8A. GIS Analysis and Critical Issues

(JDrucker 9/2013)

Many activities and visual formats that are integral to digital humanities have been imported without question or reflection. This is true of timelines, diagrams, tables and charts, and not least of all, maps. Maps are highly conventionalized representations, distortions, but they do not come with instruction books or warnings about how to read their encoding. In learning how to use GIS (Geo-Spatial Information Systems) built in digital environments, we can also learn to expose the assumptions encoded in maps of all kinds, and to ask how the digitization process reinforces certain kinds of attitudes towards knowledge in its own formats.

From the earliest times, human beings have looked outward to the heavens, mapping the motion of planets and stars, trying to figure out the shape of the universe and our place in it. Observations of the sky, originally conceived as a great dome or set of spheres inside of sphere, all moving and turning, provide a view of a complex whole. But trying to get a sense of the earth, of the shape of masses of land, edges of continents, bodies of water, and some idea of the entire globe presents other challenges than that of reconciling observed motion with mathematical models, as is the case for astronomy. Geography was experienced from within observation, by walking, riding, or moving across and through the landscape. Marking pathways and recording landmarks for navigation is one matter, but figuring out the shape of physical features from even the highest points of observation on the surface of the earth is still barely adequate as a way to map it. Nonetheless, the geographers of antiquity, in particular the Greek mathematician Ptolemy (building on observations of others) created a map of the world that remained a standard reference for more than a millennium. See history of cartography, on wikipedia as a starting point.

See also this excellent scholarly reference: http://www.press.uchicago.edu/books/HOC/index.html (The early volumes of this standard reference are available in PDF on this site.)

All flat maps of the earth are projections, attempts to represent a globe on a single surface. Every projection is a distortion, but the nature of the distortions varies depending on the ways the images are constructed and the purpose they are meant to serve. Maps for navigation are very different than those used to show geologic features, for instance. In our current digital environment, the ubiquitous Google maps, including Google Earth with its views from satellite photographs, offers a view of the world that appears to be undistorted. The photographic realism of its technique, combined with the ability to zoom in and out of the images it presents, convinces us we are looking at “the world” rather than a representation of it. But is this true? What are the ways in which digital presentations, Google Earth in particular, are distortions? Why are such issues important to the work of humanists?

Exercise: The history of mapping and cartography is a history of distortions, and this includes Google earth. What does it mean for a platform to be photographic and also be a misrepresentation? Explore this apparent paradox from the point of view of these features:

  • spatial viewpoint (above)
  • temporal (out of date)
  • conceptual (experiential vs. literal)

To a great extent, mapping is a record of experience, not of things. Maps record modes of encounter and the making of space rather than its simple observation. Like all human artifacts, maps contain assumptions that embody cultural values at particular historical moments. When we take a map of 17th century London or 5th century Rome or an aboriginal map drawing and try to reconcile it to a digital map using standards that are part of our contemporary geographical coordinate system we are making a profound, even violent, intervention in the worldview of the original. So whether we are working with materials in the present, and forcing them into a single geographical representation system, or using materials from the inventory of past presentations in map formats, we are always in the situation of taking one already interpreted version of the world and pushing it into yet another interpretative framework. We do this every day. As scholars, researchers, and students of human culture, we also have the opportunity to reflect critically on these processes and ask how we might expand the conventions of map-making to include the kinds of experiential aspects of human culture that are absent from many conventions.

In environmental studies, a distinction between is made between concepts of “space” as a physical environment and “place” as an experiential one. In addition, in the work of Edward Soja and others, the concept of space as an “artefact” or construction has arisen out of what is called “non-representational” geography. In this approach, space is a construct, not a given, and comes into being through the activities of experience. These are not concepts that have found their way into digital projects to any large degree, and they pose challenges for the visual tools of mapping that we have at our disposal at present. However, the notion of space as an artefact versus that of space as a “given” that can be represented is profoundly important for humanistic work, even if the mapping platforms that come from more empirical sciences do not accommodate its principles.

Exercises: Here is a series of exercises linked to the readings for these lessons that pose particular questions in relation to issues presented by the authors.

Goodchild: Google maps (omniscient, high view, out of date, literal)

Exercise: Google map of LA, different views, as you change scale, what distortions are introduced? What point of view do you have?

Stuart Dunn & Mark Hedges, Motion in Place Platform (MiPP): Geospatial semantics, re-humanization, representation, resource discovery (http://www.kcl.ac.uk/innovation/groups/cerch/research/projects/completed/mipp.aspx)

Exercise: Discuss the approach to understanding the interior space of the huts.

Ian Gregory, Travel Time Tube Map: Absolute space vs. lived experience

Exercise: How does this map support Gregory’s argument?

Sara McLafferty, situatedness, the detached observer vs. the lived experience http://www.stanford.edu/group/spatialhistory/cgi-bin/site/viz.php?id=397

Exercise: Look at Animal City. What would “re-humanize” this site and its maps?

KML, or cartographic mark-up language, is based on Cartesian coordinates; it is highly rational and makes it possible to locate points consistently on map projects. The idea that space is inflected by use, mood, or atmosphere becomes clear when we examine the minimal physical distinctions that can make an area sacred rather than secular. The use of enclosures, boundaries, structures, the setting aside of space to serve and also symbolize a particular purpose or activity can be dramatic. The connections between official history and personal memory can change a site in many ways, not all of them visual. But communicating these significances is not easy. The use of a legend and symbols helps, but cartographers, artists, and designers have also introduced spatial distortions and warps that are unusual and imaginative.

Strange maps (http://bigthink.com/blogs/strange-maps) and Weird Maps (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/interactive/2012/sep/07/weird-maps-to-rival-apple-in-pictures)

Exercises: What are the different ways in which spatial data and displays are linked in the following projects:

Pleiades : http://pleiades.stoa.org/home

  • Examine this as the creation of a model of a resource with respect to use. How is it organized? How does it work?

Texas Slavery Project, by Andrew Torget:

  • Another approach. What are the limitations of this project with respect to its use of maps and spatial information?

Mapping the Republic of Letters: (http://republicofletters.stanford.edu/case-study/)

  • How is space conceived, represented, shown? Compare Franklin with one other figure and/or subset of the project.

Minoan Peak Sanctuaries

  • How were sites constructed and what technology was used?

Stuart Dunn’s mapping project uses experiential data in a radically innovative way (MiPP):

  • How is space understood in this project with respect to experience?

Medieval Warfare on the Grid. Watch demo: (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xnZK1qlX6UI)

  • Look at methods used and figure out if there are any you don’t understand. How are historical conditions remodeled?

Orbis (http://arstechnica.com/business/2012/05/how-across-the-roman-empire-in-real-time-with-orbis/)

  • Exercise: set journey parameters, watch results, ask questions about what the platform does and does not do. The “cool” factor here is engaging, but what does it conceal?

Lookback Maps: (http://www.lookbackmaps.net/)

  • What does this project add to the ways we can think about space and history?


Geospatial information can be readily codified and displayed in a variety of geographical platforms. All mapping systems are representations and contain distortions. Google earth is not a picture of the world “as it is” but an image of the world-according-to-Google’s technical capacities in the early 21st century. Modelling the experience of space, rather than its physical dimensions and features, is the task of non-representational geography, a useful tool for the humanist. All projects are representations and therefore distortions. While that is inevitable, it is not necessarily a problem as long as the assumptions built into the representations can be made evident within the arguments for which they are used. But not only are maps not self-evident representations of space, space itself is not a given, but a construct.

Readings for 8B:

Study Questions for 8B:

  1. What are the basic metaphors encoded in interface design?
  2. How do these organize your project and/or work?
  3. How are software platforms designed for domain specific tasks different or distinct in their interface design from the basic desktop and/or browser?

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