In recent days visiting Hanoi in Vietnam, what’s been popping up in my mind is the role of mapping in creating and furthering meaningful engagement in urban planning and the material contexts that planning problems are often relating to. As such, I haven’t directly discussed the role of mapping in my PhD thesis, which was more on the practices of organising engagement campaigns and how the success of such practices is mediated by the institutional context in which campaigns and the tools used for facilitating engagement are embedded in. Reason enough to write a brief post.
Mapping as collaborative problem solving
There are many different forms and interpretations of mapping.
As mapping, I understand activities related to exploration of a problem space, and in this case, one that is most commonly relating also to a geographical space. This is the interpretation suggested by Latour, who discussed the idea of drawing things together in which he mentions the cartographic practices of the sailors of the colonial period which navigated according to maps that, at that time, were living documents far from accurate and regularly revised. Here, maps were immutable mobiles: Their composition was fixed so that they may be shipped or sent to another place and, in doing so, delivered insight and knowledge of a story that played out far afield intact. These sort of maps mediated space and time, giving their users a very rough schematic impression of an unfamiliar space.
Increasingly, maps are less about an authoritative representation of the world, although having such a trusted, assessed, and ascertained version will certainly remain important in the many future digital innovations, such as self-driving cars and other products depending on the ability to knowing where they are with quite a high certainty. In terms of the everyday practice of mapping, a sort of falsification of maps, to borrow a term from the sociologist Fritsche, who discussed the democratisation of debate through the early cheap print lithography, has been growing in prominence.
The geographer Goodchild defined the concept of neo-geographies, where the old day “distinctions between producer, communicator and consumer of geographic information” is removed. Thus, in the future, the ability to falsify, edit, improve, change information of what is where in space is providing opportunities for a faster way of representing the world in maps. At the same time, it is also the opportunity to appreciate alternative views of the reality on our doorstep, both in terms of different thematic categories (topics) but also the opinions in relation to these different themes.
There are various forms of mapping practices that all share the propensity of putting things in certain order and relation with each other. To do so, especially if done as part of a shared or collaborative practice, mapping requires the agreement and negotiation of a scheme with which objects, things, people, concepts (whatever is mapped) are placed into a conceptual space. In geographic information science, were maps commonly relate to physical or in other words geographic space, this is done by geospatial referencing systems. Such schemas are about a defined agreement on a scheme by which mappable objects, things, people are placed onto and in relation to each other.
Since the emergence of various new media platforms, the coupling between geographic space, the social practices we all perform on a daily basis (like meeting friends, shopping, going to work), and the virtual spaces on the Internet are growing ever closer together. Goodchild’s concepts of neo-geographies depends on the practices of naming places that we value, associating emotions, expressing expectations, indicating our presence. If shared and voiced digitally, such articulations add to the digital representation of the said geographic space online. Occasionally this has been referred to as ‘tagging’ information to an object, such as a place, and it is now done on a daily basis million-times over on social networks, like Twitter and Facebook.
In terms of a collaborative endeavour, it took colonial age sailors many decades if not centuries to accumulate robust knowledge. With todays‘ technology that time is now much shortened as interactions via online media, such as Google Maps, accumulate many terabytes of user-driven data every day. I am wondering what if. What if we went on an exploration today, into unchartered lands, how would our exploration look like, what immutable mobiles would we produce to capture our insights, and how excited must we feel to undergo such discovery? Could we feel such enthusiasm in our daily lives to improve our environment, the lives of each other around us, for a better future?