Digital mapping as double-tap: cartographic modes, calculations and failures

Somerset SPOT 5 EA Jan 11 2014

I have a new co-authored, open access article (with Sybille Lammes) recently out in Global Discourse. Entitled ‘Digital mapping as double-tap: cartographic modes, calculations and failures’, the paper is a constructive reading of Bruno Latour’s latest project: An Inquiry into Modes of Existence (AIME) from a critical cartographic perspective. It should be part of a special forthcoming issue on AIME, although at the moment it sits orphaned under ‘latest articles’.

It aims to do a few things. In the first instance it’s a reading of AIME in relation to Latour’s previous cartographic work. That is, his Visualization and Cognition chapter (1986), the Paris: Invisible online project (2006), the co-authored article with Valerie November and Eduardo Camacho-Hubner (2010) and various other texts in which he’s employed some kind of cartographic metaphor or narrative in order to construct, elucidate or strengthen a conceptual argument. We think it’s worth re-visiting and re-analyzing them in light of the mapping stories that litter AIME.

Secondly it’s a constructive critique of AIME. In particular, it aims to strengthen Latour’s account of the moderns, by re-framing the double-click mode (introduced in previous articles, but foregrounded in AIME) as double-tap. Although this may seem like an inconsequential revision, the tweak in terminology allows Latour (and others) to actually further strengthen a conceptual argument concerning access and knowledge to the world. With the rise of ‘double-tap’ devices – touchscreen phones, tablets and other such technologies – talk of ‘double-clicking’ sounds oddly outdated.

Then we look to how thinking in different modal registers – ontological, cartographic and methodological – can help us to identify the ‘operative elements’ in different mapping enterprises. As critical cartographers have also talked of ‘modes’, we’ve drawn connections between Latour’s ontologically-pluralist variant, Matthew Edney’s cartographic version and Chris Perkins’ methodological one. Whilst there are huge differences between the three, we think this can serve as a kind of matrix for thinking about mapping endeavours – whatever they may be.

In the final section of the article we work with the above to expand on Latour’s conceptual legacy within critical cartography (the use and re-use of various terms including: immutable mobility, inscription, calculation etc.), to suggest another productive path: through cartographic failures rather than successes. Two cases – a flood event (image above) and a protest demo – are introduced to provide evidence for this methodological re-emphasis. Whilst Latour is keen to stress the contingency of socio-technical systems, we argue that there is still comparatively little space given in his many texts for failed projects (Aramis notwithstanding). In short, we think failure – and specifically failure in cartographic systems – needs to be attended to more thoroughly. This is a modest attempt to do just that.

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What are the differences between the savage geography and the civilized one?

La Pérouse travels through the Pacific for Louis XVI with the explicit mission of bringing back a better map. One day, landing on what he calls Sakhalin he meets with [the] Chinese and tries to learn from them whether Sakhalin is an island or a peninsula. To his great surprise the Chinese understand geography quite well. An older man stands up and draws a map of his island on the sand with the scale and the details needed by La Pérouse. Another, who is younger, sees that the rising tide will soon erase the map and picks up one of La Pérouse’s notebooks to draw the map again with a pencil . . .Latour (1986: 5)

From ‘Visualization and Cognition: Drawing Things Together’. Available here.

Door-hinges and obligatory passage points

‘I constantly talk with my computer, who answers back; I am sure you swear at your old car; we are constantly granting mysterious faculties to gremlins inside every conceivable home appliance, not to mention cracks in the concrete belt of our nuclear plants. Yet, this behaviour is considered by moralists, I mean sociologists, as a scandalous breach of natural barriers…They call such a projection anthropomorphism, which for them is a sin akin to zoophily but much worse.’

Latour (1988: 303)

Another fantastic quote from Latour, this time on the ‘scandalous’ anthropomorphic tendencies of, well, all of us. It’s from his 1988 article in Social Problems‘Mixing Humans and Nonhumans Together: The Sociology of a Door-Closer’, which is probably the most entertaining reading of how a door-hinge works in perhaps all of time. It’s available here to download, and was part of a special issue of that journal on the sociology of science and technology.