep skepticism of the dominance of Google Map’s blandly undifferentiated surface, both as a sort of collective erasure of knowledge, and a sinister synthesis of gathering meaning about individuals’ consumption habits.  In this somewhat hopeful symposium, whose speakers urged the audience to go forth and map, Denis Wood offered a skeptical history of mapping as a form of art, focussing less on its craft than on the contexts in which it was read and exchanged–and the historical “explosions” of map making as a tool of state-making.

Although Scott McCloud does trace comics back through cave paintings and the Bayeux tapestry, something we recognize as a comic book it to printing and mass-production of paper in the mid-nineteenth century, the printed ephemera Alan Aldridge and George Perry first identified as antecedents to  the sort of fantastic album art he produced, we don’t see much we would recognize as a map until printing, Wood argues–and that the fifteenth century is a good place to start the history of maps.  But rather than peg the map to the material practices of the production of information, the ways of embodying information and need to embody networks of spatial organization reflect the new need of an emerging modern nation-state–as well, he might add, though he omitted it yesterday, the need to straighten out clear bounds of contact and digest the discovery of new worlds.  (One might object that rather than leave this entity of the “state” so monolithic, dual origins of causation can be seen in the Renaissance, both as a period of contact with new worlds and that gave currency to the creation of newly imagined worlds–the “other Green world” of Harry Berger–as joint ground in the poetics of making, reading, and reproducing the map.)

As longtime interrogator of the power of maps and enfant terrible of the cartographical establishment, Wood’s opening salvo called attention to how print helped differentiate the standardization of shared practice of mapping space from the genealogy, charter, systems of notation, almanacs, calendars, or rolls, maps served to conjure the state to existence in its graphic performance–and to conjure the state, in ways repeated in histories of Japan, Siam, and the United States, as Elizabeth Berry, Thongchai Winichakul, and Martin Bruckner have shown, as a natural object, when it was not before.  Any attempt to naturalize the map either as a depiction of the world’s surface or universalize its documentary function, he noted, including the celebration of the recent democratization of mapping skills that seem to dislodge authority from the map’s form, passes over the map’s role in the state and state formation as a form of spatial intelligence and spatial intelligibility.

We might do well to look for origins, Wood proffered, by asking exactly when it became a slur on a civilization that it does not use maps–or couldn’t read them.  The question was enticing because of how it raised questions of the ties of map making less as an instrumental tool of dominance over space, than a standard of civilization and knowledge–a standard of the sort that Graham Greene evoked in his postwar visit to Liberia, Journey without Maps (1949).  Although Greene’s visit to the colonial outpost was certainly a product of Africa’s partial colonization by European industry, and the end of English empire, his account reflects Wood’s point that maps exists only where social relations call for them exist:  that where talk serves, maps are rare; but that when talk becomes inadequate, alternative graphic forms of communications develop within the state–of which the map plays a central role.  Greene beautifully if parsimoniously evoked the elderly toothless man with whom he shared a boat ride at the end of his 1946 journey who suddenly approached him with a piece of pressing news:  “‘Do you know that in Monrovia they have a map of the whole of Liberia?  I’m going there to see it.  It is in the possession of a family called Anderson.  They have had it for years,'” he says wonderingly, suggesting amazement at the foreign family of colonizers who possess a map of the entire country in which he lives.  “‘Sinoe is marked on it,'” he continues, “‘and Grand Bassa and Cape Palmas,'” repeating what he has been told by others, but never having seen a map of his entire land.  The encounter might well have been invented by Greene, but created a topos for the encounter between the map-literate and native that presumed an eagerness for encountering a map–the map seems a sort of lodestone–that might be either a western fantasy or a deeper discovery of a land where, absent the myth of colonial organization, the residents don’t know maps, or an illustration of deep ties of mapping to the civilizing process delineated by Norbert Elias.

Printing allowed the map to penetrate the lives of people about 1500, unlike other forms of data-keeping:  for the creation of a map that penetrated the lives of ordinary people and readers effectively under-wrote social relations of power in very concrete, linking territory to other things in ways that advanced the making of maps and shifted the role of mapping as an enterprise:  we count only a few thousand maps prior the growth of the nation, but an explosion of the production of maps in the sixteenth and seventeenth century occurred of the sorts of which was never known, and parallels the map’s entry into individuals’ lives to a degree that never occurred earlier–a notion, as Wood long ago argued, of “map-literacy.”

Nations were indisputably the new arenas of this move to mapping, unlike the printed maps that were widely sold in Italian city-states or the Netherlands.  Earlier maps such as cosmological charts, star maps, or property charts of the Babylonian period or in Japan and England had legal purposes, but quite different from large-scale graphic property function in varied places around the world, and without participating in a map-making tradition in projects such as the mapping efforts of Phillip II to create detailed records of imperial possessions in the Mediterranean, or the huge map making projects of Louis XIV and Colbert that are tied directly to the state and to the material recreation of state sovereignty.  (Of course, this raises the question as to why maps first emerged as forms for advancing epistemic claims and embodying places in areas that were less clear as examples of the modern state, like Italian city-states or sites without empires like the Netherlands or whether the imaginative ends of mapping can be separated from their administrative ends.  Wood sees them as being as tightly tied as the sides of the same Moebius strip.)

It is in this arena of the state, Wood forcefully argued, that we can see the inauguration of modern topographical functions from real estate, to prisons, to cellphone use, to voting practices, to states rights, to a point at which we can’t consider life without maps.  The date 1500, far from being one of convenience, is something like a benchmark or velocity point for the new roles that maps began to play and that they continued to assume today–a point of no return, as it were, of the sort Ian Hacking drew to mark the emergence of probability at the date 1660.  Only after 1500, or in later periods, did mapping emerge as a way of life, Wood insisted:  if some fourteenth-century monks drew plans of their monastery, the idea was not widely or even narrowly pursued as a basis for collating evidence, or followed up on in ways that reflect the multiple functions maps came to assume.  There is a bit of utopianism here:  whereas human societies didn’t need maps, and got on well without them before 1200, he argued, noting rights and properties’ specific attributes in other ways,  the map’s discourse-function failed to develop itself as a means to exploit strategic resources and to have operable use and currency.  While he recognized the evidence of the creation of maps in Song-era China within select parts of well-established bureaucracies, only later did maps gain a large discourse-function of operability.   This may be a bit of a slippery logic, but argues that the “map” had new meaning at a certain point as an object of exchange, and that no properties inherent to its design exist save as such an object of exchange.  So much for its formal attributes.

Wood marked the birth of the map that is now perhaps dead  at this sort of a watershed:  in 1400, few used maps; by 1600, maps became inseparable from social functions in a global context that is itself only beginning to be mapped.  The abundance of eighteenth-century maps in China, or in the seventeenth century in Japan, and in Vietnam from the 15th and 16th century, and Mesoamerican and Malay maps in 16th century, are traditions that inaugurated in the early modern state.  Indeed, there is a weight of evidence to shift this change in the growth of European knowledge, and it reflects a massive rise of needs for map making to ensure border control, water management, land reclamation, military needs that just exploded with the state.  If even in Florence, Italy few maps exist from before 1565, Florentine, Neapolitan and Milanese mapping projects all exploded in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as they did in seventeenth century Japan, when thousands of government maps issue in Japan, and maps served to perform the form of statehood.  

What changed, Wood argues,  was that then new political structure of impersonal construction demanded new forms for its embodiment, and gained a propositional function that was absent from earlier map making traditions–a propositional function that was necessitated and called into creation by the state.  He recalled how Martin Bruckner showed how the image of the national map of the United States staked the proposition that there could be a tenable unity among this expansive nation, much as imperial maps of Britain tried to persuade readers on both sides of continent of imperial possession of north american content, as an artifact of state–both of these cases illustrate the new tangibility that the map assumed as a means of calling the expansive relation of the state into existence by the graphic performance of statehood that was newly enacted in the printed map, and which the map served to make legible.  As Thongchai has shown in his work on Siam, maps served to produce the very “geobodies” that become totemic through the map’s presentation of the state, creating a sense of unity not familiar to many, but able to normatize a nascent polity, and to instruct countless participants in the construction of our country–even without a clear idea of citizenship.  The skill of state apparatus lay in bringing routine of state practices to a larger audience, as Valerie Kivelson argues in Russia, down to a lower level of reading–as the map served, both in Japan and elsewhere, multiple function to against the images of other states and other imaginative constructions.  Identical patterns of map-use can be found in these cultures, and, not surprisingly, in the post-WWII state of Israel, founded in part by European Jews:  in each place, maps affirm the state, the state affirms the map, summoning unity from . . . chaos.

The medium of the map and its power as a form of synthesis arises as a new form of narration when other forms of narrative do not suffice–it is both the master-narrative and originary myth of the modern state.  And, indeed, maps have become so powerful to bring objects into being in concrete terms, that it would be impossible to discuss otherwise in a multitude of ways–from the nation to the distribution of electoral politics to the spread of fires to the ozone hole to El Nino.


Footprints of Actively Burning Fires--Google Map

Ozone Loss Map


The credence that maps create by linking subjects of propositions to a specific code enables these new subjects to be discussed, and in linking subjects of propositions like the state to the code inherent in mapping, and to real relations in the world, maps can come to signify the world, and networks of causation within it, as well as prospective statements for its future.  As Wood wrote in an earlier context, “Insisting that something is there is a powerful way of insisting that something is.  Mapped things–no matter how conceptually daunting–possess such extraordinary credibility because they’re capable of propelling into popular discourse abstruse abstractions:  high-pressure cells, El Nino, seafloor spreading, thermohaline circulation.”  Or global warming, or the the expanding ozone hole, earthquake swarms, or the global threats of desertification of arable land.  These curious abstractions enter public debate as concrete terms, if never clearly grasped, based on their cartographical realization.  It is, of course, only because of maps that these very issues can become contentious foci of public debate.


Tracing Sandy--Time Map

Prognosticating hurricane_sandy_map


The map serves double-duty a representation or a cloak, Wood makes clear.  Its two-fold duties are so effective to make creative practices of map making disappear, to make states affirm their role as real things of nature–even as maps obscured their own existence in the reasons of the state itself.   And if it’s hard to imagine that these artifacts as nations or concepts like ozone could come into creation, without the creative functions of the map, the wonder of the map is to link subjects of proposition signified (State) with signifiers constituted by their code–and to signify the world.  This might explain their clear currency as a form of realizing the make-believe, or fantastic, with a sense of actual concreteness by delineating a credible topography with which we can visually interact–especially while reading a text, and in whose creation we can indeed vicariously share, so powerfully creative do they affect their readers.

The use of maps to lend credence to propositions in the early modern world led them to embody abstractions from the map of “Utopia” Thomas More pointedly included in his dialogue of the same name, the maps of emotions Mme. de Scudery devised as Cartes de Tendre, or Jonathan Swift’s maps of Lilliput and Blefescu or Gunniland in his “proposal for correcting modern maps,” or–and here we leap centuries–modern ancestors such as Stevenson’s Treasure Island, whose fantastic claims to embodiment in maps extend all the way up to map of Middle Earth–and to those Christopher Tolkein subsequently expanded–whose publication and currency, he argued, led anyone with a computer software applications to make maps from Grand Theft Auto to map art, as map is congenial subject of exhibition.

More Utopia Map


Carte de Tendre

But are not these maps playful inversions of the operative roles of maps as tools of state–orchestrated by figures with close state roles, as More and Swift?  The role of middle-range cartographers from E.H. Shepherd to Christopher Tolkein to Jules Feiffer, to trace one genealogy, seems quite distinct.



Is the state’s stranglehold on cartography at last weakening, much as Wood asserts, even with the diffusion of mapping platforms and the availability of digital mapping tools?  Wood detects a twilight of the age of the paper map as leading to an end of the dominant role that maps of states once enjoyed as vehicles to view boundaries and confines of state possession and areas of juridical control.  This does not mean that maps are less used by the state.  But that the map is less the gripping tool of engagement whose history he has traced since circa 1500, the magic date from which maps were, he argued, so instrumental in conjuring the subject of the state and so successful in naturalizing its truth claims as part of our world.  This may be curious, because of the proliferation of digitized maps that defines potentially unwieldy concepts–global warming; the ozone hole; hurricane Sandy’s path; plankton algae bloom distributions–that can be latched onto in public debate and, occasionally, grasped.  Or, on a humanitarian level, the sort of crowd-sourced map of deaths in Syria’s civil wars, legibly tracking a succinct geographic table of the distributions of killings, rapes, revenges, and poisonings or the humanitarian disasters of the Syrian refugees whose number has far surpassed two million.

Crowd-Sourced Mapping of killings, rapes, revenges and poisoning


Syrian Refugee Crisis


We can also distinguish better and worse attempts to map  tragic humanitarian disasters among these visualizations.

One may, indeed, ask what constitutes the state today–and try to map it–or try to define to the widespread distribution of mapping functions within states.  Wood presented the insanely rising prices of old maps sold at auctions today as making something of a mockery of the idea that states so monopolizes the use of maps that it cannot but illustrate state functions.  But are not these maps, now evacuated of meaning and illusions of power, disquietingly assuming a role, retrospectively, as images of a world where power worked differently, or of an age when the design of maps was performed with such due diligence and care?

But Wood is perhaps too happy to say goodbye to the map.  If this grammar is not that much less operative, is it true that the state’s stranglehold on cartography is now weakening or has weakened?  Or that cartography–and the illusion of the map–has outlived its function as a basis to visualize the nation?  Wood doesn’t find that the state can any longer repeat the trick of naturalizing its own presence through the operations of naturalizing with GIS tools, partly because of their lack of similar persuasive skills.  But if it may be argued that the state has no need for the same truth-claims any more, as they are, somehow, finding themselves to be outdated, that doesn’t mean that the collective power of mapping does not exist outside the purview of the state, and as an activity of resistance and calling into being new information, as several other papers delivered at the same conference by Annette Kim and Rebecca Solnit showed.

But although maps arose in needs of nation state to take on form, and organize its interests, rather than seeing some sort of triumphalism continuing in the use of maps to shore up the nation-state, from Raleigh, NC, Wood doesn’t see the map as doing that good a job even as a tool of surveillance.  And he sees the use of maps to call attention to historical practices, and even to restore historical landscapes, as well as address issues of social justice, as marginal to the disappearance of the map as a tool of state control.  The declining efficacy of the sort of operations that maps were able to accomplish, he notes, seem to have contributed–notwithstanding the omnipresence of maps in our lives–to its declining authority, more than a ‘democratization of mapping’ can be celebrated. But as the functions of state-power also seem to be less clearly visualized–and preserved–by means of maps in an increasingly interdependent world where the concept of the boundaries of a map have less meaning as fabricating a category or signifier out of whole cloth, perhaps the map would enjoy new versatility as a tool outside the rubric of the state that so long sponsored it.

If one can talk about a geohumanities that extends beyond those with digital expertise, who engage in studying and producing the culture, that would depend on understanding of ‘map making’ not only as a practice, but as a verb engages other contexts, and a verb that offers something like a grammar in conversation that is specific to the map as an object, distinct from other accumulations of evidence, as well as appreciating the role of mapping as an art.  If in an age of such widespread collations and ordering of evidence, the paper map–and the official map–is somehow rendered obsolete, even as multiple maps continue to wage authority in ordering our lives.  But the ubiquity of Google Maps can be resisted, if only by making its origins better known, and its the limits of its practices evident.  To be seduced by their objectivity is surely to ignore the continued power that maps still have.  If maps continue to offer such a pleasurable area of exploration in Grand Theft Auto and other media, it seems likely that personal meanings maps afford provide not just diversions in the esthetics of map making, but appropriations of an all too familiar authoritative form to define boundaries of inclusion and exclusion, trace networks of meaning, and give stability to collective entities, even in the age of the slippy maps fabricated by Google that convert declassified satellite photographs to easily downloadable tiles.

Wood’s prognostication of the death of the map seems premature.  Perhaps we, as consumers of digitized information, pay attention to its grounding in geographic reality and its operations, and are also less susceptible to the sequestered codes contained within maps, or the truth claims of a single map’s persuasive form.   Perhaps the map’s near-ubiquity cannot but decrease its authority.  But we do seem to stand at the brink of a future where mapping is ever-present as a form of surveillance; perhaps a society in which power has learned to work in new ways, unmoored from maps to define power and realize or recognize its bounds, but has adopted mapping forms as dispersive ways to organize power claims.  But in this society, maps can gain new power as media to realize networks of which too few seem aware.

Wood suggests that the map is dead, perhaps, as a useful tool of conversion in the arena of state.  If the act of mapping seems less clearly situated in the arena of the state, or less dominated by the state, this does not mean that maps are media that don’t still mystify relations of power.  And if the leaks of Edward Snowden have shown that the state is surveilling us to a far greater extent than ever imagined was the case, Wood found little evidence that that has made so much of a difference, or that that helps states do much of a better job.  The query cannot but arise in response:  did the map ever do that much of a functional job, or only a basis for imagining a state that performed its functions well?  Long live the map, perhaps as a form of counter-mapping.

Leave a comment

Filed under Google Maps, infographics, mapping state interests, maps and state formation, newsmaps

Targeting Sites of Attack in Syria


Syria, for now, remains on the map.  But in the course of over two years civil war aged across Syria, the government of Bashar al-Assad has stock-piled chemical weapons as a last line of security in multiple sites.   President Barack Obama’s administration has made use of chemical weapons against Syria’s population a justification for military attacks against or intervention in the country.  But the prominence given to drawing this “red line” on the use of such weapons neglects to assess the pragmatic results of any intervention, and the nature of what form on-the-ground intervention in the relatively shifting state would take–or what ends such military actions would be able to serve.

The direction of the situation is not good, to be sure. The number of Syrians reported killed, abducted, gassed, or poisoned during the civil war over the past two and a half years, tabulated by Syriatracker, clearly centers the focus of violence around its capital city, Damascus, and is probably vastly under-reported:


Syria Tracker-  Missing, Killed, Arrested

The on-the ground situation is more complex than this map of reported violence:  especially if one looks at the disparate groups that have independently continued (or sustained) the ongoing rebellion against the Syrian government, or, even more strikingly, at the huge number of internally displaced Syrians, a number greater than anywhere else in the world; and the  number of Internally Displaced People is difficult to count; estimates are 4.25 million–almost 1 in 5 Syrians.  The consequences of this displacement are impossible to map.
The situation on the ground has provoked this displacement through the fragmenting of the Rebellion into multiple fronts.    An important and informative interactive Al Jazeera map of groups in the Syrian rebellion provides a far more complex measure of divisions among rebellious groups that have attracted different financial and military backing to overthrow Assad also challenging to map:  rebels on different fronts include the large Northern Front near Damascus to Aleppo Front, Idlib Front, and Eastern Front, some in uneasy relations to one another, and is worth examining in depth at its website, in order to understand the mosaic of divisions in a landscape whose sectors are often pointlessly divided between “rebel-held” and those where Assad is dominant:
Mapping Interactive Map of Syrian Opposition
Al Jazeera English
The above image of the fragmented nature of local control, and the independence of each group from one another, suggests the difficulty of defining a clear point of entrance and reveals the nature of ‘proxy war’ that has expanded over two years since the Arab spring, as the response to the Arab Spring of April 2011 that challenged the Assad dictatorship were almost randomly attacked by a violent militaristic security forces that echoed the violent tactics of Bashar’s father, firing live bullets into crowds of protestors and unarmed civilians, killing many innocent children, in acts of carnage and terror documented by Human Rights Watch as killing 587 civilians and over 250 children that emulated the theatrical mass-assassinations orchestrated against Syrians by his father, Haifez al-Assad.  The repressive violence of these events, before civil war, increased the range of foreign bankrolling independent factions of rebellion, which is misleadingly cast as uniform by a map of anti-government forces as the below two-color map devised for Max Fisher of the Washington Post, which borders on intentional political disinformation:
if not patronizing in the uniform color by which it designates “rebel presence” as a single block, as if to erase the nature of what David Brooks and others correctly identify as a “proxy war” and “combustion point for further waves of violence.”
We are ill-served to understand the nature of this “proxy war” by the reductionist attempt to map ethnic diversities in Syria.  Such a map implies that the many sectarian divisions masked by the creation of the Syria’s borders account for instabilities among rebel groups, as if they are inherent in a multi-ethnic state as an amalgam of faiths destined to implode, regardless of the brutality of the two generations of the Assad regime:
Yet the divided nature of the country lies in part in the improvised nature of resistance to a totalitarian regime, and the culture of violence that has been normalized within the Assad regime and within Assad’s security forces–the notorious Air Force Intelligence (إدارة المخابرات الجوية‎), whose ties to chemical weaponry have been substantiated in the recent past.
The drawing of stark divisions between areas controlled by different fronts and subject to government control obscure the near impossibility of drawing these lines of distinction along clear territorial boundary lines–and prepare a deceptively simple image of Syria’s future.  One BBC news-map helpfully re-dimensions the local conflict, mapping government positions toward the coast and eastern cities, around holdouts and temporary redoubts of rebel resistance–although clear mapping of their division is difficult given the shifting landscape of alliances and lines of territorial defence among highly mobile guerrilla forces, who often tactically withdraw, rather than face military engagement, but can’t map the shifting lines of opposition or control–or the relations between the fronts that are themselves supported by different constituencies in a patchwork of strongholds:
Mapping Syrian Conflict BBCBBC/Syria Needs Analysis Project
The map poses deep questions of what intervention would mean without a clear map even available to be read.  They also reveal how much the debate about war is being waged not only in words, but maps.  The focus of global attention is not only on the violence that has divided the country for over two years, to be sure, or the humanitarian disasters created by the many refugee camps on Syria’s borders, but allegations of the use of chemical weapons.  Yet the mapping of Syria’s disasters and composition are central to any discussion of military intervention.
And we now have a map of where strikes might be directed against air force bases and sites of chemical production, courtesy Foreign Policy magazine, which uses a Google Maps template to mark the storehouses of potential chemical factories and air bases targeted as primary sites of missile attack:

Air Bases and Chemical Sites in Syria


What sort of a vision of Syria as a country does it describe?  The visually striking deployment of skulls-and-crossbones icons to designate locations of plants that produce chemical weapons is scary, and so much so that it almost evokes incursions by pirates along the Mediterranean coast–as much as sites of chemical weapons.  (Of course, such sites would not in themselves be targeted, but the decision to avoid them depends on the accuracy of military intelligence; the decision to target all pharmaceutical factories also poses a  future crisis for already over-crowded Syrian hospitals.)  But it suggests a rather blunt map of the notion of military intervention, and reveals the difficulty of projecting a limited surgical strike against selective sites that are removed from the Syrian population.

In the light of the relative military success of the long-distance bombing strikes into Algeria, it seems tempting and morally compelling option to end the violence and self-evident terror of gas attacks by unseating the Assad tyranny, or by providing Syria with a clear warning–although what it would warn we are not sure–against purposefully deploying chemical agents against its citizens.

The map raises many questions by marking so many facilities along Syria’s Mediterranean coast.  It makes one wonder how such a map became so easy to reconstruct–and the wisdom of allowing such a plan of attack to be rendered public on the internet.  For the map suggests that strikes can be easily launched, in a sort of war conducted from aircraft carriers at a distance against Iran’s close ally, firing Tomahawk cruise missiles at them from American warships moved to the eastern Mediterranean–although it’s relatively easy construction has led many to openly wonder why such a detailed range of options would be publicly leaked by the White House in such detail, even indicating the targets of a strike of one to two days against fifty specific sites.  (Reuters found redeployment of many key army, air force, and security headquarters buildings in central Damascus that might attract U.S. cruise missiles, and poison storehouses, if not sites of production, could be moved.)  Would it be worth the potential danger of hitting a storehouse of sarin or FX?

Targeting chemical factories, moreover, does not address the likely existence of available chemical arms–although attacks render their release more likely. Every chemical plant is not the producer of sarin and mustard gas.  In imagining the raids on the air-bases and potential sites of chemical weapons, the map takes advantage of a registry compiled by the  Nuclear Threat Initiative locating where weapons are either manufactured or stored.  Yet despite the offensiveness of chemical gasses, their repellent nature, and their close historical association with threats or attacks of terrorism, what sort of counter-attack on the Syrian population the government would unleash as a response to the attack is not clear.  The attempt to paralyze Syrian aircraft who might attempt to deliver them seems worthy, but the bombing of potential plants risky at best. Bombing sites of chemical production doesn’t sound like that great an idea after all, however, since this would most likely disperse the very gasses that they contain–with more dangerous effects than the uses of Sarin or FX against the Syrian population–if such targeting would of course not be intentional.  The incommensurable relationship between an air-raid or selective missile strike with storage-sites of chemical weapons has led several to question the value of such attacks, even after knowledge that the government may have intentionally used poison gas against its own citizens.  There is a small likelihood of eradicating more than a small portion of stockpiled chemical weapons in the country, since, unlike biological weapons, most probably will only be widely dispersed by such a blast–and conceivably hurt civilians as they more widely and rapidly disperse, considerably raising the bar for “collateral damage.”

How any such sort of attack will change “action on the ground”–and the questions of what military strike can alter the humanitarian and moral disaster that Syria has already become–remind us of the pressing need to have a clearer map of the action on the ground than a Google Map can reveal, as we examine consequences of a “limited air strike” beyond the hope to cripple the Syrian airforce or discourage the terrifying possibility of further use of poisonous gas against an opposition–and ask if a “limited air strike” is possible in this complex geopolitical microclimate.

Lastly, the mapping of clear targets and divisions within Syria’s boundaries obscures a hidden map of refugees on the borders of the country.  As well as having internally displaced millions, the fragmentation of fronts in the country have created a growing humanitarian crisis in camps on Syria’s borders, and the 3.5 million refugees who are estimated to leave the country by the end of 2013 for neighboring regions, further fragmenting and dispersing the country’s population:


map refugees Syria by 2013 3.5 mill


In this color-coded map, the largest number of Syrian refugees (more than half a million) are situated in Lebanon, and just less than half a million are in Jordan and Turkey, and smaller numbers in Iraq and Egypt  – 161,879 and 75,456. This map poses a problem of how each of these countries respond to the crisis:  such a data-visualization fails to render the different immediate challenges of each refugee family, their poverty, and their amassing on the borders of each region, rather than throughout the country.  In short, this is a humanitarian disaster waiting to be mapped.

Given the difficulty in mapping the multiple divisions within the country into rebel and government forces, and the crises of internal and external displacement of Syria’s population, we must resist seeing mapping clear targets of attack.  The maps of clear divisions in the country as a clear opposition of forces are distorting filters that are more distracting than they are informative, with overly neat and tidy boundary lines.  The complex conflicting rebel factions supported by backers, and the sort of power vacuum that would be created by significant and serious destablization of the country or desperate responses (or the shifting of responsibility) that strikes against the country’s remaining inhabitants might trigger.

Syria’s conflict of course exists not only as a map of frontiers and inhabitants.  Worldwide, it should be remembered, there remains significant opposition to military intervention, charted by Mona Chalabi and Charlotte Henry in the The Guardian’s datablog–not only because of longstanding alliances between Iran and Syria, or Syria and Russia, but exceedingly complex questions of what ends intervention would accomplish–and what outcomes it would produce, as well as how it would be sustained.



Condemnation of Intervention


Viewing the conflict in Syria not only through the lenses of national alliances, but by what can be best mapped on the ground, must become more central to US foreign policy objectives.  We cannot “chastise” or “wound” the Assad regime without realizing that we may wound the country, or erase it from the map.


Filed under Mapping Chemical Weapons, mapping ethnic groups, Mapping Targets, newsmaps, Syrian Civil War