Traditional maps as they were invented in the 1900s were regarded as descriptors of the earth’s surface as they contain graphical visualisations that rely on a type of imaging hermeneutic.
Simply put, the traditional state map is a sign in the Saussurian sense, the border lines act as signifiers of the territory that is signified.
More than this, the way that a traditional geographical map is drawn and its interpretation is a function of power as it accounts for the territory of the state. Its value as a representation creates a kind of regulative fiction where the becoming of state territory is sustained socially through national narratives. In other words, the national discourse constructs and maintains the identity of the state as that which is acted out by the performative utterance of the map.
Digital maps, however, are a little different. Although they have simulations, executions of models, that resemble geographical maps or take the form of representations and visualisations, they are primarily mathematical entities. As digital theorists such as Alexander Galloway or Antoinette Ruvroy would consider them, digital maps as mathematical entities are quantifiable and statistical. They divide their subject into manageable units that are not primarily representational. In what Galloway calls the “Allegories of Control” trilogy, which includes the books Protocol and The Interface Effect , he makes clear that although digital aesthetics seems to open up various domains of possibility through its recourse to standards the reality is different. Data visualisations, for instance, allege to the beauty of connections, synergies and relations between components of a system. According to Galloway, however, all data visualisations no matter how elaborate and pretty are the same because they represent the same thing, database standards.
What is at stake in the difference between the two maps, digital and traditional geographical, is the status of narrative possibility more generally. Digital maps are simply incapable of producing and maintaining meaningful discourse. Power is no longer operative through such discourse but is rather maintained in meaningless standards, database structure and “protocol”. In the remainder of this blog I’d like to entertain another position. The collapse of grand narrative, such as the state’s narrative with respect to the map, is a symptom of postmodernism, a topic that Galloway’s teacher Fredrich Jameson discusses at great length in his book on postmodernism . However, according to Argentinian philosopher Enrique Dussel , postmodernism and its symptoms are simply a continuation of the Eurocentric modernist project.
Modernism, as a project, is mainly concerned with constructing grand narratives and histories about itself. It is largely committed to enlargement of the Eurocentric myth that enabled colonisation and coercion. As a myth it excludes the stories of the colonised, the marginalised etc.., stories that embolden and give confidence to such traditions. Now although the 1960s and 1970s saw European, mostly French, scholars dismantling and deconstructing the tenets of modernism by announcing the postmodern era, their theories closed the door on a history that needs an update. By linking narrative, history and tradition to power, control, authority and totalitarianism, postmodernism put an end to all possibilities of updating the history and myths that are there buried in its ashes.
In place of postmodern critique Dussel calls for a transmodern paradigm the task of which is to decentre the Eurocentric project by building a marginalised meta-narrative, to open the doors on the modern project and rectify its ills. Questions of narrative formation become key. The narratives must not continue in the vein of modernism or post-modernism but rather say what both those doctrines have not and will not say by and about the oppressed, the condemned and the marginalised. Therefore, the view is not that there is no narrative operative at the heart of digital standards because there is – the remnants of modernism lie at the heart of their existence and dismantling them requires the act of writing. Only that writing today is no longer done in books or in print alone. The act of writing has to engage these standards. So, the question becomes, how do we rewrite history digitally.
Studies by computational media pioneer Fox D. Harrell show that there are alternative ways to engage standards. With the help of computational and algebraic linguistics, Harrell aims to derive meaning from what is otherwise viewed as structural and numerical datasets, datasets that drive many computational models.
Harrell’s ideas go against those of Galloway and Ruvroy which might be regarded as post-modernist, that digital media is not structural but is based in practice, or is ethic as Galloway puts it .
For example, with the Advanced Identity Representation (hereafter AIR) vatar Platform Harrell constructs a system that reveals patterns in various modelled virtual identities. AIRvatar helps reveal the meanings behind a system, and consequently its biases, of which model and dataset creators may or may not have been aware. As a platform it has been instrumental in the discovery of statistical patterns of race and gender discrimination in video games.
Harrell has also been looking into alternatives to economic modelling in social media, models that do not assume all actors to be motivated by economic decisions. In the online interactive game, Chimera: Gatekeeper, Harrell constructs a dataset that attempts and maintains the fluidity of the user’s identity in relation to the changing context of the interactive narrative.
What Harrell’s experiments show is that algebraic linguistics could be used to read meaning into the so-called dividual elements of data that models produce and manipulate. Doing so would enable a type of critique or resistance to the territorialisation by various model structures. A map describes only what is seen on the surface of the body of sovereign territory. Digital maps, on the other hand extend their performativity deep into the crust, tracing ecologies and patterns wherever they may be found. However, by reading meaning into these patterns and datasets there is no reason why critical GIS practitioners could not continue to construct an extensive critical discourse and practice.