Tag Archives: news maps

Cartographies of COVID-19: Our Unclear Path Forward

While we watch the progress of the pandemic on screens, in a difficult circumstance of trying to orient ourselves to the GPS-enabled scales of its spread, we look at pretty limited and almost superficial data. We track reported cases, hoping that these limited datasets will provide orientation, while not really following the pathways of its transmission, and the microscopic scale of the progress of the pathogen in bodies. And if we rely on or expect data visualizations will present information in readily graspable terms, we rarely come to question the logics that underly them, and the logics are limited given the poor levels of global testing for COVID-19.

Even as we map what seem total global knowledge of the disease, analogous to what we have come to expect from Global Positioning System, the multiple holes in our picture of the spread of the disease provide little sense of mastery over the pathways of communication, contraction, and infection we have come to expect from maps. These maps may even be especially disorienting in a world where expertise is often dismissed in the United States–not only by the U.S. President, but out of frustration at the inability to distance, diagnose, track or supervise the disease that is increasingly threatens to get the better hand. Have our visualizations been something of a losing battle, or a war of atrophy we will not win? If we were cautioned by a dismissed biomedical researcher who ran efforts to develop a vaccine we lack that the failure a trusted, standard, and centralized plan for testing strategies must play a part in the coordinated plan “to take this nation through this response,” said Dr. Bright, who was abruptly removed last month from his position as head of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority. We have limited statistics, alas, in large part as fear of providing too many tests–or fanning the flames of insecurity that testing might promote in the general public and in our financial markets, seem to have created the most dangerously deceptive scenario in which the United States seems to be committed to projecting confidence, even if it is the global epicenter of the spread of the highly contagious novel coronavirus.

Have we developed a language to orient ourselves to the scale of emergency in the spread of COVID-19? While we turn to images of natural disasters in describing the “epicenter” of the outbreak in Wuhan, this hardly conjures the species jump and under-the-radar communication of the virus that was not tracked for months before it emerged as a global threat. In tracking COVID-19 globally, or over a broad expanse of nations or states, we often ignored the pathways by which the novel coronavirus is spread in crowded spaces, where the single strand of RNA may hang in droplets that linger in the air, and are looking at the small scale maps to track a microscopic pathogen. But we are increasingly aware the spread of these strands, of the virus SARS-CoV-2, that infect populations along increasingly unequal fault lines that divide our cities, nations, health care systems, and crowding, or access to open space, are all poorly mapped in the choropleths into which we continue to smooth the datasets of infections and hospitalizations. While the problems are posed for national health services in each region, the devastation and danger of overloading public health systems and hospitals outweighs are local manifestations of a global crisis of the likes we have not confronted.

And the crowding of such numbers beyond the buffers that began with lead to a visual crowding by which we continue to be overwhelmed–and will have been overwhelmed for some time.

For although the global pandemic will clearly be with us for a long time, spatial narratives might be more likely to emerge in networks and in forms of vulnerability, in ways that might reveal a more pronounced set of narratives for how we can respond to a virus than the deep blues of even the limited and constrained datasets that we have, as we struggle against the blindness we have in containment and mitigation, and the frustration of the lack of anything like a vaccine. (This pandemic is almost a metastasis of the anti-vaxxers: confirmation that a vaccine cannot check a disease, it gives rise to concerns that vaccinations might have left us immunologically more vulnerable to its spread . . .and a sense that the hope of eradicating COVID-19 by the availability of a vaccination in four to five years will be widely resisted by anti-vaxxers and their acolytes, to whom the pandemic has given so much new steam. Yet as the virus interacts with the viral posting of anti-vaxxers resisting social distancing or collective policies of response, the stresses that exist in our society will only be amplified.) And if as late as February 24, only three laboratories in the United States did test for COVID-19–artificially lowering public numbers–even confirmed numbers through March and April were as a result tragically low. Could maps even help to track the disease without a testing apparatus in place?

Global Covid Infections/Datascraped by Avi Schiffman, May 11, 2020

The prestige of the data visualization has been a basis for reopening the nation. Yet if less than a tenth of the world’s population has yet to be exposed to the disease–and perhaps only 5% of the American population, in one estimate, if not lower–the virus is bound to be endemic to the global landscape for quite a considerable length of time. At the same time, one must wonder if the many fault lines that have created such peaks and valleys in the virus’ spread, if confirming its highly infectious nature, to be sure, are not removed from us in some degree by the smooth surfaces of the screens on which we watch and monitor, breath bated, with some terror, its spread, unsure of the accuracy or completeness of the data on which they are based but attentive to whatever they reveal. In many ways, these maps have created an even more precarious relation to the screen, and to the hopes that we find some sign of hope within their spread, or hope to grasp the ungraspable nature of COVID-19.

These datamaps suggest a purchase on a disease we don’t understand, and we don’t even have good numbers on contraction. Yet we are discussing “reopening” the United States, while we do not have anything approaching a vaccine, let alone the multiple vaccines that medical authorities desire before resuming social contact at pre-pandemic levels. How to process the data that we have, and how to view the maps not only by hovering, zooming in, or distancing the growing rates of infection, but tracking the virus in spaces, mapping levels of infection against adequacy of testing, mortalities against comorbidities, against with the chronic nature of the virus must be understood, as well as levels of hospitalization levels; and distinctions or mutations of the virus and against age ranges of afflicted–by, in other words, drilling beneath the datasets to make our maps’ smooth surfaces more legible, as horrifying as they are?

Can we use what we have to pose problems about the new nature of this contagion we don’t fully understand, but has been mapped in ways that seek to staunch fears of a decline in the stock market, as much as an emergency of public health, with up to one third of the population at risk of infection? The instinctive reaction of the Trump Health and Human Services to create public-private “community testing sites” for drive-thru or drive-up testing at Walgreens, CVS, Rite Aid, Kroger and other pharmacies seems reflexive for a government wanting to minimize federal overhead, but a far less exact means, and a far less intuitively sensible basis to attract potentially infected individuals to sites of public congregation. The hope of Verily–a subsidiary of Alphabet, whose Project Baseline boasts the slogan, “We’ve Mapped the World, Now Let’s Map Human Health,” in a bizarrely boosterish rhetoric, aggregates medical for medical screening in California–

Select States for Project Baseline Testing/Verily

–and select states–was the primary response that Trump had promised of a network of drive-up testing sites that has never materialized, even as it expanded to a hundred sites in thirty states. After Walmart opened two sites, and Walmart 40, the difficult accuracy of creating multiple testing sites was prohibitive, the testing sites that were rolled out with the assistance of private entrepreneurs that Jared Kushner enlisted, that filled the absence of any coherent public health response–perhaps, terrifyingly, in concert with his brother’s health care company, Oscar, which also partnered with CVS and some of the same pharmaceutical services, focussing on drive-thru sites more than sustained medical care, focussing largely on calming retailers who feared the arrival of infected patients on their parking lots, more than on the efficacy of testing, which they didn’t understand. If only 40% of promised test kits were made available, the absence of providing staffers or selling, as in Massachusetts, self-testing kits–and failing to provide many in large cities like New Orleans, as if to keep the final tally of infected artificially low. While hoping for eight million tests by mid-May, or a doubling of existing rates, the kits relied on automated testing of Thermo Fisher, and lacked clear oversight, and the machine was unknown to Medicare’s innovation chief, and based on trust..

The network expanded to those places judged to be of “greatest vulnerability,” but leaving multiple underserved communities at considerable cost to developing an accurate databank. The initial decision to ration test kits played out by early May into a situation when only 3% of Americans were tested, dangerous for a virus who displayed few signs of the illness when most contagious. The fear of spooking the markets may have outweighed the need for responding to the health threat, suggesting the prudent nature of a reaction that would have most appealed to Trump to not rankle the public or provoke widespread panic, more sensitive to his public perceptions than the demand of his office..

The slow spread of the idea of “testing sites” in such public-private drives, as much as serve patients, created an absent baseline for public testing, to be provided by Verily’s Baseline platform not in a form of medical coverage or in HIPPA security standards, if it supports compliance. The project is intended as a roll-out of a new form of medical record keeping for the long term, not specific to COVID-19, or a minimal data collection service for initial run-through of a model to allow medical tracking and widespread screening and testing to compile public health data–not a means of ascertaining levels of infection, which prevented Americans from developing anything like a clear picture of the spread of the epidemic–even as we looked to the world, viewing the spread of the novel coronavirus through buckets and lenses of national sovereignty. Initial tests were confined to those who were within six feet of something infected with COVID-19 or had been in China or Wuhan. Unlike the regular updates on H1N1, SARS, or Ebola, the public health threat was minimized, and no clear infrastructure of pandemic response was created.

“Above all,” said Anthony Scaramucci about his experience in the Trump administration, “you must never make him feel ignorant.” Did an absence of medical expertise in confronting the disease Trump was able to field make it difficult to read the disease but as a possible threat to the booming stock market Trump viewed as his greatest accomplishment? The content at the metric of economic growth outweighed the absence of a cabinet-level position of public health. The problem of embodying the disease extends to how well we are able to bring ourselves to read the dizzying tallies of the infection rates we seek no longer to contain–there are no clear edges with the pandemic, almost by nature–and it may make far more sense to learn to map susceptibilities and vulnerabilities to the disease by digging into the large aggregates of infections that dizzy, but demand to be better grasped if they can be translated into health care, rather than alarm. And the deeper problem, that will be the focus of the bulk of the post, is the difficulties of scale at which we continue to parse the disease by localities, acting as if the geotracking that we developed for humans make sense to track migration of a zoonotic virus that does not know frontiers, but travels in pathways of shared space and surfaces, in ways we have not learned how to track.

And if we are constrained in mapping or processing COVID-19 by the resistance to consider it a global pandemic, retaining national counts as we depend on national senses of order, well-being, and national health services if not universal health care, the alleged national problems of confronting COVID-19 should not conceal the the unfolding narrative is global, and global in ways we are not used to map–especially not in our narratives of pathogens’ transmission, or in distracting narratives of national levels of infected populations in different nations–as if the virus respected boundaries, or tabulation practices were uniform or uniformly distributed across the globe. The limited data we have for our maps, and frustrating inability to frame narratives from the maps, reveals the dependence of good data visualizations on good data, and the complexity of trying to map the virus on sufficient scales to comprehend its global spread. Perhaps this is because there is no clear narrative that has emerged, but it is also because we are viewing the sheer numbers of reported infections in a freeze-frame, overwhelmed by needs of mitigating its spread, no longer able to contain the virus that we seem destined to live with for a far longer period of time than we were able to admit.

And the Distractor-in-Chief seems bound to introduce red herrings that obscure the spread of COVID-19, imagining that not wearing a mask is a sign of strength and resistance, as he questions the accuracy of testings, rather than using Presidential authority to expand testing nation wide in a true emergency–the first encountered, perhaps, in his presidency–although abilities of mitigation are not being considered broadly so much as deregulation, tax breaks, financial incentives, and while best practices have not been defined. As if embracing the false data maps of national differences in tallies of infection for his own ends, Trump has insistently warped the need for international global virus response to national competition for lower numbers, pointed the blame abroad, and failed to expand testing in critical ways, as if to obscure the map intentionally and muddy our waters. (Indeed, without needed testing, we don’t even have a sense of the accuracy of the maps we make.)

As we move toward hopes for mitigation of the virus that has explosively arrived in our major cities, penitentiaries, centers of butchery, old age homes, and hospitals, we face problems of lacking a close-grained maps able to track the different scales by which it has been contracted to gain much stability on the virus’ spread that might give us a better bearing on its future, but are seized by often unwarranted senses of false security from existing maps. While infections spread around the globe, it was somehow fitting that the American President spread disinformation, seeking to provide encouraging spin, probably with the advice of Jared Kushner, a man who believes spin is all, as his father-in-law, as Laura Ingraham and other Trump surrogates declare hydroxychloroquine’s availability to be the “the beginning of the end of the pandemic” as we know it, as infections confirmed in the United States approach 900,000.. For the logic of the “America First” premise on which Trump was elected President, and is conducting a new campaign for re-election, run against the very global nature of the pandemic.

While the pandemic is a stress test for our societies, and for the global response to a disease that has spread along the very lines that bind the world together–from airline routes to public transit, from markets and public spaces to institutions of learning, public health, schools–it is also a stress-test on mapping tools, putting new pressures on how we can better track the diseases, reveal the continued validity of maps and tracking apps, and use sufficiently finely grained tools whose dashboard remains global by default from March 11, when it was declared a pandemic,–reflecting global spread of confirmed infections across seven continents–

–to early May, when the United States, after having subtracted itself from global health authorities, and cut its substantial contribution to the World Health Organization, which it accused of undercutting American interests, had itself become the new “epicenter” of infections worldwide.

Johns Hopkins COVID-19 Global Dashboard/May 5, 2020

The maps are striking, but the small-scale conventions of their global purview are almost designed to mislead. These aggregations of confirmed cases of the disease, that show a global map riddled with red dots, fail to describe the pathways that the virus takes, although they stand as a riveting proxy for its spread across a national map. Toward the end of March, the global nature of the disease was overwhelming, identification of “hot-spots” overwhelming, and tallies of cases and mortality cognitively overwhelmed. Was this globalism, or globalization as we had never so vividly seen it, presented on our screens in vivid color, a newly frozen world trying to process its losses and their scale, as we finally acknowledged the global pandemic? Could we re-orient ourselves to the global scale of the pathogen’s spread?

Or did we need a new sense of the multiple scales on which COVID-19 was transmitted by human contact in crowded spaces the increasingly overlap with one another–and another of the United States’ increased separation from the global accords before the disease? If lingering diseases were associated with poorer countries and environments, the global migration of the novel coronavirus has become a point of fascination and a terrifying passively received spectacle on global media, transcending any government’s control, and reminding us of the difficulty of containing the ease with which it is contracted, drowning the viewer in confirmed cases with little actual geographic or demographic specificity and little distance.

March 20, 2020

We faced an immediate existential level of meaning and alarm in the appearance of infections that seem to proliferate like an actual organism over a huge expanse, triggering a sense that there is not only no “escape” from the virus, but that is proximate to much of the world’s population. And if the Trump administration has almost worked to prepare us for a global pandemic in the cruelest of ways, by cutting back our own scientific presence in the health care system in China to monitor emergent zoonotic pathogens like the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, or the international branches of the CDC and NSF, or even by demeaning the recommendations that the CDC and other health officers offer the nation as overly restrictive, the failure to prioritize or value testing and best practices of the mitigation and containment of infection, which began far earlier than the United States officials or government publicly noted.

1. We watch the progress of the pandemic on screens, while sheltering in place, uncertain of how what is moving across the country can be tracked with precision. The drama of mortality scenes that have multiplied to become far more present in our consciousness than we ever thought possible in a modern era seem to haunt us, destabilizing our sense of life and death, leading us to turn to cultural resources we hope will provide some form of orientation, because the data is so hard to look at, and so difficult to parse. Never has Washington, D.C. seemed more removed from a global crisis, and America, the new epicenter of the virus’ spread, seemed harder to orient ourselves to as we enter a new stage of emergency and a new status quo of disorientation, the inequities of health care and paucity of testing equipment parallel a problem of gaining bearings by our maps.

The pandemic outbreak was for far too long mis-mapped as lying only in China–exploiting the rhetoric of nationalism not commensurable with the meaning of a pandemic–before the narrative became global, if it of course we long suspected that it was not only local. On January 30, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross affirmed energetically to the nation the infection afflicting up to 8,100 in China “will accelerate” jobs’ return to the US, predicting a “reshoring to the US. and some restoring to Mexico” that used the obsolete markers of shores as a unit of economic integrity that should have left us worried for its dissonance with an globalized world, as interruption of supply chains affected American industry based in Hubei, from processors to electronics: but as Apple hurriedly shifted jobs from computers and phones from China, Trump’s desire the United States companies act to relocate operations from China seemed more in sight as the coronavirus was almost readily interpreted as, in fact, a financial bonanza for the United States.

Is it surprising that there is not a health officer in the Cabinet?

The dominant White House interpretation of data about the disease is a logic of the continued extraction of profits, not only of tax breaks and stimulus packages, but outright profitability from pharmaceuticals that have no clear relation to the virus (hydroxychloroquine . . . ); tests that prove to offer little useful accuracy in testing (the “great test” Trump promoted from Abbott Labs, ID NOW . . . ); limits of the reliability of serological tests; and the involvement of members of the “first family” in automated health advice that provides a poor, tragic, empty substitute for health care. Trump had promoted hydroxychloroquine on March 19 as a “game-changer,” echoing the words by which FOX’s Laura Ingraham endorsed the drug in an interview tie Gregory Rigano, a Long Island attorney who had been promoting the treatment in a much-retweeted GoogleDoc, broadcast March 16: the broadside designed with the appearance of scientific validity incorporated the theories of French virologist Didier Raoult–whose work had spurred a rise in internet rumors as to its efficacy, from late February to early March: Raoult’s findings gained currency through block-chain investors and Elon Musk, who valued the lack of clinical validation or trials, claiming hydroxychloroquine “efficient on SARS-CoV-2, and reported to be efficient in Chinese COV-19 patients.”

Trump promoted the drug championed by investors and speculators without clinical grounds: without endorsement from the medical community, the rash of social media interest led to accelerated stockpiling and strong-arming scientists to approve an emergency authorization of the antimalarial for widespread patients hospitalized with COVID-19 infections. With revaluation of real dangers of cardiac arrest after taking the anti-malirial was it withdrawn, and the National Institute of Health undertaken the large study of the very untested cocktail of drugs Dr Raoult had promised, after stockpiling of twenty-min million hydroxochloroquine pill Despite fears of its ties to paranoia and psychosis, and cardiac arrest, Trump endorsed the dangerous drug in a widely shared March 21 tweet, following discussion Dr Raoult, who found the President a true entrepreneurial mindset needed to promote a drug without testing: the drug during White House briefings in early April, and advocating its use by non-symptomatic Americans take the drug–before telling the nation he was regularly taking it himself by mid-May. At that point, the FDA withdrew its qualifying cautions of side-effects, as Trump gloated that “What has been determined is [the compound of drugs] doesn’t harm you,” attacking studies that questioned its safety as partisan. While the Food and Drug Administration restricted hydroxychloroquine as a coronavirus treatment in hopsital settings, given “reports of serious heart rhythm problems” in virus patients who had received the drug, Trump questioned the study as “a Trump enemy statement,” deploying Manichean logic of a paranoid by discrediting the Veterans Association study as the work of “people who aren’t big Trump fans,” elevating demonization above scientific verification and linking the drug to his brand. Was the popularity of the drug to boost collective consent to his opinions amidst a public health emergency as COVID-19 infections grew across multiple states.

Was the promotion of this potentially deadly drug that has not been tested an attempt to restore trust in an administration that has failed to assemble a coherent public health strategy, but eager to promote a market for drugs ? The weaknesses reveal the dangers of trusting in “the private sector” Trump celebrated to respond to a public health crisis.

After the fourth product form Abbott Labs testing for COVID-19 was fast-tracked for “emergency use authorization,” an emergency authorization of hydroxycholoquine issued, and 30 million tests ordered for May with 60 million to be shipped in June, for administration at CVS stores for drive-through testing in mid-April, were serious questions raised about the very tests intended to replace WHO test-kits the United States had refused. Whereas Trump had promised that the fast-tracked would start “a whole new ballgame” in containing COVID-19, it seems as if it may be the same game of for-profit corruption: with the efficacy questioned as of clinical viability by Langone Medical Center, the test is tied to a health insurance company Kushner and his brother Joshua founded, Oscar, whose fast-tracking eliminating review strikingly occurred after the FDA tightened rules for coronavirus antibody tests, based on Abbott Labs’ own claims.

Trump seemed to be defending American enterprise in providing tests in his public addresses. What seemed product placement to many–if not an endorsement–may have backfired as an attempt to seem in possession of actual testing technology. Rather than accompanied less by an effective roll-out overseeing state testing, the promise to provide a list of labs promising to fill tests that has not produced viable results for state health agencies, and insecurity about the clinical value of testing devices’ results, prematurely proclaiming his administration’s victory over the pandemic.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Mandel Ngan/AFP

Seeming every more like a TV host, or as if he were foregrounding a prize in a series of Reality TV, the President-with-Teleprompter promised a revolution of diagnostic practice as if it ws about to arrive, yet again, even though the promise of further testing and better data did not arrive.

Was this even recognized as a crisis in public health? Far from it, for this administration. President Trump’s own economic advisors looked at maps with little interpretive skill or outright duplicity, noting “We see no material impact on the economy,” leading Larry Kudlow to insist “the pandemic is, of course, in China, not the United States,” underlining “no material impact” on America’s vibrant economy.

Google Trends for “Pandemic,” February 3 2020-April 15, 2020

Was this a misunderstanding, distortion, or pathological? Was not any pandemic a global event? Americans would only rush to clarify the meaning of “pandemic” a week into March–even as some within the administration noted the absence of any protection for the novel coronavirus in terms of a cure or vaccine left the country vulnerable, as if it was failed to be included in the pandemic or could be localized. In early February, the government was assuring the nation that the United States has only had 13 confirmed cases of the virus, on Feb. 11,–mis-mapping the virus to dissuade closer scrutiny of the pandemic’s scope–“pandemic” only really jumped as a Google search after March 9 in the United States, despite a bump in searching in late February: we were watching something else on our screens, bracketing the possibility of a pandemic. Yet even as we acknowledge the pandemic, the flatness of the maps we watch on screens seems all to easy to place at a remove, and paralyze us before its spread, much as they mask the divides within the nation that is exposed to infection or the topography of risks that might be managed or addressed.

The rhetoric of COVID-19 was tantamount to an epidemiological re-centering, mis-mapping of attention in a time of emergency. The adoption of the talking points social media supplied through the that was born in the anesthetized cocoon of social media offered a meme more than a logic: the retweeting of the charge that linked China, the danger of the novel coronavirus, and the Border Wall conceit was born in the feed of a combative coordinator of right-wing student outreach, eager to map the danger Trump promoted in combative terms: the meme tying protection a “Border Wall” could offer against infection only amplified Trump’s earlier assertions it was the border wall that would prevent the entrance of the coronavirus COVID-19 on late February, in Charleston, S.C., turning attention to his signature piece of policy, so often described as “going up fast” and recasting it as a basis to stop the spread of coronavirus, which led Trump to retweet the specious speculation of a man who cut his teeth on Breitbart: “With China Virus spreading across the globe, the U.S. stands a chance if we can control our borders”–to his 77 million followers. The mismapping gained so much traction to identify the origin of the novel coronavirus that the geographic origin was elided with national agency in talking points of Trump’s followers, as the virus–blamed on America in Iran–was blamed on bad human actors for having globally circulated or mismanaged without credibility:

The March 10 tweet was expanded in Trump’s address to the nation that described his closure of borders as a response to the COVID-19 outbreak, as if a proven panacea among States of Emergency might credibly recycle the maps of previous one.s that he had welcomed on the southwestern border Even as Trump endorsed mapping of a containment of COVID-19 in Europe and China, he seemed to manufacture a sense of national safety removed from the actuality of global viral transmission, whose rates of infections were already exponentially growing in the United States.

Is the notion of localizing a pandemic in China outright deception or sloppy thinking, or an attack on logic, projecting the pandemic onto an obsession of walling up national space? Is the poor mapping of the disease to blame, or did an image of global economic competition between nations provide a lens through which viral transmission was mediated, among members of Trump’s team less familiar with epidemiology, and more habituated to defer to The Donald, lest they be fired from the White House or COVID-19 Emergency Response Team, which when it was formed in mid-March, just after the search for “pandemic” on Google escalated in the United States, used a designated landline (not even toll-free!) to report cases of suspiciously high temperatures of a fever over 100.4 o F, 202-586-COVID?

Can we create more cartographies that show the inequities of the virus’ spread, or the danger in which its spread has based vulnerable populations? There was less interpretation of the advance of disease against the range of national vulnerabilities or susceptibilities about which we knew already–or suspected–

–that should force us to look at the uneven landscape of health and wellness, with sudden clarity, in an era when the danger of COVID-19 comorbidity elevates the presence of hypertension to the leading cause of death among the terrifying jump in fatalities in New York City in its worst days of increased mortality, which underlies the need to map against health risks particularly present in those most at risk.

In part, this can be localized. The danger of susceptibility to the highly infectious coronavirus in assisted living facilities and those of nursing care in the nation, privately developed by the Society for Post-Acute and Long-Term Care Medicine to confront the need to distribute protective equipment (PPE) and other resources to contain COVID-19

 “Heat map” of COVID-19 within assisted living communities and nursing homes

The range of dangers from diabetes to asthma to senescence provide problems to integrate into statistical maps or data modeling, because they invert the categories of danger of man diseases, like diabetes–that create a different map of health risk.

Danger of Diabetes: County-by-County Risk/U.S. Health Map

IN the case of quickly advancing dangers of infection, often managed remotely in an age of distance-learning and tele-medicine, there is also the risk of entering a new topography of medical care, defined by in regions far from medical care less well-served by access to medical expertise–often important in a disease where quick diagnosis may be late in arriving, and proximity to ICU wards, respirators, and caregivers may be as crucial as proximity to a testing center.

–or access to hospital beds.

Hospital Bed Availability by Region in a Moderate Scenario for COVID-19 Infections

2. What was the dominant narrative of viewing the potential spread of the virus, and what sort of narratives were associated with them?

A wishful thinking informed choropleths of outbreaks that suggested that the health care crisis could be contained–or was contained!–that obscure the deep disparities to health care and even of maintaining distancing and cleanliness, vital to issues of national security as well as forms of empowerment and tools of survival. Should we start a finer-grained map of the country, whose layers called attention to the dangers of places where social distancing is less in place or easy to maintain–like ocean liners, Wuhan markets, New York City’s outer boroughs, or more crowded neighborhoods, with less access to open space? It increasingly seems that the uneven geography to which the choropletss we have inherited from old models of data visualization are spectacularly blind from levels of class, uneven health care, exposure to pollution or overcrowded living conditions, that they, indeed, seem to naturalize in their appeal to a miasmatic notion of disease transmission or effluvia–common to many of the first statitistical data visualizations of cholera, like the London maps developed by Richard Grainger, and Dr. John Snow. The uneven geography of the nation should not be bleached from our own choropleths in an attempt to explain or communicate the topography of infection that is increasingly apparent.

For the changing actual maps of national distribution of the illness as they evolve reveal an expanding growth of infection rates along the Mississippi, in Florida and the US South, as well as southern California, Chicago, and Detroit.

Although notions of containment were long gone by April 15, 2020, the notion of sites of focus for the disease still seem to underly the maps of “hotspots” that were made by mid-April, a month after the declaration of the pandemic, as we should have been watching, studying, and responding to the populations affected in greater detail than as below, COVID-19 infections in total in ocher and per 100,000 in red–an attempt to suggest some specificity of density, bt which results in grouping New York/New Jersey and Massachusetts as one red almost vibrating blob that troublingly recalls a radiating miasma.

The intersection of such maps and those of “hot spots” of disease with places where social distancing is impossible or unable to be performed is striking, as is the relation to poor air quality and ambient pollution that could create a virtual comorbidity by compromising the linings of lungs. Long-term exposure to air pollution–a metric of asthma and respiratory impairment–may well map onto vulnerability to greatest compromise by COVID-19. We might consider how such exposure affects the lungs and surfaces of the lungs that COVID-19 attaches, and seems to make some more susceptible to infection and death on the cells lining the lungs, settling in the alveoli that tiny air sacs where oxygen enters the blood stream–and which the virus uses as a launching pad to enter the body, presenting a respiratory illness able to leave lasting damage to the lungs?

For once the virus invades the respiratory tract of the individual, as it makes its way into the lining of the lungs, it seems as if it would be encouraged by any compromise in the lungs’ functions–from circulation to senectitude–for those among whom any irritation or infection could be more consquential.

The often ignored fault lines that exist in the landscape of health in America that underlie this uncertain data distribution, underscored by the fact that low-income jobs in the service economy, retail, delivery, or gig economy fields both offer few health care options or sick leave and cannot be performed remotely, and the tie of income to higher rates of chronic health conditions that can provide cases of comorbidity–from diabetes to asthma to heart disease, significantly increasing vulnerability to COVID-19.

The concentration of air pollutants is by no means a sole filter to interpret the data maps, but high particulate matter is one metric and needed sort of stability to read the overpowering spikes of mortality on the east coast, hard to maintain any bearing to, in the midst of an increased stress at the witnessing the rapidity of COVID-19’s spread and high infectivtivity. As the nature of overcrowded spaces encourages its notorious infection rate, the concentration of particulate matter in the atmosphere has been linked to increased COVID-19 morbidity by Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, who find sustained exposure to air polluted by particulate matter above 13 micrograms/cm maps map onto increased mortality, affirming the pronounced role of anthropogenic environmental changes on chances of contracting the disease. Francesca Dominici, co-director of the Harvard Data Science Initiative, argued “only 1 gram per cubic meter in fine particulate matter in the air associated with a 15% increase in the COVID-19 death rate;” we now find increased incidence of infections in polluted Southern California counties, as well as the rise of cases of infection, presumably from a lesser load, as confirmed cases grow by over 2,000 daily and collective deaths have passed 80,,000–drenching the continent by mid-April in red, as cases of infection bleed across the entire land.

But the “cartographies of COVID-19” that we are invited to navigate on digital platforms are often organized by the inheritances and tools of data visualization that, as statistical models, see outbreaks and diseases in relation to the state, even if our state is unable to contain the highly infectious novel coronavirus, and we aren’t developing the best tools to visualize its spread. For as we are mapping mortality and hospitalization, we are registering shock at the virulence of a pandemic of the sort that seems as if it should be foreign to the modern world, or modernization, but is sending ripples across the world difficult to hold together with the need toot contain but eliminate the pandemic virus as it spreads. We can review the range of visualization tools at our disposal, but even we fail to have complete data, run the risk of relying on older models of mapping the coronavirus that don’t successfully communicate the risks posed by crowding, inabilities to distance, and unhealthy ecosystems that are apt to encourage and facilitate its spread: even if we could control the forced crowding in jails, camps of refugees or deportation, and the powder kegs of old age homes where the presence of comorbidity is impossibly multiplied–and remember, in New York, the presence of comorbidity defined h86% of COVID-19 deaths, with hypertension and diabetes being the leading factors present, above coronary disease or cancer–as what were seen as non-mortal illnesses are flipped to causes of death.

As we begin to make better “prognostic maps” of the regional vulnerability of counties across the nation, we see disparities in cumulative rates of infection. Such maps might integrate the breadth of the project of need for national testing that has spread across the country, and demands congressional oversight–rather than left to a fragmented national administration. Such vulnerability to contracting the virus are based on cumulative incidence, but reflect a widespread contraction of the virus not limited to population density or metro areas, but of disturbing broad-stroke correlation to airborne pollution–which has been argued to increase sensitivity to contracting airborne diseases and compromising immune systems.

April 13, 2020/Mapbox; New York Times

3. All the meaning that we are used to press out of maps and data visualizations are among the resources by which we process the spread of COVID-19.

The pathogen was given foreign identity from Trump’s first address to the nation, of March 11, about a “foreign virus” that was to be seen in national terms that demanded to be confronted as a nation. The interpretation of sovereign terms was accentuated in Trump’s continued mis-mapping of the novel coronavirus as a “Chinese plot”–or, as Trump prefers, a “Chinese virus,” in danger of being brought by migrants, rather than able to illuminate fault-lines within our health care systems in a globalized world. Is such intentionally mipmapping the virus by investing it with nationality, Trump sought to deny the global nature of the emergency facing the nation? The termwhich Mike Pompeo seems to have introduced on FOX on March 7 was used by Trump on social media, and after being tweeted out by Republican congressmen–“Chinese coronavirus” (Kevin McCarthy, March 9) or “Wuhan virus” (Paul Gosar, March 8) became a viral shorthand for alt right bloggers for the novel coronavirus that Trump embraced in public policy debates.

Jabin Botsford/Wasthington Post (March 19, 2020)

The remapping of the virus with a national geographic origin injected the raunchy Trump persona of an attack dog into the staid tones of a national scripted address read directly off the teleprompter. But the false “correction” that Trump performed by Sharpie on the speech he later gave to the Coronavirus Task Force was a canny injection of inarticulateness, above, was a dramatic attempt to displace the danger of the virus as a national emergency form foreign agents. Akin to the remapping of the course of a hurricane by sharpie to elevate a national threat to our borders, Trump tired to start a meme of altering the scientific name of COVID-19 in two tweets of March 16 that invested the virus with national provenance. And if he defended as akin to the Spanish Flu–“because it comes from there!”–he mapped the virus spreading in the United States as a foreign threat, as if offering talking points to energize a crowd. By intentionally transforming the virus in unhelpful terms of national sovereignty, Trump seemed to remap the contagion as a national contest by wielding his sharpie wand of disinformation with clearly disruptive intentionality.

Did Trump not intend to introduce a meme in his tweet and address to the Coronavirus task force, to be carried in major news sources, infect debate, and shift attention from his own mismanagement of a public health crisis, so that the reality of its discussion would displace the attention?

Insistent mis-mapping of the virus by casting it as a national threat, a creation of other foreign laboratories, as Pompeo returned to mischaracterize the virus as an enemy plot in early May, 2020, alleging that COVID-19 derived from “a Wuhan lab” almost mask the disruption of United States’ scientific monitoring of a global threat in the Trump administration. Pompeo’s strikingly poor command for a Secretary of State of the global map, which he had fetishized as the blank map he wielded to challenge NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly in his living room in January, by challenging her even to locate Ukraine on a map, stripped of toponymy, haunted his assertions, as Pompeo wielded a map of viral spread to confound the site of origin of the novel coronavirus with a map of global politics: he argued without grounds that China that was to bear the blame for its failure to prevent a global “descent into an economic malaise” and prevent the deaths of “hundreds of thousands of people worldwide” and indeed “perpetrated” a zoonotic virus on the globe, confounding the contraction of the virus with amorphous global fears.

Did Americans need to know anything else but that it originated abroad?

May 3, 2020: Mike Pompeo Announces “Enormous Evidence” of Chinese Laboratory’s Fabrication of Novel Coronavirus

The outbreak of the novel coronavirus that began on the China mainland before it spread worldwide has confirmed that we live, the rhetoric of governments who seek to reveal their control of events notwithstanding, in an edgeless world, where the pathogen knows no edge; we track its appearance in human hosts and mortality rates, at a time-lag from its actual contraction or spread, with uncertain and shaky means of testing, trying to view it through the refraction of civil government. If maps are increasingly authoritative presentations of data, our maps may be on the wrong scale. In a time when we are beyond containment, maps have a curious role.

To steady ourselves before a global pandemic whose scale we don’t know and haven’t undertaken testing to detect have led us to depend, unsurprisingly, on maps, driven by the need to determine our relation to the pandemic virus’ global spread, most often to try to grasp our danger of exposure–or the exposure of loved ones and family–before global acceleration rates of the virus’s spread, and to map the relation of the nation, and indeed the state, and city, or county, to the global dispersion of SARS-CoV-2, the primary topic of global media attention, and the topic of increasing global stress and concern.

2. We trust visualizations as forms that can be consumed, digested, and grasped in better ways, the questions of the availability of good data to orient us to the disease to the side, our maps track cases that cannot describe the fine grain on which the virus moves through bodies, or even moves through space. As is so often true for a GPS-derived base-map, the story of COVID-19 is increasingly about our changing relation to global space; the recent proliferation of maps seek to track that relationship. But the danger of these global maps is both that they neglect the vulnerability of specific populations that are decimated by the disease–often without health care and living in crowded conditions–and that they lack any narrative that allows us to process the progress of the disease with has globally spread as the United States government has spread disinformation about the pandemic and often not enabled full counts of infected.

We lacked a sense of the narrative of this spread, of course, and were not ready to link the proliferation of data to an interpretation of the virus’ rapid spread. Even as we were barraged by maps, as the benificiaries of new location technologies, that have helped facilitate and improve the provision of maps, even if based on bad data, they were produced at a disconnect from the lack of official response to the disease.

This gap may have been enabled by an absence of many on-the-ground CDC officials or representatives in China: their number reduced, the United States’ official reaction to the spread of COVID-19 was subsumed into a personal relation of Trump and Xi, so often the optic of foreign relations and affairs, with less epidemiological expertise:  “You have to consider the possibility that our drawdown made this catastrophe more likely or more difficult to respond to,” confessed one familiar with the consequences of eliminating three-fourths of Chinese medical and disease experts whose “institutional knowledge” provided stability in Beijing, now headed by a temporary deputy director. The sole epidemiologist embedded in China’s disease control agency where she trained field epidemiologists had been fired, her position unfilled, and agencies designed to combat global disease and build scientific relations had been shuttered in China since 2019, ending research into multi drug resistant malaria and other viruses.

The Center for Disease Control hamstrung its global knowledge of the zoonotic disease, as CDC officers in China by half before the pandemic, giving us far fewer epidmiological eyes on the ground–cutting a Beijing staff from almost fifty to fourteen, under the Trump administration, including all local employees; in two years, only two thirds of its staff remained–agencies for international development in Beijing closed, curtailing the ability to monitor outbreaks as if setting us up for a pandemic. The cutting of Chinese on U.S. payroll and shuttering of National Science Foundation and CDC offices was deeply damning evidence of the denial that anything outside of the United States was relevant to its well-being, as much as being “anti-science”: shuttering of NSF offices in Beijing led by respected scientists like Nancy Sung, critical in establishing ties between United States and Chinese scientific communities who ran the NSF’s international Science Program, closed outreach ties to Beijing before the outbreak. The concealment of such mismanagement of scientific open-ness in the assertion in anti-globalist terms that the novel coronavirus was “inflicted on the USA and the rest of the world” viewed the spread of COVID-19 as an actual war.

By the time a pandemic was declared on March 10, after the virus had long spread on the ground, strains had arrived in multiple cities in the United States, with no coherent strategies–and those testing positive revealed only hinted at the scope of the virus’ spread. Yet anti-science attacks that began with the end of National Institutes of Health to help fund research in a Wuhan Institute of Virology to develop a cures for emerging pandemics, and zoonotic diseases that jump species from bats; the alt right Florida Representative who slandered work with an institute that “may have birthed a monster” or the novel coronavirus,–debased the value of its research in the anti-globalist rhetoric of the alt right, as President Trump described the virus as “inflicted on the USA and the rest of the World,” as he sewed doubts about the accuracy of mortality counts in ways predicted to occur by Trump’s biographer, Tony Schwartz, as staff members queried the accuracy of figures as due to “lack of uniform standards in the United States or internationally”–undercutting World health Organization tallies–for the reason that “America’s out of practice of how to deal with something like this and to report it accurately,” as if a similar pandemic had ever occurred. Schwartz predicted that the tally would be identified as a departmental conspiracy against him, but concealed the undoubtedly low nature of the mortality count where many deaths are due to comorbidities, and multiple deaths are not even diagnosed.

Tony Schwärt, May 6 2020

The assertion from senior administration officials that the numbers of dead were imprecise and that “we need more autopsies” seemed to undermine one of the oldest forms of proof. The assertion of better tools to diagnose death blurred not only the limited capacities of prioritizing COVID-19 as a cause of death in relation to comorbidities that were increasingly present in the diagnosis of death, and blurred the consistency of any national tallies of death. The demotion of the accuracy of statistics blurred not only a standard of proof, but multiple needs, all important to prioritize: from protective equipment among medical staffers (PPE); better and more accessible testing; full tallies of the extent of deaths among undercounted communities of elderly, Native Americans, poor populations, homeless, incarcerated, and migrants deportation camps. Autopsies were, indeed, a basis for proof and evidence of the sort that Trump takes pleasure in destablizing.

But as much as obfuscating, the demand for better autopsies suggest the difficulty in detecting the blood clots that began to appear in multiple patients with severe SARS-CoV-2 infections, not only in the lungs, but in the brain, causing strokes, in the heart, in the kidneys, and the different diagnostic categories to read autoopsies and diagnose the virus: the medical record-keeping processes allowed little basis to cross-check the many deaths that the virus hastened or introduce through clots that were not recognized as the ause of death. Austopsies were the first discovery of bacterial infections, those performed by doctors who cleaned their hands carefully rarely being vectors of viral communicate–but if autopsy was a classic form of proof, the autopssies that accounted for actual mortality rates tied to SARS-CoV-2 might change understanding infection and emergency response, as we lack adequate forms of testing.

And the absence of accurate testing tools was deeply frustrating. And when Trump has doubted escalating mortality counts to conceal the gravity of the pandemic, he may conceal actual undercounts lying in officially reported numbers that offer the basis to develop better diagnostic models, and the scale and proportions of the current national health emergency–the basic lay of the land. If the mid-March “testing gap” was acute both globally and among states–

Wavy.com Interactive map of Total Tests for Conrimed Cases in State/March 20 2020

–improved, tests were notoriously inaccurate and in short supply, and policies from the Center for Disease Control and guidelines of the Food and Drug Administration were increasingly muddied as to the ability of private label to provide or develop home testing kits for SARS-CoV-2, even as testing supplies were widely divergent, as if no coherent policy had been developed. The increased reliance on “community-based testing sites” that were public-private partnerships, rather than government policies, continued even as one third of Americans were at risk of infection.

And by mid-April the COVID Tracking Project estimated almost all states performed fewer than the 152 tests per 100,000 demanded to identify the range of individuals infected.

The consistent absence of good data in such numbers prompted a rise in to remedy their undercounts in self-organized sites from motivated individual aggregators, from Alexis Madrigal’s CovidTracker, or the clever web-scraping of high schooler Avi Schiffman in Seattle, both of whose sites were relying on official statistics, filling a need underscored by evidence of a substantial if fairly stable gap from mid-March between excess deaths across the nation and those deaths attributed to SARS-CoV-2. As Madrigal and Schiffman, among others, collated and broadcast evidence of the rising mortalities and infection rates that underpinned our maps of the potentially deadly coronavirus’ spread–Anthony Fauci felt a compelling need to add an edge of objectivity and pronounce that “the numbers of deaths are most likely higher” than officially certified counts, risking his job by acknowledging the lack of good numbers–and the danger implicit in the fact that only about 5% of the American population had been exposed to the virus raised increased concerns about the prospect of “opening up” the country–and that we were “opening it up” to further viral spread.

Washington Post/April 27, 2020

And when by early April that a single app became available to track testing across counties and states, large swaths of the country remained greyed out, but most of the nation was bright red. The best data of COVID-19 infections on county and state levels, both of total infected, mortality, and new infections, showed case numbers for most the nation elevated; total morality was projected to rise from 1.7 to 2.2 million in mid-April, if only 30,000 were infected by the virus.

Chris Barker, UC Davis

If there was no clear narrative in maps, and no clear sense of how best to integrate the graphs, legends, and scales which cartographers may increasingly come to depend, and data visualizations can fail to foreground, this is because their is of course not only no clear narrative for COVID-19, and no sense of how the narrative will unfold. We turn to maps in the desire for orientation in a time of crisis, and for a sense of stability. Desiring orientation, and coherence, we elide crucial questions of what makes data “good,” in our eagerness to find comfort in visualizing the spread of the pathogen: with limited testing around the world, from the most developed to undeveloped countries, the gaps in data about the disease is both masked over in many maps, or how data is massaged or ignored: the prestige of data makes some terrifyingly sure of their ability to pronounce on the disease’s advance or its retreat, and the insecurity of tracking non-living RNA strands in human societies is balanced with the brute force of mapping mortality rates that seem somehow to constantly escalate, breaking the barriers of our expectations, to pierce the very capacities of the news to cover adequately.

What do such maps show? Increasingly, the story is itself blurred, and if the maps no longer present a sense of desperation of the lack of any space on the map where one might take refuge from the novel coronavirus, the question of there interpretation is increasingly coming down to the difficulty of integrating the multiple scales at which the coronavirus can be mapped–while we adhere to the national chloropleth, the figure familiar from the operations of statistics and state-based knowledge-making from the mid-nineteenth century, the tried and true bread-and-butter of data visualization antecedents, we are going to be forced to integrate and toggle between the multiple scales of the coronavirus–not only the global and national, which have been the preferred building blocks of mapping data, but the microscopic level of the course of the virus in bodies, and the pathological results of mortalities that suggest the range of variables like age, occupations, health, and senescence among the dead, as well as the mutation of the virus’ different strains. For the question of mutation is not only central to the viability of a vaccine–the basic desideratum for opening up the nation or returning to life as “normal” among virologists and medical experts–but to how the coronavirus travels.

But the question of dismissing the expert knowledge of doctors or virologists that Trump & Friends promote, in the brand of false populism that they purvey, are in danger of running against the lack of knowledge we face about the disease. And only by parsing, sifting, and defining that data on different scales can we get beyond the gross aggregations of choroplethic distortions that only distance the spread of disease.

COIVID-19Iinfections Globally by Country/Clustrmaps May 12, 2020

3. The scale of such tracking maps grapple with the spread of infections, but don’t orient us to communication of a pathogen whose spread depends on proxemics, often tied to population density, but also social proximity and shared spaces, chance, and droplet dispersion in different crowded ambient settings–in ways that suggest that the spread of the pandemic may alter personal space, social space, and interpersonal space: genetic material of the virus found floating in the Wuhan hospitals, indoor spaces filled by large crowds, and the spaces medical staff removed their protective gear suggest the virus lingers in the air of crowds.

If novelist Don DeLillo felt that “the future belongs to crowds,” where people can lose themselves, fit in, blend in, lose themselves in something larger, in his powerful American global novel of the place of the writer and novelist in the impending dissolution of nations, Mao II, it is what is smaller about COVID-19 that moves in the air crowds occupy, that is so hard to map. While the coughing or sneezing of those infected with SARS-CoV-2 is most dangerous in communicating the virus in public spaces and to health care workers, rather than the passersby who are biking, jogging, or walking, the danger of droplets suggest the viral micro-crowds dispersed so easily in clinics, elevators, theaters, public transit or public lavatories. If the sneeze was indeed among the first filmed sequences of Edison’s Kinetoscope, communicating COVID-19 by atmospheric droplet dispersion in coughs, sneezes, and heavy exhalations pose risks that demand social distancing in public spaces–and increased the danger of ease of contraction in crowds. Can COVID-19 define a new proxemics? The possibility is not high.

The differentials among these spaces may well be, in fact, the most crucial questions to map. If the range of arresting data visualizations challenges us to try to come to terms with its spread, it is clear that New York had served as an incubator for the pathogen, late as it was to be able to adopt practices of mitigation or containment before the virus’ spread. And in the crowded spaces of New York, where the virus had arrived far earlier than restriction of transatlantic travel was able to effect, the tragic intensity of a wave of mortality of 5,000 deaths by early April created a terrifying image of the dangers of contraction in crowded public spaces, raising the stakes on mitigation.

Would the rest of the nation be prepared for the dangers implicit in its spread? The printers red to which the Times returned on its front page in a graphic that punctured the masthead in arresting ways a premonition of the future, or could new measures contain its spread?

Would a rolling wave of mortality grown across the country, in coming weeks and months, which better or earlier-enacted mitigation processes might prevent? Or do the aggregated tallies mask how the virus will be a crisis that will divide us from ourselves, and leave the most vulnerable?

Continue reading

2 Comments

Filed under data visualization, disease maps, infectious diseases, public health, US Politics

The New Cold Warrior in the Triangle of Terror

When addressing the new Latin American policy in Miami’s Freedom Tower in late 2018, the new National Security Advisor John Bolton targeted Nicaragua and Venezuela in a striking geographic metaphor. He offered a new metaphor for described the dangers of a “triangle of terror stretching from Havana to Caracas to Managua,” in November 1, 2018, demonizing Latin America and the island of Cuba in terms that suggested possible plans for “taking direct action against all three regimes to defend the rule of law, liberty and basic human decency in our region.” As if to displace attention from the Northern Triangle from which so many asylum seekers have fled to the United States in recent years, including unaccompanied minors, and where civil society is overwhelmed by drug trafficking, gang violence, and police corruption, the new triangle Bolton seeks to shift attention is a target.

So it may have been no surprise that when attacking the legitimacy of Socialist Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela by imposing expansive sanctions ton Venezuelan oil and gas, Bolton seemed to tip the cards of power. Upping the ante from defining the Socialist regime of Venezuela as an apex in a triangle, in previous saber-rattling that committed the United States to striking a blow at a “triangle of terror” tied to the Socialist heritage of Hugo Chavez and to Raúl Castro, Bolton “appeared to disclose confidential notes written on a yellow pad” to reposition military troops to Venezuela’s border, standing before a global map the divided the globe in no uncertain terms, as if announcing a new configuration of power in his role as National Security Advisor for Donald J. Trump. The “triangle of terror” Bolton warned of in November 2018 seemed to essentialize the fundamentally dangerous notion a Latin American region ripe for instability. But it may have also been sheer coincidence that alliterative force of a rather pointless if powerful polygon was a powerful cartographic conjuring of a strategy of national defense, not located in the Northern Triangle, or the former Triangle of Terror where ISIS cultivated troops, but a new borderless triangle of even allegedly even greater danger–a triangle with a rich political genealogy from the Cold War.

Bolton’s adoption of the rare tired stock term of a triangle seemed to shift attention from the other Triangle of Terror, located when it was most recently in the news on the Afghan-Pakistan border, the very site from which negotiations have been announced to start to withdraw American troops. It may have been sheer coincidence, but Bolton seemed to shift attention from a triangle in the Middle East where American troops had been long stationed and that had been a hide-out of Osama bin Laden and Taliban fighters, as if by the powerful abilities of the friction-free nature of GPS–

–to a triangle that was closer to America’s own sphere of influence from the triangle of Peshawar, Quetta, and Kabul, from which the US was busy extricating itself. Bolton’s November speech was quickly taken, one might remember, as defining the intent of team Trump in relation to focus on a new Axis of Evil, adopting a hard line in Central America as sphere ripe for intervention–“This is not a time to look away. It’s a time to increase pressure, not reduce it,” Bolton announced–and the recent exercise of economic muscle to bolster American refusal to recognize the self-declared electoral victory of Nicolás Maduro, and to declare the legitimacy of Juan Guaidó as President of the nation, demanded a map to concretize the global geopolitical stakes that Bolton and Trump were ready to commit to Venezuela, although the map before with Bolton spoke revealed few of the roots for the focus on this new Triangle, but rooted confrontation with Maduro’s claims to legitimacy in the defense of democratic liberties.

Bolton cast the region as a geopolitical battleground for American interests in stark and rhetorically powerful alliterative terms. He openly opposed the United States to a “Troika of Tyranny”–a term that lexically hinted at a vehicle driven by Russia, but wasn’t the 2016 Presidential election–and almost openly evoked the chills or breezes of a new Cold War, with its division of the world to spheres of recognizing two possible Presidents in Venezuela in ways that expanded an electoral map of one nation to spheres of geopolitical influence–if not alliances–expanding in bizarre terms an electoral map to the world to show that it had global consequences–as if global power dynamics were as simple as an electoral map.

The infographic seems to advertise how much “other countries” had at stake in who was Venezuelan President, keeping mum as to why they did. It helped that Bolton looked the part of an inveterate Cold Warrior. And one could not but recall the openly proprietorial terms of last November, when he announced “Cuban military and intelligence agencies must not disproportionately profit from the United States, its people, its travelers, or its businesses” but pointedly attacked Venezuela by imposing sanctions on its gold, and attacking the “triangle of terror” or “troika of tyranny” perhaps metaphorically tied to a Bermuda Triangle, redolent with weirdly alchemical associations of unknown dangers near islands on the high seas–

–as if one could pretend that the declaration was about the rocky shoals of securing needed democratic reform and less to do with oil revenues and resources, as with the defense of democracy.

The transposition of the polygon of a triangle from Afghanistan to the hemisphere was close to a notion of hemispheric dominance, if it also turned attention from a long war in Afghanistan to a closer, seemingly more surgical, winnable military confrontation. The map affirmed the need for using economic muscle by seizing income from oil as a way to undermined as a Socialist dictator, however, whose socialist government was corrupt and based on cronyism, linked in the global map to authoritarian governments in Turkey, China, Russia, and Iran, and their allies, linking an argument of hemispheric dominance to broad geopolitical warning of the consequences of failing to recognize Guaidó as being Venezuela’s legitimate President in American eyes.

Bolton Declares Sanctions on Venezuela’s national oil and gas company at White House Press Briefing/january 28, 2019
Evan Vucci/AP

Maps often lie, as do infographics: but the international magnification of the lack of legitimacy Bolton had been preparing to declare for some time came not only with trappings of objectivity, but with a not so coded message, that might be the true legend of the global divisions in the infographic, and was the major social media take away: a proposed movement of US troops whose removal from the Syrian and Afghan military theaters was in the process of being negotiated by the Secretary of State: the image, unintentional or not, immediately raised fears and concerns about American military plans and sent a shudder in global media.

While it may have been sheer coincidence that the metaphorical migration of the triangle of terror from one theater of global confrontation to the next was occurring in Bolton’s rhetoric and was mirrored in the imagined frictionless switch in deployment of soldiers in the legal pad Bolton displayed to television cameras–

NSA Advisor Bolton’s Yellow Pad

The mobility of the metaphor and the military seemed to echo the new logic of the Universal Transverse Mercator map, where territorial boundaries and sovereignty have far less prominence than specific sites of dispersed geographic location, and imagined transfers of military power could be a frictionless motion in space.

The infographic provided a sort of parallel world carved up and divided by entrenched political interests but whose alliances helped sovereign boundaries to recede similarly. The global two-color map almost made it difficult to understand that he addressed Venezuela–the topic of his Press Briefing in January, 2019–save by the legend identifying red as “Maduro” and blue as “Guaidó”, elevating each man who had claimed the presidency as holding a global constituency, and dividing the globe to magnifying the geopolitical centrality of the Venezuelan election. In the early February State of the Union, Donald Trump elevated–behind the rubric “Abortion”–the pressing concern of Venezuela immediately after “National Security” and “North Korea,” in ways that similarly monumentalized the question of recognition of the future president of the nation, under the rubric of “never apologize for advancing America’s interest, moved from the Border to “National Security” and withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, a historic arms control accord of forty years in standing–with the commitment to “outspend and out-innovate” all other nations in weaponry–to North Korea and Venezuela, regions that were almost designated as areas of future combat.

Trump’s pledged to the union in a mid-February address to “stand with the Venezuelan people in their quest for freedom” against unspecified enemies, but targeted dictators tinged with Socialism. The gripping evocation of a struggle against “the brutality of the Maduro regime, whose socialist policies have turned that nation . . . into a state of abject poverty” may have foregrounded the prominence of Trump’s interest in targeting Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Occasion-Cortez as Socialists, in order to taint the Democratic party. But it was also a crisis that recalled how John Bolton, his new National Security Advisor, had conjured a new danger for the United States’ geopolitical position, independently of nuclear disarmament treaties, but which evoked our historical need for intermediate-range missiles to protect domestic interests.

The role of Maduro in Venezuela has been disastrous for its citizens, to be sure, and mismanagement of natural resources by the state demands attention: But much as Trump distorted actual policies by targeting the “Socialist regime” of Venezuela in a speech marked by excessive flag-waving, patriotism, and rally-like chants of “USA, USA,” the prominent place of map before which Bolton spoke distorted the situation, by literally taking our eyes off of the ground. The map obscured the flows of refugees from Venezuela and the humanitarian crisis in South America, as well as access to the vast oil reserves lying beneath the Orinoco River basin’s Belt. The extensive reserves to which America has limited access is mapped by USGS, but was left tacit in the American declaration of sanctions, but motivating an abrupt change in returning attention to the Western hemisphere for the National Security Advisor. And the assumption of Venezuela as OPEC Presidency, as much as the defense of democratic principles, made the clear ties of National Security to the preservation of access to and production from the Orinoco Reserves–shown below by PDVSA–and the truly globalized investment in the fields shown below, estimated to include three hundred billion barrels of bitumen–the black, viscous, organic “sludge” that contains petroleum–in what are estimated to be the largest reserve on earth, involving multiple international players–from Statoil of Norway to ExxonMobil to Chevron to BP, but also CNPC of China and TOTAL of France, as well as even if the private ownership in the Orinoco Belt was ended in 2007 by Hugo Chávez, whose Presidency haunts the current crisis. But although nationalized in name, the project of oil extraction are only majority owned by he vast majority of bitumen remains too deeply buried for surface mining–some 88-92%–by Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA)–creating a site that was used by Chávez to finance social reforms and projects, and created revenues of $30 billion annually in 2011, making Venezuela a sort of bit of an economic bubble in a globalized world, tied to international markets for carbon and oil, and making Venezuela a “hidden” global petroleum power, estimated to have hundreds of billions of barrels of oil.

Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA)

The international ties to projects of extracting bitumen and refining oil in Venezuela–which produced about 2 millions of barrels a day in 2015–estimated to have far more technologically accessible reserves. The decision to amplify the level of rhetoric used to isolate Maduro and acknowledge Guaidó as President surely has close ties to the assumption of increasing attempts of national oil and gas company to reroute its oil supplies to Europe and Asia, as members of the Maduro regime told the Russian news agency Sputnik, not only responded to the sanctions, but undercut the Venezuelan crude that usually flowed to CITGO refineries in Texas, Louisiana, New Jersey, and Illinois which made access to crude that lay in Venezuelan territory a national security question–as Oil Minister Eulogio del Pino tweeted hopes to “continue consolidating strategic alliances between PDVSA and Rosneft” in November, disturbing images of hemispheric dominance, as well as undermining American energy security.

.

USGS has estimated 513 billion barrels lying in the Orinoco Oil Belt, without determining or publishing the proportion technologically or economically able to be extracted
Venezuela Oil Holdings – Deep Resource
CITGO’s Petroleum Terminals in USA/CITGO

Bolton’s–and Trump’s–description of Venezuela as an ideological struggle is all one sees in the two-color division of the globe that almost heralded hopes for a return to a Cold War where maps were understood primarily as a global battleground, recalling the days at which a vertiginous sense of power in postwar Europe led us to map exchanges of nuclear missiles, and imagine apocalyptic scenarios where the world was divided by global war–but a global war that seemed to really be about American interests on access to energy reserves, hiding behind the scrim of a ratcheted up rhetoric of democratic legitimacy.

The economic crisis in Venezuela is both tragic, and an acute crisis of humanitarian scope. But the global map seemed to reduce it into a global confrontation of two blocks, if not a crisis of global consensus about representation and political legitimacy, that seemed to hollow out the term of democracy of its content: despite national sovereign division in South American, the sharp divisions of the blue of North America and most South and Central American nations described inexistent international blocks of consensus. What seemed a legitimate record of global divisions about the crisis the legitimacy of the Venezuelan government to lay claims to Venezuela’s rich reserves of oil. Without acknowledging the political or economic actualities in the South American nation, the map hinted at a global crisis, its stark red v. blue color-scheme reflecting the offers of Russia to restructure the debt of Venezuela’s oil and gas companies, and China to lay claim to a stake in Venezuela’s oil, by asserting the reserves to lie within America’s hemispheric interests, and equating those interests as lying with America’s National Security.

As if to bolster Guaidó’s claim that he is backed by the democracies of the world–in ways that nothing better than an infogram can attest–

Just 25% of the world’s governments have publically recognised Guaido as President; the remainder recognise Maduro’s election
(Paul Dobson / Infogram.com/February 6, 2019

The map before which Bolton spoke has become a topic of recurrent interest, as the nature of the global divide has been parsed and examined. The divide, this post argues, was less an informative one–deisgned to generate debate–than to paper over the situation in Venezuela’s political crisis as a question of alternative candidates for President, treating the contest as an election, and using the colors of an electoral map to suggest that the election was conclusive, and the legitimacy of Guaidó reseted on clearly ideological foundations.

Bolton spoke at the White House briefing before a map revealing a broad global divide ostensibly about recognizing Maduro’s legitimacy as Venezuela’s President but that hauntingly recalled the geopolitical divide that was firmer than many since the Cold War. It provided an image of the Cold War as it was seen from Washington, in some way, as if ideological divides that are clearcut still maintain legitimacy in a globalized world. The infographic on two screens seemed to affirm the broad global consensus of questions of the legitimacy of Maduro’s government, as if this justified the decision to block access to all property located in the United States of the national oil and natural gas company, Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA), place its assets in escrow, and prohibit American citizens from paying the company directly for access to unrefined or refined oil assets. But the “press briefing” was also a transformation of the White House into a new newsroom of sorts, that exposed the illegitimacy of the Maduro government through a map that tied the United States to the defense of democratic principles–coded in blue, with other democratic allies, in opposition to “reds” linked to Socialism or Communism–China, and Russia, even if it was not Soviet, but also some questionable allies–that reinstated the for-us or against-us global space to make a point. The disclosure before this map of a threat of sensitive statement that echoed a bespectacled Bolton’s assertion that “all options are on the table” provided a powerful infographic that tied Washington to an image of legitimacy, even if the awfully crude map lacked legitimacy to orient American viewers to global affairs.

The new global imaginary that Bolton promoted as he stood beside U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin painted a global schism as the consequence of Maduro’s declaration of his victory in a second term as President, as a violation of that nation’s constitution–and as standing in violation of the Venezuela’s constitutional elections–but was as much a response to the defense of a restatement of American economic sovereignty in the Western hemisphere, a phrase going back to the turn of the last century, if not the Monroe Doctrine, but which gained new currency in the Cold War as issuing from the Dept. of State, and as a question of national security rather foreign affairs, by tactically magnifying the geostrategic role of the Venezuelan election, rather than offering evidence of a constitutional argument about sovereign legitimacy. The question of sovereignty seemed intentionally blurred, as the Secretary of the U.S. Treasury took questions about sanctions against a foreign state-owned oil company, currently OPEC chair, whose assets were being frozen to promote democratic legitimacy, but in fact to strengthen America’s hemispheric dominance.

This time, the map–whose stark divisions into blue and red blocks suggested a map of American alliances, echoing an imaginary of detente, rather than legal rights–seemed to place the defense of denying the flow of economic goods from American territory as a globalist argument, by reframng the issue of constitutional rights or legality in globalist terms that preserved an image of American dominance within the color scheme that it divided the world.

And National Security Advisor John Bolton, who in less than a year in the Trump administration has become an advocate for military interventions in both Iraq and Iran, used the briefing before a map to raise rather openly the possibility of a military resolution of the crisis over the Venezuelan Presidency, as the Commander of US Southern Command, General Mark Stammer, is set to meet the Ministry of Defense of Venezuela’s neighbor Colombia, and Maduro has conjured fears of a “coup” driven from the United States. But the fear that the invitation of American oil companies to organize the refining and extraction of Venezuela’s abundant crude reserves after the January 23, 1958 Democratic uprising, just before the Cuban revolution, sent shock waves into the United States, pushing the Trump administration rather precipitously into a search for infographics that could substantiate dangers of infringement of its hemispheric interests and geopolitical dominance, and to convince the world of the danger of Maduro’s disenfranchisement of elected members of the Congress, and the lack of legitimacy of a regional vote that supported Maduro’s government against a fractured opposition–and led to the invitation from Russia to restructure the state-owned oil and gas company’s massive debt, recasting the struggle about the government’s legitimacy into new global terms.

The colors on the global map reflect, to be sure, the contested results of elections in Venezuela, where compromised elections had produced the heavily disputed endorsement of Maduro’s Presidency just last May. After an offer from Russia to restructure the massive national debt in November, 2017, Maduro declared new elections in May 2018, which the opposition decided not to recognize, and which polls suggested he wouldn’t win, but in which he was victorious–coincidentally at the same time thatJohn Bolton gains the portfolio as director of the Trump NSA.

October, 2017 AP/A. Cubillos
2017 Regional Elections of State Governors in Argentina
Distribution of votes for Maduro in the election whose low turnout led its legitimacy to be quickly questioned by the EU, US, and OAS

Familiar blue v. red electoral maps were used to describe the votes of the Great Patriotic Pole and opposition  Coalition for Democratic Unity that were recast suddenly in global terms in late January in Washington. Socialist Maduro affirmed independence in his inauguration, and in rebuke Parliamentary President Guaidó won immediate support from Donald Trump after he declared himself Interim President and leader of the nation and of oil company, precipitating a powerful infographic to be devised in Washington that oriented audiences to an electoral map in global terms. But for Trump–and for Bolton, who cast the election as a question of National Security–the global divisions in globally strategic terms.

Trump’s segue in his February 7 State of the Union from the INF to Venezuela, included a transition about North Korea, but suggested global imbalances that any obscure the question of access to petroleum reserves in Venezuela, and the deep, implicit question of whether the American military should or would be used to guarantee access to Venezuelan oil. In ways that must have crossed Bolton’s radar, but have faded from most public comments, Maduro when he pledged to decouple the pricing of Venezuelan crude from the dollar, use of non-dollar currencies as the Chinese Yen for Venezuelan oil, and seeking to cut oil production to “stabilize” oil prices–and entertaining the cryptocurrency Petro, based on the five billion barrels of oil found in Field No. 1 of the Orinoco Oil Belt–possibly less than a quarter of Veneuela’s considerable total oil and gas reserves, whose accessibility to the American economy has suddenly become increasingly tenuous.

PDVSA

The events tied to the assumption of the Presidency of OPEC led to ‘slow coup’ of January 23–the anniversary of the overthrow of the Jiminez dictatorship by Venezuelans in 1958–as opposition politico Juan Guaido auto-invested himself with the presidency with broad American support, followed by a chorus of right-wing governments in Latin America, including Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro.

The result was to pretend that the elections which the opposition party had boycotted last May could be cast again as an electoral map, this time not involving Venezuelan votes–or the self-determination of the nation–but symbolically recasting the election in terms of a global map. Even as Maduro offered to negotiate, he bristled “The presidential elections in Venezuela took place, and if the imperialists want new elections, let them wait until 2025,” perhaps reacting to the provocative recasting of the national elections, whose legitimacy has been questioned by observers, in ways that led Bolton to take to Twitter to threaten “serious consequences for those who attempt to subvert democracy and harm Guaidó”–as if he were the victor of an election. Bolton had escalated attacks on the “legitimacy” of Maduro from mid-January and the “illegitimate claims to power” of the Venezuelan “dictator” as abrogating the “a government duly elected by the Venezuelan people” and democratic practice. But the stark divide of the global map seemed to resist any discussion of negotiations and affirm the United States’ ability to shift troops from Afghanistan to Venezuela’s border immanently–while preserving something of the illusion that the “blue” votes for Guaidó would be affirmed by American muscle.

Win McNamee/Getty Images, off CBC

The gruff determination and stoniness that registers in Bolton’s face as he sought to communicate the divisions of the world that potentially lay in the failure to affirm America’s recognition of Guaidó bled far beyond the defense of democratic principles, and seems to have threatened to cast more than a shadow over Europe. Bolton’s slightly veiled message of national security seemed, in classic America First style, to cast a shadow over European allies, here symbolized by the actual shadow that his pensive head cast on the United States’ traditional NATO allies.

Was Bolton in the act of forging global divisions of a new Cold War, military detente and hemispheric dominance, sneakingly if all too familiarly tied to defense and affirmation of democratic principles?

Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under geopolitics, latin America, national security, news graphics, Venezuela

Mega-Regions, Super-States, Micro-States, Islands

Like a patient rising from bed to look in the mirror for superficial signs of illness  or searching for visual evidence of clouded thoughts after a hangover, we compulsively turn to data visualizations for bearings on our body politic, preoccupied by its bruised appearance and searching for visual distillations that tell the story of its apparent fracturing into red and blue.  Anyone reading this blog is compelled by the search for a rendering in iconic form of this sharp chromatic divide by which we seem beset, as if to mute its edges and suggest that a possible contexts of such stark political divides.  But how one can provide an account of the map–or map the meaning of these divides–has created a cottage industry of visualizations, images that serve both as glosses and counter-documents, against which to gainsay the meaning of the impasse of the most current electoral divide of 2016.

We seem to search for a sign of meaning in our body politic, if not  in our representational institutions, and to understand political divides less as signs that all isn’t *quite* all right, and the coherence can be found in how the democratic process balances local interest.  But most importantly, we seem to try to process deep concerns that the electoral map lied:  for if the electoral map is in some sense a powerful measure of our coherence as a community, it seems important to affirm where that coherence lies, if it does indeed still exist–and can be detected in a map.

And in the long aftermath of the 2016 Presidential election, it is not surprising, somehow, that we are still eager to understand or imagine what that “new America” is or what a new map might reveal.  Uncertain in our ability to question our representational institutions, we are pressed to ask how our electoral predictions “lied,” and whether the electoral map itself “lied” by serving to magnify the political voice and agency of a demographically diminishing region.  At a distance of two and a half years from Donald Trump’s surprising election as U.S. President, we continue to seek more refined district-by-distict distributions to pore over the stark chromatic divides, reading them as tea leaves for some sign of what will happen with the 2018 midterms, or as entrails to divine what to look for in our nation’s future.  And then we try to reframe the issue, and see what we can salvage about our actual divisions.

 

 

Come to termsNew York Times/Mapbox

 

Skilled at reading maps, and at detecting their distortions, we also seek to recuperate a sense that maps do not lie.   We pore over data vis to restore a sense of unity in an era when it seems we’re saliently divided by race, class, and religion, but are compelled to locate a sense of home in those divide, and seek a sense of balance and objectivity that can distill the intense rhetoric of deep-lying divisions.  For rather than suggesting or asking how an electoral map may lie  in ways that balanced a widespread sense of shock with a skepticism that that was our map.

And the continued skepticism and uncertainty in the meaning of the divisions of the electoral map lead us to try to dissect and parse their meaning, filtering and sifting their data within other data vis to illuminate, by new granularity and spectra, a broader spread of variables, in hopes to unlock the questions and overcome the challenges that our representational system pose.  We peek deeper into its red heart, as if in hopes to find the coherence or possibility for change in its red center, as if in a form of national introspection performed on the most superficial of registers, whose “truth” cannot even be gainsaid, hoping that it lies there, perhaps in the heightened distortion of electoral votes that distilled from district maps.

 

Red Center?.pngDetail of above

 

Do electoral maps lie more than other maps?  Any is something less like a reflection of actuality, than a puzzle, in which we can uncover not only telling traces among electoral divides  But the new configuration of space that the 2016 election bode, as well as the greater sensitivity that we like to think we’ve gained at measuring spatial configurations in meaningful terms.  The attractiveness of remapping the voter distribution may be a bit of a red herring and distraction from the magnification of divides elaborated in internet chatrooms from 4chan to 8chan, as much as above ground, but the searching for new signs in the entrails of the voter maps–a post-mortem on the body politic–carries as much sense as the foreboding that the representational institutions of states, counties, and other traditional geographic units might make less sense as a basis for structuring a truly representational democracy.

Seeking to stabilize current fears of a crisis of our democracy, we keep on returning to maps, insistently and repeatedly, as if out of trust for grasping how politics is shaped by deep-seated divides by finding a new way space is configured–as if that would help us understand the appearance of our divides.  And so, in hopes to digest the dilemma of representational democracy in we look for cartographical terms, to provide it with some grounding or objectivity, that offer some sense of purchase, other than by affirming the intensity of our divisions and to see that the institutions of political representation we’ve long trusted might make sense with the migration of populations to urbanized areas or the recasting of politics discourse in dissatisfaction with the status quo.

Perhaps, convinced of our increasing savviness to read the display of information in a colored sheet, we try to grasp the distributions of data as a configuration of space by which to grasp what happened in the 2016 election,  What is shown to lie in the deep splintering–does this take many by surprise?–across a body politic and economy afflicted by a politics of intense opposition seems suddenly normalized and explained by maps that normalize our divisions, and set them before our eyes.  But we have been poring over maps of the nation for years–or at least multiple election cycles–to be able to better process the tensions between regionalism and federalism in ways we might be able to come to terms with or effectively digest as presenting–and representing–an actual record of the status quo that is not so fragile.

 

imageColin Woodward (2013)

 

The representational system is oddly sidestepped, of course, by placing the divisions of a fractured electoral map in terms that see it as a lay of the land. The questioning of the fifty-state primary system–or whether our version of representational democracy best accommodates local interests in a fifty-state system–are not seen as being able to be adjusted  to balance regional interests or economic needs better, but reflect a lay of the land.  So much is suggested in by the growth of tribal senses of belonging that provide affective ties that lack in the state or even region, and span space in ways that online groups and news sharing seem to have filled an increasingly pronounced need for meaningful political involvement, in ways television once afforded a social glue.  The deep uncertainty and sense of social dislocation that defined the 2016 Presidential Election in the United States, manifested in the mistakenly salvific power of social media memes seem to have gained as a substitute for other forms of belonging, seems to find a resolution in the power of maps.

Of course, this was the third election cycle that we were divided by maps, and electoral projections, a division that Trump–and his allies, whoever they may be–only sought to exploit and reflect, or unleash with greater intensity by playing them for whatever they were worth in broad circulation.  Maps provided a form to counter that dislocation.  The rage for maps to comprehend an icon of the spatial promise of a United States has led, empowered by GIS, to an intense search for a more meaningful system of maps than that of counties, states, or congressional districts that the economic realty of the metropolis can no longer afford.  The role of GIS here is less instrumental than a sense at grasping for straws to identify the meaningful regions on the map, puzzling the potential for future unity in a terrain whose political processes and practices map poorly onto its divisions.

We were compelled just not to make sense in a fundamental way of the coherence of the political map, if it existed,  but to process what it means for a rearrangement of political constituencies.  If any map presents a puzzle that can be read for its argument, we compulsively returned to the past-time of glossing the electoral map as a way to find resolution.  We returned to data visualizations, especially if paradoxically, as a trusted form of post-traumatic healing, and continue to look to them to try to embody and diagnose our deepest divides, if not overcome those seemingly salient divisions.  Faced by a feeling of fragmentation we turn to maps to better grasp where these divides lie and to try to bridge their fractures.  We turn to maps, to prevent a sense of loss, or prevent the foreboding of a lost unity, and deep-seated fragmentation.

Whether maps can do so much reparative work is open to question, as is the power of maps to explain the deep discomfort at our social divides.  Since they are so salient, and oppressive, the thought goes, they must be able to be mapped.  The relatively recent re-imagining of the nature by which the United States are united led, during the heat of the last election, to a proposal of ordering districts around the metropoles that were foreign to if linked with them–Seattle, San Francisco/Bay Area, and Los Angeles and San Diego were his in this cartography of mega-regions where urban corridors defined the map’s meaning, as much as the regions in which they were nestled or situated, emphasising a metro-cartography of political identity keeping with the times.

 

image.png

 

Dissatisfied with the state as a parsing or unit that was forward-looking, we accepted new geographical units as “megalopolis” to designate the sites that have superseded the city in this cosmopolite model of America, reflecting hubs where the large bulk of the GDP is located, and economic interests increasingly located, although this may neglect the extent to which GDP is linked not only to abstract able figures of income generated, but urban snarls, pollution, garbage production, and greenhouse gases and other forms of waste, using a variation on a five-color map to suggest the units of productive regional planning that might be able to better connect localities–or local needs and economic interests–with a federal government perceived as distant and removed.

 

1.  The notion of using the map to reaffirm a connectivity and continuity that seemed lacking provided a new way to ramp up our 2-D cartographical concerns less to foreground fractures than meaningful commonalities which could be acted upon as the borders between states seemed far less meaningful to suggest  economic connectedness, and indeed national borders seem less profitable fictions to provide possibilities for future economic growth–and indeed the state university structure provided a far less practical basis for public education, despite its value, as public universities seem more removed from educational opportunities or research funds, and others are somewhat vengefully recast as public employees, teaching mission be damned.

The map affords a prospect of tangibility and coherence, particularly compelling in its abandonment of the “state” or “county” as a unit of the polity, and appealing in its potential encouragement of a new sense of infrastructure–a term that provided such an appealing keyword way back in the midst of the  2016 American Presidential election–even if the New Map for America was presented for the lower forty-eight as a sort of forward-looking economic blueprint before the General Election, as if to orient us to a vision of the pastels of a future less brash than the red vs. blue electoral map, its regions far more recognizable, and decisively upbeat, from Cascade through the Great Lakes and Texas Triangle to the Southeast Manufacturing Belt.  The hope is to respond to a sense of dislocation by more meaningful economic units, and indeed an agenda to move forward advanced in Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilizationa hopeful manifesto to shift debate from territorial units and semantics to a vigorous statement of economic power.

 


New York Times/Parag Khanna

 

The shifting of attention to the divides in our electoral map to a the sorts of channels of connectedness Parag Khanna proposed were not to be–or aren’t yet, so strong was the localist and isolationist tide against them.  The cartographical intervention was a view of globalization that was sunny–and with an emphasis on affirming possibilities of connectivity, as opposed to the terrifying sense of an exposure of unraveling and intransigence that the formation of a Trump Train–rather than the sort of proposed High Speed Rail lines–were proposed to create as a new economic infrastructure for a nation that seems increasingly unsettled, and seems increasingly unsettled, and might be hoped to be healed by a remapping of its economic interconnectivity, rather than its divides–an image of interconnectivity that the election erased.

To be sure, the use of the map to affirm needed connectivity (and continuity beyond proximity) among states was long realized to lie in the potential of the map to create further connective lines of communication and economic development.  The promotion of surveying projects, from the railroad lines by Abraham Lincoln through areas of Appalachia in Kentucky and Tennessee, where the President realized the possible vitality of an economy not rooted or based on enslavement of populations provided a basis to encourage unionism.  Walt Whitman saw, in 1860, the nation as a great nation “of many nations,”  and Lincoln argued to survey the region to increase its connection, and offer a new basis to integrate the economic complexities of a union divided on an apparently intractable political debate.  The notion of mega-regions and economic corridors is not, in this sense, so new at all;  fostering economic interests has long been tied to the need to try to envision future possibilities in maps–a need that the 2016 Presidential election has undoubtedly necessitated, although the Trump administration seems dedicated to obscure that need.

 

2.  But if the model was conceived in the midst of a tense primary season that saw political splintering and a large fear of depression in a search for a politics of meaning, the fears of a distance from Washington, DC became the victors of the 2016 Presidential election, as we saw a new and apparently heightened red-blue division imposed on the nation that we have been still trying to wrestle or digest and place in political or historical context, and to parse meaning from a map that seems all too neatly clean-cut after all–unless the fracture lines were indeed that strong that the nation might once again divide, as if reporting on the electoral results were a sort of performance art.

 

Sea of Red

 

Blue America or Red America?

 

The fissures of red and blue reappeared again as what seemed a safe bet of a Clinton majority victory repeated, although newscasters and talking heads found it hard to say anything interesting about it, just three days from the 2016 Presidential election.  But the confidence of these electoral projections that seemed to give a fragile if solid coherence to a Clinton electoral victory, if one that would hardly unify the nation–

 

 

 

–but contain its increasingly evidence divides, rather abruptly ceded to a sea of red, where alternate projections failed to alter the depths of a geographic solidity of those voting for Trump, even if a majority of them seemed resigned that the election would not make a substantive difference.  As multiple electoral night watch parties disbanded with disillusionment, we were resigned to accept these divides, not knowing whether the geographical cleavages had either surfaced or crystallized in the actual electoral map, but suggested a somewhat surprising rejection of the status quo, and an eery sense of a red state continuity, as though we were divided regional blocks after all–

 


 

–and so we pored over visualizations of the nation’s new voting patterns that were increasingly and perhaps over-generously provided to stunned media viewers with a sense of collective trauma, to be processed only by reviewing endless cartographical parsings of the deep reds of the adjusted choropleth of 2016 revealed the coasts could hardly understand the intensity of the interior, seeming to reveal a convincing record of a deep-set urban-rural divide in a map of county-by-county voting trends.

The map of electoral votes was just as widely championed by Trump himself, of course, who not only seemed to have installed it in the White House, but to present his candidacy as victory over the interests that he proclaimed had “rigged” the election, as if it provided a demonstration that the process not so rigged.  (For Trump followers,  the championed results, in which the President “elect” exulted, might have in the “Fake News” of predictions of his electoral defeat, and the false predictions of their marginalization from the country.)  In an election when “rigged” seemed to have defined the 2016 Presidential election as it was used to invest emotions by different candidates, Trump had exulted in what applied equally to the economy, political process, and judicial inquiry as if applied to a “system” that he seemed to disdain, if only to recognize that the “hot term” he used became a basis to showcase his alleged outsider status.  But the electoral map provided, for all its distortion of population, an argument that the “rigged” nature of the vote and “system” was undermined by the electoral system–the same system that he may have called “rigged” at one time.  Trump’s claims for having “introduced the term”–“I’m the one that brought that word up!’–was in fact suggested to him by Roger Stone, who argued within two months after Trump descended his escalator to announce his candidacy, and recommend he base his candidacy on claims ‘the system is rigged against the citizens’ and that he is the lone candidate–did this offer any ideas to Bernie Sanders?–‘who cannot be bought.’”  Trump didn’t immediately adopt the term, but by the Spring of 2016, the term became used to insert himself into a corrupt system of which he could be the savior.

Trump ran so insistently and deftly with the idea to make it his own, treating it as a term to cathecting with his rallies.  He soon began to inveigh against the whole “rigged, disgusting, dirty [political] system” as being rigged, first the Republican primary and then the Democratic, discrediting the electoral process as a “rigged, crooked system that’s designed so the bosses can pick whoever they want” that revealed itself to be during the primaries to be “totally rigged to keep incumbents in power.”   Arguing that the word was his intellectual property, as he had used it before Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton adopted the term he claimed to merit authorship for having introduced into  the election, it cemented new constituencies in an age of increased income inequality, playing very well to an anti-establishment crowd as a new language of empowerment–so that the electoral map seemed to some a populist victory.

 

 

After insisting and bemoaning the extent to which the voting process was “rigged” during the primaries and into the general election by parties and elites, openly fostering distrust in the political process, the narrative suddenly switched when the electoral map–that map that so shocked the nation–was presented as a true victory that rather preposterously confirmed the success with which Trump had presented himself as not beholden to outside interests to a specific audience, as if it was a record of reality.  Enamored of the map of electoral votes’ distribution, Trump presented the electoral map as confirming a populist victory that occurred against all odds., at the same time as his skill at gaming a system of electoral votes.   He wanted the Washington Post to display the map on its front page, as if to announce it as a new reality, a hundred days into his administration, in a bizzarro illustration of his desires to run the press, asking reporters Aren’t you impressed by this map?¨–and regaling reporters with copies of the map as a testimony of reaching a broad audience of voters, as a source of pride and a deeply personal accomplishment of which he was the author, as well as a form of evidence he wanted the entire nation to be entranced–whose stark divisions he even had framed for the White House, as a confirmation of the extent of his appeal outside of coastal media elites.

 

imageThe Hill

 

The electoral map showed a defeat of the so-called “elites” on both coasts.  The majority of voters’ opinion mattered less than how divided we had become, over the next year and a half.  It was hardly a surprise to find these divisions, but their salience seemed a strong shift in political decorum.  As Trump’s Presidency continued, we mapped rise of hate crimes inspired by Trump, as if to conjure the sense his Presidency and rhetoric had changed the nation, and suggested a new meaning of the term “red state” based not on majority voting but confirming a sense of deep-seated anger against an “other” embraced by a good share of the nation, as if tolerance for violence not acceptable elsewhere.

 

 

 

The crisis in belonging seemed, in this red-hued preoccupation, almost about blood, and innate differences, and an anger that had been unleashed either on the campaign trail or its social media spin-offs and detritus, where suddenly the most marginal of voices, rarely recognized in print, began to circulate, and reached a large and strikingly contiguous electorate, from which “we” were actually removed.

 

image

 

 

3.  Which brings us to the deeper crisis of understanding how much of the nation seemed to rally around the idea of a need to garrison and fortify a southwestern border long left intentionally open, as if this would somehow Make American Great Again, and affirm its aging economy, persuaded they had been huckstered by international trade accords, as protection of the border gained greater reality than the civil liberties and rights of due process by which the nation was, for an actual strict constructionist, long defined.

The demand to think “beyond states”–plus ultra!–has been conceived not as a possibility of growing connectivity, but as resigning ourselves to deep divisions as if they were embedded in the territory in the revival of what were argued somewhat misleadingly to be “southern interests” or heritages, and accommodate and instantiate in a map that Colin Woodward has long argued reflects the dynamics of their original settlement–rather than economic development and local political cultures–as if to accommodate the “local cultures” of politics, such as they are, as fundamentally distinct economic patterns that transcend the division of states or economic development.

Possibilities of new sorts of economic interconnectedness be damned, Woodward would have us recognize the long shadows attitudes toward work and not toward race, education, gender, or religion cast across the political fracturing of the once United States, as if to suggest that the notion of being united was itself a bit of a big fraud, or a pretense needed to unite what were long fundamentally different regions, in a new fracturing that reflects eighteenth-century precedents as if to trace the differentiation of ethnic or racial stock in ways that he claims effectively map on our own political divides, and offer new tools to help us understand different points of view that even a Continental Congress was foolhardy to pretend they could ever adequately reconcile, so steeply do they haunt the current polity.

The oracle of Freeport, ME reminds us that “regional cultures” have existed since the era of the continent’s first colonization in ways that command attention, despite the burning issue of apparently recent hot-button concerns from terrorism or immigration, despite their salience in the political debate and their prominence in motivating sectarian hostility.  In a sense, the map may consolingly remind us that Trump has not appealed to “Make America Great Again,” but festered its deepest historical divisions and divides; its commanding division into colors of distinct hues a refutation of the idea that we are living in an era without intersectionality, where divisions deriving from historical priority trump any of the effects of economic inequalities and disparities of income.  It indeed seems to naturalize race relations that have gained ugly  prominence in recent years as being a world that must be accepted as “modeled after the slave societies of the ancient world,” where “democracy is the privilege of the few,” as if this were a tenable cultural position but demands to be appreciated as such.  Rather than describe racism, or race relations, Woodward lets us know that “black people confronted” dominant cultural norms, a formulation that strips them of much agency indeed–or denies it altogether, more accurately.

The quite flat five-color schema of 2013 was recycled in the news, perhaps, because of how it seems to erase the far more finely grained visualizations of the election that appeared in late July 2018 in the newspaper of record, five days previous, as if the precinct-by-precinct map of Ryne Rhola could be made to disappear beneath the far flatter overlays of Colin Woodward’s breakdown.

 

National Precinct Map.pngRyne Rhola/Mapbox

 

For Woodward’s map viewed the United States not as a composite of populated blue islands in a sea of chromatic shades of red that slid to scarlet expanse, but rather crisp lines whose constitution was defined in the eighteenth century, and perpetuated in the self-sorting machine that the United States has become, arguing that the affinities of each place attract their own political brand–a notion that Woodward emphasized in the new iteration of this map that adheres more closely to the national boundaries of the lower forty-eight.

 

New York Times/Colin Woodward (2018)

 

Forget any preconceived ideas of geographical mobility or migration, Woodward enjoins:  the map suggests the computational shape-sorter that the deep circuits of the United States’ history has defined.

That such divisions inform the breaking lines of the new “partisan landscape” hardly require a five-color map.  But Although meant to displace a divide between urban and rural, they may remind us that we are in fact living in an age that might be as easily cast–and we’ll return to this–as a trumping of the local, where states have faded away with the accentuation of local interests.  In ways that are filtered and refracted though the relative homogeneity of media markets and the traditions of certain areas of the nation where immigrants are indeed less openly welcomed or accepted may tend to the slogans of America First championed by Trump, and lines of gender are differently drawn.  Such regions might be less likely to be sympathetic in a deep way with a woman who reminded them, rightly or wrongly, of coastal elites, and accepting of the very caricatures of coastal elites that Trump, in a canny exercise of deflection and personal rebranding, managed to project on her–palling with Goldman Sachs; attending as Secretary of State to foreign relations and not the American worker–that the more removed regions would accept.

The divisions in the “partisan landscape” of the nation that Woodward presented are considerable and are economic–

 

Partisan landscape.pngNew York Times/Colin Woodward (2018)

 

–but curiously suggest the deep red remove of the very region of Appalachia that President Lincoln once sought to integrate better both economically and infrastructurally in the United States, but has sadly lagged further behind, and felt further removed from Washington.

And not only from Washington, DC, but from the complex of the news that is so demonized by President Trump as being an “enemy of the people” today.  For though it is never made precise who this collective is–“the people”–it is not the folks who read newspapers or watch the nightly news, but those who feel far less represented in them, and by them, and less familiar with them to less present to them–for the known density of reporters and correspondents appears an odd echo of the parsing of the lower forty-eight into “Yankeedom,” “Tidewater,” “Greater Appalachia,” “Far West.” and “Left Coast,” as not only different media markets, and different areas that are represented in the news–

 

local qotient reportersDept. of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics/Occupational Employment Statistics

 

employment correspondents 2017Dept. of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics/Occupational Employment Statistics

 

–but that feel alienated from its constitution of reality, because that stands at a remove from their lives and regions.  The existence of pronounced “news deserts” in areas as Appalachia suggest a fragmentation of our news economy that weakens local solidarity and opinion, and creates large voting blocks that are terrifyingly coincident with the paucity of local news sources, as Chisolm’s below burnt red interactive Carto data vis rather scarily reveals, as it invites and allows one to explore in even more fine-grained from over the lower forty eight.  The blanked-out regions of lightly hued regions reflect areas aggrieved areas by the absence of a diversity of local newspapers–institutions long identified with reflection on local political institutions and practices.  They are, in other words, afflicted with the absence of a plurality of avenues for the shaping of public opinion and political debate, and bound to rely one less active political debate.

 

Carto-News Deserts

 

The striking thinning out in many regions of Appalachia as well as the south of so-called “news deserts” is not a longstanding historical divide–the death of the local newspaper is

 

Appalachia News Deserts multipleAmerica’s Growing News Deserts/Columbia Journalism Review (2017)

 

–in which limited investigative reporting on local issues, discussion generated by print, and indeed informed local political decisions and checks on local power seems to create a vacuum into which rushes a new tribalism of largely symbolic issues.

 

 

The difference between these regions is not necessarily so continuous, or suggestive of nations, despite the startling continuity in “news deserts” and areas of the low level of occupational employment of journalists or correspondents that is its correlate.  Deep divides of terrifying continuity are at basis economically driven, and seem impossible to reduce only to cultural divides–or reduced to existing historical divides, so much as an erosion of local institutions designed to foster reflection on political institutions and discourse.

The increasing gaps in sites where only one newspaper–or no local news–exists will be made up for in new ways, but the growth of News Deserts from 2016 marks a change in the information economy, and a change in which the role of newspapers in constituting and encouraging the community long existed.  The rise of digital news outlets that have taken up the nourishing role traditionally and long played by journalism is promising, but the attack on the few remaining news sources that exist and on which folks rely stands as a new challenge, with the number of reporters covering local news having dropped in half since 2004, and some 1,800 newspapers–many venerable institutions in communities that helped make new communities–having folded in the same time, leaving all the tanned out regions with one newspaper, and the burnt siena dots counties with no local newspaper at all–areas reliant on other news sources and online information, according to Penelope Muse Abernathy of UNC’s Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media, which points more deeply at the need for a new business model for local news, but also the increasing vulnerability of many counties–and many individuals–to the older, less educated, and poorer, farther from metropolitan areas in parts of Texas, the Dakotas, Alabama, Florida and Georgia, where our democracy may fracture.

 

Abernathy, 2018

 

The problems of an engaged citizenship through newspapers is not, of course, the only line of fracturing in the social body.

The increased divergence of the age at which women have a first child in different regions of the United States suggests a huge difference in life-perspective–or “life style”–which is clearly identified with those areas of denser presence of reporters, correspondents, and news reporting, suggesting a huge difference–and deep divergence–among the priorities, and negotiation of labor markets.  Although the different preferences for childbirth in the United States’ regions are not a big surprise for many women, the strikingly different age of women at birth maps onto the “regionalism” and regions of the United States in striking ways, unsurprising in an era when birth control and abortion are seen as the “issues” that define political divides–both around appointments to the Supreme Court and around what makes up privacy, personhood, and rights.  The pronounced oscillation around the age of a mother at her first birth is striking, not only in its divergence but the large span of the nation where birth is defined at twenty-four years of age, and what this mans for families and women’s work–and of female experience at the same time as the first female candidate became nominated by a major party–and the huge gaps this created.

 

Motehrs age at birth

 

New York Times: Birth Age Gap in the USA (2016)New York Times: Birth Age Gap in the USA (2016)

 

Does the puzzle fit together better now, looking at the relative number of reporters and correspondents employed and stationed in areas of the United States, and the remove of many regions–either apparent or real–from the media markets that exist, and the sense of alienation and remove of those areas  from actualities reported in the “news”?

Woodward’s “map”–updating or revisiting the divisions he had in fact foretold in 2013, just after President Obama’s second election as President, reprised for readers always hungry for a good data vis, that distilled confusion to stark lines of a 2-D paper map, called less “nations” (as he previously had) than “regions” which transmitted through the ages the spirits of their respective colonizers, in a complete revision of the image of the nation as a melting pot, economic integration and disparities of wealth be damned.

Rather than a melting pot having ever existed, the oracle of Freeport has it, distinctions between a Puritan legacy with assimilates others by championing a common good, the multicultural materialism of Dutch founders, the manorial society of the British gentry, quakers and pluralistic protestants of the midlands, and rigorous independence of the Scots Appalachians abut slave-holding southerners from the Barbados and Spanish-American periphery, shaping the nation’s fractured political present:  aside from some limited intersection of these realms, the melting pot not only never existed, but “deep cultural” values provided an optic that refracted every political event of the twentieth and twenty-first century, as if a deep memory of the mind that we will not escape.  The rigorous and purposive historical flatness of Woodward’s “map” seems a point of pride.

The schematic map recalls a study sheet for  high school U.S. history, claiming to reveal a landscape that lets scales fall from its viewers’ eyes.  Such radical essentialism–or deeply conservatory if not reactionary cartography–reminds us with considerable offhand pluck that we’re in fact far less mobile than we would like to think.  Rather than dig into the data in any depth, the map “shows” that we remain dominated by almost essential cultures that have been perpetuated by local institutions for all our championing of free will; we are, yes, really cultures, but cultures that no person can actually make.  Indeed, Woodward had originally cast the divides as separate “nations” that were both in evidence “today,” but revealed a deep geography of eleven nations in a 2013 map first published in the fall of 2013 as a guide to the “deep differences” into who he argued people in the nation sort themselves, as if into political preferences.  If a degree of self-determination surely remains, geography has the commanding upper hand, Woodward seeks to let us know, but his argument verges on an environmental conditioning by which the continent’s settlement runs against the idea of any  easy arrival at consensus:  indeed, “to understand violence or practically any other divisive issue, you need to understand historical settlement patterns” that defined the matrix.

 

Washington Post/Colin Woodward (2013)

 

Woodward responded to the stark fragmentation of the electoral map in 2012, to be sure, but has reprised his divisions again to explain the Trump phenomenon, and effectively raise questions about the midterm elections as if to suggest that no real deviation from a foretold story will occur.  And it is no surprise that the area of Greater Appalachia he has mapped, colored bright red in the image of 2013, which consciously riffed on the red state/blue state divide, without mentioning it.  Indeed, those “eleven nations” break into what look like voting blocks,–even if they are meant to remind readers that “lasting cultural fissures” were established by  “Euro-American cultures [that] developed in isolation from one another,” reflecting how “the American colonies were [first] settled by people from distinct regions of the British Isles” who we shouldn’t confuse.  Woodward presented his map as evidence of deep roots for the sectarianism we think of as modern, and “there has never been an America, but rather several Americas,” even if we all share one legal code.  Deadlock is natural on gun control or other issues,–but to appreciate that you “need to understand history” that political debate cannot alter.

When Woodward revived the twelve nations as divides as tools to explain a sense of regional divides to replace the truism of thinking about America in a rural/urban dichotomy, he wanted to go deeper than the big data of a district-by-district map and its information overload.  But leaving aside that his geographic divisions handily capture some of the largest cities and urban areas in the “Left Coast” and “New Netherland” region, the map seems deeply flawed in its use of voting preferences in an era when voter turnout is notoriously low–voter turn-out was not substantially lower than in other years, but hovered about 58%–and the areas where Trump surprisingly outperformed the previous Republican Presidential candidate in a majority of states–

 

image.png

 

The divisions map most precisely on regions that perceived their economic remove from the coastal elites with whom the Democrats have been wrongly identified.  Indeed, it is not surprising that the Greater Appalachia region that Woodward’s original 2013 map cast as bright red assumes a pretty monochrome hue when chopped out of the elegant Mapbox visualization, suggesting that that region played a large outsized role in the last election, or as much as Purple America, and occupies the heart of the area where Trump outperformed Romney in the 2016 election, reconfiguring the red-blue divide.  The deep crimson area, with scattered islands of blue to the east and north, where Greater Appalachia ends, suggests less a new nation than a remoteness,

 

Greater Appalachia.pngArea roughly corresponding to Greater Appalachia/Mapbox/New York Times

 

not only removed from broadband or access to health care, but relative per capita income rates in relation to the United States average, completion of high school, ethnic diversity, and women in the workforce and unemployment among young men–in short, a nation apart from the nation, less exposed to racial diversity and who the federal government had let down in its priorities.

 

Women in Worksplace, below average in tan.png

New York Times (2015), tan counties from below average; violet (above average)t

 

 

This was just the sort of area where Hillary Clinton would have the hardest time with her message, and possessed striking insularity.

 

 

Minority presence Appalachian Avg 2010U.S. Census Chartbook, 2010 (2011)

 

The trap of thinking in states may distort the above map, but the increased number of votes  seem rooted in “Yankeedom,” as well as “Greater Appalachia” and “Midlands,” than the logic of Woodard’s map would have us believe.  Of course, Woodward’s map might be more convincingly read not as a divide between rural and urban, but a heightening of the local, and a collapse of cross-regional collectives that once animated our politics and were known as parties, or groups that bargained for collective interests as unions.

For it surely takes into account the deep crisis in our democracy of a disconnect that many feel compelled to seek affective ties that are deeper than the remove they feel from Washington, and hard to find in a map.  It is saying something that even a year and a half from Trump’s inauguration as President, we continue to return, as if to find more information, to even more detailed parsings of the political map that might allow us to explore and, more importantly, come to terms with the extent of fracturing in our political landscape, where urban “voter islands” in Denver, Minneapolis, St. Louis, Chicago, Washington DC, Atlanta, Miami, Houston, Phoenix, San Francisco, Seattle, Boston and New York are so strikingly pronounced–and try to understand what that heightened insularity can mean.

 

Ryne Rhola/Mapbox (2018)

 

We are asked to use the map to avoid being in a “political bubble,” and to explore the area that you “know”–no doubt where you reside, where everyone first turns in a map–as if to measure what you expected that you knew against the “extremely detailed map” of our political divisions, courtesy of Mapbox, where even the divisions in a reliably “blue state”–as where I live, California–can be parsed in greater detail, as if to gain intelligence of the political lay of the land, in time for the mid-terms, and to learn what districts you might to go to canvas or contribute to a political campaign, as possible on many partisan apps,

 

California.pngRyne Rhola/Mapbox (2018), 2016 US Presidential Election

 

The divisions in political or electoral preference seems hardly surprising, but the divides show up as stubbornly sharp in the Bay Area, whose insularity is long supposed and often championed, but where the directive to “explore” an area you “know” to see if you live in a political bubble seems all too apt.

 

Bay area

 

east bay alone with Danville

 

For the “areas you know” still seem ones that you can’t quite get your head around, too much like bubbles than regions, where fault lines of political opposition are located a bit more inland, but seem sadly inscribed on the land.

 


 

The maps remind us that, rather than live in nations, we seem to live in tribes.

Leave a comment

Filed under data visualization, infographics, news graphics, political geography, political preferences

Locating the Lost Moo Pah Soccer Team

We followed with intense interest and hope the gripping story of the teenage soccer team who had entered the dangerous complex of narrow caves in North Thailand.  We focussed on the possibilities for their rescue as we watched the narrow entry ways into the remote complex where they were stranded on rocky shoals, over two miles into the Tham Luang complex and over a mile underground.  Before the maps of the narrowing cave, we could only imagine the excitement of their entrance into the cavernous passage where they left bikes, and to imagine the conditions where the U-16 team waited with their committed Assistant Coach, as we tried to get our heads around the dangers  the team faced in the darkness, licking water from its walls over two weeks.

The deeply compelling story of the “lost” team attracted the global attention from their sudden disappearance, discovery by two divers, to their rescue gained huge interest and dramatic power, as we tried to move into the narrow confines of the cave themselves.  Despite the immense power of the human story, and the endurance of each team member of the Moo Pah, or “Wild Boars,” the global scale of attempts to locate the team so remotely stranded were as historic, as we all tried to place the “Lost Thai Cave Boys”–all of whom nineteen divers have now thankfully rescued or extracted from the torturously narrow cave, whose cavernous opening narrows into one of the most labyrinthine of complexes of as one progresses into its passage ways.  Lost both to sight, above ground tracking, and to global attention, the small group of soccer players compelled attention of the entire global media.  The intense bond that existed for the team–who practiced with their coach who understood the sort of haven he was offering to them all too well–created the sense of solidarity that, in the end, trumped the dangers of being “lost” to a state or to public view.

As they were lost to tracking, GPS, or other means of geolocation, the drama became one of the inability to map in an era when mapping technologies seem to have expanded throughout our lives.  While the lack of GPS or wifi made navigation or consultation of instruments used in mapping of little value, cross-sections of the deep cave from forty years ago provided only the roughest of guides to the torturous paths of often slippery ground that threatened to fill from southwest monsoon rains–sudden rains already pressed the team deeper into the caves.   As the teenage team was removed from all contact with the world, or abilities of geolocation, the rest of the world depended on maps to imagine the possibility of contact with the kids who were suddenly known, in a bizarre trending topic, as the ‘lost cave boys’ as if to foreground the increasingly uneven global distribution of technical expertise.

We needed maps to keep them in sight, as it were, and to imagine the very possibility of their survival:  even the most schematic maps of the caves’ dimensions, abstract cross-sections drafted thirty years ago, offered a sense of contact with the team that was removed from GPS, so far removed to be out of contact, for over two weeks over a mile underground.

 

29 coupessTham Luang cross-sections, Association Pyrénéenne de Spéléologie, Expeditions Thai 87 – 88

 

While the multi-national effort helped to guarantee the rescue effort was miraculous, it is also a testament to the sheer force of globalization that the former Buddhist monk who led twelve teenage soccer players–several of whom were stateless ethnic minors–became a compelling focus of international attention after being tragically  trapped while exploring a cave complex.  The young team, stranded two miles into a six-mile long complex, with limited food and air, were almost abandoned, until the surprising accidental discovery that the teenage members of the Moo Pa team–the “Wild Boars”–were all found alive with their Assistant Coach by a group of British underwater divers, apparently on holiday, exploring another branch of the vast flooded cave complex, who first photographed the team, smiling at having contact after ten days.  If not for the fortuitous sighting and discovery–and perhaps if not for the lit photograph the divers managed to take of them in the cave’s depths, they may well have tragically perished.  But what else is more emblematic of the globalization of the media than the ability to turn all attention to one spot in the world, that suddenly seems the only spot that cannot be otherwise mapped?

The happenstance discovery that was made a week and a half–ten full days–after the team members had after they disappeared was relayed around the globe, more a miracle of endurance as much as of modern technology, though the two were conflated.  Able to capture them by cel phones, the image of their survival in the darkness underground survival mapped an odd snapshot of globalization.  While the cave was visited several times by the Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the statelessness of the players or assistant coach who helped found the Moo Pa team was not mentioned.  As global attention turned to the cave, and divers arrive from the United States, Britain, Australia, Finland, and Canada, the search almost became almost a spectacle of state theater, as the Royal Thai Army undertook to map and track the location of the “lost cave boys” in the mountainous remote province, as global attention shifted to the Tham Luang caves, newly prominent in international headlines as an engrossing topic of social media.

 

s095716743June 28, 2018

 

M5SFALUCC4I6ROCRKMM4BD345Y.jpgJuly 7, 2018 (Rungroj Yongrit/EPA-EFE/Rex/Shutterstock)

 

 

The complex of caves in which the team members were stranded was abstracted from what was an area of widespread statelessness, divided between different warring factions, the possibilities of their rescue the focus of global attention.  Such a heroic narrative was able to conclude, for one, in a far more satisfactory way than a focus on borderline events, or the fate of the stateless along the Thai border.

 

1. The efforts to discovery the team had already attracted help  While U.S. Pacific Command had sent a rescue team to help in the search for the twelve players between twelve and sixteen and their coach, searching with Thai military using remotely operated underwater vehicles and heat-seeking drone, the absence of any indications in the complex Tham Luang Nang Non caves was puzzling.  The mystery of their apparent disappearance was broken by an unexpected image of the smiling soccer team, on a ledge deep into the cavernous complex of caves, taking refuge from rising waters, far beyond the gear and cycles they deposited near its entrance, and indeed beyond the “beach” where those exploring this branch of the complex pause to rest, some four km into the cave.  The flooded waters that had already begun to rise with the arrival of the monsoons that fill the cave annually, further imperiling the group.  (The rains may have been a bit early this year, due to climate change.)

As the Thai army worked hard to locate the group for two weeks, the embodied problem of achieving the remote extraction of the soccer players focussed global attention; being trapped on a ledge in darkness by rising water when you don’t know how to swim was the stuff of universal nightmares.  But the graphics of their rescue through the caves, now lit by lamps and accompanied by divers with head lamps and oxygen, provided a miraculous rescue narrative leading to their emergence.

 

rescue contact 1.pngReuters, Hope for the 13 (January 9, 2018)

 

The image of the smiling teens taken by British divers became something of a clarion call to expand  technologies and tools for their rescue.  While what is paramountly important is that the “Thai Cave Boys” are coming to light and to their families, even as the rains are beginning to fall heavily, the global spread of the news of their disappearance and accidental spotting and the massive media response that both triggered helped coordinate a rescue effort up to a thousand meters underground with oxygen tanks, headlights, a team of divers, ropes to allow steep uphill climbs of wet caves, once drained but in need of more pumping before monsoon rains intensify, and time for the team to take a crash course in diving; Dawn Cai successfully stitched together an elegant GIF of the trek to recovery that captures the confines of the remote cave, and the deeply embodied ways we all struggled to imagine the scenario we replayed in our minds, but this time casting the focus on the tools of rescue, from the position of rescue cable to the waiting helicopter and ambulances at the cave’s entrance to ferry the kids to safety.

 

 

The nail-biting drama of the survival of the boys for two weeks in the narrow Tham Luang Caves, two and a half miles deep into their interior and 800-1000 meters deep underground, attached global attention first as what a feared tragedy, resolved only with difficulty.  What became a nail-biting drama of the “cave boys”‘ fate was the focus of global media; the gripping difficulties of the teenagers suddenly involved multiple states, directing more attention than ever to a remote cave in North Thailand.

Looking at maps of the cave, the weird sense that we had in following the story that this could be a site anywhere–a cave that often seemed eerily disembodied from its environment or a specificity of place, or its location in the mountains near its border with Myanmar, site of thousands of the over 400,000 stateless refugees, displaced ethic minorities, stateless not yet granted asylum by Thailand, an area beset by drug trafficking, human trafficking, and malarial outbreaks.  The relatively retrorgade region of the Golden Triangle divided between the Shan State North and South and United Wa–has become a site for high-tech mapping, however, as if to affirm the unity and control of a region divided by different local internal conflicts–and contested boundaries the had created refugee flows.  The fact that it was normal for most children in the region to be stateless–as many of the soccer players were–made it all the more paradoxical and complex that the appellation of the team as “Thai”–and the involvement of the Thai military–were assigned a dominant role in mapping and locating the team in global media, as if the responsibility to track and locate them devolved around the nearest state to claim responsibility over the area–even if the players themselves lacked nationality.  The

 

5.-Myanmar-Fragile-Link-Conflict-Map

contested boundaries.pngAsia Times (Chiang Rai province divided by United Wa and Shan state armies)

 

–which were determined the stories of the lives of the Assistant Coach and his charges.  Ethnic strife was obscured by the tools of tracking the boys’ location and safety.   The shift of global media attention to the lost boys seems to have led to efforts of the Thai Royal Army to create the impression that the team was safe–and the situation in Chiang Rai province controlled.

 

north-thailand-july-2011222

 

 

2.  The first sightings of the team fed a range of credible attempts to locate and extract the twelve kids from deep in the cave, past a rocky shoal known as “Pattaya Beach” and through its narrow openings, was planned:  we only had a sense of the depth of their location in the cave complex after the first sighting of the team that occurred ten days after their disappearance into the dark cave’s mouth.
Cave Entrace in BorderlandsPlanet Labs

alternate vis reuters caveReuters, Hope for the 13 (January 9, 2018)

 

The news of contact and communication  made global headlines, and served to reorient global attention immediately to humanitarian offers to assist in rescue efforts in an age when humanitarian impulses appear globally in short supply; the image of twelve young members of the Moo Pah team, wearing brightly colored jerseys, on a perch on a rocky ledge deep underground, relayed around the world, seems a partial miracle of the ability to capture imagery in almost all places, as well as a reminder of the challenge of ever locating them on the map.  If the terrifying nature of finding no response on your teen’s cell phone has long ceased to be purely a First World Problem, the alarm of loosing any contact with one’s teen seemed to foreground the terror of how quickly any trace of their presence had disappeared.

Despite the miracle rescue by which they were “found safe” inside the complex, as the monsoon rains were just about to begin, the mapping, and tracking the young Moo Pa team was a drama hard to get one’s head around that gripped the world, and lead to a huge exultation at the emergence of the first six players from the cave complex became a cause for global celebration, even as the former monk, the valiant Aekkopol Chanthawong who is their Assistant Coach, remains trapped with the rest of his charge and team, teaching them the virtues of stoicism and patience as well as techniques of breathing and meditation that had more than anything else to survive, presumably, kept them in good spirits and alive for over two weeks.  Helped in part by the recession of the waters, but also by the shallow breathing techniques that allowed survival in an oxygen-depleted caves, the dedication of Aekkopol to the boys he trained not only in soccer, but to dwell in the dark stands out.  The coach was practiced in long meditation retrains, and  arrived  as an orphan at the War Phra Thet Doi Wao monastery, only leaving training to be a monk after ten years.  Where his own advice about meditation and calmness a crucial importance to reducing the team’s panic, as well as the trust he had gained?

(Is the broadcast of plans to ordain eleven of the boys as monks as novices and their coach as a monk occurred after their rescue, lighting candles at Wat Phra That Doi Wao monastery, consolidating and combining the international broadcast of their rescue with a traditional Buddhist coming of age ceremony?)

 

beautiful-fine-artWat Phra Tat Doi Wao monastery, Chiang Mae province in Golden Triangle

 

The techniques of meditation and focus that he used, no doubt developed on meditation retreats with little food or water in the forests surrounding the monastery, were obscured by the focus on the range of technologies that were imagined to perform a rescue operation able to bring the boys from the cave.  While knowledge of the possibility of their rescue, the survival of the team fed their survival past ten days, their survival was the other story that was masked by the amassing of international efforts, helicopters, diving equipment and cables to find and extract members of the team from the cave complex, equipped with oxygen canisters and lights. What is celebrated as a high tech adventure rescue depends on the focus of the former monk who, despite his statelessness, has become something of a national hero–but also for the techniques of survival he imparted, more important than the anti-anxiety medications that the multinational team of divers brought when rescuing them.

The unfolding involvement of a global commitments to locate and extract the thirteen teens seems a modern counterpart to the myth of Princess Jao Mae Nan Nong who fled her parents with her love to the complex of caves after their forbidden love was discovered, and still serves as its protector.  Princess Jao Mae was said to have stabbed herself in the complex of caves where she had fled her parents with her lover, after he was killed by soldiers her father sent in pursuit, and her blood forms the waters that fill the caves, providing a powerful link between the caves and the afterlife.  The Princess’s spirit still is venerated as protecting those who enter the cave complex in the Mae Sai district of Chiang Rai province; indeed the altar of the pink-robed Princess after the boys disappeared attracted attracted many offerings, incense, and candles with other offerings as raining and flooding slowed the search, and her role as a powerful bridge between the living and the dead and guardian of the caves in northern Tahailand gained power as a focus for hope of intercession.

The story of the fate of the “lost boys” became a parallel tale of the turning of global attention turning to the caves in Northern Thailand, to provide a different form of intercession as rescue efforts grew   The stories of Jao Mae shifted, to be sure, to new mapping technologies as the members of the team were located and found, as if in response to the efforts of collective prayer, and a variety of possible new schemes for locating and saving the lost team became a truly international affair, unexpectedly turning all attention to Northern Thailand for evidence of reasons to hope.  To be sure, the rise of an emphasis on technologies of tracking and mapping the caves may have displaced the prominence of breathing techniques and meditation practices that played a large role in the Wild Boars’ team’s survival underground for ten days.  “In the cave,” deep beneath the surface of the ground, as military soldiers combed the mountainside with maps, remembered the head coach Nopparat Khanthawong, the assistant coach had “taught the boys how to meditate so that they could pass the time without stress,” as they waited in the darkness, without food or any sense of the passage of time for ten days, in ways that “helped save their lives” by techniques learned asa novice fat Phra that doi wao temple where he arrived as a refugee orphan from Myanmar.  Aekkopol often meditated with monks of the temple and the surrounding forest for days at a time with only a small reserve of food.   And he was the last to leave the cave, shortly before the pumping apparatus that had drained the caves of rainwater failed.   Yet the entire affair and rescue was shown and described most often as an instance of modernization, supervised by the Prime Minister, in which the Royal Thai Army played a major role in securing the area, developing strategic approaches, as well as draining the cave.

 

3.  Tracking the site of the lost team had riveted global attention and indeed become a project of global mapping over the week plus since the tragedy of their June 20 disappearance unfolded in the news, from the first incredulous attempts to track their location in the torturous complex of underground caves to the more recent imagining of rescue attempts by diving, drilling, or any other means of extraction, as the under sixteen soccer team learned new techniques of breathing, meditation, and perseverance from their dedicated Assistant Coach.  We collectively communed with them, and contemplated their chances for rescue as we south to orient ourselves to the unfolding development of what we didn’t want to imagine was another human tragedy through our maps.  As we needed to believe they were alive–as they thankfully were–maps were an affirmation of their existence, and a logic of collective action.

Paper maps provided a surprisingly important point of reference above ground, as the position of the boys was considered and contemplated in previous days, as if to preserve or imagine a virtual tie to their remote location.

4728Pongmonat Tasiri/EPA

Despite the diminishing hopes of teenager’s survival after the first week they went missing, their survival of the children has become something of a test-case to find if there is any area of the world that cannot be mapped–and for rescue technologies, as well as a drama of locating hope underground in a darkening above-ground world.  For global attention to the video taken by British divers of the group of teenagers who were trapped by unexpected rains while exploring the complex with their Assistant Coach after practice, and the possibilities of international cooperations to locate the small group was nourished on social media, if it had already electrified much of the nation.  What was already a state concern of Thailand’s prime minister, Prayut Chan-O-Cha, the often unspoken if unseemly question of whether Thai soldiers and policemen had the necessary technology or skill to locate the lost team, as hope at their discovery gave way to fears of how to extract them from the cave, or return them through underwater passages,–either by drilling into the soil or squirreling them through often narrow caves.  But the fears of altering the structure of caves were balanced with the difficulty of navigating within its dark, narrow passage-ways.

What became a local exercise that the boys to explore the cave complex that the rising of the waters suddenly trapped them became an international affair, as the the world wide web focussed global attention on images of their fate, as a grainy photograph of a few smiling team members on a tablet became a cause for unexpected jubilation and offered a sort of technological reassurance even as their fate was unclear.  Images of relatives praying near the caves’ entrance with offerings of incense, garlands, and an eventual altar were balanced with images of high-tech mapping of the paths that the team took.  The utter joy one parent showed at the arrival of the image of team members on a tablet triggered a global effort to locate and save the team members believed lost, who truly seem to have shown more resilience than the rest of the world.  The sudden burst after the confirmation of their survival was a sort of miracle—they seemed healthy and even well-off while deep underground!–but the sense of a miracle was conflated with technology of the image relayed above ground.

The sudden alarm at loosing contact with one’s teen’s cell phone would have perhaps set off alarm world wide, even if the team was not found to be located at such a remote remove.  Is it a coincidence that in an era when few children are encouraged to wander far from home, or explore their local ravines and neighborhoods without worry, that the attention of the world was turned on the team stranded in the cave?  Most on the internet wondered what in God’s name the team was ever doing in the cave, or on the warning sign posted at its entrance cautioning about entering as monsoon rains approached.  The flooding of the cave where the team members were stranded was glossed as a tragedy, a race against time, and as an international challenge for sustaining hope, as the former monk became a true hero, teaching his team techniques of shallow breathing, meditation, and focus with self-sacrifice that gave them strength and perseverance in the face of terrifying danger.  He was the last to leave the cave, and soon after his departure the pumping apparatus that had drained the flooded caves broke.

 

Phra Rathet Doi TempleWat Phra That Doi Monastery, norhtern Thailand

 

The complex of caves in northern Thailand became something of a final site for nature, and struggling against natural forces, without wifi or GPS, even as the sense of why a team would go exploring the network alternated with worries rising waters complicated their rescue.   As an international effort grew, as new technologies were mapped onto the essentially quite human, all too human effort to locate and save the under-sixteen team and its dedicated Assistant Coach beneath the mountainous terrain.

 

Chiang  Rae.png

Hope transformed to preventing a terrible tragedy as possible rescue missions are contemplated or planned, and attempts to map their fate.  The difficulties of their extraction riveted global viewers to the fate of teenagers hailing from borderlands of Myanmar and Thailand, who were chosen for their interest in soccer, as forces from the Thai Army to Elon Musk to the former Navy SEAL diver who died in doing so have tried to understand how to extract safely, in what a real-life drama that dramatically surpassed the World Cup, and offered a narrative of international cooperation to save the teenagers feared lost, who were themselves stateless, as their relatives continued to bring offerings to the Jao Mae shrine venerated as able to bridge the cave and otherworld.  The story of the post-practice exploration of the complex by twelve U-16 teenagers aged twelve to sixteen–the age of my daughter–seems one of the technically difficult of situations processes, but most unfair as the story of a lost school group has grown as posted photographs of the twelve kids has provided a ray of hope, despite fears of future flooding of the caves by rains, and the perpetual threat of diminishing oxygen.

The complex’s narrow walls and rather torturous network provided what seemed the only remaining thread by which they could be saved or captured, and the specific difficulties of negotiating a rescue in the cave, after multiple divers had already tried to move along narrow passages to explore the caves, and unsuccessfully attempted to drain them with pumps, as the team was found farther into the complex–and up the hill–from where soldiers had earlier searched, and consideration of the place of Pattaya Beach–near where they were found, but in a delicate and narrow section of the caves.–and around the sections of the hill that soldiers examined above ground as they discussed the possible routes of their rescue.

_102289763_maptahi2-nc

 

4.  While the cave entrance remained large fairly deep after its entrance, the problem of following and mapping the progress of the boys into its sections grew more concrete after it was discovered how deeply in they had travelled, just past the raised area known as Pettaya Beach.  And so we turned to the most apparent exact records of the openings of the torturous cave complex where the team and their Assistant Coach were stranded, to imagine our proximity to them in a time of need.

 

tunnel leading to team

THuam Luang spelExpeditions Thai 87 – 88

 

Tracked by the latest mapping technologies and relayed on media circuits since the news of their discovery erupted, the plight of members of  the Moo Pa Thai soccer team trapped in the six-mile long Tham Luang cave complex has been a focus of global attention and mapping efforts.   The mapping and remapping of the site is of course both a testament to the dire nature of the situation of a group trapped deep within the cave, with limited oxygen, as well as food, buoyed by the miracle of their discovery after nine days and were stranded after they began exploring the cave and the difficulty of drilling from above-ground or navigating the dark cave itself to locate the team of teenagers trapped within, suffering the stuff of nightmares, as well as the problem of extorting them while negotiating narrow often underwater passage-ways.  Despite their actual inaccuracy, the apparent exactitude of the cross-sections created an imagined tie to this otherwise multiply removed area of the world, neither satisfactory mapped or governed.

As rising waters threatened to fill the narrowest of cave walls, unable to accommodate air tanks, and attempts to pump water from the complex failed, mapping truly seemed the least of it as the extraction of the team faced the pressures of rising waters, malnourishment, and oxygen lack.  (Elon Musk boosted hopes by tweeting his team was developing a narrow child-sized submarine pod able to navigate the hairpin turns in the cave complex, as if the pod would quite miraculously be able to be constructed and arrive on time–and even travelled himself to the cave system, seeking to promote the value of his oxygen engine to the Thai team.)  The collective ensemble of efforts, spurred by the problems of locating a group of boys who didn’t know how to swim or dive as the waters ran into the cave complex, was a logical problem, in many ways, that demanded resolving problems of entering the cave underwater, illuminating the passage way, and guiding the boys out, as well, it seemed, as draining the water that had already entered from growing rains.

But the challenges of mapping their location, and the sense that they had traveled to a place so remote where they were not able to be mapped and tracked.  The problem in part created a level of tension that riveted the world.  The human drama of the young members of the Moo Pa team, became a subject nand symbol of national as much as provincial pride, as the problems of skills required to achieve their rescue became debated.  The discussion and debate seemed a parallel story in itself, even if the possibly deadly adventure of the group of teens was intensely involving.  The Thai Army that sought to ascertain routes of their rescue looked over maps of the cave’s veins that snaked under the mountain ranges, as if to plan the underground rescue–focussing on the cave complex they knew so well, but with less of a sense of how to extract the kids trapped within by drilling from above ground.

 

image.pngRungroj Yongrit/EPA-EFE/Rex/Shutterstock

Despite the actual insufficiency of maps, we have tried to map the incredibly narrow contours of the cave complex, as if to puzzle over how they might be located and saved, and somehow track their course along the narrowing width of the complex from its opening–as if to map the difficulty of the job to the scale of a five-foot tall teen–to craft a more experiential record of speleological cross-sections of the mines through which the teens had traveled. based on the first surveys of the cave of 1987 of its narrowing cross-sections, now assembled in a more interactive form, as if in a flip-book–

Cave Oening.png

Cave map.png

tunnel leading to teamNew York Times Interactive

29 coupessExpeditions Thai 87 – 88

–that helped to embody the experience of being trapped in such narrow confines so deep underground where they were trapped.  The apparent accuracy of these speleological cross-sections was suddenly enlisted to create a sense of imaginary connections to the team whose fate we could not imagine, as if the insertion of a five-foot tall surrogate teenage icon helped capture the embodied experience of surviving in the cave and calibrate the difficulties of their rescue.

fit boy in cave

Images borrowed from the largely structural maps of cavers who had explored the narrow Tham Luang complex–and from the exact field of speleology–the visualization sought to pose the options for rescuing the team members in the narrow caves where they were stranded, learning how to negotiate with limited oxygen and rising water.  The interactive map in the Taimes  invites observers to imagine their narrowness, but minimized the  complications of locating the team within the cave,–it elicited wonder at how the team had managed to climb so deeply into the complex as the water rose.

 

5.  But the “map” reamined oddly abstracted form crucial information about the underground setting–failing to  suggest the real problem of rising water and ground conditions, as while tracing the path of complex with accuracy, it strips a 2D sense of location from the  context of rising waters and difficult ground conditions in a cave from which water needs to be pumped.  But perhaps the point was to capture the compelling embodied experience of their in the remote cave.  The Interactive graphics nicely reproduced the difficulties of moving along and negotiating the narrow turns, some requiring kneeling, swimming horizontally, or crouching to pass  as if to experience the narrowing of its amazingly twisty course, as if in a video game, tracking the tortuously narrow course of the caves, through which the team progressed to try to avoid rising waters, in a nightmarish situation with all to real consequences.

But we were linked through the miracle of interactive mapping to pray for the futures of the teenagers, with their schoolmates and Buddhist monks who assembled at its entrance, as if to restore them to a map.  Even as we cringed at the near-impossibility of establishing their location, after already one diver who attempted to locate them lost his life, contemplating the entrance into the narrowing passageways of the caves and the team’s itinerary as well as the possibilities of their future rescue.

 

alternate vis reuters caveReuters, Hope for the 13 (January 9, 2018)

While watching forecasts for raises that can boost the already rising floodwaters, teams of divers have contemplated maps, and the rescue camp locate near the mouth of the cave provided only a possible site of salvation, in hopes that they could be moved there.  Is the cave’s mount a more apt site of prayer, or of recovery?

The misfortune of the soccer team had converted the mouth of the cave to the site of an altar that was sort of shrine, and a site of prayer for divine intervention, as worries  turned to what thin, depleted oxygen the team members might still have access during the two weeks after they disappeared, their bicycles found, partly washed away, near the cave entrance, while the classmates of the team-members participated in large collective prayers, and Buddhist monks gathered near the Tham Luang caves, juxtaposing the science of mapping their location with a perhaps more credible collective prayer.

 

image.png

800.jpeg

merlin_140671041_ecac7fca-853e-4b04-a1d3-7b92ed0b7eb0-superJumbo

Were the major efforts in mapping not serving as their own sort of prayers, if of a modernist variety, and hopes for a miracle of intercession before the waters rose and the oxygen depleted in the stretch of the rocky cave complex?  While the maps did show the human story of the position to which the teens had arrived, and posit and frame the problems of their rescue, thankfully underway, the maps seemed as important as framing, sustaining, and affirming a sort of tenuous empathy to their fate, allowing access to the remote cave system.  If they created the possibility of the necessary conditions for their rescue they also became a kind of guiding light for those of us who followed the spectacle so intensely from our own backlit screens.

Leave a comment

Filed under #ThaiCaveBoys, cave complexes, data visualization, monsoon rains, Thailand,

Saturated Shores in Southeastern Texas

There is almost no trace of the human, or of the extreme overurbanization of the Texas coast, in most of the maps that were created of the extreme flooding and intense winter rains that hit Galveston and Houston TX with the windfall of Hurricane Harvey.  While maps serve to orient humans to the world–and orient us to human processes and events in a “human world,” as J.B. Harley and David Woodward put it, the confused nature of relations between the human and natural world, is increasingly in danger of being mipmapped.  Data visualizations of extreme weather that erase the modification of coastal environments provide a particularly challenging means of orientation, as news maps are suspended between registering the shock of actual events–and trying to contain the natural emergencies that events of extreme weather create–and the demand for graphics that register natural calamities and the ethics of showing such calamities as “natural”–or even what the category of the natural is in coastal regions that so heavily modified to modify actual weather events.

The ethics of orienting viewers to the rainfall levels that fell in Houston after the landfall Hurricane Harvey Part of the huge difficulties lies in adequately orienting viewers in ways that register a changing natural world–how we are mapping rainfall, for example, or the approach of hurricanes, or are rather mapping the new relation of rain to built surfaces and landcover change that lack permeability for water, facilitating flooding by storms whose potency is changed by the greater atmospheric content of a warming Gulf of Mexico, which the ground cover of Houston, Galveston, and the Texas shore are less able to absorb and return to the Gulf. The area is, itself, something of an epicenter of the increased number of hemispheric tropical cyclones–which demand warm water temperatures above 80 80°F / 27°C and a cooling atmosphere and low wind shear–often led to the Gulf coast.

NASA Earth Observatory/Tropical Cyclones through 2006

–those that come ashore at Galveston hit a seashore that is eminently unprepared to accommodate an influx of water that the paved surface has rendered all but impermeable. If the problem of global cyclones that can become hurricanes is truly global–

NASA Earth Observatory/150 years of Tropical Cyclones

–the intersection between cyclones and areas of paved ground cover is problematic to the southwestern states, and most of all to Texas, Louisiana, and Florida, where water absorption has been anthropogenically reduced in recent decades. At the same time, few other areas of the inhabited world are so widely “tracked” as the destination of tropical cyclone formation..

NWS JetStream Online School)

The problem is partly evident in the choice of new color ramps that transcend the rainbow spectrum of measuring the intensity of rainfall in the recent arrival or ground fall of Hurricane Harvey, which condenses the great difficulty of using old cartographical categories and conventions in order to capture or communicate increasingly extreme weather conditions. in an era of climate change.  But the cartographic problem goes farther:  for it lies in the difficulty of registering the changes in relations f how rain dropped meets the ground, mapping relations between complex processes of warming and atmospheric warmth that lead to greater humidity across the gulf region to ground cover permeability that leaves regions increasingly exposed to flooding.

The relentless logic of data visualizations based on and deriving primarily from remote sensing are striking for rendering less of a human world than the threat of allegedly “natural” processes to that world.  Perhaps because of the recent season of extreme weather we have experienced, weather maps may be among the most widely consulted visualizations in our over-mediated world, if they were already widely viewed as the essential forms of orientation.  But the pointillist logic of weather maps may fail to orient us well to extreme events as the hurricane that dumped a huge amount of water on overbuilt areas to include the human–or the human world–seem a tacit denial of the role of humans in the complex phenemona of global warming that have, with the warming waters of the Gulf of Mexico and ever-increasing ozone over much of the overbuilt southeastern Texas shore, created a perfect storm for their arrival.

This failure to include this role haunts the limited content of the weather map; including the role of humans in maps of extreme weather events indeed remains among the most important challenges of weather maps and data visualization, with the human experience of the disasters we still call natural.  And although the subject is daunting, in the spirit of this blog, we will both look at the communicative dilemmas and difficulties of eye-catching color ramps and their deceptiveness, and poetic difficulties of orienting oneself to shores.  For as the disaster of Harvey is depressing, it compels raising questions of the orientation to the shifting shore, around the national epicenter of Galveston, where the landfall of Hurricane Harvey focussed our attention on August 27, 2017–

90-7
wpc-5day-0Z-8.28.17

–and the meaning of place in an saturated shoreline, where the sea is somehow part of the land, and the land-sea divide blurs with a specificity that seems as if it may well be increasingly true in an approaching era of climate change.  And as we depend on the ready generation of maps based on remote sensing whose relentless logic is based on points, we risk looking sight of the role of place in determining the relations of rainfall to shoreline in maps of coastal flooding that remove remote observations from the built environment that flooding so drastically changes, challenges and affects, in ways that may elide specificities of place.

At a time when we are having and will be destined to have increased problems in orienting ourselves to our shores through digital maps of rainfall, the unclear shorelines of Galveston sent me to the bearings that a poet of an earlier age took her bearings on the mapped shorelines of the place where she had been born, and how she was struck by a bathymetric map to gauge her personal relation to place, and saw place in how the changing shoreline of the northern Atlantic were mapped in the maritimes, in a retrograde form of print mapping in a time of war.  For the way the mapped shore became a means by which Elizabeth Bishop gained bearings on shores through a printed map of coastal bathymetry to access the spatiality of the shore–how “land lies in water” and the blurred relation of land and water that the bathymetric map charts–in an age when the materiality of the map was changing, with the introduction of aerial composite maps from the early 1930s, as the rise of aerial composite maps removed the hand of the mapmaker from the map in an early instance of remote sensing–

5852167

Cartography Associates/David Ramsey: Historical Map Collection: Composite of 164 Aerial Views of San Francisco by Harrison Ryker/Oakland, 1938, 1:2000

–in a medium of aerial photography that focussed on land to the exclusion of water, and that all but erased the relation between water and shore just a few years after Bishop quickly wrote her poem in Christmas 1935 about coastal “edges” of land and sea.  Ryker, who developed techniques of aerial photography used in the mapping of the shores of Puerto Rico for the Fairchild Aerial Camera Company, as well as photographs of the devastating Berkeley Fire of 1923, went into business in 1938–the year of his map–as a map publisher, with a patent for the stereoscope used to interpret aerial imagery,  and must have performed the massively detailed mapping of San Francisco in one hundred and sixty for images taken from airplanes from 1937-38 as a sort of calling card, soon after Bishop wrote her poem, before manufacturing a range of stereoscopes of pocket and desktop versions for military ends that were widely used in World War II by the US Army.

Before war broke out, but in ways that anticipated the coming war, the printed bathymetric map must have resonated as a new reflection on the impersonality of the aerial view; Bishop was suddenly struck when she encountered the materiality of a print map on Christmas 1938 as the art of cartography was already changing, responding to the drawn map under glass of the Atlantic as a way to recuperate the personal impact of place.  Her poem powerfully examined the logic of drawn maps utterly absent from the digitized space of rainfall maps of a flood plain, deriving from data at the cost of human inhabitation of place–and in envisioning data to come to terms with the catastrophic event of flooding distancing or removing the craft of mapmaking from the observer in dangerously deceptive ways.  And so after wrestling with the problems of cartographic representation using remote sensing, while recognizing the value of these readily produced maps of rainfall and the disasters they create,

1.  For weather maps are also among the most misleading points to orient oneself to global warming and climate change, as they privilege the individual moment, removed from a broader context of long-term change or the human alteration of landscape.  They provide endless fascination by synthesizing an encapsulated view of weather conditions, but also  suggest a confounding form of media to orient audiences to long-term change or to the cascading relations of the complex phenomenon of climate change and our relation to the environment, as they privilege a moment in isolation from any broader context, and a sense of nature removed from either landscape modification or human intervention in the environment, in an area were atmospheric warming has shifted sea-surface temperatures.  The effects on the coast is presented in data visualizations that trace the hurricane’s “impact” as if its arrival were quite isolated from external events, and from the effects of human habitations on the coast.  The image of extreme flooding is recorded as a layer atop a map, removing the catastrophic effects of the flooding from the overpaved land of the megacities of southeastern Texas, and the rapid paving over of local landcover of its shores.

90-7

.

Such visualizations preserve a clear line between land and sea, but treat the arrival of the rains on land as isolated from the Consuming such events of global warming in color-spectrum maps.  The data of rainfall translate data into somewhat goofy designs represents a deep alienation from the environment, distancing viewers in dangerous ways from the very complexity of global warming that Gulf coast states encountered.

Such data visualizations seem dangerously removed notion of how we have changed our own environment, by describing a notion of “nature” that is immediately legible, as if it were removed from any human trace or of the impact of modification of the land, and by imaging events in isolation from one another–often showing a background in terrain view as if it has no relation to the events that the map describes.  Although weather maps and AccuWeather forecasts are sources of continual fascination, and indeed orientation, they are are also among the most confounding media to orient viewers to the world’s rapidly changing climate–and perhaps among the most compromised.  For they imply a remove of the viewer from space-and from the man-made nature of the environment or the effects of human activity form the weather systems whose changes we increasingly register.  By reifying weather data as a record of an actuality removed from human presence at one place in time, they present a status quo which it is necessary to try to peel off layers, and excavate a deeper dynamic, and indeed excavate the effects of human presence in the landscape or geography that is shown in the map.  We are drawn to tracking and interpret visualizations of data from satellite feeds in such weather maps–or by what is known as “remote sensing,” placed at an increased remove from the human habitation of a region, and indeed in a dangerously disembodied manner.

Visualizations resulting from remote observation demand taken as a starting point to be related to from the human remaking of a region’s landscape that has often increasingly left many sites increasingly vulnerable to climate change.  But the abstract rendering of their data in isolation from a global picture–or on the ground knowledge of place–may render them quite critically incomplete.  The remove of such maps may even suggest a deep sense of alienation form the environment, so removed is the content of the data visualization form human presence, and perhaps from any sense of the ability to change weather-related events, or perceive the devastating nature of their effects on human inhabitants:   their stories are about weather, removed form human lives, as they create realities that gain their own identity in images, separate from a man-made world, at a time when weather increasingly intersects with and is changed by human presence.  While throwing into relief the areas hit by flooding near to the southeastern Texas shore at multiple scales based on highly accurate geospatial data, much of which is able to be put to useful humanitarian uses–

Harvey flooding_1.jpg

Dartmouth Flood Observatory/University of Colorado at Boulder, August 29. 2017

1504094467hurricane-harvey-flood-map.gif

Maps of the World

–the reduction of floods to data points creates a distorted image of space renders their occurrence distant from the perspective of folks on the ground, and places their content at a considerable remove from the complex causality of a warming Gulf of Mexico, or the problems of flood drainage by which Galveston and Houston were beset.  Indeed, the multiple images of that report rainfall as an overlay in a rainbow spectrum, at a remove from the reasons for Houston’s vulnerability to flooding and the limits the region faces of flood control, in broadcast Accuweather images of total rainfall in inches advance a metric that conceals the cognitive remove from the dangers of flooding, ora human relation to the landscape that the hurricane so catastrophically affected.  Can we peel under the layers of the data visualization, and create better images that appreciate the human level on which the landscape stands to be devastated by hurricane rains, as much as tracking the intensity of the growth of rainfall over time?

90-5.jpeg

AccuWeather, Rainfall levels by Thursday

90

AccuWeather, Friday to Monday

Such layers of green, meant to suggest the intensity of rainfall that fell over land, reveal the concentration of water in areas closes to the Gulf of Mexico.  Even the most precise geographical records of the dangers of flooding in the floodplain of southeastern Texas with little reference to the historical modification of the region by inhabitants–

Harvey flooding_1

Dartmouth Flood Observatory at University of Colorado, Boulder/August 29, 2017

–and conceal the extent to which the landscape’s limited ground cover permeability has left the region far more susceptible to flooding, and elevated the risks of the emergency.  The problem of reading any signs of human presence into these “images” of precipitation provoke problems of disentangling remote sensing data from knowledge of the region’s recent urban growth and the consequent shift in local landcover.

The perspective of our relation to these events is often as fleeting and as existential as they flood us with data, which we viewers have little perspective or tools to process fully.  The onrush of recent remote sensing maps batter us with an array of data, so much as to lead many to throw up their hands at their coherence.  Even as we are  still trying to calculate the intensity of damages in Puerto Rico–where electricity is so slowly returning that even even after four months, almost a third of its 1.5 million electricity customers still lack power–and the cost of fires in southern California.  We look at maps, hoping to piece together evidence of extensive collateral damage of global warming.  Yet we’ve still to come to terms with the intensity of rainstorms that hit southeastern Texas–deluging the coast with rainfall surpassing the standard meteorological chromatic scale that so misleadingly seems to offer a transparent record of the catastrophe, but omits and masks the experiences of people on the ground, digesting swaths of remotely sensed data that take the place of their perception and experience, and offering little critical perspective on the hurricane’s origin.

The rapidity with which rain challenged ground cover permeability provides both a challenge for mapping as a symptom of global warming and landscape modification:   the mapping of “natural” levels of rainfall blurs the pressing problem of how shifting landcover has created an impermeability to heightened rains, and indeed how the new patterns of habitation challenge the ability of the coast of the Gulf of Mexico to absorb the prospect of increased rain in the face of decreasing groundcover permeability, and the extreme modification of the coastline that increasingly impeded run-off to the Gulf.

2.  Across much of southeastern Texas, a region whose growth was fed by the hopes of employment in extractive industries, real estate demand and over-paving have unfortunately intersected with extreme weather in southeastern Texas in ways which dat visualizations have had trouble exposing, but which raise a curtain on the coming crises of a failure of ability to accommodate increased levels of rainfall  If the lack of precedent for the intense rainfall in Galveston Bay generated debate about introducing a new color that went beyond the rainbow scale employed in weather charts, what seemed a problem of the cartographic color-spectrum suggested a problem of governability and indeed government response to extreme weather conditions.  How to register the dangers of rainfall that goes of the scale or standards of measurement?

One must consider how to orient viewers to the intensity of consequent flooding, and to its consequences and better prepare ourselves for the arrival of deluging rains without falling back on the over-freighted metaphor of rains of biblical scope.  How many more hurricanes of increasing intensity can continue to pound the shores, by whipping precipitation from increasingly warming waters and humid air?  The cumulative pounding of tropical cyclones in the Gulf stands to create a significantly larger proportion of lands lying underwater–temporarily submerged lands–with radically reduced possibilities of drainage, as hurricanes carry increased amounts of evaporated water from the humid air of the warming gulf across its increasingly overbuilt shores. in ways that have changed how the many tropical cyclones that have crossed the land-sea threshold since NOAA began tracking their transit (in 1851) poses a new threat to the southeastern coast of Texas, and will force us to map the shifting relation between land and water not only in terms of the arrival of hurricanes, or cyclonic storms–

–but the ability of an increasingly overbuilt landscape to lie underwater as the quantity of the Gulf coast rainfall stands to grow, overwhelming the overbuilt nature of the coast.

Most maps that chart the arrival and impact of hurricanes seem a form of climate denial, as much as they account for climate change, locating the hurricanes as aggressive forces outside the climate, against a said backdrop of blue seas, as if they  are the disconnect.  Months after the hurricane season ended, the damage for hurricanes caused have hardly been assessed in what has been one of the most costly and greatest storm damage since 1980 in the United States,–including the year of Hurricane Katrina–we have only begun to sense the damage of extreme weather stands to bring to the national infrastructure.  The comparison to the costs of storm damage in previous years were not even close.

But distracted by the immediacy of data visualizations, and impressed by the urgency of the immediate, we risk being increasingly unable to synthesize the broader patterns of increased sea surface temperatures and hurricane generations, or the relations between extremely destructive weather events, overwhelmed by the excessive destruction of each, and distracted from raising questions about the extremely poor preparation of most overbuilt regions for their arrival, and indeed the extent to which regional over-building that did not take the possibility of extreme weather into account–paving large areas without adequate drainage structures or any areas of arable land–left inhabitants more vulnerable to intense rains.  For in expanding the image of the city without bounds, elasticity, or margins for sea-level rise, the increasingly brittle cityscapes of Galveston and much of the southeastern Texas shoreline were left incredibly unprepared for the arrival of hurricanes or intense rains.  Despite the buzz of an increased density of hurricanes to have hit the region,

1851_2013_mjrhurr2

the questions of how to absorb hurricanes of the future, and to absorb the increased probability of rainfall from hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico and its shores, suggests questions of risk, danger, and preparation that we have no ability to map.  What, indeed, occurs, as hurricanes themselves destroy the very means of transmitting on the ground information and sensing weather, and we rely exclusively on remote sensing?

Destroyed satellite dishes after Hurricane Maria hit Humacao, Puerto Rico  REUTERS/Alvin Baez

To characterize or bracket these phenomena as “natural” is, of course, to overlook complex interaction between extreme weather patterns and our increasingly overbuilt environments that have both transformed the nature of the Southeastern Texas coast and have made the region both an area of huge economic growth over time, and have paved over much of the floodplain–as well as elevated the potential risks that are associated with coastal flooding in the Gulf Coast.  To be sure, any discussion of the Gulf of Mexico must begin from the increasingly unclear nature of much of our infrastructure across land and sea, evident in the range of pipelines of gas and oil that snake along a once more clearly defined shore charted by ProPublica in 2012, revealed the scope of the manmade environment that has both changed the relation of the coastal communities to the Gulf of Mexico, and has been such a huge spur to ground cover change.

The expansive armature of lines that snake from the region across the nation–

pipeline_line_map

ProPublica, Pipeline Safety Tracker/Hazardous liquid pipelines are noted in red; gas in blue

-and whose tangle of oil pipelines that extend from the very site of Galveston to the Louisiana coast is almost unable to be defined as “offshore” save as a fiction, so highly constructed is much of the national waters in submerged lands in the Gulf of Mexico–

gulfofmexicopipelines

ProPublica, Pipeline Safety Tracker/Hazardous liquid pipelines are noted in red

They indeed seem something of an extension of the land, and a redefinition of the shore, and reveal a huge investment of the offshore extractive industries that stand to change much of the risk that hurricanes pose to the region, as well as the complex relation of our energy industries to the warming seas.  Yet weather maps, ostensibly made for the public good, rarely reveal the overbuilt nature of these submerged lands or of the Gulf’s waters.

Despite the dangers that such an extensive network of hazardous liquid lines along the Gulf of Mexico, the confusion between mapping a defined line between land and water, and visualizing relations of extreme weather disturbances as hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico and local infrastructure haunts the extremely thin nature of the sort of data visualizations that are generated about the dangers of hurricanes and their landfall in the region.  For all too often, they presume a stable land/sea divide, removed from the experience of inhabitants of the region and how we have remade the shore.

3.  How can we better integrate both a human perspective on weather changes, and the role of human-caused conditions in maps of extreme weather?  How can we do better by going beneath the data visualizations of record-breaking rainfall, to map the human impact of such storms?  How could we do better to chart the infrastructural stresses and the extent to which we are ill-prepared for such extreme weather systems whose impact multiplies because of the increased impermeability of the land, unable to absorb excessive rainfall, and beds of lakes and reservoirs that cannot accommodate increased accumulation of rainfall that  stand to become the new normal?  The current spate of news maps that provoke panic by visualizing the extremes of individual cases may only inspire a sort of data vis-induced ADD, distracting from infrastructural inadequacies to the effects of global warming–and leaving us at a loss to guarantee the best structures of governability and environmental readiness.

Indeed, the absence of accurately mapping the impact and relation between landcover, storm intensity, rainfall, flooding, and drainage abilities increases the dangers of lack of good governance.  There need not be any need for a reminder of how quickly inadequate mapping of coastal disasters turns into an emblem of bad governance.  There is the danger that, overwhelmed by the existential relation to each storm, we fail to put them together with one another; compelled to follow patterns of extreme weather, we risk being distracted from not only the costs but the human-generated nature of such shifts in seasons between extremes of hot and cold.  For as we focus on each event, we fail to integrate a more persuasive image of how rising temperatures stand to create an ever-shifting relation between water and land.

Provoked by the rhetoric of emergency, we may need to learn to distance ourselves better from the aerial views that synthesize intense precipitation, tally hurricane impacts, or snowfall levels, and view them less as individual “strikes” or events and better orient ourselves to a broader picture which put us in a less existential relation to extreme weather.

2017-four-us-hur-landfalls_3

The Weather Channel

We surely need to establish distance to process syntheses of data in staggering aerial views on cloud swirl, intense precipitation, and snowfall, and work to peel back their striking colors and bright shades of rainbow spectra, to force ourselves to focus not only on their human costs, or their costs of human life, but their relation to a warming planet, and the role of extreme of weather in a rapidly changing global climate, as much as track the “direct strikes” of hurricanes of individual names, as if they were marauders of our shores:  their creation is as much tied to the changing nature of our shores and warming sea-surface temperatures, and in trying to create a striking visualization, we deprive ourselves from detecting broader patterns offering better purchase on weather changes.

direct-strikes

The Weather Channel

If patterns of weather maps epitomized by Accuweather forecast and projections suggest an exhilaratingly Apollonian view on global and regional weather patterns, they also  shift attention form a broader human perspective in quite deeply pernicious ways.  Such maps provided the only format for grasping the impact of what happened as the hurricane made landfall, but provided little sense of the scale of inundations that shifted, blurred and threatened the coast of the Gulf of Mexico.  They provide a format for viewing floods that are disjoined from victims, and seem to naturalize the quite unnatural occurrence of extreme weather systems.  Given the huge interest in grasping the transformation of Hurricane Harvey from a tropical storm to a Category Four hurricane, and the huge impact a spate of Category Four hurricanes have created in the Gulf of Mexico, it’s no surprise that the adequacy of the maps of Hurricane Harvey have been interrogated as hieroglyphs or runes of a huge weather change:  we sift through them for a human story which often left opaque behind bright neon overlays, whose intensity offer only an inkling of a personal perspective of the space or scale of their destruction on the ground:  while data maps provide a snapshot of the intensity of rain-levels or wind strength at specific sites, it is difficult if important to remember that their concentration on sites provide a limited picture of causation or complexity.

All too often, such maps fail to offer an adequately coherent image of disasters and their consequences, and indeed to parse the human contributions to their occurrence.  This post might be defined into multiple subsections.  The first actions suggest the problems of mapping hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico in relation to flooding in data visualizations of the weather and the overbuilt region; the middle of the post turns to an earlier poetic model for considering the relation between land and sea that visualizations all too easily obscure, and the meaning that the poet Elizabeth Bishop found in viewing relations between land and sea in a printed map of the Atlantic; after returning to the question of the overbuilt shore compounds problems of visualizing the Texas coast, the final section, perhaps its most provocative, returns to Bishop’s reading of a map of the Atlantic coast.

What such new weather maps would look like is a huge concern.  Indeed, as we depend on weather maps to orient us to place ourselves in the inter-relations of climate change, sea-level, surface temperatures, and rain, whether maps cease to orient us to place, but when best constructed help to describe the changing texture of weather patterns in ways that can help familiarize us not only to weather conditions, but needed responses to climate change.  For  three months after the hurricanes of the Gulf of Mexico caused such destruction and panic on the ground, it is striking not only that few funds have arrived to cover costs of rebuilding or insurance claims, but the judgement or understanding of the chances for future flooding have almost left our radar–perhaps pushed rightly aside by the firestorms of northern and southern California, but in ways that troublingly seem to forget to assess or fail to assess the extent of floods and groundwater impermeability  along the Texas and Louisiana coast.  The problems that preparation for future coastal hurricanes off the Gulf of Mexico raise problems of hurricane control and disaster response that seem linked to problems of mapping their arrival–amd framing the response to the increasing rains that are dumped along the entire Gulf Coast.

Indeed, the chromatic foregrounding of place in such rainbow color ramps based on GPS obscure other maps.   Satellite data of rainfall are removed from local conditions, and serve to help erase complex relations between land and water or the experience of flooding on the ground–by suggesting a clear border between land and sea, and indeed mapping the Gulf of Mexico as a surface as if it were unrelated to the increased flooding around Houston, in maps prepared from satellite imagery, despite the uneasy echoes of anthropogenic causes for the arrival of ten hurricanes in ten weeks, in ways that suggest how warming waters contributed to the extreme inundation of the Gulf Coast.  Despite NOAA  predictions of a 45% likelihood of ‘above-normal’ activity for the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season, with, a 70% likelihood of storms that could transform into hurricanes, the images of inundated lands seem both apocalyptic and carefully removed from the anthropogenic changes either to the ocean or land that intensified their occurrence so dramatically on the ground.

Dartmouth Flood Observatory Flooding Harvey

 Dartmouth Flood Observatory

Harvey flooding_0.jpg

Dartmouth Flood Observatory/August 29, 2017

Is it possible to recuperate the loss of individual experience in such data maps, or at least acknowledge their limitations as records of the complexity of a changing climate and the consequences of more frequent storm surges and such inundations of rainfall?  As we seek better to understand the disaster relief efforts through real-time maps of effects of Hurricane Harvey as it moved inland from the Gulf of Mexico, shifting from Category 4 Hurricane from a tropical storm, we tried to grasp levels of rainfall that spun out of 115-mile-an-hour winds across southeastern Texas that damaged crops, flooded fields, ruined houses, and submerged cars, we scan stories in hope of clues to assess our position in relation to increasingly dangerous weather systems whose occurrence they may well forebode.  At a time of increased attention to extreme weather has long developed, the gross negligence of climate change denial is increasingly evident:  it recalls the earlier denial of any relation between hurricanes and climate change, when increased hurricanes were cast as “the cycle of nature,” rather than as consequences whose effects have in fact been broadly intensified by human activity.

Current attempts to map the toll of record-smashing hurricanes focused almost exclusively on point-based data view rainstorms largely as land-based records; even as they intend to monitor the effects of Harvey’s landfall by microwave censors, they risk seeming to isolate real-time rainfall levels from the mechanics warmer air and sea-surface temperatures which result from human-caused global warming, not relating increased storm surges or inundations to achanges in coastal environments or climate change.  To render such changes as natural–or only land-based–is irresponsible in an age of reckless levels of climate denial.  Indeed, faced by the proliferation of data visualizations, part of the journalistic difficulty or quandary is to integrate humanistic or individual perspectives on the arrival of storms, rendered in stark colors in the increasingly curtailed ecosystems of newsrooms which seek simplified visualizations of satellite data on the disaster, which fail to note the human contributions to the travails that are often reserved for photographs, which increasingly afford opportunities of disaster tourism in the news, emphasizing the spectator’s position before disasters, by images that underscore the difficulties in processing or interpreting the proliferation of data from MODIS satellite feeds:  we can show the ability to measure the arrival of torrential rains, but in offering few legends, save the date and scale, but offering few keys o interpret the scale of the disaster.

The looming portent of human-made climate change, however, underlies the poor predictions that NOAA offered of perhaps 2-4 major hurricanes this Spring, and the lack of a new director for NOAA–on which local and state agencies depend to monitor the nations shores and fisheries–suggested the, from June to September, which left states on their own to make decisions and plan for disaster mitigation programs and better flood maps.  (The danger of appointing a newly nominated director, Barry Myers, who is a strong supporter of the privitization of weather maps and an executive at the private Accuweather mapping service, suggests the difficulty of determining the public-private divide in an era of neoliberalism, and a free market of weather maps that were once seen as central to national security and standards of safety.)   There are two hidden scales on which we read these opaque maps of global warming and globalization and local inundation are triply frustrating.   For all the precision and data richness of such point-maps of largely land-based rainfall, local temperature, or flooding, the biases of such instantaneous measurements seem to fit our current governing atmosphere of climate change denial, and dangerous in erasing how such storms are informed by long-term consequences of man-made climate change.  (As the mapping tools of coastal weather seem destined to change, what sort of change in direction for NOAA coastal maps do we want:  the appointment suggests the terrifying possibility of a return to the Bush-era proposal nominee Myers supported that prohibiting the agency from producing any maps already available in the private sector then threatened federal weather lines to go dark–lest they literally compete with ad-supported websites private providers–and shift federal information offline?)

For making moves toward the future readability of weather maps may well be at stake in critically important ways.  The 2005 proposal that Myers backed would have eliminated the National Weather Service, even while exempting those forecasts needed to preserve “life and property,” would in essence have returned the weather services to a pre-internet era, even as the most active hurricane season including a record breaking fifteen hurricanes and twenty-eight storms began in the gulf coast, including the infamous hurricane Katrina.  The proposed bill would have prevented NOAA from posting open data, and not only readily available to researchers and policymakers, in ad-free formats, free of popup screens, but allow them to make their own maps on the fly–ending good practices of posting climate data would work quite dangersously to prevent development of tools of data visualization outside commercial models of rendering storms and hurricanes as if environmentally isolated.

2005-tracks-update.jpg
direct-strikes

A deeper problem of providing such limited weather maps of tropical storms may be the subtexts about the relation of human causes to weather they convey, and the absence of a greater narrative of the transformation of a global ecology or of the ecology of the Gulf Coast.  The curtailed images of “nature” they present by symbolizing rains, winds, floods, or submerged regions in appealing hues as natural–raise questions of the odd simplicity of the absent storylines:  cheery colors erase or bracket complex questions of climate change, the human contribution to extreme weather events, or the human experience of suffering on the ground:  Rita, Cindy, Katrina, Dennis, and Wilma seem not part of the environment, epiphenomenal interlopers moving across a static deep blue sea, in an apparent dumbing down of the mechanics of hurricane or storm formation in a rainbow spectrum removed from a human-made environment.

Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under anthropogenic change, climate change, coastlines, ecological disasters, gulf coast

Mapping Trump

As news anchors stared directly at the camera on Election Day 2016, they might gesture mutely to the apparent dominance of Donald Trump’s presidential victory, shown the blanket of bright red polygons that took the viewer’s breath away by their sheer continuity affirmed that the people had spoken definitively.  The map was a bit of a total surprise, evidence of the disproportionate appeal of Trump across most states other than the coasts.  And it is an icon with which Trump has taken to celebrate in an almost proprietorial way as the result of his labors and his own hard work that he tried to celebrate in addressing the Boy Scouts’ annual jamboree this year.  Casting a now-forgotten moment of compact between himself as Presidential candidate and the nation, incarnated in a map, and presenting it as a personal triumph, he recalled the electoral map as a definitive rebuttal of a “dishonest” press and media, urging we all “remember that incredible night with the maps and the Republicans are red and the Democrats are blue; that map was so red, it was unbelievable,” and rhapsodizing how the map struck so many dumb with disbelief so that “they didn’t know what to say?”  The electoral map, for Trump, provided the ultimate confirmation for a “dishonest press” and “dishonest media,” but just how honest was that map, anyway?

 

Trump at Jamboree.png

 

The map seemed to show a dramatically lopsided margin of victory, but it of course concealed just as much.  It seemed to celebrate red nation, indeed, until one considered the concentration of population, and drilled deeper down into population distributions than an electoral map can reveal.  The map however remained so cognitively powerful that the geodemographics of the 2016 Presidential election seems to mark the return of a landscape of blue vs. red states, and a sense of the self-evident nature of a newly redivided republic.  The promise of national maps to parse the division of the popular vote–a conceit fundamental to the electoral college–however creates a false sense of the breadth of support or the links between an individual candidate and the land–distilling the distribution of the vote into a false if compelling continuity of a sea of bright red.  And it is not a surprise that the map has become a favorite demonstration of the extent of Trump’s popularity, and the myth of a landslide victory not seen in earlier years.  Even if its geodemographic illusion demands to be unpacked, the scale immediately gave rise to the magnification of a margin of victory that is entirely to be expected from Trump.

But for a national figure who has convinced what seem continuous swaths of the nation’s so-called heartland he could speak for their interests, it is striking that despite some considerable variations among voting patterns, the intensity of that red block so clearly endured.  The distribution illustrated the intensity of the affective relation to the candidate, or rather the failure of achieving any deep to Clinton as a candidate–but became a symbolic icon of Trump’s claim to represent the nation’s ‘heartland.’

reference-mapBen Hennig, from results of 2016 US Presidential Election

The geodemographic conceit was not much evidence that he actually did.  Despite the strength of such affective ties, Trump has only slim familiarity with that heartland–and rarely showed much tie to it.  Despite the compelling nature of the geodemographics that suggest Trump’s close tie to the nation’s center, the region Candidate Trump convinced was ignored by the media and press alike was largely avoided by Candidate Trump.  And few of its interests can be said to have been sustained by the President we now have, whose electoral success in the upper midwest will be hard to measure with a feared decline in health care subsidies, should the Affordable Care Act be repealed and Medicare gutted, leaving older working class voters in the cold, as a new tax code does little comfort.

But was Trump ever so tied to the band of red running vertically down the country?  For the region that voted for him is increasingly becoming disaffected, as he qualifies his opposition to NAFTA and his assurances about the need to construct a border wall, in ways that raise questions about his strong showing across middle-America and his identification with the people’s will.  Yet the iconic map itself may have provided for Trump himself a bit of a mirror illusion–as if to trigger a sense of recognition of his identification with the entire nation in ways that came as something as a surprise, it also effectively validated his long-time aspirations to the presidency, not only for the media, but for himself.  To be sure, the notion of a “heartland victory” reflected the growth of a tendency to shift Republican on a county-by-county level, which reflected a targeting of the midwestern states that seem to have been conducted below the eyes of team Clinton in the 2016 US Presidential election; Trump’s vote share substantially grew in Ohio, West Virginia, Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Missouri.

 

Republican Blush.png

 

By normalizing the same choropleth of Trump votes, or using a color ramp that will foreground the percentages of voting intensity, a recommendation for all future voting maps Kenneth Field rightly suggests, the deep intensity of reds are brought out better, focussed almost in targeted sites in ways that might merit more retrospective scrutiny.

 

Trump votes normalized choropleth.png

Kenneth Field

But the deep reds of the electoral map were the most compelling to The Donald, and continue to lead him to retreat into rhapsodies, some eight months after the election, in Cedar Rapids IA, about how “Those electoral maps, they were all red, beautiful red.” As much as Trump has seemed to be processing the legitimacy of his victory well past the first hundred days of his term, a framed version of the electoral map infographic is rumored to have been hung, framed, as an icon in the Trump White House for visitors, to which he can point only to ask, as if in desperation,  ‘Aren’t you impressed by this map?’”  The map has become something of a calling card to which Trump seems both boastful and still gleefully processing, perhaps precisely because it was so often broadcast on TV.  The image transformed to a wall-map seems a needed confirmation of the areas that sent him to the White House, and has become a distributed visual for news interviews, as if its presence reminds interviewers that they are engaging with the representative of the real country.

 

C_kshitVoAE0vfh.jpg

 

 

Why post the map on the wall?  The infographic presumably captures those areas of the US where Trump must continue to address outside Washington–and of the disempowerment of the mainstream media–as if to remind him of his ongoing sources of strength.   Trump cannot conceal his pleasure to continue to crow, reveling in his unexpected ability to cathect with voters across so much of the northern midwest if not the silent majority of the national interior, and the map confirms a moment of joy:   the map of a “sea of deep crimson” offered credible needed visual confirmation of the legitimacy his newfound power that responds to continued crises, and a sort of symbolic consolation:  Trump, as if planning a billboard to the nation, requested no one less than the Washington Post run the image on his hundredth day in office, perhaps in hopes to brainwash the nation by the repetition of that apparent sea of deep, deep red.  It reveals, moreover, the very silent majority that Trump had long evoked:  Trump’s skill at resuscitating the Nixonian conceit of a “silent majority” supporting the Vietnam war and rejection counter-culture became a bulwark of sorts against the press; it  was particularly pleasurable as it re-appeared within the very news maps that the media produced which were broadcast on television screens, in ways Trump himself wants to continue to broadcast.  Trump not only holds TV in famously high regard–even if he did not mostly watch television for all of election night–it is almost credible that the iconic electoral map was framed for the White House walls, if distorting , offered a recollection of the magnitude of his margin of victory that must be comforting to show guests.

The considerable shock of the electoral results led many readers to recognize the reduction of support for the Democratic candidate, so well-qualified, to isolated regions near the more diverse and reliably Democratic coasts.  The visualization of disembodied counties for Clinton registers an immediate anxiety in projecting the angst of isolation from the same heartland, as if to show what seem only pockets of Clinton supporters in a very tenuous archipelago with outposts hewing predominantly to the nation’s coasts, as the outliers of the vision of America that Trump was able to propose.  As much as showing the lack of contact of Clinton’s messaging to so many counties in the in-between “forgotten heartland” that the Trump vote seemed so successfully to invest coherence in, the image shows a heartland that is almost abandoned by Clinton voters who seem not to have migrated from the country, but seem exiled from an increasingly fractured nation, in their own filter-bubbles, in which their own place has been rendered up for grabs.

 

clinton_v2-Artboard_6.pngTim Wallace/New York Times

The geodemographic illusion of such fracturing however belies the sharp dissonance that a deeply provincial figure long resident in one of the nation’s largest metropoles felt to much of the country and the nation that he so convincingly claimed he was able to represent.  Trump’s ability to have convinced much of the country he could guarantee their continued safety lies in contrast with the limited presence Trump ever remained in many of the regions that the force of his Presidential campaign so solidly and deeply colored red.  The clear divisions in the country that emerged in the 2016 Presidential election revealed a clearly widening set of divides between islands of populated blue and regions that trusted different news sources, more suggestive of a divide driven by eduction than wealth, using available census data on education from the Data Observatory in a CARTO visualization of the lower forty-eight, to create a more finely-grained record of the distribution of votes that allows the chromatic vacation to pop–

Carto Trump.pngMichelle Ho‘s Carto Blog

While the “split” between “heartland” and “blue islands” pops out better in the above courtesy the Carto dashboard, the surface of a flat map can conceal the extent to which the vote broke among more and less populated counties, as the following sizing of counties by votes received by Clinton (blue) or Trump (red).

Coutnies.png Carto

The thin distribution of red dots calls into question the existence of “heartland” in the nation, and how much the notion of a coherent heartland is the creation of a map, suggests the extreme oddity of an election where votes so clearly broke with electoral votes.   Notwithstanding the visualization of Alexis Egoshin being picked up on right-wing sites as a basis to argue for the need to continue the electoral college to represent the mass of land, pictured as a plateau, with which Trump won decisively, and could be called “TrumpLand” as it was so solidly voting in his favor–

trumpland-1.png

–the thinly stretched archipelago of Tim Wallace might defy geographical explanation, and be rooted as much in media bubbles, fractured politics, anti-immigrant sentiment as it can be said to be geographically determined, and perhaps the tendency that we have to believe that there could be a geographic explanation at the root of the Trump victory, or a definable “Trump” community or constituency might be more tied to the contingency of information economies than anything as easily mappable in purely objective terms.

1.  Trump’s own overly inflated claims to represent the red expanse of the rust belt was, for one, most strikingly undermined, however, by his regular return flights on his Boeing jet to his New York penthouse while on the campaign trail.  For as he campaigned, Trump maintained a remove from much of the country, even as he evoked the “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation,” and excoriated the policies that he claimed created them, urging voters to “take our country back again.”

While we are still trying to understand what he meant by “American carnage” save as a way to conjure fear, and a landscape beset by violence and “drugs pouring into our country and poisoning our youth,” within an “environment of lawless chaos,” the exaggerations of specters of social threats that proliferate from Trump’s mouth seem to be as emotionally figurative as they reflect actuality, and more a reflection of the America on television news than statistics.  The call to “shake off the rust” appealed, however, by binding themselves to the possibilities of “wistful time travel” that Donald Trump’s candidacy seemed to promise voters, as Zadie Smith has keenly observed.  Who better, in fact, to convince most of the country that he could bring it out of the shadow of threats of terrorist attacks that 9/11 has continued to cast across much of the nation, as if creating a bond of reassurance that stood in for any other tool of manufacturing consent.

And the tie was reified in maps.  A land map magnifying the extent of Trump’s 2016 US election results in the electoral tally was widely trumpeted by right-wing news sites, as well as the nightly news, to proclaim Trump’s was a landslide victory–even though the differences in popular voting was not only decisive, but Trump’s own relation to the nation he now leads is poorly understood.

Trump can be claimed to have converted more far more Republicans to his candidacy than recent Presidential candidates, but Trump was long an outsider.  And Trump’s imaginary tie to nation seems just that, despite some considerable crowing over Trump’s close relation to the American heartland that he claims as deeply tied to and to be the territory that he best represents–

electoral-trump

–although these stark divisions in the distribution of voting patterns disappear in the district-by-district electoral votes map posted by Mark E. J. Newman in clearly contrasting stretches of red and isolated islands of blue with only the occasional all-blue state.

county-map-2016University of Michigan/M.E.J. Newman

But the map of the distribution of electoral votes is only the start of the attenuated relation Trump has to the country.  Trump’s insistence on an alleged “mandate” or a “massive landslide” seems designed to provoke collective amnesia by its repetition–Trump’s own convictions seem born from the illusion of democracy displayed in broadcast electoral maps on TV news.  For the vagaries of the current electoral system meant that a shift of four counties from one state to a neighboring state, data scientist Kevin Hayes Wilson pointed out, would have redrawn the map of the election, and our picture of the nation to a more comforting baby blue–although this tantalizing alternate reality is not to have been, but is in fact not so far away at all:

imrs-1.php.pngKevin Hayes Wilson/Redraw the States

Yet the victory of a continuous stretch of red is so iconic that the mapping of votes by counties is taken as an affirmation of regions of deep scarlet, as if the county is a meaningful unit for displaying voting tendencies:

United_States_presidential_election_results_by_county,_2016.svg

The image of “red” states or counties is so potent, however, that the image is taken as evidence of the appeal of Trump’s promise to “Make America Great Again”–as if the slogan spoke to the heartland–that converting the map of counties to a cartogram which sized counties by population and voter size seems to be a weaponized warping of the nation for polemical intent, in which the center of the heartland has been stretched into a skein of thing red strands that slighted the region by stripping it of its political voice, as if created by a leftist cartographer who polemically diminished the heartland by rendering it as so much connective tissue in contrast to the prominence of blue cities.

Stretched thing

vote share.pngBenjamin Hennig (detail of Hennig’s cartogram of 2016 US Presidential election)

The rendering of the heartland as a stretched skein of what seem ruts in the American landscape seems the polemic of a leftist cartographer from a metropole, to many, ready to slight the heartland in favor of the magnified cities whose names appear on the map.

hennig skein

To be sure, the tea leaves of county voting patterns do parse voter populations:  to be sure, Trump did almost twice as well as Clinton in those counties that were at least 85% white, rural (fewer than 20,000 inhabitants), and won huge preponderance of the votes–70%–where less than 20 percent of the population has a college degree.  But the continutiy that one can translate into spatial terms is much less clear, and the county is not the clearest organization or translation of a voting bloc, despite the clearly greater diversity of the cities, and the dominance that Trump exercised in counties that were predominantly–85%–white, in ways that may have single-handedly overturned the electoral map, and were the audiences to whom the visions of prosperity Trump promised most appealed, and where the Democratic candidate’s losses in comparison to Barack Obama were big–and where Trump won almost twice as much of the counties.

80%white.png

Bloomberg, “The Voters Who Gave Us Trump” (Nov. 9, 2016)

But, by and large, the rhetoric of the red intensity of maps perhaps have originated as pollsters talking among themselves, and against each others’ expectations, as much as the distribution of a close connection to the candidate; the intensity of the red appeared in a contrast of the predictions of the popular vote distribution against the actuality, even if it seemed within a margin of error, as the final actual distribution–

2016-presidential-elections-actual-county-level-results-map-e1484740439135

Beta News

–broke ever so slighty, but so definitively and so strikingly, from their expectations:

The-final-2016-presidential-election-app-county-level-predictions-e1484740495640

Beta News

2.  Trump’s claims for a personal relation to the nation is far less apparent.  It demands to be scrutinized, as it only seems demonstrated in electoral maps.  Even though seven out of ten Republicans voiced expressed a preference for America of the 1950s rather than that of today, and Trump’s candidacy both entertained and invited such acts of willed nostalgia, it’s hard to believe Trump’s own proximity to the nation’s heartland is based on “lived” experience.  The surprising story of Trump’s campaign may be the alchemy by which he cemented a bond among evangelicals, with the help of his only nominally Catholic running mate, Mike Pence, paired with the poorly thought-out strategy of Hillary Clinton to focus on cities, rather than rural areas or the economically depressed areas that reject the effects of globalization, which could have spread those blues out along the map with far greater surety–a need that the map of Hayes Wilson reveals by the washed out areas of even the states whose delegates she won.

For while growing the share of Republican voters across several states presumed to vote Democratic, including many in the so-called “rust belt”–here colored dark red–

trump-increases-republican-votesBBC

–President Donald Trump seems himself to be quite alienated from the very folks whose economic interests he persuaded he would strongly defend, and less than ready to spend time there, save in his Florida estate, the new Winter Palace, Mar-a-Lago, ensconced as if forever a foreigner to much of the nation.

3.  The familiarity that Trump created with the nation seems rooted in an imaginary, built on the lifestyle of the Trump brand–even though his election leaves us with a shrinking horizon of expectations.  To say Trump ever knew much of the country is not only an exaggeration, but an outright deception that was willfully perpetrated if not orchestrated by his campaign.  Despite the broad appeal of a Trump lifestyle, Trump seems to have little connection for the man in the street or his job.  But his keen sense of playing the salesman for his brand, which promises to be a central part of his Presidency, led him to have so much practice at delivering people’s fantasies and recasting the art of promising anything but the greatest product ever to “innocent . . . exaggeration.”

For his policies betray little familiarity with the nation, beyond empty sloganeering, evident the belief that a repeal of the ACA would help the nation–when it would most likely, as Paul Krugman noted, “send the numbers right back up—[after] 18 million newly uninsured in just the first year.”  And the imposition of punitive measures against American companies who chose to locate their production overseas or in Mexico, and even more punitive tariffs against foreign competitors demand to be called out as instances of economic bullying, rather than anything like a realistic economic policy or plan.  And the notion of a 20% import tax would be passed on not to the Mexican government, but to heartland consumers who would pay for it in their purchases.  And ending the American Care Act would put almost a half a million aging folks off of health care, in ways we cannot yet fully map, but will have deep consequences for the very deep red “heartland” that Trump champions.  And as Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical Islamic American-born al-Qaeda preacher, foretold that the “West will eventually turn against its Muslim citizens,” Trump has successfully made his prophecy an actuality.  (“You were a nation of ease,” al-Awlaki had addressed the United States ominously, inviting a similar sort of time, but “imperial hubris is leading America to its fate.”)

Although Trump claimed to speak for the country, he was most famous for retreating to the confines of Trump Tower:  he was, confessed long-time political operative Roger Stone, something of a homebody.  His attachment to owning properties in Manhattan and his estate in Mar-a-Lago were so great to start rumors Trump declined to make the White House his regular residence as President.  And when Trump regularly returned to New York City or Mar a Lago, he always kept most of New York at a remove while sequestered in Trump Tower.   While totaling some 276,000 miles in the air by late September since announcing his candidacy for the U.S. Presidency  on June 16, 2015, Trump traveled over half of the days since announcing his candidacy, even while visiting far fewer places than other Republican candidates and fewer than his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.  And if one is to judge his familiarity with the country in terms of the cities where he chose to build and promote hotels as evidence for the sites he earlier visited, it is striking that the sites of Trump’s North American properties are located on its coasts, or outside of the very areas where his campaign was so wildly and only perhaps improbably successful.

North Am Trum Properties.png

For on the campaign trail, Trump buzzed about the country to create the sense of direct contact with constituents even without spending that much time in a single place, but regularly returned to New York, he may have visited places like Brooklyn, where Clinton’s campaign was based, far less frequently–and spending a considerable amount of time on the campaign trail sleeping in Trump Tower, if not resting in the large bed stationed in his 757; tweets from sites on the campaign trail conveyed his endless motion, but many began “just returned from . . .” in multiple tweets during the early days of the primary.

Were the steady accusations of his opponents’ tiredness but projections of his own somnolence or power naps?

Somnolence.png

Trump was regularly cast by ABC news as Palm Beach’s Most High-Profile Homebody by the year’s end.  Trump was no doubt tired out by the extensive campaign where he projected his exhaustion first onto Jeb Bush and then, more dramatically, Hillary Clinton:  for two weeks in December, rather than assemble his incoming cabinet, the PEOTUS remained in the sumptuous Mar-a-Lago, rarely leaving the estate for golf and dinner at the Trump International Golf Club, or Christmas Eve mass, and meeting with his transition team just “a stone’s throw from the croquet garden,” before returning to Trump Tower in January to assemble the rest of his incoming cabinet in the nineteen days before his inauguration–and expressed reluctance in leaving his aerie in Manhattan for periods of a week after assuming the Presidency, proposing frequent returns to his three-story penthouse on the 58th floor of Trump Tower for family time during his Presidency.

4.  Even if he has warmed to the White House’ decor and furniture soon after moving in, Trump is a man who has stayed put in his lavish multi-floor apartment for much of the last three decades, and it has provided the perspective from which he looked at the United States–and may offer a perspective from which the strong opinions of his policies were formed.  For a candidate who saw the sumptuous quarters designed in Louis XIV style as a tribute to his creation of his own self-image, was his creation of a time-frame also particularly revealing?  Did his identification with an apartment decorated in 24-karat gold and marble and furniture and tapestries  in Louis XIV style with a Tiepolo ceiling put him in ideal place as a candidate to promise a project of time travel to Americans seduced by his timeless lifestyle–

15trumpwomen-ivanacomp-master675

so effectively isolated as he was from the changes in the external world over the past twenty to thirty years?  (And doesn’t being called a “homebody” mean quite a different thing for such a home?)  For a man who grown up in a house with four white columns that were adorned with a confected crest and coat of arms and white columns, as a palace set apart from Queens, N.Y., with twenty-five rooms and nine bathrooms, the palatial abodes that he has continued to created for himself and his family similarly stepped outside of time.

The series of luxury hotels with which Trump’s name has been synonymous promote lifestyle packages promote pastiches of European luxury that are, after all, the tricks of the trade of a master hotelier–whose expertise is to offer an escape to a new comfort zone.  Since winning an election for United States President seems to provide only an extension of the art of escapism he has already refined in the political sphere that can translate to the trade of the hotelier, it seems no surprise that recent publicity even integrated the image of the White House facade to a promise of escapism at Trump International located in Washington, DC–even if this reveals something of a conflict of interest or confusion of jobs, or rather imagines the sort of “Suite Escape” in which Trump Hotels specialize the possibility of looking at the photoshopped blanched federal Environmental Protection Agency  through drape-graced windows in utmost Trump luxury, even if it does, as Philip Bump noted keenly, capture the “mess of conflicts of interest” that Trump is now likely to himself face far beyond that hotel.

c3i8vuhwcaa5x5e

c3kmsa4wyaavo2z-jpg-large

5.  For it seems that a large part of the promise of Trump Hotels is to offer to assemble for their eager visitors pastiches of the “finer things of life,” such as the guesthouse in the Blue Ridge foothills, combining a Georgian-style mansion with old-world elegance from Waterford crystal chandeliers, oil paintings, and statuary in surroundings recalling the Tuscan countryside; every one of his Trump International hotels or Trump Hotels is prized for its own thematic program of interior decoration that offer to their visitors.  This is distilled in the utterly escapist residence Trump loves in Trump Tower, whose time-shifting decor to transport one to an idyllic past, free from social consequences or concerns, that might be the emblem of the escape he offers the country.

inside-trump-tower

The notion of Trump sequestered, as a self-made Rip van Winkle, is somewhat appealing.  Donald Trump rarely travels, and seems something of a homebody, flying home regularly while he was on the campaign trail on his private jet–and asking the Secret Service to follow him home, on an air company he owns.  To the tune of $1.6 million, agents accompanied him on regular return flights on TAG Air, on which he logged some $6 million personally, boasting “I could be the first presidential candidate to run and make money on it,” as he walked to the bank, even outfitting his own ostentatious Boeing 757 jet at a cost of $1 million that situated his own name prominently in red, white, and blue. Trump often made late night trips back to New York during the Presidential campaign, to sleep in his own living quarters, according to the New York Times.  (The cost of outfitting his plane in suitable luxury may have given Trump grounds to criticize current government contracts with Boeing for the real Air Force One of $4 billion–“Cancel the order!“–although the mechanics of what was entailed in that plane were probably not in his grasp.)

trump0715-force-one.jpg

All those daily flights home on “Trump Force One” to sleep in Trump Tower during the Iowa Caucuses were at first feared to cost him some votes across the midwest.  Trump had regularly returned to his morning view of Central Park and his lavish home quarters, however, and seemed to relish returning with regularity during the campaign.  He didn’t allow any press members to accompany him on these flights, though the staff grew.  But he didn’t hesitate to outfit the luxury jet which was a frequent backdrop for news conferences and televised appearances, at a cost of an extra cost within the 3.8 million taxpayers payed to Tag Air, Inc., to operate the jet which approximated his personal quarters in Trump Tower, from a master bedroom approximated with silk wall coverings, mohair couch that converts to a bed, 57-inch television, home theater, shower and gold-plated toilet on this fuel-inefficient plane–all the while insisting on returning to his penthouse in Trump Tower almost each and every night.  (Trump claimed his flights were funded by checks he wrote to his own campaign, and the sale of MAGA hats and souvenirs at rallies, but the $27,000-$36,000 increase in daily operating costs of such regular flights home–the result of a deep resistance to overnighting outside his home long noted on the campaign trail–left the Secret Service sending a tidy check of $1.6 million for much of 2016 to Trump’s own airplane company.)

6.  The web of financial ties to Trump are far-flung in their nodes, and their ties to members of the incoming Trump cabinet–including Betsy “Ah, Betsy; Education, Right?” DeVos–and seem to stretch to areas only begging to be fully mapped, but which extend far, far beyond the properties of the Trump Organization.

Trump Mafia.png

–in a virtual web of business connections, many concealed within his tax statements.  The ties to much of the nation and newfound legitimacy and recognition of the Trump brand seems undeniable–even if Donald Trump, Jr. dismissed the idea that Donald, now that “he’s got real stuff he’s got to deal with” and “real people’s lives,” is anything but occupied with his governmental duties or realizes the extent to which hid new platform of recognition might encourage the expansion of a luxury hotel chain to new regions of the country.   While scoffing at the “notion that [President Trump] is still running the business from the White House is just insane,” however, the network of hotel chains he has administered provide something like the template for Trump’s notion of his relation to space, as the deals he brokered with construction firms, cities, and property taxes have provided him with the basic tools by which he seems destined to project Presidential authority.  Even as Trump sons Eric and Donald, Jr., the surrogates of his hotel empire, claim “There are lines that we would never cross, and that’s mixing business with anything government,” the inescapable confusion is one from which they will benefit.

Indeed, the range of hotel properties Trump owns are wide-ranging, although notably removed form the African continent or Australia, not to mention an almost entire absence in Asia, restricting interest in South America to the tourist destination of Rio and a planned residential development in Uruguay; and with no properties in continental Europe outside Istanbul–and an avoidance of Mexico which, for the owner of a chain of luxury hotels and hotelier, seems almost to be rooted in something like a deep personal dislike–

48d41a986339f80a89695e2609f368fd71dc0653-1

The selective seats of Trump International perhaps befits an entity long styled as “real estate super-brand” and linked to the lifestyle it marketed.   But the absence of Trump’s ability to market the Trump lifestyle and brand of hotel destinations in Europe, save the recent and requisite golf courses in Scotland Ireland, may reveal a long ambivalent attitude to Europe and NATO countries, given the absence of Trump interests outside golf courses in Aberdeen, Tunberry and Doonbeg.  (Indeed, Trump took no time after assuming the Presidency to rail against the EU based on his own experiences from “another world” of business–based on the firm refusal  of the EU to resist a proposed seawall on the dunes of Trump International Golf Links and Hotel in Doonbeg, Ireland, on the grounds of the environmental protection for endangered animals.  Trump was forced to curtail his planned seawall, the basis for the objection–an endangered snail–post-dates his aversion to expanding Trump International in Europe.

But is emblematic of the disproportionate scale with which Trump seems to view the world.  While mocking local disturbances faced by his building projects as annoying disturbances, he promotes his vision of a single way of life cobbled together from historical periods, providing residents a view from Mumbai at the Park at a remove from the poverty of homeless families who sleep on cardboard on Mumbai’s streets–in an image long suspected to be photoshopped.

58681cd31500002f00e9ddcc.jpegPaul Needham (2014)

The withdrawal of Trump Tower is the opposite of global engagement, but is the site to which Trump seems to invite us all to retreat in an age of global refugees.  Is it any coincidence that the self-confessed germaphobe so fearful of contamination from crowds is most inclined to adopt metaphors as floods, swarms, or infectious to describe the experience of refugees as threats to the social body, metaphorically re-framing their plight at a remove from social, politics or economics–and insisting on our need for better self-protection?  The distorted view from Trump Towers elides the experience of many through the distorting lens of real estate.

7.  Indeed, Trump’s gift for getting his name put on every empty surface known to man–including Trump-themed fiction–seems to have been taken as an excuse for his interest in political representation, which it is not.  But it is no secret that business interactions have most importantly shaped and helped formed Trump’s world view.  And the somewhat striking absence of Trump hotels in much of Eurasia–save residential developments in Seoul, and some under construction in Mumbai, Pune and the Philippines–raises questions not only of the appeal of the version of Trump glitz that they offer, but also of the place of these actual locations in Trump’s current mental map; the distance of the Trump brand entirely from the neighboring state of Mexico is more than clear, and may derive from personal distaste.

The presence of properties under construction in Uruguay, India, and Makati may indicate constraints of the Trump lifestyle, whose limited truck in Europe is not destined to grow in the future.  The relative absence of Trump’s presence in Asia–save Baku–suggests not only a compromised notion of geography for Trump, but an untimely withdrawal from international markets that analyses of the previous administration suggested place millions of jobs at risk.  How can we collectively trust a man with so compromised a notion of geography to can the Trans-Pacific Partnership?  The punitive measures proposed to be taken against companies making products overseas suggest a deeply skewed notion of the place of the American workplace in the global economy, and punitive measures against foreign competitors, suggest a limited and deeply narcissistic notion of global economic transactions, distant from and out of touch with the distribution of global populations.

populous nations.png

The remove of a spatial imaginary of real estate was long prominent in Trump’s mind.  The sharply concentrated and geographically small circuit of properties Trump owns in New York suggests not only a limited knowledge of the huge diversity of New York City but define the notion of the Trump lifestyle he has sold to America as an outer borough boy.  It betrays his narrow range of interest in coveted properties around Midtown and Trump Tower, revealing Trump’s longstanding interest in focussing his sights on Manhattan, despite his father Fred’s disinterest in the far fancier borough–and his open discouragement to Donald for chasing such properties from a firm that had roots from the Verrazano Bridge to the Long Island border, and offered middle-class housing, for hubris in reaching beyond his Brooklyn roots.  Is the focussed expansion of Trump Properties into Midtown, by now long naturalized by its epicenter at Trump Tower, a form of inter-borough envy with roots in the class conflicts of New York City’s urban geography?

Such inter-borough rivalry seem to have guided not only the expansion of Trump properties as it expanded to the area around the future Trump Tower, site of the tony area of Tiffany’s, the Plaza Hotel and Central Park South–

Trump NYC.png

–but the position in which he sees himself in relation to the world, and the caricature of the populist millionaire that became the conceit of The Apprentice and since become a basis for Trump to sell himself and his brand to the country.

Indeed, the eagerness of Donald to move to the toniest areas Fred Trump disdained, by casting himself from the “streetwise son of Brooklyn’s largest apartment builder,” allowed him to expand his stylized image as a colossus of Manhattan, but to disdain the outer boroughs of New York City as a place to plant the gold-plated image of his name.

Fred and Donald.png

In staking claims to building in such a restricted area of Manhattan, Trump may have used midtown as a sort of arena or performance space to broadcast his identity with such well-polished sheen that it served as a launching pad for Reality TV, long before declaring his Presidency.

8.  More scarily, however, is that the quite limited previous experience Trump gained with world affairs from his perch in New York seems destined to shape the judgements that he shapes on issues of global consequence:  as being in Queens and looking at Manhattan defined Donald’s appreciation and interest in power, the very tactics of aggression that worked for him to launch his brand in New York has become generalized in the trademark launching of hotel facades, and the confrontational bullying of world leaders seems to be the chosen metier of foreign policy, as cultivating allies and personal rapports; divisions between personal space and national destiny seem far closer than in the past, who seems to see foreign policy as conducted in confidence and in tête-a-tête rapports; foreign non-immigrant workers of HB-1 visas are viewed as “cut-rate” bargains, analogous to foreign construction workers; constant commentary on foreign affairs in Twitter permitted; brinksmanship is a working strategy; market negotiations as a primary means of statecraft with overseas partners and adversaries alike.

Trump’s deep need to impress world leaders takes precedence over policy or statements of national interest; tax-cuts are for corporations, whose rate is cut to 15 percent, and tax brackets collapsed from seven to three–while omitting how the US government would be able to afford the cuts.  Trump works on small-scale corporate deals with companies about aircraft, but the big picture seems to slip away.

For Trump’s apparently unremitting focus on staking claims to what he considered higher status in New York City’s real estate market, and to promote his name in doing so, developed with an intensity that led him to continue to stake claims to that status for new arenas.  This began in New York City, greedily and relentlessly, from the West Side Highway where his promise of a waterfront apartment building led the city to permanently close an exit ramp, to Soho, to Wall Street.  This apparent search seeming to chase an image of prestige in the mirror of his own gold-plated marquee, combining deep desire with disinterest in much of the external world, almost desiring only to look in the mirror of the gold reflective surfaces naming the multi-billion dollar towers to which the developer lends his name and the status they take pains to create.  Trump indeed boasted to a biographer Harry Hurt III, back in 1993, about having the best living room view in all of New York City, by virtue of being able to see from his Trump Tower apartment his own name on all sides:  beside the Hudson River in the West Side Yards; on Third Avenue, atop the thirty-nine story Trump Plaza or the fifty-five story Trump Palace.  Hurt compared it all to a child-like fantasy: mirrored in miniature on the ultimate stage of self-indulgent fantasy, as Trump’s name is branded not only on buildings but also “on a Monopoly-tyle board game branded ‘Trump'”, in a sort of ubiquity that needs its own constant affirmation, and itself engenders a desperate need for confirmation of loyalty and admiration.

For Trump seems to have lived in an extended or protracted mirror stage, where the materials of building provide themselves the foil for revealing the “I” that the builder seeks to cultivate, forged in a pre-linguistic stage but continuing as a distorting monumentalization of selfhood that desires to obscure if not obliterates the very map across which it spreads, disorienting the viewer.  The reality of the Trump presidency seems retaining the sheen on the name that seems to gain a greater aura the more that it is reproduced.

Gold reflective.png

Trump Tower

tower.png

lv-trump-t

But how long can that last?  While Trump boasted that his ability to have “added show business to the real estate business” is an apt characterization as “a positive for my properties and in my life,” is the nation able to be defined as his property, or is he able to fulfill the fantasies of his constituents through inflated promises and empty patina?

Rather than build such bold pronouncements of self without oversight in Washington, DC, Trump seems to offer the nation new ideas of the landscape of governmental authority.  For rather than seeing the role of the Presidency as representing the nation, Trump seems to have relentlessly presented the function of the Presidency as expanding own his personal enrichment at the cost of the nation–and indeed at the cost of the Presidency’s historical prestige.

c3ejxivwaaaytfr

Comments Off on Mapping Trump

Filed under American Politics, data visualization, Donald Trump, electoral maps, real estate