Tag Archives: United States

The Built World

Walking the streets in my now apparently abandoned neighborhood for an errand after a few weeks of sheltering in place in Oakland, I had the eery experience of navigating and inhabiting empty city. While I knew the pavement, I almost felt no longer familiar with the streets that afternoon. There was the sense that no one knew the state of affairs about reopening, and many were just puzzled about how to proceed: as a few young kids skateboarded up Shattuck Avenue, profiting from the lack of cars, some odd improvised bicyclists were on the sidewalk. But the sidewalks were empty and sun intense; storefronts often boarded up. The streets were no longer places for salutation or recognition, even if I greeted the mailman on the way home: as if no time for social niceties remained I walked down the sidewalks and into empty streets, rarely negotiating margins of safety, or distancing with a few folks on foot, noticing with a cringe the large number of homeless who stood out against the stark streets and empty stores. They were, as it were, always there. I had been cutting myself off from the surroundings, as I never thought I would. As I had been sheltering, thoughts going global as I was following updates about the pandemic, this was a stone’s through from my home, so many had none. What was sheltering, anyways?

Looking down Adeline Street, at the still tents of homeless encampments that may have multiplied, I felt new distance gaping between us, as the very streets I had walked down regularly seemed to have been forgotten while sheltering indoors, the stores now empty, a few windows borded up, almost no one driving in the streets where you could almost walk without worry. Aa a sole airplane, the first seen in days, flew overhead: I felt like I was on a filmset, more than where I lived. The place was the same, but suddenly ghostly: the built landscape that I was inhabiting was the same world, with fewer inhabitants, and less secure attachment to palce–as if the artificial interruption of indoors life shifted my relation to built space, made it harder to navigate, and shifted the security of place.

This was a different place, suddenly, and not a comfortable one. Sripped of my points of reference or familiarity with my neighborhood, a few dispossessed in the sidewalks, of what wasn’t a nice area of town, I was reminded rather urgently of ongoing part of urban life no longer framed by sounds of traffic, public transport, open businesses and pedestrian sounds, that continued while I was indoors. The degree zero of urban life reminded me of the empty landscape of building footprints that, in a detailed satellite overview that recalled nothing more than the outline of an archeological dig of ancient city, as if drained of motion, and filled with apprehension, in a damn eery way. Was this a pause or a new landscape?

I had navigated a building footprint map, “Every Building in the United States,” about a year ago, and hung the section of the houses of the Bay Area onto our refrigerator wall. The interactive website of the machine-readable result of aerial imagery recalled nothing more than a flyover of the ruins of a future world, a snapshot of each and every building in its current position, as if registering the extent of built spaces across an otherwise quiet and otherwise uninhabited world: as if the perfect document of the anthropocene, this was the built landscape, removed from and detached from a natural world. This was the built landscape of the region, divorced from the lay of the land, as if a perfection of the GPS contents of street view, without any street traffic or greenspace at all. The stark interactive map of 2018 seemed to be newly present to the space I was negotiating in my mind, even more stripped to its bare bones and evacuate of inhabitants.

The vertiginous qualities of the globalist interactive map peered at through my screen allowed one to look at the nation and soon to whatever spot on the map, suddenly panning and focussing into crisp detail, but lacking all sign of inhabitants, save the names on each street or place. The sense of exploring a neighborhood I once knew may have been an accelerated arrival in late middle age. But the spatially empty landscape of building footprints encountered I opened in 2018, “Map of Every Building in the United States,”was filled with a sense of dread and of testing my own geographical knowledge, scanning to familiar neighborhoods and structure, and matching abilities to recognize the flattened forms against the material structures with which they correlate.  There is no sense of the amount of chemical waste and diesel pollutants in the nation’s largest port, Long Beach, pictured in the header to this post, where pollution has caused ongoing health problem for residents.  

Despite the immediacy of this comprehensive map of the nation–comprehensively tracking and signaling each of its buildings, read from a satellite flyover view of amazing detail–seems striking not only for what it shows–although that is the content that grabs the viewer’s attention, and leads its interactive functions to be so striking–and compelling–but what is left out, the things that lie on the edge of the buildings, that are never hardly or clearly able to be separated form the anthropogenic imprint of building footprints, but inseparably go with them–especially on the nation’s shorelines, that are increasingly reminding us that no line is hard or impermeable, and that where things move on a map are perhaps always the most important and most difficult to remember to include.

The aerial perspective reveals a human “footprint” of each building, as read by computers trained in distilling satellite imagery, augmented by local and federal maps.  The result, in either printed or interactive form, orients viewers primarily to a flattened world of increased solidity, a flatland of a landscape entirely built, removed from locally varied environments, stripped of weather, soil, or climate vulnerability, patterns of rainfall, hydrology, or geomorphology, but registers the substrate of building patterns across the United States.  Although the machine-read footprints, a conflation of the human intelligence inherent in all mapping and the abilities to train machines to recognize built footprints, seems a weirdly disembodied map, it is easily able to be invested with oddly commemorative elements, or an elegiac tone, as if it was recorded from a point in the future where one looked back in time to a human past.

In an era when we usually rely on satellites maps not only to indicate a synthetic record of the spectrum of weather risk of the impact of global warming on the nation over–

NASA, Climate Trends, 2013-17

but the extension of our usual cartographical indices, as warming maps that confirm the expansion of the lines of the Tropics by a half a degree a decade, as the climate zones have quite decisively expanded by thirty miles each decade, and tropics determined by where the sun lies directly overhead in solstices, or at about 23 degrees north and south, but is measured by the pattern of the circulation of hot air rising at the equator falls back to earth, creating a dry middle region of the earth known as the Hadley Cell has grown since the 1970, shifting in the north and south by 0.2-0.3 degrees of latitude per decade, and bringing drier, as rain decreases in subtropical regions and the Mediterranean, and the Sahara expands,

Tropics growing at half a degre a decade:Katie Peek

Tropics Expanding at a Half degree a Decade/Sttaten et al, 2018, graphic by Katie Peek

and the hundredth meridian that divides weather of the arid plains form the wetter eastern zone in the United States has shifted eastward by  one hundred and forty miles, shifting the historical western climatic divide with terrifying implications for farming, irrigation, croplands, and national water supply.


Modification of Climactic Divide by Climate Change/from Seager et al. (2018)

Decreased groundwater from lower levels of precipitation and the risks that this poses for our groundwater has been alarmingly mapped by satellite–


–at the same time, maps propose forecasts of future temperature increases and new extremes of aridity and drought in much of the midwest–

–and the micro-scale of GPS pinpoint increased risks of future seismic activity in overwhelming ways, for which we are hardly prepared–


1.  There is a refreshing palpability and materiality of a web-based map liberated from overlays, by which to access the material presence of human habitation, as if to reaffirm the settlement of the continent in ways that remind us of the density of human population centers and indeed the location of each built house.

“Every Building in the United States”/New York Times/Mapbox

The dynamically detail of the interactive map in online and paper versions afford a virtual flyover of each house–each building!–in the nation, in a comprehensive catalogue of how humans were actually transforming the landscape, or the cumulative changing of the built landscape in North America, or the lower forty-eight, that seemed a map of indisputable reality, rendering material presence in all too refreshing ways. But the AI imagery of a “built environment” suggests wrestling the concept of a “footprint” to the ground, removing it from the rest of the environment, and trusting computerized vision to reconstruct patterns of physical resettlement–shifting attention from recent concentration on the impacts of human communities in the age of the anthropocene. While the image does allow us to examine what we mean by the “city” today, in a time of urban sprawl, and to describe urban corridors, coastal strips, and intense congregations of built environments, the absence of inhabitants is oddly ghostly, as if it were an image of archeological ruins or built remains.

Is the sheer reduction of informational content–paring the built world down from environmental influences, air pollution, or land surface impermeability and change, or place-names, a view that shows the amount of area that remains for human settlement in the lower forty eight, without preserving ? I kept returning, most of all, to the fragile ghostliness of the map that lacked people, and which seems to show now human impact because it is both for a future age–if not a reconstruction of a past moment from a future point. The sense of melancholy was not only due to the retro black-and-white starkness of the map, but its pictorial poverty and eery association, which I couldn’t close, with mortality. I toggled between these two points of view. The ghostly settlements seemed to be archeological ruins, images of a world without people, of the post-human, and scanned and measured by machines refusing to register the place of humans in the built environment, and filtering or outright removing them from it.

When I looked at the region of upper Manhattan where I was raised, the map triggered memories of space, and my own abilities of spatial judgement, as if it offered an actual yardstick to be read against my earliest sense of place.  The creation of such a static vision of the gridded city blocks of upper Manhattan suggests a rhythm of settlement different from the Jersey shore or inland, encompassing a diversity of settlement patterns, with nothing like a plan, that seems an encomium to the density of its coverage, taking stock in a particularly flat temporal sense of the density and intensity of the clustering of residential areas and sharp differences of built space.

Static nyc upper manhattan.png

But there is also an eery sense that the monochromatic surface of a virtual flatland invited a sense of spatial deciphering quite unlike other mapping surfaces we are accustomed to interact, or web maps that augment and ask us to match up with our spatial knowledge.  If the reliance on mapping services is argued to weaken or alter our sense of orientation, the machine-read imagery from detailed satellite photography served as a prosthetic to orient ourselves to space again, its clean-cut outlines of solid black serving to show streets as we had never seen them, a mosaic that was undoubtedly the result of collective building practices over time, bestowing a sense of coherence on architectural planning, and oddly–if one read it as transparently as it invited–in ways that naturalized the built land.

For me, there was also an inescapable haunting quality in the map of each structure’s physical footprint, which seemed to serve as a memorial for the expanse of human habitation at one time, and a map that could be thrown into three dimensions and historical perspective from an undefined future as a record of the density of habitation of our coasts and cities as a future past–as if the comprehensive visual survey represented a high-water mark in our inhabitation of space, before the apocalyptic moments of global warming or climate change, and before the burning of increased fires rendered many of the houses in the west coast, near where I live, either uninhabitable or disappeared, as the structures that they trace start to look far more like archeological remains, especially as they are mediated by the computer-recognition of built polygons from a remotely sensed high-detail imagery.  The new frontier of remote sensing–in which high resolution datapoints can be surveyed, photographed, and compressed, created and rendered as composites that create cloudless images of place,  comes to a new head in the training of machines to read the imprint only of buildings, in ways that stand to pose a challenge for the map as a human creation–or as a human urge to map–even if the machines that read such imagery were of course designed by humans, and are not alien to the human race.  But the mechanized mediation of “vision,” “tracing” and rendering along geodetic coordinates are far removed from the human forms of mapping that we seem entering the “mind” of a machine.

Because of the machine-drawn nature of the comprehensive maps of buildings–the utmost man-made creation–there is the sense that the survey pushes tools of mapping to a new frontier, as well as offering a new way to observe or surveil our built landscape in a greater detail than ever before, zooming into specific details that give high-res image of high-scale places, and teaching us to look again through different eyes at the inhabited world.  That the image so clearly resembles the tracing of ancient ruins of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century is not only uncanny–it is profoundly disturbing and odd.

The assembly of such a comprehensive visual survey, if absent from the mountains, rivers, streets, and open spaces, suggests a counterpart to an actual census of population, if one deeply tied to the clustering of residence and lopsided density of the nation, and accentuates the anthropogenic nature of the sites where most of the population live–weighting the map in ways that suggest a deeply cosmopolitan perspective, and suggesting the emergence of a landscape less tied to land-use, denatured and denuded of trees, forest, foliage, leaves or landscape.


The map derived from training computers to detect built structures in a huge database a huge public database of building footprints read from satellite vies was amplified by the Times through local and state maps of buildings’ footprints to create an interactive exploration for readers that presents an image of the footprints of each structure–particulate matter, marine trash, debris, not to mention the levels of ozone pollution generated near Long Beach, a site of notorious for release of toxic gases, ozone and particulate matter–based on a recent environmental health assessment by CAL EPA, not to mention offshore fracking, or the pockets of poverty around Long Beach–mapped in the header to this post, and is a site of high carcinogenic risk.



toxic relase:air.png

Toxic Releases into Air Near Long Beach/2014 (CARTInstead of constituting a record of anthropogenic change, the map focuses on a snapshot of the imprint of buildings on the soil, more than the impact of humans in or on nature, or of any sense of flux in the continued effects of emissions, release of contaminants, and their possible pollution of ocean waters, or combination with water vapors to create acid rain.  The intuitive sense of reassuring tangibility in the comprehensive record of every building in the United States reassuringly mimics the material world, and reifies it as a given structure, standing apart from its environment, or a lived world. While I lived in Oakland, the image of the East Bay was sharply unlike the registration of breathable particulate matter, generated and released by diesel exhaust courisng across the industrial area from the automative arteries of the 580 and 880, created by Google with the Environmental Defense Fund(EDF) and Aclima, a sensor technology provider, to map airborne pollution in West Oakland across highly trafficked corridors and West Oakland’s streets, mapping the density of the diffusion of particulate matter: rather than using only one sensor to monitor air quality–how did the idea of a fixed air monitoring station that was located at West Grand and Poplar emerge?–cars equipped with sensors drove four hundred miles to unpack what West Oakland Enviornmental Project’s Brian Beveridge says needs to be expanded beyond “a tale of two freeways,” and the diesel trucks who use them to arrive and leave Oakland’s port.

via Google

The logic of building patterns are of an aesthetic interest for viewers and create a startling map of unprecedented detail that foregrounds machine-learning skills to forge a new relation between cartography and art:  the survey of local neighborhoods and structures, even in 2D form, suggest constellations of architectural sedimentation of different times that pop out to the viewer, conveying a material presence–one can see one’s own house!–patterns of habitation seems to stand at a skew with our systems of political representation.

At a time when we increasingly consult maps that lie on backlit screens to trace disembodied routes in virtual worlds, and rely on map servers for itineraries of green arrows  toward buildings on screens, in ways that might atrophy senses of way-finding, rendering footprints in a manner that we can navigate invite us to gauge spatial logics of place.  The fish-eye maps of satellite data, set atop a Mapbox scaffold, helps defamiliarize ourselves with place and position ourselves in relation to its configuration and partially representational terms:  the politics of reifying the built environment as neutral is highly questionable, especially at a time of climate change, but offers a sheer pleasure of navigation through an encomia to the scope of built structures across the land.  Rather than finding one building, we are invited to scan them all, jump into the midst of space as into the midst of logic of a website, to follow what commands interest, and find our ways through the virtual mosaic.

The constellation of houses reveals what Andy Woodruff calls  “the sometimes aesthetically pleasing patterns of the built environment” more than revealing devastating effects of overbuilding in any place, removed from all threats to their permanence.  While suggesting the fragility of the lattice-like structure of built space, the definitive black boxes, rectangles, and forms suggest a lived mosaic where humans are oddly absent.  The patterns in the built buildings are not primarily utilitarian, or dynamic, but seem an odd proxy for the imprint of humanity.  They suggest more than they reveal an actual pattern language, in the sense of good design practices, so much as a snapshot-like record of what is at hand.  There is less of a coherent pattern language in the forms of the machine-read images than one might imagine.  When Christopher Alexander coined the term “pattern language” to distinguish good practices of architecture as a way to solve large, interconnected questions of design, in intentional ways, serving the users of space–and indeed creating common spaces within houses and cities that make life bearable, he saw it as a place-holder for a range of results of problem-solving of needs for privacy, intimacy, and contact, as if modular components might have a grammar or syntax that meet local and quite personal needs, which designers could work in iterative processes to meet, arriving at solutions able to balance competing forces.  The absence of any syntax or structure in the web map is more often apparent in the stripping houses from context, given the absence of streets, highways, or forest in the building patterns that result, which appear stripped of local logic as abstracted footprints in patterns that recall property developments, with minor variations, but minimal evident intent–without clearly revealing how they meet needs, but suggesting the formulaic patterns of housing, rather than privileging what Alexander called and treasured as the logic of common space.

Mesa Temporal clustering.png

Mesa, AZ

There are few inheritances evident in the map, despite clear patterns of building from the Mississippi river, south of New Orleans, where the intent of builders is apparent, but seems removed from users needs or competing interests, and not addressed toward their fundamental needs of contact and civic squares, the sorts of public spaces for wandering or collecting with neighbors, but space follows property lines that stretch from the river, in an odd echo of earlier plantations.

Bend in River.png

South of New Orleans, on Mississsipi River

The building appear in each case oddly stripped of a larger, comprehensive sense of design or intentionality, or of a design process that empowers the builders, but exists, almost inertly, on the screen, if they may seem to indicate their own rationale, but only use it as a start to question or understand how it benefits those who live there or of a place that works for its residents, in Alexander’s terms, so much as an integrated circuit or maze, far less directed toward the needs of inhabitants than Alexander would like, and which made urban planing seem a set of predetermined frameworks with little bearing on local needs.

2.  What to make of the map, which offers a sense of weight, but oddly reifies structures at a remove from a human hand, or from the human activity that built them?  If this is a record of humanity, it is an odd record, to be sure, removed from evidence of agency, but the ghost-like outlines of the traces of buildings measured by a footprint alone.  Despite being confined to only two dimensions, the interactive map invites users to alternate between multiple scales, traveling at a commanding if terrifying pace from a nation-wide view, or zooming down to regional panels, or even hovering over large-scale images streets and neighborhoods, in a flat surface abstracted from the environment, illustrating the configuration of real estate across the nation.  While one can expand to a city’s urban plan, in ways that challenge attention, panning out to the broader patterns of the inhabited land, the absence of any imprint beyond the individual building seems to deny ostrich-style the presence of increased risk of extreme weather events, or to adjust our habits of building to that risk–although they come immediately to mind when one sees how many built structures crowd our shores.

Borders, jurisdictional lines, and counties are absent, as are electoral districts, in a map of habitation that lacks any reference to topography or the footprint of humans on the environment, save the footprints of the buildings that they built and the human curiosity or compulsion to design and refine maps, in ways that seem to seek to transcend the perceptual limits of one visual position. The dispensing of most human artifacts of measurement are striking, as there aren’t even scale-bars, and, in an ompholocentric illusion, the nation is the universe.  Many things don’t appear on its surface, in ways that make the view liberating and somewhat exultant, although it is quite removed from a celebratory tradition of national mapping of sovereign territory.  It’s even pretty striking that the US-Mexico border-line that has haunted our national political discussion is among the most uninhabited regions, the density of our coastal constructions–from California to the Gulf of Mexico to the East Coast to the somewhat neglected if highlighted populated coast of the Great Lakes–the real “border zones” where two-thirds of the nation in fact dwell–


“Every Building in the United States”/New York Times/Mapbox

–is represented in crisp clarity by machine read detail to prompt glosses by its illustion of complete and comprehensive knowledge.  If the “map is the territory,” the territory seems oddly shrunken, if it exists where houses exist.

There’s considerable pleasure that exists in the sense of material embodiment and spatial recognition in the crisp greys and half-tones render a collective mosaic of human habitation, mapping every building in the United States from an astoundingly comprehensive database.  The result dynamically mimics an ability to move through a known space–entirely removed from navigational ends, in the manner of Google Maps or other mapping platforms, but as a way to mimic the ability to observe every house, in a vritual flyover map, to gauge the footprint of mankind as it is frozen at a single given moment, but in ways that may give a portrait of where money is converted and ploughed into real estate as much as of population density, or the uneven terrain of the United States, in ways that cannot be read without some bearing on the current electoral map, and the deep tensions between our conception of our nation.

While the map is somewhat pleasantly removed from the haunting divides of red and blue  that dominated interpretation of national politics from the autopsy of the body politic in the 2016 Presidential “election” or midterm elections, cleansed as it is of electoral districts, county lines, or states–

The United States, with state sized based on electoral votes.

2016 Presidential Race

–its removal from a range of expertise in reading maps also seems set to unleash a broad free-for-all of cartographic analysis, and DIY interpretations, amplifying the validity of the cartographic record as a source for exploration, of almost scriptural nature, to unlock the secrets, impact, distortions, and divisions of our settlement of the nation, and even in black and white mosaics the are man-made preserving a disembodied reading of the nation, with limited text or apparatus, reminding us of the bizarre consequences of settling a drastically uneven relation to the land.

Living within 100 mile border zone

3. The resulting interactive virtual map exults in possibilities of examining built space at multiple scales, without guidelines to read, by inscribing the viewer in a perpetual bird’s-eye view that is the longstanding dream of a cartographic imaginary, but which machines have now provided, in what seems a Cyborg manifesto of its own, created by engineers who trained computers to read satellite imagery, and whose programming–with Mapbox engines–serves as a visual prosthetic.  The interactive nature of the map allows one to swoop to any city, zip, or site at intriguingly and quite astoundingly large-scale, moving among ridiculously tremendous variations in scale with the power of a DIY version of Charles and Ray Eames’ “Powers of Ten” (1977) on your own personal computer screen,–expanding the field of vision by powers of tens, and reducing it by tens to the level of angstroms, and back again, unsettling the position of the viewer by its purified mathematical tools even without its didactic awe-filled voiceover that seems to replace the divine.

The expansive panning over the United States’ lower forty-eight starts as a collection of micro graphical specks, unable for anyone to draw or transcribe, not corresponding to population density, building heights, or in which one is invited to magnify scale to arrive at the neighborhoods and places that one might recognize, as if to measure its accuracy against one’s own spatial awareness, and to be astounded by the accurate abilities of transcription of the scope of mechanical recognition of building forms from satellite surveillance.

Berkeley. CA
Berkeley two

Berkeley CA/North Oakland CA

The rich detail of the map has a counterpart in the thin scratchings of the mosaic of large scale views, however, as the delicate traceries of the small-scale image gain a mute stolidity in the black blocks of individual buildings.  The sense of emptiness that the map viewer or reader gains increasingly comes to accompany the sense of vertiginousness, however, in ways much akin to the viewing of Eames’ video of scalar multiplications and diminutions,–even though they seek to provoke a sense of the expansiveness and fluidity of our constructions of space.  The elegant becomes an eery denaturing of space, even more than a reduction to two dimensions.

The interactive map is not to space, or really even to a political territory, but to the literal footprint of all structures in the nation–a literal symbolization of settlement patterns on a virtual result.  The result is a teaser of the possibilities for re-rendering satellite views, that so powerfully mimics cognitive perceptions we can match our own memories with its virtual surface.  By embodying a high-resolution outlines of human habitation, we can drop in at any zip code or place-name into the crowded record of every house in the lower forty-eight to investigate patterns of housing, abstracted from any setting, in eye-opening ways.  It is able to capture interest in the macro-level patterns of settlement and built structures in an absolutely flattened space registering the density of all built structures in the lower forty-eight–


“Every Building in the United States”/New York Times/Mapbox

–to individual regions, s we  interactively pan, scan, and move around rendering of buildings computers were trained to detect from satellite imagery, examining the crowding of habitation and alarming density of how we cluster in space, in strikingly uneven national markets of housing or real estate, in ways that force us to reflect on how we inhabit space, more than navigate it, rendered in ways that accenturate the earth’s curvature to heighten the sense of spatial perception with a crispness of detail one could never process save from machine-read satellite imagery.

Bay Area buidlings

San Francisco and the Bay Area/New York Times/Mapbox

Of course, this looks a bit different when one is mapping population, but the advances in machine learning of recognizing built structures provides a new form of mapping–sort of at the start of a new technology of mapping–that goes beyond the limits of current data visualization, to parse out a popped out vision of the built environment from the landscape, and gain a sense of the human built footprint rendered alone, if one tilts the Bay Area a bit,.

or tries to place it in a broader nationwide context of population peaks.

4.  The powerful recognition of inhabiting space offered both in the printed version or the interactive maps was so compelling that the Times included local print versions in its national edition, suggesting a cool bridge between interactive and print graphics in the dynamic uses of D3 mapping tools Mike Bostock had first pioneered at the newspaper.  For the interactive abilities translated into print in a local way, as if to encourage readers to pore over the interactive version with the attention demanded by the detail of paper maps , in ways that recuperated the excitement of examining a static map’s local detail, and recuperating with new intensity the discovery of navigating through a powerful striped-down symbolization of inhabited space and housing density.

Darkness is an odd proxy for habitation, but concretizes a huge database, sifted through from satellites and amplified by local and federal maps, in a scary reminder of the major sites of investment in real estate–and the uneven valuation of the land–and of the fine grain of our powers of remote surveillance.  The result is both truly awe-inspiring as well as deeply mournful–omitting the places and focussing on real estate–by tracing footprints of houses, without signs of life.  The result is a sort of encomiastic image to the skills of transcription from satellite imagery, the landscape, as an abandoned one, without frame of reference, as it were, filled with traces of buildings, but without other signs of habitation by the human and limited register of a natural world.

While one usually thinks of the arrival of web-mapping as displacing print, Every Building in the United States invites you to use your cursor to navigate through its surface, like the virtual space of a video game, zooming into details, to bring one’s best abilities to grasp the current total literal footprint of all built space.  In what presents itself as a melding of machine reading with a mind’s eye, a hybrid form of mapping and cognition that combines the mechanical detection of buildings with an invitation to expanded perception.  Offering a sort of prosthetic extension of vision, emphasizing the virtual extension of the United States, the map abandons any imposition of indices of legibility, replacing them with an invitation and injunction to look.  The “map” that was assembled with Mapbox software is an ecstasy of the visual, although the places are so oddly hollowed out, not only reduced to monochrome shadows, but oddly and eerily removed from the human hand, or textual legends and critical approaches to guide the reader;  the analogy to a video game’s virtual space seems apt because the map invites viewers to project meaning onto their formal shapes, in a sort of urban planning and environmental studies done on the fly, and without much expertise or specific skill set, its abundance of information allowing one to make bold generalizations from what seems intentionally limited data.

If Every Building presents itself as rather seamlessly melding trained detection of satellite records with human cognition and visual perception, melding mind and machine in a hybrid form of inscription and cognition that extends visual perception, it makes sense to ask interrogate how the interactive and print modes articulate a new visual relation to space, or rehabilitate and perpetuate some rather old fantasies of a disembodied relation to space.   The “view from nowhere” echoes a helicopter or aeronautic path, to be sure, relative to the selected degree of scale, but echoes the transcendent view of space that ancients and early moderns long imagined when considering Ptolemaic maps.  The dizzying counterpoint readers encounter between the spanning the continent as a unit and the buildings of any local site suggest less a synthesis, than the creation of an imagined perspective from which readers can zoom across a virtual surface, disembodied from terrain or topography or “nature,” through what is an anthropogenic record of the buildings that constitute our national version of the ecumene.  The result seems to present an image of our increasingly atomized national space, in place of an interconnected network, fit for our times.  It raises questions about the coherence resulting from a machine-read image as a map, and the place of machine-readable satellite imagery in what seems a scary prototype of the future of maps.

For despite the interest and levels of spatial recognition that readers are provoked to explore in the interactive map and its more local, but more legible print counterparts, which expand the detail of the national map, the lack of any points of orientation are oddly devoid of tips or clues for reading space, or the arrangement of a built space, or of how one navigates within it.  If the engineers who trained computers to read satellite imagery for evidence of individual houses invites viewers to examine the patterns of housing at multiple levels–a site to look at the architectural ordering of space machine-read from satellite observations, rather than mimicking travel through space, the patterns offer an eery recognition of place and space, unlike we’ve ever seen it before in a map, stripped of natural markers or much textual apparatus, strangely static in its rendering of built space, oddly ethereal in its absence of color or natural forms, or even what we might call experiential grounding over this flattened footprint of every building, disorientingly stripped of their actual height.

Upper manhattan.png

Upper Manhattan

–where blocks of black space trace the ground print of buildings, independent from building-heights, as if they prepare the basis for a more complete mapping of urban space, or are only concerned to measure.

One balances orientation and disorientation, in fact, in a way that provides an uncanny model for reading space:  the space that one knows is abstracted, and one is challenged to match lived space to the screen space, and read the flattened forms that were detected by aerial surveillance of satellites.  In ways that challenge any viewer to try to orient themselves to its level of local detail, the exclusive focus on built anthropogenic space invites a curiously tactile mode of interacting with zoomable of increasing scale maps at once embodied and abstracted from a spatial setting.  But the local maps were particularly reassuring, notwithstanding their pared down, radically abstracted quality.  Interactive and print versions alike invite, in their full display of trimmed-down detail, which invite renewed ability to pore over the infinite richness their content, and an ability to recognize the spatial disposition and distribution of houses even if they have been suddenly removed from their surroundings and topography:  serving as a way to define and discover one’s own relation to place with an apparent materiality, the interactive map made of machine-read detail provide an uncanny tool to navigate through space, and uncanny relation to place.

For the map of the tracings of each building, whose machine read linear crispness seems to recuperate the drawn basis of a local map, seems to recuperate the hand-drawn map, but over an expanse no human could ever render by hand, or that could ever be read in its totality.  As if an inverted Google Maps, rather than foregrounding way-finding tools or individual roads, each section of the map is less dedicated to routes of travel or sites of arrival.  Instead, the maps invites interactively reading its contents of a map, by zooming to local details across the United States at scales so large a scale they range from continent to local neighborhoods.  The comprehensive coverage of the continuous forty-eight might recall the one-to-one scale of the classic tale of the fanfare and fate of a one-to-one map made by imperial cartographers in “On Rigor in Science,” often translated as “On Exactitude in Science,” written in the start of the Cold War in 1946 by Jorge Luis Borges.

At about the same time as demand grew for an abstractly gridded space in global theaters of combat that would become the Universal Traverse Mercator global grid, Borges asked about the fictional nature of the relation of any map to a territory.   Borges imagines the demand for unprecedented rigor in the push toward greater and greater exactitude, when “the Art of Cartography had attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entire City,” and invited viewers to process far more local detail than any would ever be able to read.   The map Every Building holds back on much more information than a monochrome mosaic of quite stripped-down form, approaching a similar level of detail, impossible to assemble .  Whereas “the following Generations not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears saw that that vast Map was Useless,” in Borges’ fable, inviting its material decay to tatters, once “. . . delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters,” allowing it to become reduced to tatters of its original celebrated form, the infinite contents of the interactive map creates a haunting permanence, which its interactive form allows one to navigate selectively, awed by the comprehensive large scale map that the huge dataset contains.

As greater scale approaches an increasingly disjoined view, the mosaic of buildings, some recognizable, all lacking identification, seems to capture an atomized view of society, in its rendering of individual buildings without a formal frame, coherence, or unity, as if affording an atomized view of space fit for our time.

5. The interactive vertigo seems destined to stand, in virtual form, as a melancholy snapshot preserving a moment of a built environment. It may be an unprecedented alienation from the natural world.  Unlike the image of time-tagged buildings in the Netherlands, color-coded by century through a rich archival database by Dutch cartographer Bert Spaan, which allows ways to view how cities built outlying areas, the static database of drawn buildings is frozen in time.  But its comprhensive nature, and far larger scale, provides a rich set to parse, filter, and cross-reference for endless fun, creating ways to query, clip, and sift buildings across an extensive space, or to zoom into cities from Washington, DC to New Orleans, whose flattened surfaces all but erases their distinct architectural styles, as has been noted, suggesting the database’s limitations as a guide, rather than a heruistic illustration of machine-reading, existing in glorious and definitive black-and-white that seem to distance its formalism from the fact that all these buildings were man-made, by all but eliminating the trace of the human hand from its form.

But one can pan, with a striking detail, over the coastal structures in California’s Long Beach, and sail across the counterpoint built-up nature of its shoreline’s empty spaces, shore-line plants and facilities, and low-density housing.

Los Altos:Long Beach.png

Long Beach, CA

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LA Times’ Pollution Map–Toxic Releases/CARTO

Unlike the data sold to Google Maps, Bing, Apple or other mobile mapping services, the sharpness with which the data is read by machines offer viewers an almost tangible sense of place.  The machine-read tracings of each building’s footprint in the nation is highly mediated, and disembodied and abstract, as well as augmented by local maps from states and cities.  But the eerily familiar sense of panning over inhabited space that results offers viewers an eloquent form of orientation able to restore now-lost materiality to a map, orienting us in ways that embodies space in ways that are uncanny if almost eerily welcome in the level of familiarity gained as one zooms to known spaces, greeted by layouts abstracted from any spatial particularity.  And in California, or the Bay Area, where I live, I can’t help wonder if its pronounced alienation from any sense of climate risk, or the increasing sense of the contingency in the far of climate change, is oddly absent from the map, and disconcertingly disorienting in the false sense of comfort in permanence that it brings.

Constituting a negative Google Maps or Street View, satellite imagery the nation offer improbably crisp coverage into whose totalistic coverage of the lower forty eight we can scan or zoom without atmospheric obstruction to explore traces of human habitation; if streets, lakes, parks, rivers, and what might be called public or civic space are absent from the map, the collation of tracings of each buildings render a god-like view of building density in detail, that pops up as a national network and switch to an almost fish-eye view of zip-codes, materializing a massive database in copious detail within a national backdrop that seems a negative image of geographic terrain.  Houses string along major roadways, reminding us of the sharp discontinuities in the spread of inhabitants in disquieting ways, and the imbalances in our investment in real estate.


New York Times/Mapbox

Housing seems to mirror the folds of the topography, lying along rallies and in dense clots by the oceans or waterways, revealing the intensive crowding we all experience of the shorelines, and reminding us of the increase of manmade ground cover and the anthropogenic impermeability of much of our coasts.

If some inland areas of the nation are stretched thin along roads, that, as in Lancaster, PA, stretch in lines of housing from city buildings into far more open spottily settled lands retain a more “organic” sense of their historical settlement–

Lancaster, PA

–the ring of cities that hem in the Bay Area where I live, far more “challenged for space,” immediately suggests the scarcity of land and small supply of housing in the fold-out paper newsprint insert, both by the density with which urban over-building rings the Bay Area, and the low South Bay shoreline where coastal housing stands to be threatened by sea-level rise.

South San Francisco Bay

The special pull-out section of my local Times offered the print counterpart tot the national map.  It oriented readers to their locations, in the manner that the larger interactive web-map promised, but invited even more detailed reading under the viewer’s eyes, at a far greater surface, when fully unfolded, than  the print newspapers have had for years.

The dual-publication evokes clear comparisons between map and text, and the readability of the map, often argued point-based cartography has eclipsed or disrupted, though the new senses of territoriality they create:  but if the grid may challenge the analogy between the reading of maps and reading of a text:  the printed version of the map indeed forced the question of reading place and reading patterns of settlement in locations that communities of readers knew all too well to invite them to re-examine their sense of space, and relation to it, in invitingly provocative ways, asking readers to re-read their relation to place free from devices, and merging the legibility of the canvas of the single sheet of newsprint with the degree of detail we are habituated to find on the computer screen, or handheld device, that occupy so much of our visual attention and interpretive skills.  The effect of being able to navigate the print version is jarring, but refreshing.

6.  In the Bay Area, the image however cut oddly against the increased sense of vulnerability to climate change, from sea-level rise to swings between drought and flood that the permanence of the machine-read tracings of each building–from the disk of the Apple Headquarters to the Great Mall in San Jose to the buildings of the Tesla factory–as if the reading of the detail of the map presented a reconstruction of the ruins of Silicon Valley for future generations to pore over and study, as if to find the extent of the economic explosion of the region in a removed past, whose footprint has been reconstructed over time, and can speak across an otherwise unbridgeable temporal gap with the crispness of summarizing the results of an archeological excavation of antiquity.

The insert and interactive map alike illuminate the insights of reading maps has to offer, and the concision of the arguments and insights that they are able to offer readers who often struggle to make sense of their own environments.  Offering a negative image of the network of roadways in Open Street Map derive from satellite imagery, ready by computers trained to read large-scale data in microscopic detail, the rendering suggests a nation of suburbs, and offers much less legibility for urbanized areas or density, which it renders in ways that resembles something more analogous to a computer chip, at times, than a human space, or at least not one of civic participation.  It is almost a map for our times, a data overload presented in locally legible terms, where our data has been “read” and rendered legible, abstracted from any civic or social sphere in what appear intentionally  disturbing ways.


Mesa, AZ/New York Times

The oddness of decoupling spatial data from any other expertise in a stripped down data flow makes one wish for further levels of information to be added to the map despite the attraction of its crisp level of highly specific details.  The map is disembodied, offering far more than any on the ground observer could navigate.  As much as heralding the acceptance of a new Age of Cartography, it realizes the historical claims of cartography as a God’s-eye view, afforded by satellite may reflect a quite atomized nation-state, defined by contrasting communities that reflect defined partisan lines as much as by its coherence or unity, removed from questions of coherence–or from reflecting an image of geographic mobility, compromised continuity of acknowledgement of civil rights and citizenship, and even even of crisp borders, even lines, and an inherent uniformity in a logic of the distribution of geographic residence.

Flint Mosaic.png

Near Flynt, MI

The emptiness of spaces in these sub-urban spaces suggest a sense of emptiness of communities in areas stretching across a grid of roads.  If Thomas Jefferson, who helped design the grid, mapped rural regions out of the firm belief that “Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens,” as constituting “the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, . . . tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bands,” the space of citizenship in the dot-based map of buildings removes their residents from any context–or interests–the footprints are removed from and space of civic activity or virtue.

The density of information that derives from a proximity of high-resolution surveillance satellites of heighented black and white resolution is even greater than the satellite views that “map” crop circles in chromatic detail.  Its even greater detail in local coverage, at a scale able to process local buildings as proxies of settlement and habitation and density–rather than crop health and irrigation that served as proxies of agricultural productivity and crop vitality.


NASA, Earth Observatory/Satellite imagery of corn, sorghum, and wheat in Kansas, United States of America in circular fields fed by pivot irrigation (2006)

There is, perhaps, an exultant sense of dislocation and alienation from place in the machine-read panchromatic imagery of building footprints.  With a remove evoking an aeronautic panning over space and place, but with a crispness of detail that the human eye can’t ever hope to gain, the machine-read input captured from the sky offers a disembodied perspective, to be sure, but one with an eery sense of familiarity the is most pleasurable for the recognition.  The map was made by Microsoft engineers who trained computers to read satellite mapping from a huge public database released by Microsoft amplified by the New York Times through local and state maps of buildings’ footprints to create an interactive rendering of the entire continent.  Perhaps in an era when we are almost at home with increased levels of surveillance in all of our daily activities and cell phone use, there’s even an eery warmth in accepting the detail of the zip by zip analysis.

The images suggest not only beautiful patterns that emerge in how land is settled, as the settled areas are stripped out from the surrounding landscape, in an eery reduction of houses to so many dots–which almost seem to be at first a measure of building heights, until one recognizes that they designate the cruder representation of settlement of density alone, but also an imaginary ability to navigate streets of increased population, as if to wander along the coasts of rivers whose level doesn’t flood, and even along intact coastal waters, which seems somehow deeply reassuring at the same time as we read daily of destroyed homes along the Gulf and Florida Coasts–and consider the same regions that are increasingly vulnerable to sea-level rise.  The absence of environmental sensitivity–if not utter alienation–masks environmental risks and invites false security by removing real dangers or risks in its abstraction of highly-detailed record of homes and buildings in regions we’re increasingly aware will soon be unlikely to remain.

Coastal risk of chronic inundation.png

Union of Concerned Scientists, Interactive map of coastal risks from sea-level rise (2018)

Dystopianist William Gibson has recently cautioned the ways “all imagined futures lacking recognition of anthropogenic climate-change will increasingly seem absurdly shortsighted,” and “virtually the entire genre will be seen to have missed the single most important thing we were doing with technology.”  A map that reinstates the current configuration of coasts without a nod to anthropogenic change may seem absurdly shortsighted indeed, as if the entire map may be destined to be consigned to something of melancholy reminder of the past, removed from a present to which it bears decreasing resemblance.  The point of the map is to capture the now.  But where I live, in northern California, faced with increasing vulnerability of drought and fire, as well as flooding, in what seems a case study for climate change, the steep sense of risk and extreme weather stands at odds with the permanence with which houses are mapped.   In the Bay Area, where climate risks have become increasingly clear, there is an eery dissonance in reading maps that suggest the permanence of housing, from the North Bay recently struck by massive fires to the seismic vulnerability of the land, all of which make us appreciate the increasing in the inherent risks of climate change with which increasing parts of the continent seem to live in the Texas coast, Florida coast, and Gulf of Mexico.

7.  There is something disturbing at the reassurance of the tactile heft that the darkening of sites of habitation imparts. Although it’s machine reading of remote observation is a single snapshot of human settlement, the interactive map has almost representational–and definitely recognizable–heft.  The buildings are not records of height–but darker areas mask that they are filled with low houses, and the palpable presence serves as a proxy for mapping habitation in the Bay Area that erases risk, lending a sense of permanence to its shores–as well as to the safety of its houses from earthquakes or fires–and indeed preserves the integrity of the homes, buildings, and skyscrapers, even in the face of the vulnerability of the region to extreme change.   After the proliferation of new forecasts, even if containing considerable uncertainty among them, the persistence of each and every building seems stubbornly to have elided or ignored any sense of vulnerability in disconcerting ways.

Bay Area buidlings.png

New York Times/Mapbox

The absence of the monochrome density of building, in the view of san Francisco alone, presents a view of overbuilding and congestion, to be sure, that omits the image of green spaces,–

Bay Area nature sites of open space

–or the abundant habitat that cultivated green cover within the city contains in its exclusive focus on built space.

nature in city slide

Habitat in the Greener Areas of San Francisco/Nature in the City (2018)

The map of the five boroughs of New York City assumes an iconic form as a record of monumental permanent, punctuated by the white rectangle of Central Park, or whitespace of Flushing Meadows, holes in crowded housing that extends out beyond Newark to the open salt marsh of Oyster Bay or the single-dwellings of Wayne, Yonkers, Mount Vernon, and Freeport or Rockville Center, in a triumphant paean to construction that would have made Robert Moses proud in the density of the housing market throughout Manhattan, but also Queens, Brooklyn, and the New Jersey shore out to Garden City, as if the city has been transformed to an ode and elegy to the power of real estate.

New York Times/Mapbox

8.  Which return me to the oddly melancholic status of this view at a distance from interpretive skills, and from human experience, which the multi-scalar map incommensurately joins to a huge database, allowing viewers to wallow in the attempt to process as much of it as they can take or manage.

Although the database has shed all local detail, and appear removed from any interpretive expertise.  Increasing darkness appears a surrogate for the density of housing, revealing intriguing patterns of houses that seem a tease that almost invite the viewer to fill in more information to read and interpret the massive database on where all houses lie.  The particular delicateness of the scattering of houses into the parks, open space, or what passes for countryside around the Bay Area, where we preserve a sense of the closeness to the country and its ecosystems to the city.  The sense of a tacit proximity to place is partly confirmed by how we see the surrounding regions fade to light grey, as the density of built structures dies down, and congestion recedes.  Many bees are cultivated in the area, and the hive-like nature of settlement across the land of houses nestled together seems oddly comforting, and natural, if misleadingly so, in the density of their clustering, and raises questions of their relations to parks, open space, and habitat that were explored in an earlier post.

But the fading of the region to wilderness is far more upsetting than reassuring or comforting,  as the weighted regions of Richmond, the East Bay, and Marin City fade into the nationally protected lands as if they were pristine–neglecting the considerably complex historical reasons with  which the National Parks System came to administer the Point Reyes National Seashore, quite distinct from the administration of public lands and national parks, in a specific economic climate that led the Mexican-era ranches and farming grounds as a bulwark against the fear of urban sprawl, and prevent it from the process of subdivision and a threatened real-estate frenzy, by grandfathering in farms as a basis for land conservation to treat the  region as “potential wilderness” and indeed for the National Park Service to work to preserve the region as a rural environment, to the extent of eradicating and removing half of the built structures from the Pt Reyes Seashore, and wait for the ruminating farms and dairies to dwindle and diminish, and even enacted policies that might encourage the process based on what they thought the park “ought to be”–and ought to look like–according to Laura Alice Watt.

Fading into Wilderness?.png

Regional zip code maps show the decisive mark of settlement on the landscape, in a refreshing and somehow actually reassuring way, but also oddly affirm the permanence of that settlement, and treat what is in fact an area of congestion, dense traffic, urban pollution, and over paved regions as a lacy area of disperse settlement, extending as a veil over the land.  But if when bees are killed, or their hives disturbed, they give off a recognized scent able to cause or trigger an immediate alarm to the residents of the hive, notifying fellow-residents of an alarm, the dense clustering of houses is the opposite; oddly absent of human scent of dwelling, actually almost antiseptic in its delineation of dwellings, there is no trace to the human or lived save in the scattering of place-names–

Berkeley view.png

–if the larger image of the Bay Area raises pressing questions about housing supplies in the coastal community that seems increasingly crowded by housing and over-paved.

NYT Bay Area.png

And it continues as we zoom in, as all map readers now feel themselves entitled to do, into the neighborhoods we know, we can find the empty spaces amongst houses, and pause over the interruptions among buildings, and the courtyard like clusters of back yards we are privileged to possess in places like Berkeley, balancing a sense of the density of housing by the familiarity of the white spaces where our eyes can still rest.

houses parks berkeely.png

Surely this is far away from the dynamics of space that a “map” seeks to offer as an actual guide to human habitation, or illustration of how man makes space.

9.  At this level of scale, the lacy habitation of the Bay Area acquire both a surprising solidity distance, gaining a greater aura of permanence, as an archeological map, whose distance seems symbolically to capture the distance of time.  As if a set of stones or ancient ruins, the flat footprints of buildings recall, in the questions that they raise for the viewer of their interpretation,  the reconstruction of a classical layout of a ruined ancient city, but suggesting a timelessness of an archeological map, which employed a similar density of the footprints of excavated buildings, as if a recovery of memory, and a lost common memory of a Republican past, treasured by antiquaries and visitors to Rome throughout the nineteenth century as icons of a collective mourning for a removed ancient past which survives in the reconstructions of ruins, and which echoed that lost monument of ancient cartography, the Forma Urbis Romae, which early archeologists saw themselves as reconstructing as a legacy of civilization for a large audience during the late nineteenth century, in efforts that curiously parallel the expansion of urban cities, urban working conditions, and urban class conflict, as if the ancient city could emerge as a new citadel of civility.

Baedecker Roman Forum

Such engraved maps of the orientation of ancient ruins and monuments were produced not only for archeologists, but as legible texts of vanished monuments that were destined for educated audiences to reenact the cultured Grand Tours from their libraries.  The maps were reproduced widely in printed maps of guides that derive from archeological handbooks, and constituted a collective act of veneration for the lost buildings of what was cast as a common cultural forbear, even as Europeans wrestled with new levels of urbanization, and a reminder of the monumental civilization of the ancient world that provided a powerful affirmation of a common humanity, even as it rehabilitated the slave cultures of the past as a paragon of civility and civilization as European cities grew and expanded to accept rural populations.

Forum Romanum Baedecker 1868

Such plans fashioned a false proximity in powerful ways because they became part of the ideal of urban building,included in the libraries of the cultured–including, somewhat famously, Sigmund Freud–who saw their design as a basis for acculturation and reconstruction across time that served to reaffirm, as if in a Proustian reconstruction of the past, the structures of ancient buildings as superimposed atop the actual urban plan of contemporary Rome, and coexisting with it.  The black rectangles, grids, squares or forums, and rectilinear walls of a domus, stadium, temple, arc, or porticos were sites of obligatory reference, as the imagined sites of the collective memory of the past, to which a connective tissue still existed and could be actually preserved.

The rectilinear forms, in comparison, seem unwillingly to convey a false sense of proximity to a temporally removed record, definitively distanced from the present, even as they capture the present.  The footprint silhouettes, removed from signs of habitation, oddly evoke permanence and majesty of a lost past of deep melancholy, approaching the commemorative and valedictory as much as the machine-read.  The imagery seems mournful in suppressing a state of transience and far more than a state of continence, surpasses anything of the extreme impermanence of the contours of global warming, the extreme insecurity of home-ownership in the California fires, and indeed the heightened insecurity about the future, by investing the footprints of buildings and property with a new sense of permanence, and of finality, presenting the physical ground-plan or plant of the of the buildings etched into the landscape, the buildings now permanent blocks of buildings.  The buildings appear as lost sites of habitation, as much as an encomiastic image of settlement.

The maps of course provoke a new, distanced reading of the present, that jars our sense of the constant actuality of most satellite images–of fires, weather, or hurricanes–and suggests the benefits of the distant reading of maps, for all the boasts of immediacy and proximity that we associate with visual media.  The machine-read surface of blocks of polygons and rectilinear structures exist as indelibly drawn into a stone, like the mythic stone map of ancient Rome, as a virtual Tabularium–fesitshized by nineteenth century ancient historians as an architecturally majestic site for record-keeping, whose volcanic rock arches were covere by travertine was an inspirational massive public works project perched atop the Capitoline, over the Forum, or, even more likely, the fragments of the Severan map that traced the  buildings of Rome in a massively expansive view over one hundred and fifty marble slabs, mounted on the side of the Ara Pacis, at 1:260 scale that recalls the resolution of streets and buildings in “Every Building in the United States,” which was a monument of Severan Rome, showing each place, building, temple, bath, stadium, apartment and street int eh Eternal City as if t attest and confirm their own sempiternity.


The melancholy we find in the Mapbox projection based on satellite data is perhaps not only melancholy in our imagination.  We watch a similarly removed view of landscape in “Every Building in the United States,”moving blithely across the screen at multiple scales.  We interpret the expanse of  landscape beside the curving interstates that cut through the nation, in images that may be showing us the lists of he settlement of the United States on the cusp of the drama of climate change, when our current settlement of place may seem far more transient and impermanent than we have considered it for some time.

Oakald North.png

North Oakland, CA

As we move into the more built-up area of downtown Oakland, moving past the open spaces of residential areas, into solid city blocked of skyscrapers and larger footprints, the map is given a sense of material permanence, all too absent from the superabundance of information in most of our hand-helds, the substrate and record of a lived-in set of monuments, removed from a social space or social dynamics, but a human form of a built space that we know all too well.  In the face of changing temperature, global climate disasters, and urban gentrification, the timelessness of the machine-read outlines of buildings carry a comforting sense of lack of change.

moving downtown Oakland.png

Oakland, CA

The expanse of Oakland, Berkeley, San Francisco and Richmond that stretch across the Bay all appear as so many static monuments to settlement, bleached of color, locality, or place, but abstracted in so many machine-read outlines, as if in a literally endless map that we can scroll over without the confines of any individual sheet, an odd mash-up of the material and the virtual, mediated through the tools of aerial photography and a crisp machine-reading of the underlying terrain, in which we only slowly realize that we are reading what the machine is reading, but something far more deeply affirming of property values than images of earthquakes, flooding, hurricanes, and fires; the flat marshes of the South Bay seem removed from actually pressing questions of sea-level rise, and leave us wondering where the “Tattered Ruins of that Map” that was the last “Relic of the Disciplines of Geography” will, in the future, lie, or where the print and interactive formats of the map will lie.


Oakland, CA

These are not only buildings, however, but also, it somehow seems, perhaps sites that are akin to resting places, sites of former habitation, or even, in a dark moment of map reading, graves.  The evocative nature of these black footprints, as if tracing a progress of habitation over time, serves also as a way of memorializing a site, and a trigger to one’s recall of a place.  Panning across the Bay Area suggests a snapshot of a version of lived memory at one moment.  It is, to be sure, technologically mediated in its entirety, and machine read, in ways that make it even more ghost-like as if a record of the former sites of inhabitation, and a memorialization of its previous habitation as they will be seen from an unknown future.

This effect is perhaps accentuated as it is so drained of life, save the toponyms that fade from view at quite different times:  the striking absence in the map of any civic space, any space of living together, mirrors the absence of any sense of the instabilities of climate change, thought from the 1970s to be among the steepest dangers that the world faced, they are absent from the map.

Silicon Sea Level Rise.png

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Graphic: Jan Diehm/The Guardian

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Silicon Vally/FEMA 100-Year Flood Hazard Zone

Carto Sea Projection OSM

Open Street Map contributors/CARTO/created by Amanda Hickman (2015)

Could the future of an underwater buildings of Silicon Valley be the landscape of ruins produced by the results of an increasing absence of contingency plans for earthquake, flooding, or fires?   As an age of climate change brings increased uncertainty in climate projections in a climate world, the familiarity with place seems destined to fade.  Does the focus on built structures turn our attention, ostrich-like, from the impending phenomena of climate change, and make us feel all too reassured in our admiration of the buildings we’ve constructed along the landscape?

9.  One might ask what becomes of place, or indeed constitutes place, as we unpack this massive mapping of a data download.  The abundance of spatial information in the interactive maps gisters no sense of human habitation save by the 2-D outlines of built forms.  Ursula K. Le Guin, longtime resident of Cannon Beach, Oregon, long championed the specificity of how we construct and define places, from the fictional worlds she created–Earthsea among them, or Kirien and Antares–or the community ‘Klatsand,” also on a strip of land on the Oregon coast, in the Pacific Northwest, to her advocacy of how sanctuary cities could resist the continued anti-immigrant policies which she found so shameful.  She saw fiction as a point of resistance by which to define the meaning, value, and nature of the community in an all-important sign of making meaning, creating real commitment, resolve, and determined hope in the face of adversity, as she wrote as recently as 2017, but had also long insisted that the making of worlds and places were themselves critical forms of political action as they articulated and constituted basic forms of hope.  “Klatsand” did not exist on a map, Le Guin writes in Searoad (1986), but was first coined and created, when the site lay in the Washington Territories.  It gains its deepest meanings from the generations live, die, endure loss and recover, in a town that exists almost as a place of retreat and for the formation of new selves.


The distinctive locality of place Le Guin evokes, and what might be called its texture, is what seems oddly absent from the abstract buildings one scans in the interactive map released by the Times.  The characters in L Guin’s novel confront problems of how to recover from loss, and find solutions in the retreat offered by the town–an imaginary place, whose name was made up by one of its first pioneers, but which stands as a rich refuge in her stories.  For its outsider status presents, or preserves,  a possibility for continued  comfort for the pioneers and outcasts who inhabit it–from suffragettes to escaped asylum inmates to poets, where its land seems to offer a sort of resource for imagining other futures.  And the continuity across time of this marginal place became, for its residents, a continued point of resiliency and comfort in apparent adversity.  So much is made clear in her richly diachronic–or polychronic–reading of the lives that were made in the place lying on the open shore, decisively off the beaten path, in ways that a simple rendering of built structures flattens, but which is posed as a fragile place between the elements, and an outpost of human survival, more than one of permanence, in which narrative helps one gain a sense of the fleeting nature of the present, preserved by a sense of the fragile nature of this special place–a place with clear echoes of the Cannon Beach area where Le Guin lived.

The fictional Klatsand placed across generations, rich with memories and resources, impossible to map in Euclidean terms.  The power of place as a unique relation to the world is affirmed in the quickness with which a bereaved woman in Klatsand is overpowered by an image of the ancient, prehistoric settlement of a coast in England whose powerful memory of walls of weathered stone of small stone huts in Cornwall has lodged in her soul:  it suddenly overwhelms to the surviving partner of a couple who lived in the coastal community, in Le Guin’s narration across the generations of women who lived in the northwest coast.    All of a sudden, the movement of wind through the houses, the emptiness of abandoned structures that were moved through by dirt, dust, and wind, seems echoed in the wobbly fencing filled with sandy dirt.  The image of the abandoned granite home, newly present in her soul, and image of the stones in Cornwall, which lodged in Shirley’s soul as she heard Barbara’s final breaths, captured the sense of an empty dwelling place on a cliff, and a sense of the deep temporal passage through place that is something of a topos for generations of characters–many of whom are women–who move through the town across time in Searoad:  Chronicles of Klatsand, and for whom it defines a needed space of self-definition in each of its episodic stories.

The fictional town near Portland, and only somewhat notionally in the United States, seems a site of independent traditions.  And when the recently bereaved partner faces the children of her companion standing in her coastal garden on a cliff,  the memory of entering the quoits of uncut granite returns as she faces her soon bereaved house.  Faced with the crowded flowers of lobelia, roses, tiger lilies, and impatiens that her partner had planted beside the wooden house, she is overwhelmed by the memories of the stone megalithic walls of quoits they once saw.  The stone structures that seem to double as homes and graves, similarly inhabited by ancestral souls, haunted the woman as she watched her partner decline, and arise from her soul as a hidden counterpart to the houses perched over the Pacific on a strip of land between marsh and sea; the stone homes echo the scattered houses along the largely uninhabited northwestern coast near Portland, removed from inland cities and with few year-round inhabitants, and the memories that they carry or retain.

Tillamook to Oceanside and Cape Lookout

The sparse coastal settlement in Searoad: Chronicles of Klatsand describes an in-between place, where lives are mapped with haunting resonance across generations, haunted by the past, punctuated by deaths, across which female independence resonate.  The image of the mysterious prehistoric quoits in Cornwall, slabs of weathered stone leaning inwards and covered by a stone into which the wind enters, resonate as isolated funereal dwellings through which the wind blows, emblems of loss of her partner and the independence of generations of women who return to dwell in the rugged landscape in the houses and homes of Klatsand–a settlement perched above the sea, somewhat eerily echoed in scattered residences found on northwest Oregon’s actual Sandlake Road, stretched thin above the ocean.

Sandlake Road, OR

The houses become the sites of transmission of independence and resilience transmitted in the house, its books, sea spray, open ocean view, site, and even in its furniture, not to mention the tracery of foam that waves leave on the coast, and the images they provoke.  So resonant are the ancient cliff dwellings in the sequence of stories to suggest a palimpsest of its settlement, and its own sense of enduring memory of houses that are also graves.  The granite walls of these mysterious houses, made of slabs of rock with three or two walls, topped by a massive horizontal capstone thousands of years ago seem an emblem of the generations of women who lived in the houses on a strip of land between marsh and sea in Oregon, as akin to the megalithic burial sites, whose houses seem to similarly do double duty as walls of graves–or quoits–in Oregon, as at Cornwall, located “on the worn slopes of hills over the sea,” well-etched and preserved for a heroine by the haunting structures of gaping empty doors mark the spaces by which “the dead had gone in and the living had come out,”–as if such primordial sites were evidence of how “like Romeo and Juliet, and Tybalt lying there keeping them company under his sheets and cerements, and older bones of a older Capulets, companionable,” at man-made openings remaining from a time when “death used to be not a hole but a house.”


A house or a site, or a site of public memory?

The construction of these enigmatic monuments, modes of mapping place as much as residing in it, would hardly register in the machine read maps.  They echo the mythic England, separate from if oddly the same time as Rome, which also delineate something like a sacred space.

The sites of the quoits that haunt Klatsand seem to pose questions of independence but also of deep continuities of dwelling places.  If houses once were graves, the darkened plots of buildings in the machine-sensed maps seem openings in the inhabited world, akin to something than graves, or memories of ancient buildings, whose presence spans the known world, and lies not only at the edge of the built world, and seems something like an invitation to think of new futures by being placed at a remove from the presence of an increasingly overbuilt world, and lying on its margins, rather than at its center, and offers as such a sense an opening to the spaces of the future even in an increasingly hemmed-in world.


Filed under Bay Area, data visualization, interactive maps, satellite surveillance, virtual space

Data Creep

The relative onslaught of poor data visualizations so plaguing much of the news media may derive from a hope to attract new audiences as budgets shrink and bureaus decline:  by boiling down a “story” by dispensing with those bothersome words, they seek to make immediate impact on an audience by a powerful (and eye-catching) graphic.  Based on the self-reported responses to the “Big Five” personality test questionnaire that was developed in the 1970s, but recently used to aggregate responses via Facebook, which posits “five dimensions of personality” to distinguish personality types, based on the odd belief that, rather than reflecting individual character, one could detect “different regions of the U.S. have different personalities.” The self-reported rankings of attitude (curiosity, energy-level, tenseness, quarrelsomeness, forgiveness), efficiency (reliability, laziness, perseverance, efficiency), and character (shyness, moodiness, distractibility, sociability, rudeness) are values with little possible quantifiable relationship among themselves, which translate into a data-distributions of limited legibility or credibility after they’ve crept into a map.  Projected onto a map the colorful choropleth offers a “mood-ring for the nation” whose choice of hues communicates little intuitively:


Unimaginative data overlays like this  lie somewhere between video games, a MacPaint program, and an adult coloring book approached with Prismacolor markers–more a diagram than a map, they serve to carve the nation into clear blocks as if this would clarify anything about national unity or collective networks:  such visualizations take pride in how they disrupt continuity in a search for a narrative about the national divides that are revealed in our political process, and do so with varying degrees of precision.   Their production seems to be driven creep of data into overlays atop base maps, as if to awkwardly digest the familiarity with data–and make all feel like they have access to truly “big data”–by using an image of the nation to bequeath authority even to miniscule data samplings by treating them as images able to visualize datasets:  this is an insidious format makes us thirsty for more of the same, as we seek to grasp divides and parse divisions with the apparent exactitude of a surgical scalpel.

The recently widely retweeted but fairly facetious map of “America’s Moods”, an interactive graphic mapping emotions titled “America’s Mood Map,” has circulated online with considerable popularity but is able to be blamed on Time magazine’s website.  The data visualization has just the right mixture of declarative insouciance and light-heartedness make it a meme and bane of online journalism, and a typical illustration of this dilemma.  The distribution of data that results deflect scrutiny from the very data that they’re employed to embody.  The interactive blocks of color in what seems a choropleth distribution are a bit compelling, until one asks what state-lines have to do with emotions after all, or if this just was a nifty way of converting data to visual form.

What sort of embodiment of data is going on here, one might well wonder, and question what the mosaic of colors communicate or signify.  Not to mention the map’s confusion of a question of individual psychology and gross geographic regions–especially such abstractly construed categories as the legal boundaries of forty-eight individual states’ authority in our nation’s union.

The interactive ‘map’ demonstrates the recent discovery that responses to the great American greeting, “How you doing?,” differ starkly across state lines in the lower forty-eight:  if in benign fashion, the result proclaims divisions and splintering that trump the continuity of territorial maps, and perhaps map an explanation for all the differences we already know.



America's Mood Map



Why “friendliness” is signified by red, “temperamental and uninhibited” by blue is as problematic as the lack of any continuity among these personality types, and the relative subjectivity of judgment:  it turns out that these are self-classifications, anyway, rather than determined by objective criteria–as if values like these could be objectively assessed.

The lack of material references in such ‘maps’ almost winks to viewers not to take them too seriously.  Yet the relative ease of converting statistics into overlays on base-maps in web-based formats, seems the rationale for their popularity as interactive media in on-line news publications.   Forget the actual map that orients its viewer to the lay of the land:  this is immersion in the map as interactive data environment.

The deepest difficulty of this data visualization may lie in how it confounds the empiricism of a map with pretty relative–and pretty vaguely construed–psychological categories. Although Time magazine science editor Jeffrey Kluger seems to have fun downplaying is meaning at the same time as he promotes it, “America’s Mood Map” is the most popular in the section “Science and Space” among readers of Time this past week, and a success by journalistic standards, is the interactive map of emotions across the United States, across which one can glide one’s cursor to reveal a virtual version (and modernization) of the early modern Carte de Tendre over which you can mouse about to find a place that “matches your personality”:  but rather than visualize material renderings of feelings or emotions, as that topography of amorous practices, the imaginary topography over which we mouse to find the ranks of each state’s inhabitants reveals clear divides rather than a detailed qualitative record.  Data has crept into this map’s bright mosaic of colors can’t help but engage other data-vis maps, with which its full-spectrum color schema stands in such stark contrast.


Moood Map of US

Although the color blocks are arranged in something like a spectrum of friendliness to temperamental, the actual values on which they are based provides something of a map of mental constitutions, as much as emotions, and one can range of neurotic to extroverted, with open-ness thrown into the mix.  The explorer of the map can find themselves, for example, in “agreeable, conscientious and open Tennessee;” we all know a few who fit the description:


Conscientious Tenessee


The ranking of each state surely increased its popularity, as the map becomes yet another tabulation of characteristics after one mouses around a bit on its surface.  California, predictably, is both relaxed and open (#2 nation wide!) and low in neurotics (#43; agreeable Utah lies at the bottom of the heap at #49), and New Yorkers are temperamental but ranked as among the most open (#3).  (Such classifications based on a sampling of 30,000 must conceal the detailed nature of the questionnaire.) Who would have thought that largely rural Wisconsin, a state with one large city, possessed the most extroverted population in the country? Or that Maine stood near the nation-wise apex of neuroticism?  New York gets pretty low marks for “agreeableness,” whatever that means (#48 in the nation), if it is also pretty high in “openness.”

There might be some problems with the data pool.  Perhaps the map’s very lack of materiality makes it difficult take seriously, even if the pleasure of using moods to divide the country seems a relief from dividing the nation by ideological divisions.  (The next step that this map seems to invite is no doubt for carto-data-crunchers or map-readers to map the moods of the nation onto those political divisions:  how better to easily explain the ideological divisions that grip our media on the eve of the Affordable Care Act and the morning after the Government Shutdown?)   Indeed, the interest in the “mood map” among Time‘s readers might been generated in part by hits from all those readers, long subjugated to an onslaught of data visualizations, who want to explore their own states in the mirror of their own states of mind or who want to try to map the now-tacit maps of national division onto the far more innocuous (and un-ideological) question of moods.  Indeed, this stepping out of the recently emerged graphic lexicon of ideological division and splintering is somehow reassuring, as, much as the article announced, maybe its mistake  this country “features the word United in its name,” since “we splinter along fault lines of income, education, religion, race, hyphenated origin, age and politics.”

Maybe it does really all boil down to constitution and emotions, all those earlier data distributions be damned.  The end-product is something of a polemic rebuttal to the authority of earlier data visualizations in the news, to be sure, of a very tongue-in-cheek sort of very, very muted irony.  The text’s injunction to find where you belong in the map–by your mood, not by where you actually are–invites you to glide your mouse over a map with the authority of a spatial distribution of the rainbow colors of a mood ring, in a pretty abstracted state of mind, so unlike the ways in which, say, a detailed topographical map registers the measurement of physical elevations by exquisitely exact orographical detail.

The survey employed was based on a sample of under 30,000 respondents, but passes itself off as a pretext for self-examination or -understanding, complete with the assurance that results won’t be reported or stored by Time is respectful of your privacy (perhaps to marketers of antidepressants?).  Whether it is able to map such stark divisions of “mood”-tendency beyond statistical error is unclear, although the almost spectroscopic division of the nation into stereotypes seems somewhat persuasive:  the center of the country, if not so large a swath as the “red-states” of Bush years, is proudly “conventional and friendly,” unlike the creative types on both coasts:  the mapmakers permit little constitutional overlap among these categories, or multiple combinations of them, so much as render one of the three criteria for each state, and allow little overlap among them; the cartographical “paratext” to the map placed above its panels invite its readers to take a short test so that one might place your personal constitution where it really belongs, and suggests that these three metrics are rigidly exclusive from one another.


Moood Map of US

The result is a new portrait of the dis-united states, several of which are already in widely circulation–and some even so widely internalized as ideological divides that one can’t make associations between this “map” of emotions to more familiar political and social divisions.  The data visualization may be taken as a pretty light-hearted response to our dramatically increased geographical mobility, or our obsession with data-visualization maps.  But Kluger and co-author Chris Wilson use the data of fellow-American Jason Rentfrow, obtained at Cambridge by a multinational think-tank created data by a psychological survey of their own device, and the map is presented in the rubric of the “Science” section of the magazine’s website.  The data that was used to inform the visualization, under the name of science, claims to reflect the salient divisions of what “for a country that features the word United so prominently in its name, the U.S. is a pretty fractious place,” as if it might be a more credible set of criteria to ascertain relative depths of fractiousness and their causes–despite its odd metric for measuring “emotional” divisions.

And its interactive features create at least half of the fun for its readers.  The notion of locating diversity in our moods is a lot more appealing than finding it elsewhere; the mirror of the interactive map is no doubt a partial reason for its popularity.  Indeed the invitation to guide oneself to one’s own and one’s nation’s emotions might be hard to pass up, if it suggests quite a lack of complexity in the terrain revealed by introspection, which seems, here, to be equivalent to the completion of a modular form, rather than offering a topography that might be worthy of future qualitative detail.

There is a more authoritative, and perhaps more familiar, map of which the map dissected above might be called the comic repetition.  The study of state-specific variations in happiness (one emotion–that’s a better concept already) was the result of a study based at UVM of geotagged tweets, published in the online journal PLoS ONE, whose tabulators ranked over 10,000 words on a graduated scale to score some millions of tweets across the country, irrespective of their context, to reveal significant differences in sadness and happiness across the nation, perhaps better translating what might be called a set of emotional divides:


Happiness Score in One Map


Indeed, the clear “sadness belt” marked so appropriately in such sombre black hues, and casting a deep shadow over our southern states which curls up to the economically depressed areas of the midwest, suggest something like a meaningful map, with the noting of neat exceptions of particularly happy cities, Asheville and Green Bay.   The weighing of these cities as exceptions lends a credence to the overall distribution of tweets the researchers collated in their data visualization, and the depth of data on which they relied.  The substantive study collated tweets over several years, even tracing computable variations in daily happiness averages that could be mapped to contemporary events, creating a set of stunning data visualizations in this “hedonometric” visualization from 2008 to the present whose units of days are suitably color-coded for weekday, allowing one to register how daily variations are effected by workdays and weekends.  The “hedonometer” seeks to provide the most accurately parsed chart of “happiness” based on daily counts of the tweeted words of happiness–the most common five words of happiness used each day suddenly appear when the day is hovered over.  The  graph is great fun to investigate, and can be tied to news events that impacted the nation’s overall index, from the Newtown shootings to inauguration days or holidays:  note the nation-wide spike on events like Christmas, which, since we still seem to all celebrate or at least note in some fashion, always reliable produces incalculable tweets.

If the first map from Time is a descendant and comedic successor to the UVM map of happiest states, both seem to rehabilitate the paper map in digital form as something like a response to the need for a “GPS for the soul,” an unfortunate mash-up if there ever was one.  Such maps exist in the big data-visualization echo chamber that has dominated our abilities to envision our country.  This echo chamber has existed ever since we came to believe that the country could be meaningfully cut up in meaningful ways for ready consumption.  If it could lie in the easy access to maps and data visualizations, it seems to respond to an unquenchable the thirst for images explaining regional differences that underly such a dichotomously divided status quo, since the division has roots that cannot be purely ideological in nature.

The single spectre that haunts the rise of even the most banal of data visualizations in media news in recent years may be maps of electoral results, especially from the Bush-Kerry 2004 election, in which that large red expanse of the middle of the country created a contrast to a close electoral contest of 296 to 242, which could have been upset by a single state.

Bush 296 - Kerry 242

The map haunted because it was almost repeated in 2008, with a key variation, only to be beaten back in recent years.

Obama:Biden McCain:Palin

These images seem to be seared into viewers’ minds, or at least into the unconscious of data visualizers.  Data of all sorts has since seeped into the map of the contiguous forty-eight.

Of course, the mother of all data-visualization maps is the most spectral, which still resonates with what some still consider the death-toll of democracy that at least one justice has come to regret:




The contrast between that map and the popular vote led to something of a polemic exchange that was based on peering into data visualization maps to parse the vote, we might have forgotten, that familiarized everyone with data distributions:


County by County Bush v. Gore


The mapping of the country’s population has gained increased symbolic currency as a sort of transparent rendering of national opinions, only dreamed of in the early days of NORC’s General Social Survey, and far more easily visualized.  The creeping of data into such visualizations of the nation as “America’s Mood Map” has, after all, lent new authority to a visualization both more colorful and less depressing than the dichotomous division of the nation into “Red” and “Blue” states of almost Manichean terms.

And they are also much, much less depressing than the sort of heavy-handed Google Map divisions of the country into those regions that are ready to relinquish pre-K funding or subsidies, an idea that seems to undermine our national interest, as well as of those states that refuse the expansion of Medicaid, all in the name of undue federal influence.  To start with the first, we can view it two ways in news media, but both ways to illustrate the difficulty of ever arriving at consensus:  the below interactive (and informative) map that explores the educational opportunities in the Southern states of the US illuminates differences in pre-K funding (click on the above to explore funding changes in each state from 2009 to 2011, since the color-scheme is not self-evident).





Below is a far more austere and stark way to visualize the data on how low many states rank kids less than four years of age, in which depression about care for pre-schools increases for the viewer in inverse relation to darkening of states’ hues.

PRE-K US 2005

In the colors of the data visualization blender, where data undermines map, there seems no consensus at all, and a pronounced fraying of the country’s diverse demographic.

One can always cut up the country in different ways, and the preferred way seems less based on splinters than blocks.  But some of the choropleths are striking and scary, as the refusal to expand health subsidies in the American Care Act, to which we’ll return.  The proliferation of these visualizations of difference may arise from the rise of the mythic “sea of red” in the general election of 2000 election through the Obama victory of 2008 may have left us barraged by the cutting up of the nation into camps.  The rise of new data visualizations seek to address these divides, but often seem to lie in the data visualization echo-chamber–as in the case of the “map of emotions”–as much as

But then there are those who reject either the Common Core standards or Affordable Care Act alike as forms of undue federal interference.




Rejection of the ACA reveals a similar fragmentation, despite some serious number-crunching that went on to illustrate the high proportion of poor, uninsured and low wage-earning residents in may those very same blocks of states:


legend- Poor and Uninsured Americans

8% poor and uninsured

This is an odd echo, as I’ve elsewhere noted, between the very regions which outright refuse government expansion of Medicare and those with lack of insurance and large numbers of low-wage earners and some of the same states that refused to accept clearance by the Dept. of Justice before they changed voting procedures as an instance of undue federal interference.


Clearance Required


It’s nicer just to think that it all boils down to individual moods, which the scientific status of ““America’s Mood Map” nicely parse along clearly defined state-lines–even if its end results may have the scientific status of a mood-ring.  The chromatic variations are at least attractive, and able to be read easily, removed from political dissensus.  And it’s certainly more fun to imagine that we might be able to find a sense of constitutional differences inherent in the atmosphere of a region, and mirrored in lines of state sovereignty, that somehow miraculously reflect an almost Hippocratic sensibility of the shifting humoral constitutions of residents of different climates, rather than political or sociocultural (and socio-economic) differences.

But it’s hard to make any sense of the visualization, largely since the very values that it depicts do not lie on a continuum in the manner of most polls or degrees of gradual difference, but seem qualitatively distinct, and even, often, judgment calls.  The state-by-state map of personal constitutions hearkens back to an early modern notion of how place and season inform the humors, or regional climates color the mind.

It is perhaps not a far stretch to include a data visualization of a state-by-state map of obesity trends (and no doubt diet)–


OBESITY 2010–although such a map seems to isolate the deep south and its southern neighbors from Texarkana to New Mexico.

A vague overlap of data seems to exist similarly sized region, sadly, is plagued by lack of completing High School–although this has little relation to body-size, and there is little evidence of a relation between them, even if it does speak to the difficulty of valuing educational reforms like Common Core.

The difficulties created by “inadequate education” does seem to divide the country, however, as this choropleth reveals, and not only among those able to complete High School, but even in those who, having completed High School education, were not allowed to be part of the Army corps–a truly shocking statistic that effectively does divide the nation.




Perhaps the only visualization that communicates unity is one of  cell-phone coverage, which customers, after all, desire–




By way of contrast, and a lightening of humors in how our country sees itself, “America’s Mood Map” shows a diversity around that one red block at its center, oddly located at Iowa–and whose deep red oddly seems to signify conventionality and friendliness–a quality the color does not suggest.

America's Mood Map

Other blocks of states are similarly lumped in oddly generic categories of states of mind–states of mind with limited relation to one another.  Hence, California, following, perhaps, conventional stereotype, is both open (if not that extroverted at all, particularly), and the among the least neurotic of the entire bunch.


Open and Un-neurotic California


In the most charitable reading permitted by the aggregation of data, the map would be an exercise in empathetic understanding of one’s neighbors limitations.   If one can permits an excursus, contrast it to the varied topography in the historic early modern “Carte de Tendre,” whose richly varied landscape suggests dangerous sites of delay or lack of clarity that the unaware and unsuspecting traveler may chance across by means of its locally detailed variations.


Carte de Tendre


These elegant enterprising travelers with cockades are gallant explorers of the outdoors, of course, rather than perched behind their screens.  Both the material and metaphorical nature of the data-visualization map are absent:  for in these cartographical transpositions, the data poses irreconcilable and absolute divides, and blocks any consensus from emerging.

“America’s Mood Map” is an artifact that serves as something of a mirror to make sense of our divided polity.  If one can given it a generous reading as an amusement, however, it may merit being taken seriously.  The eerily radical conceit of the data-visualization is not only that we are not “United” at all, but that one can naturalize states’ rights arguments in the radically different constitutions of their inhabitants, as if separate nations:  hence, conscientious Tennessee lies beside irascible Kentucky; open New York nearby to closed New Hampshire, and far from neurotic Maine; agreeable and conscientious North Carolina beside a Virginia that lags behind in both categories.  The authority that data is conceded in this visualization in fact erases mappable divides between rural and urban differences, socioeconomic distinctions, and patterns of wealth or any qualitative detail, taking the blocks of the electoral college as something like a national phrenological map.  The notion of an absolute difference in constitution as lying in direct relation to those state boundaries creates a particularly insidious illusion of differences that essentializes state lines–rather than following the idea of national character–that echoes one of the deepest presuppositions of what might be called Tea Party doctrine.  For the diversity depicted in data visualizations is always one engraved in hues of essentialization, rooting regions dispositions as fixed in a spectrum as different wavelengths, and empties the map of any continuity or local detail with those flat color blocks of distinctly defined individual “moods.”

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Filed under America, America's Mood Map, Care de tendre, choropleth maps, data visualizations, Google Maps, Hippocrates, Hippocratic humors, Jeffrey Kluger, MacPaint, mapping national divides, pre-K funding, Red states v. Blue States, Tea Party, Twitter map

Geo-Visualizing an Over-Inhabited World

Terrestrial mapping has long represented the inhabited world and its limits.  The rich tradition of medieval map making testifies to the variety of place and distribution of human populations over climates and outside torrid or uninhabited zones; the post-Renaissance or post-Ortelian tradition invited their readers to explore and trace limits of the inhabited world for educated audiences, as well as providing tools to move within it.  In ways that reflect the problem of mapping the over-inhabitation of a globalized world, the variety of recent cartograms of Benamin D. Hennig–digitized cartograms that pose the problem of mapping over-inhabitation–suggest the problems of mapping human inhabitation in a globalized world.  While these images are not actual projections of space, they stage “para”-cartographical arguments by searching for new solutions to visualize the inhabited world.

The models of “geo-visualization” that Hennig created over the past decade seem to take the notion of the mapping of an ecumene or inhabited world seriously, by organizing visual argument about the shifting settlement of a global space that challenge familiar models for mapping space or the primacy of orienting viewers to accurately demarcating a record of inhabited expanse.

globe map

Of course, the familiar spherical projection offers viewers an easy way to internalize their understanding both of the globe, and the place of the US in it–and an icon of geography, as much as a map per se.

But is it accurate?  What does it really tell us that we don’t know?  The popularity and currency of Hennig’s cartograms suggest different models of geovisualizing that reflect the contraction of space and terrestrial distance in understanding human relations.  If these maps are less concerned with economic inequalities, or capital relations, they suggest how population trumps space as a useful way of ordering global relationships, and raise questions of the relation between legibility and maps in provocative ways.

Much as the projection popularized by the journalist Arno Peters of Bremen boasted an equal-area distribution on the surface of a global projection, by adopting the mathematical projection much earlier devised by the complex Scottish clergyman who was himself a popularizer of astronomy, James Gall, to stage a popular polemic about cartographical bias.  Gall’s interest in the stars led him to note the alternative of an equal-area projection as an alternative tool to order the curved surface of the world, but UNESCO adopted Peters’ projection in 1968 out of the conviction that it provided a more equitable–and less occidentally biased–record of relationships, and a corrective to an implicit bias that Peters argued permeated the cartographical record.

The global projection bearing Peters’ name is unlike projections named after the men who devised mathematical solutions to visualize expanse, since it was not devised by him:  it rather aimed to query the faithfulness of the coverage of other world maps; rather than present himself as a cartographer, Peters acted more as a cultural critic of maps whose work heralded the expanding field of cartographical ethics.  Peters invested Gall’s map with a new argument by re-presenting it as a polemic response to an ideology of mapping that privileged Europe and the United States by pointing to how Mercator’s model of global projection was often favored because it had so strongly privileged the size of specific regions of the world where it had been devised, expanding their presence as it dramatically reduced the expanse of Africa and creating a massive Greenland that concealed its relatively few square acreage.

The resulting image was so popular as a corrective revisionist map to sold and hung aa a hipster shower curtain by the 1970s and 1980s–similar to the one currently available from Urban Outfitters has abandoned Peters’ form:



While a novelty, the image is suggestive because Peters would argue for the pernicious nature by which the above map proposed a transparent record of global expanse by perpetuating a litany of geographic falsehoods in the actual distribution of terrestrial expanse.  He advanced the equal-area projection as a more legibility record, faithful to actualities, not because of its precision but because of his deep concerns for the persuasive effects of maps’ arguments.  Peters worked as a journalist, but received his doctorate as a historian concerned with political propaganda, and the persuasive uses of images led him to champion its faithfulness to area as a corrective to the historic distortion of relative land sizes, adjusting meridians to show the actual relative sizes of countries in an equal-area projection that inaugurated a broad interest in cartographical ethics that was refined by Brian Harley’s later work.  The result was  a compelling counter-icon to Mercator’s model:

Peters BW
Hennig’s cartograms are in many ways the heir to the Peters projection.  In contrast to addressing the discrepancies of land-mass size, Hennig’s Worldmapper offers a variety of models for ordering space to reflect its actual inhabitation–or density of dwellers–rather than their bounds–by the permutation of the globe to a cartogram whose distribution provides nothing like a model to travel through space, but a model for mapping the distribution of human occupation of space on a grid or graticule that denoted  a measured expanse; Henning explains its construction in a useful slide show on his methods of data visualization.  Although each of the cartograms he devised are not visualizations of expanse, they explore the flexibility of maps as arguments in similarly dynamic ways.

The below cartogram visualizes the human occupation of space, revealing a record of the occupation of expanse not yet available in shower-curtain form, to reflect the surpassing of 7 billion in 2013:

Wrold Mapper Gridded Pop Cartogram

The wispy lines at the extremities of landmasses in the above image is less striking than the bloating of India and China, or ballooning of Japan, or the butterfly formation of South America–all of which remove the subject of space from the map.  Does space even matter on the human planet, where spaces are often less relevant than how people have filled space, Hennig asked, and might it not make sense to describe “the living space of humankind” as an ocean-free “population planet” in a modern mappamondo for the globalized age that registers space only by regions’ relative habitation, but represents our own post-Ortelian perception of the contraction of the interconnected nature of how we now inhabit an inhabited expanse:

%22Human Planet%22 by Hennig

If the mappaemondi of the middle ages were compelling representations of terrestrial expanse before nautical charts gained wide currency, and when tools of surveying were not linked to the preparation of a uniform visualization of expanse, Hennig has specialized in fabricating new tools and formats of gridded cartograms by which to visualize the inhabitation of terrestrial expanse.  “Nature” is not the subject of the Hennig population-based projections, so much as something like cultural distortions of space, and the mediation of space in his rendering of his digitized map of the “population planet” provide as exact a mode of dividing the inhabited world as we might have, despite its distortion of terrestrial relations and land-size.

The deeper question Hennig’s map poses is the primacy of space as a dominant analytic category for drafting maps.  A self-styled expert in the formats of “geovisualizing in the age of globalization,” Hennig provides formats for visualizing inhabitation more radical than Peters by adopting the techniques of digitization to rethink the prioritization of “space” in how we discuss or conceive of the inhabited world or ecumene, and indeed expanding the possible formats for digitizing global projections in an era when space might no longer be a determining factor to measure or even primarily understand its inhabitation.   If the ecumene has been the project of world cartography from the ancient western world, Hennig expands the visual argument of the map dramatically in response to the shifting experience of space in the Worldmapper project as a whole.

Hennig’s geovisualization provides a clearly radical mode of re-figuring  expanse when focussed only on the United States’ expanse:  if not suggesting the inadequacy of an electoral college to represent the nation, given the bloating of urban areas’ density in relation to the entire country, the cartogram suggests how the nation’s population occupies its frontiers:
Cartogram of US popation on grid

We might see this cartogram as a record of the relative inefficiency with which we occupy national space, without attending in concerted ways to local resources or density of settlement.  Even without including questions of economic activity or of the revenues generated by local businesses, a similar geovisualization of Canada raises similar questions of how the inhabitation of a region distorts our experience of expanse and provides keys by which that expanse might more accurately be represented to complement traditional images of terrestrial geography:
Worldmapper, Canada

The explosion of urban populations raises numerous questions about the effectiveness of land-use, also raised in this earlier post.


Hennig also offers the chance to visualize hot-spots by shifting the norms of the five-color map:

Untitled 9

Hennig has in one case expanded the notion of the cartogram that extends the ability to map inhabitation, and present a mapped region as a record of how space is actually occupied.  The cartogram began from a new set of techniques to achieve an alternate visualization of population in real-time, recording the areas lit during night-time in a composite photo from a NASA satellite, using techniques based on recording permanent light sources, to map the illumination of night-time areas, and foregrounds urban areas in new ways by their constant illumination:  New York’s metropolitan areas is something of a blinding flash in this image created from data derived from the United States’ Defense Meteorological Satellite Program.  The composite effectively maps the location of the distribution of illuminated areas, sketching blotches of urban areas and skeins of the lattice of highways, and locating regions permanently illuminated by electric lights, providing something of a reverse-record of the starry sky in the new artificially illuminated world we have made:

US Illuminated from Space
The map is a record of the expenditure of man-made energy, and of illuminated settlements, rather than habitability.  The digitization creates the illusion of a geosynchronous illumination of regions at night that effectively synthesize, a map of urbanization and that maps the global surface by one alternative index of settlement:  nocturnal illumination.  The result view suggests huge stretches of illumination that contrast to how many areas it reveals as dark, but suggests just how much of our world is permanently lit:


The same projection of illumination was recently placed in global context by Hennig.  His inventive combination of the distribution of night-time illumination against the distribution of population as an alternate index of global inhabitation, and of the remaking of inhabited environments.  The lopsided  nature of much of the inhabited world’s nocturnal light is striking for how it reveals how accustomed we are to live with permanent streetlights:  although Hennig is write to note that it is only from a Western perspective that we might confuse permanent illumination with inhabitation, the map that results does suggest the density of centers of illuminated inhabitation at only select regions of the map, and the concentration of areas of illumination to one another in the equal area projection Hennig created in 2010, the “Real World at Night” in 2010.

Earth at Night--NASA photo and equal-pop projection

But one senses Hennig’s  “Real World at Night” presents illumination of nocturnal expanse is a record of a different sort of inhabitation.

The cartogrametric revisualization of the globe’s inhabitation creates questions of whether other forms of world-mapping are sufficient tools to understand expanse.  They raise questions of the validity of tools of projection as records of inhabited space.  Hennig has used similar tools of digitized global visualization to make points about visits to his own website, in the manner of Google charts, to reveals the limitations of access to the internet, but also familiarity with mapping tools–which it makes sense to include as a screen–and suggests a demand for re-envisioning the ecumene:

Hennig's Visitors

Or, in a more legible image that tracks the breakdown of visitors to the site in order to remap the proportional size of regions across the globe:

Hennig's Maps' Online Visitors 2012 Hennig went on to map nations’ proportional expenditure on military needs, independent of their population, in a stunning image of global priorities, or of the distorting nature of expenditures on military engagement in the West:

Mapping Military Expenditures

Given concerns of the Western cartographical traditions with “inhabitation”  and its limits, perhaps Hennig’s most adventurous statistical cartogram traces the remoteness of places from a city or urban area, using distance from cities or urban areas as a way to magnify those places that are less accessible by car or road along a similar grid, allowing us to read inhabitation distinct from population density:


Scrutiny of a segment of the gridded map of relative isolation reveals discrepancies even more pronounced in specific locations, as the expansion of the cartographical grid denotes and signifies the relative isolation of mapped spaces in relation to nearby inhabited cities or towns:

A Lonely Map detail

The result is a quasi-map of how we occupy space that extends some of the themes of Hennig’s cartograms, but provides an even more challenging way to revisit the mapped surface of the inhabited world in ways that reveal patterns within its inhabitation, or the way that the map is, in fact, less a true or accurate marker by which to measure the territory’s inhabitants.  The odd shrinking of distance in our inhabited world by the expansion of areas of greater remove is not definitive, but suggests both by the huge shrinkage of Europe and the United States something of a new Peters Projection:  by recording the shrinkage of terrestrial distances automobile traffic, as much as air-traffic, has allowed, the map of the remove of places from easy access is a record of over-inhabitation, and of an inhabitation that insists on the ready transversal of distance upon demand, and discrepancies of the perception of space within an allegedly uniform expanse.
To be sure, Hennig’s maps are anthropocentric, as much as the medieval mappaemondi of climactic zones.  But what maps are not?  Analogous cartograms suggest eloquent counter-arguments of how space is inhabited, and how populations are distributed unevenly across an inhabited expanse.

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Filed under Ecumene, equal area projection, geovisualizing, James Gall, over-inhabitation, Peters Projection, Real World at Night, United States Defence Meteorological Satellite Program, Worldmapper