Thursday, November 19, 2009

Source and Access

This post is a response to Chris Csikszentmihályi's lecture on Tuesday.

Firstly, I applaud Csikszentmihályi's efforts to combine art, technology and social justice. The power of art should never be underestimated and I think the MIT lab / research group is asking and answering important, difficult questions in innovative ways.

There are two things I'd like to discuss in my post today, the first being sources of information and the second being access (couldn't tell from the title eh?). I refer specifically to the mapping projects discussed by Csikszentmihályi: VirtualGaza and the Landman Report Card / ExtrAct. The first is a project tracking the incidents of damage in Gaza, and the second is a project mapping the natural gas wells in the US. What separates these two projects from regular maps is their interactivity; VirtualGaza allows users to post their own experiences regarding incidents, providing a very human perspective on the occurring violence, while the aim of the LRC/ExtrAct is to link those affected by natural gas drilling, allowing them to share stories and possibly, take action. Going back to Michel de Certeau's work on urban spaces, user stories provide a method of "walking" (navigating) through the city, taking it down to the "street level".

Monday evening I decided out of curiosity to attend the CIA information session at Brown. During the promotional section on the Directorate of Intelligence, the presenter emphasized the fact that Google Earth is based on US Defense Intelligence information (a point Lisa Taraki also makes). Thus, the basis for Google Earth still stems from a US national security interest. As it is, regions of Nevada remain unmapped in order to protect US military activities.Furthermore, while US interests are protected, that same does not hold true for other countries. The Moroccan government has blocked Google Earth since 2006, while the Indian government has complained that Google Earth threatens the national security of India. What does that mean for the host of applications such as VirtualGaza and ExtrAct that are based on Google maps? Do they thus reflect a certain US bias? Are projects like these thus reproducing a certain US hegemony, no matter how subtly?

Secondly, I bring up a very simple problem: access to sites such as VirtualGaza and ExtrAct are predicated upon access to the internet in the first place, which remains but a pipe dream for many in rural and/or impoverished areas. While it is true that technologies such as cellphones and the internet hold a greater potential for penetration into these areas - and indeed, cellphones have been remarkably successful - the internet, and furthermore, the access to and knowledge of ExtrAct and VirtualGaza remains limited. Who, then, is the main audience of these sites? Do they remain limited to the tech elite? Perhaps my limited knowledge of these sites reveal an ignorance, and its users are also largely the residents of Gaza / those affected by natural gas drilling, but it would seem to me that the average Gaza citizen has limited access to the internet. Are the goals of these projects to raise awareness or to initiate action? Is the goal to rehearse the problem, or something more? And if it is to rehearse, is rehearsing the problem enough?


No comments: