Exploiting Digital Mapping without creating maps of exploitation

Screenshots of University of Texas (Dallas) video project on charting Western culture

Interactive visual mapping is a powerful medium for historians. Where people, places, and things exist only as verbal description scattered across various time periods and in disparate geographical regions, mapping projects compile interactions into a comprehensive visual canvas, allowing the viewer to ‘see the forest from the trees’. If maps allow us to represent connections across space, animated mapping means we can also display geographic connections across time in one frame. Exploiting visual media means that we can bring to life all kinds of interactions that otherwise might languish in separate corners of the mind’s eye.

Two recent projects demonstrate how historians can apply digital mapping tools in order to understand how ideas and social products have moved through human and material networks. A team at the University of Texas (Dallas) has produced an animated map that tracks the movement of Western cultural hubs across Europe and outward, to Asia and North America specifically. The project begins from the hypothesis that one way of charting cultural flows is to plot the births and deaths of leading cultural producers on a world map. Migration patterns pop off the page in stunning graphic form, as names flash across the screen with increasing speed and in ever-greater numbers. Individuals thus become groups and then sequences of movement, revealing not random plot points but systems of social and cultural development. The effect is compelling. It presses the viewer into an interpretation of cultural development as more systematic and structured than might be assumed without these visual cues.

Stanford’s ‘Mapping the Republic of Letters’ also uses key luminaries in order to analyse the movement of ideas. The project examines correspondence and publication networks to question how far Enlightenment ideas actually extended, both geographically and socially. For example, by mapping Voltaire’s and Locke’s correspondence, their preliminary findings already demonstrate a few things: Enlightenment networks relied on imperial structures that meant ideas moved most frequently along national and regional (rather than global) lines, and they were much more tied to state power and officials than the ‘culture’ of salons and intellectuals would imply. Importantly then, this project is not only aiming to bring forward new sets of information, they are attentive to asking questions about how networks functioned in the first place — who and what are contained within them, and why. They also admit that representing information in these ways presents unique problems of data handling that are specific to the particularities of each subject.

The first premise of both projects — that ‘culture’ and networks of ideas are best represented by key individuals — has obvious drawbacks. It keeps human productivity and creativity within the purview of elites and does not recognise the range of ways that all people express themselves and their conditions of life. That said, I do not want to deny that ideas and information often do rely on key individuals and the written sources they produce to serve as transporters. The reality is that big ideas can move via small networks.

The other main observation about these projects is that so far they have tended to focus on the Euro-American world. In other words, one of the first problems is not necessarily what is there, but what is missing. We might assume that part of the reason for this is that in the initial endeavour to try new tools, these projects rely on easily accessible data sources (e.g. the Western cultural migration project relies on Google’s Freebase data bank). Some work has already begun to expand the information base, filling in gaps on the map with other sets of data. Building upon the Republic of Letters project, this visualisation of print and manuscript texts that circulated between and within key Europe-India nodal points shows a much greater circulation of Enlightenment sources outside the Euro-American nexus than the Republic of Letters project has so far been able to achieve.

But I want to add another dimension to this problem of representation, one that is more endemic of the tools themselves. Because while these visual queues give us an overarching picture, this same fact means that it is all to easy to forget that what we are looking at is actually, always, pieces of information. In other words, embedded within the usefulness of the tool is also its own pitfall: through the power of the visual image, these maps transcend the material (selective units of data) used to create them. There are at least two reasons for this. First, we are limited by the data we have access to and, second, we are limited by the tools themselves, which are often only able to handle single or two-way processes rather than the layers of networks often at work in the flow of information. But what this means is that these maps can obscure the variety of dynamics actually at work in the movement of people, places, and things. They override the non-linear ways that some networks develop, and most importantly, they hide the crucial power dynamics that are always at work in deciding what things move and how they move.

The results could prove more harm than use — especially when these maps begin from false premises. For example, in the Texas team’s animated map we watch (Western) ‘culture’ move across an empty space. The intention, I can only trust, was to simplify the visuals so that nodes of movement could stand out. But the result echoes the devastating consequences of the conquest of America’s terra nullius policy. Western culture moves across the globe sans the existence of other expressive and creative traditions. The map of American settler migration in particular serves to reinforce our continued contemporary blind spot to American indigenous life.

In other words, our efforts to use mapping technologies must be attentive to the contemporary knowledge-culture within which we present our information. The visual impact of mapping is undoubtedly one tool in our repertoire that can facilitate meaningful new kinds of analysis and interpretation. But we have to find ways of balancing visual impact alongside the multi-layered spheres of human life that can never, faithfully, be erased.