miércoles, 31 de julio de 2013

Digital location technology and the politics behind it: Close up at a distance

All my latest readings and concerns seem to lead to politics and the risk to forget about it in the era of ubiquity and data. It is always there, but the fascination with maps, visualizations and big data may be shaping a superficial understanding of what is going on and how it deals with a critical exploration of the role of digital technologies in our lives. This is why I started reading Close up at a distance. Mapping, technology and politics, a compilation of some projects carried out by Laura Kurgan in the last years.

In fact, the first time I heard about her works regarding data, mapping and the possibility to build a social critique with them was Million-Dollar Blocks, an amazing project that uses the power of data and the power of mapping representation to address the consequences of a criminal justice system based on imprisonment instead of dedicating the same public budgets to education and other public services in the neighbourhoods where the people in jail come from. From my perspective, is an illustrative way to show clear evidence in a few images about the profound implications of political decisions about how to allocate public budgets to deal with crime and justice and use it as a counter fact of the most widespread hotspot crime maps that are so popular (and superficial). Developed from the Spatial Information Design Lab (Columbia University), this project explores block by block how different public policy infrastructures collide and create an image of preferences and their implications in terms of expenditure, inequality, migration and security.

Mapping, as a representation, is basically about politics. Historic maps defined even today how we see the world. The first iconic photos of the Earth defined our conception of the universe. Maps are constantly present in our pockets with our smartphones. Maps area representation before interpretation of them. Now that we have all those satellites providing us with a powerful infrastructure to spread the culture of maps into every aspect of our lives, are we able to understand what they can tell us?

This is the common link of the projects depicted in the book. Ranging from the role of maps in the first Gulf War in Kuwait to the spatial consequences of apartheid in Cape Town, from using satellite images to contrast the official statements during the war in Kosovo to translating the sophisticated technologies involved in satellite imagery into meaningful images for the people in New York after September 11, the book explores how we can use the potential of maps to build alternative narratives, a context for political conflicts and defy the concepts of security, secrecy, monitoring or surveillance.

It is not only about mapping, but the more sophisticated our technologies become, there is more need to go beyond the first impression. We now have technologies (from Global Positioning System to Geographic Information System software) capable of offering us perfect and high-resolution images, but there is no more clarity and, as the author claims:

“Identify an area, zoom in and examine the specific conditions. Zoom out and then consider both scales at the same time. The resulting image is no longer hard data. It is a soft map that is infinitely scalable, absolutely contingent, open to vision and hence revision.”

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