(Im)precise illusions: past place and the understanding of digital place

I have just submitted the final proofs of a book chapter on the topic of “Spatializing the Humanities” to the forthcoming Bloomsbury Handbook to the Digital Humanities, edited by James O’Sullivan. This is an attempt to link the interpretive challenges of digitizing historical (or rather historically expressed) geodata such as maps or gazetteers, the kind of work which gazetteer initiatives such as the Pelagios Network has excelled, with contemporary theory on the interpretation of “born digital” geodata on, for example, Google Maps or OpenStreetMap. The submission of this chapter coincided with a keynote talk I gave recently (and virtually) at the Meaning in Translation: Illusion of Precision conference at Riga Technical University in Latvia. “Illusion of precision” captures perfectly the challenges of “translating” historical place to the digital world, so I thought it was worth capturing some of the links between the chapter and the keynote.

There are some common threads that run between  “heritage geotada” and “contemporary geodata” that are (or will be) worth exploring in the methodological frameworks of both history and archaeology (with which we explore place in the past); and science, technology and innovation studies, which has done so much to define place in the present. There are a number of links lurking between the surface between these areas as disciplines: they have more in common than one might think (this, by the way, gives me some hope in my oft-stated desire to integrate the Old and New schools of Digital Humanities in my home Department at King’s College London).

A great deal of archaeology, after all, is the story of technology in the longue durée: the supra-frameworks of Palaeolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Ages is defined by the technological competences of fashioning lithic artefacts, and then of smelting naturally occurring ores into bronze and then iron. Whilst, for convenience, we often follow our nineteenth century forbears in conceptualising these as massive, monolithic (no pun intended) blocks of time extending neatly back into the human past, the discovery of the processes of making bronze and iron must have led to enormous social, cultural and economic upheaval, the creating and cementing of elites, the generation of wealth for some and poverty for others, the refashioning of whole societies – and as these societies were preliterate, we simply lack the documentary sources with which to see these events. However technology continues to have much the same sort of impact today, in the so-called Information Age. As my DDH colleague Jonathan Gray has written of “data work”: “[s]imilar moves will be familiar from approaches inspired by Science and Technology Studies which view data infrastructures as relations of people, machines, software, standards, processes, practices, and cultures of knowledge production” [1].

The idea of place represented in the digital world is a theme I hope to return to next year when, fingers crossed, I will have more time for research than I do now; but as noted my aim here is to capture some of the links between the Bloomsbury chapter and the keynote: what we can learn about (digital) place in the present from (digitized) place from the past. One topic which comes up repeatedly is the role of authoritative institutions and corporations in the generation of contemporary geodata. The visibility of features, businesses, on major mapping platforms has much more to do with that platform’s algorithms (and the commercial interests they represent) than any other category. Something to bear in mind, perhaps, as yet more of the world’s social communication infrastructure, and thus contemporary geodata, passes into the hands of white American billionaires (or maybe not).

Keeping with the riff of archaeology and STS however: the contemporary GeoWeb is the result – not the end product, because it continues to evolve – of a sequence of technological innovations, some rapid, some enacted over decades. Historians might argue as to how long this process goes back: some might say to the Victorian trans-Atlantic telegraph networks of the nineteenth century, some to the successful piloting of the four-node ARPAnet Network in 1969, others to the establishment of the TCP/IP protocol which enabled “internetworking” between networks in 1978, others still to the invention of the World Wide Web 1989. And so on. Collectively this process is a disorganised, yet fundamentally sequential and interdependent mishmash of ideas and innovations, not steered by any one individual, despite the disruption fantasies of Silicon Valley’s tech bro culture. The process certainly includes extraneous events such as the successful piloting and bedding in of ARPAnet into the US Department of Defense‘s Cold War information management and protocol programmes, which unlocked virtually unlimited access to government resources, and the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957, a shock which sparked a state of near panic in the US military and government, leading to that investment. There are developments where are more specific to geodata, such as the de-militarisation of the GPS system in 1983 as a result of a civilian airliner, Korean Airlines Flight 007 from NYC to Anchorage via Seoul, being shot down by the Soviet air force for “violating Russian airspace”. And there was the unscrambling of the GPS signal by the Clinton administration in 2000, which opened the way for its use in mainstream commercial applications.

Like any good archaeologist, the Science and Technology theorist or historian looking at these events must consider their context as well as their happening. As early as the mid twentieth century, visionary intellectuals such as Vannevar Bush and Paul Baran were thinking through the implications of dealing with unprecedented volumes of information. The body of military and related research produced during World War II alone transcended anything that the paper world of library, archive and information systems had been built to cope with. There was also the need to get information – such as commands in the event of a nuclear attack – from A to B securely and instantaneously. Bush’s hypothetical “Memex Machine”, described in his iconic 1945 article As We May Think, was a solution with which a researcher could retain all of his books, papers and resources in one place, and construct information and new insights from the unordered mass of knowledge therein:

[H]e names it, inserts the name in his code book, and taps it out on his keyboard. Before him are the two items to be joined, projected onto adjacent viewing positions. At the bottom of each there are a number of blank code spaces, and a pointer is set to indicate one of these on each item. The user taps a single key, and the items are permanently joined. [2]

It takes no great leap of the imagination to connect this vision of nuggets of information defined by the user and “permanently joined” to the development of the World Wide Web by Sir Time Berners Lee some forty years later, to the concepts of the unique resource identifier and hypertext transfer protocols. This is indeed a link which Berners Lee and his colleagues made in 1992:

Since Vannevar Bush’s article (1945), men have dreamed of extending their intellect by making their collective knowledge available to each individual by using machines. Computers give us two practical techniques for human-knowledge interface. One is hypertext, in which links between pieces of text (or other media) mimic human association of ideas. The other is text retrieval, which allows associations to be deduced from the content of text. [3]

Where there is context, there is concatenation. The inexorable sequence of incidental innovation which connects Bush with Berners Lee and the other twentieth century Web visionaries can be seen as a process of capitalistic evolution or social movement – and it is here where, as always, history becomes political. It is probably both, but I find myself being more heavily influenced by authors who propound the latter.  The feminist geographer Doreen Massey, writing in 1991 against the backdrop of the Web’s emergence and the IT revolution which at the time was seen as ushering in the “Global Village” (Wikipedia link – students, don’t do as I do, do as I say), where she states:

Imagine for a moment that you are on a satellite, further out and beyond all actual satellites; you can see ‘planet earth’ from a distance and, rarely for someone with only peaceful intentions, you are equipped with the kind of technology which allows you to see the colours of people’s eyes and the numbers on their number plates.  … There are faxes, e-mail, film-distribution networks, financial flows and transactions. Look in closer and there are ships and trains, steam trains slogging laboriously up hills somewhere in Asia. Look in closer still and there are lorries and cars and buses, and on down further, somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, there’s a woman on foot who still spends hours a day collecting water. [4]

Leaving aside the fact that further steps in the chain of incidental innovation now mean that the technology to see the colour of people’s eyes and number plates– dystopian to Massey in 1991 – are now in widespread use by governments and corporations, this theorisation points to a constant series of makings and remakings, of conflict between standards and authorities, and the processes those standards regulate.

My point here is that we can only understand the “illusion of precision” in contemporary digital place in the context of the chain of innovation that created the environment in which digital place exists. This also means understanding the materiality of the media in which place is represented. In the chapter, I develop the idea that Abraham Ortelius was an innovator of publication method as much as cartography, a savvy media professional who understood the importance of bringing different innovations together and making them work in concert. A kind of seventeenth century Steve Jobs. Hopefully there will more to come on this subject in the near-ish future.

[1] Gray, J., 2018. Three aspects of data worlds. Krisis: Journal for Contemporary Philosophy, (1), pp.5-17.

[2] Bush, V., 1945. As we may think. The Atlantic Monthly176(1), pp.101-108.

[3] Berners‐Lee, T., Cailliau, R., Groff, J.F. and Pollermann, B., 1992. World‐Wide Web: the information universe. Internet Research. 2(1), pp. 52-58.

[4] Massey, D., 2008. A global sense of place. In The cultural geography reader (pp. 269-275). Routledge.

Author: Stuart Dunn

I do various things, but mainly I am Professor of Spatial Humanities at King's College London's . My interests include things computational, cartographic and archaeological.

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