Saturday, November 24, 2012

Mapping and Feedback

Reading this week's texts, I kept thinking of Buckminster Fuller and one of his utopic proposals. I think it was in _Critical Path_ (1981), that Bucky dreams of a huge model of the globe suspended above the East River in view of the United Nations. The globe would be a dynamic data display showing the flow of populations and resources, with the goal of demonstrating "Spaceship Earth", ie, that entire world participates in a single system. Google Earth is a manifestation of that idea, but it falls short of Bucky's goals as demonstrated in Parks' withering critique.

Among the issues is that "high visual capital alone cannot resolve global conflicts". This echoes Fung and Shkabatur's analysis of viral media as a useful means of addressing inattention, but which is substantive only as a gateway to deeper involvement. Fung and Shkabatur offer a rebuttal to Gladwell's insistence that strong ties are necessary for real activism by pointing out there's no reason weak networks can't serve to inspire direct engagement. This is encouraging -- it allows us to celebrate viral media without necessitating that it bring about social transformation on its own. However, my reading of Gladwell's article is that he thinks social media does in fact diffuse the affect of resistance, if we can call it that, and we never get over the tipping point (ahem) to action. Why? Parks says it, and it's in the Fassin -- the narrative is one of regret and lament, not accountability and intention. I feel some degree of empathy (and maybe even a high one), for an unfortunate thing that has happened, but I'm not invested in the outcomes. All of this applies as the Crisis in Darfur project is a conscious play for viral media within the Earth platform.

Further, I think Parks is right to point to the non-temporal representation that is Google Earth as the critical issue, precisely because it reifies a condition that has already occurred, and which, ironically, is precisely located. To use the Fassin, it is both constative and performative of a suspended suffering specific to a distant community.

In contrast, what Bucky was going for was feedback. As a foundational systems thinker, he was looking at large scale dynamics and recognized the advantages of thinking holistically in terms of unfolding processes and the exchange of resources (quite the cognitive mapper). Violence in Darfur would be recognized as a condition with causes, and, critically, consequences. Mapping those dynamics on a globe enables an understanding of both how to stabilize the system, and why -- in a way that is a reflexive and practical compassion, not one reflective of a moral power differential.

Google should be given a bit more credit for the incredible difficulty and achievement of building Earth. But I would propose that a future version, hopefully palatable to Parks, would not only jettison the uninterpreted photography, but also go beyond just satellite imagery. It would maintain the real-world perspective of the viewer, discouraging the voyeurism of spinning the globe while illustrating the implications of global conditions, whatever they might be, for the viewer's own local wellbeing.

Of course, then we get into the biases of predictive modeling, which is another thing. Incidentally, I think the temporal estrangement of Google products is fascinating, more so with Street View than Google Earth, and the whole discussion of the New Aesthetic ( is interesting in that regard. What do we see through ?

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