Saturday, March 9, 2013

Critical GIS and the Geoweb 4: Writing Worlds

This fourth installment of Critical GIS and the Geoweb (a supplement to GG3090 at Royal Holloway) is an attempt to let my readers know where I'm coming from (as much as that is possible).  As described in the introduction to my book, Maps and Memes (under review with McGill-Queen's University Press) and in my PhD dissertation, I came to the "Ground Truth" unexpectedly, feeling alone as a GIS technician in a world of academics and so-called "high-flying" thinkers.

Around the same time as I'd discovered John Pickles' edited volume Ground Truth, I discovered Writing Worlds, another edited volume that had appeared much earlier than Ground Truth, with essays by Harley, Pickles, Olsson, Curry and others.  The table of contents reads like a who's who in the world of critical cartography and GIS, although there have since been many additions to this world, most notably Jeremy Crampton and Nadine Schuurman.  I referred to Writing Worlds in my master's proposal, and I think that is partly what drew Simon Dalby (soon to become my master's supervisor) in.

When I talk about concepts like geographic information narratives and texts for telling stories about landscape, I am at some level talking about landscape as text.  This deconstructive approach to mapping and landscape has been in vogue for at least two decades in cartography, with mainstream cartographers regularly referring to Pickles and Harley as essential starting points for considering social implications of geographic information technologies (see Longley and Goodchild's text Geographic Information Systems and Science).  

So when I invoke the Ground Truth, or telling stories about geography through text, I am not simply talking about writing as sitting at a desk with a pen or keyboard.  I am talking about embodying mapping by being-in-the-world.  Maps as performances are phenomenological with no clear boundary between the inscription (the paper map) and the process by which that inscription comes to be.  Denis Wood and John Fels book The Natures of Maps is the best place to start to separate epimap from peri- and para-maps.  It is worth looking back some time to Pickles' first book (Phenomenology, Science and Geography), published in 1985, to see where he was coming from when he started to criticise GIS. 

It is a challenge for some to write about geospatial technologies because those technologies themselves are often quite new, and because it is tempting, if one is actively using them, to talk about the mechanics of what they do.  Remaining at that academic "high flying" level, one that is both critical and analytical while maintaining a logical and coherent narrative flow, is a definite balancing (or even juggling) act.  It is the challenge faced by students of GIS at Royal Holloway in all years, whether it is listening to my lectures in first year or writing about geospatial technologies for the first time in second year.  

It is clear however, that engagement with key texts by deep thinkers in critical cartography, GIS and the geoweb, those mentioned above in this blog post (and in course outlines and reading lists I've been circulating), is the best way to get to the place we need to be to begin to perform the high wire act of elucidating original thoughts about geospatially enabled technologies, discourses and worlds.

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