Critical Cartography

Affective and More-than-Representational Mappings

4111.2 - Anxious Geographies: Map, Algorithm and Data

Tuesday, July 4
8:50 AM - 9:10 AM
Location: Hoover

In this presentation I identify the ambivalences and anxieties around algorithmic governance today. These anxieties are neither irrational but neither are they susceptible to rational counter-argument, but must be understood and engaged with as an "affective politics of Big Data." I trace these developments in three distinct registers, the map, algorithms and data.
"Cartographic anxieties" have been a recurring if under examined theme in cartography and stem from an even more fundamental representational, or Cartesian, anxiety (Bernstein, 1983). As Gregory (1994) noted, representation puts into play the worry that a whole series of exclusions are occurring—that is, the “thought of the outside” (Foucault discussing Blanchot) that always escapes the map’s ability to capture it. Thus even as the map attempts to capture, it is confronted by all that escapes it. At the same time, Gregory notes, there is a “profound uncertainty” that “the strange, the alien, the other…are already…constitutively inside” the gates (Gregory, 1994, p. 72). The response to this, as Harley ably demonstrated (eg., Harley 1989) was to “build a wall around the ‘true’ map” using the procedures of science, standardization and measurement. While the problem (and the anxiety) have been glimpsed, cartographic responses have only succeeded in continuing the build this wall. For Denis Wood, the solution lies in highlighting the narrative of the map. This narrative asserts that “this is there” a naming-and-placing function that yields the power of maps. For those in the semiotic tradition (eg., Bertin, MacEachren and Roth) the answer has been to build complicated structures of representation that seek to dissipate anxiety through endless series of symbols. Harley too gives some credence to this wall by wishing to unmask cartographic ideologies, as if, once unreason has been stripped away, reason may shine forth unhindered.
Similarly, with the algorithm and Big Data, we seek to alleviate anxiety by amassing ever-more data; the so-called “collect it all” mentality. Yet again we confront the same problem, that for data what counts is what can be counted, and what gets to be measured. By claiming to collect it all we seek to postpone anxiety about collecting the correct information. This is incredibly powerful. As the sociologist Daniel Bell argued, industrialization was able to launch as it did only after ways of counting “output” were developed. Big Data offers the promise of being able to govern each individually and all. Yet this seems to produce even more anxieties around the surrender of decision-making from human hands to algorithmic ones.
In partial response, some cartographic scholars have started studying performative mapping to look at what is produced by mapping and data, rather than what is represented. In that light I wish to trace what work these anxieties are doing in the world. Anxiety after all is an affect, and here I am interested in the affective politics of Big Data and algorithmic governance. Anxiety here then is not just a negative, a worry, but is productive of behaviors and policies, even if those anxieties are dismissible (eg., over Brexit, or white working class voters of central Appalachia voting for Trump). Anxiety is not a question of ideology, the unconscious, or of acting against your own interests. Rather, it is very much linked to desire and the desire to be an object of desire. How Big Data, mapping and algorithms construct subjectivities is still little understood. This would trace the social history of affect, specifically anxieties, around these three themes. Empirically, I am interested in political/social behavior in post-carbon economies in transition (Appalachia, former coalfields in the UK), and what causes these behaviors.

Jeremy Crampton

Professor
University of Kentucky

Professor of Geography, Department of Geography, University of Kentucky. My interests are in critical cartography and GIS, geosurveillance and geoprivacy, spatial Big Data, and the thought of Michel Foucault.

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