Friday, March 14, 2008


That's Dewey Decimal for Cartography.

To the extent that the graticule (latitude/longitude, UTM, or whatever system you're using to grid out the earth and map it) is a "neutral" framework designed to hold whatever information you want to hang on it, it's a lot like other knowledge frameworks.

I immediately think of library shelving systems. You have books on any conceivable subject (and you need to leave space in the system for books based on subjects you haven't thought of yet). Dewey Decimal System, Library of Congress, or simple alphabetization... all these are meant to present a "neutral" framework.

Well, of course they are not neutral. Melvil Dewey had Big Ideas, and, well, he was a 19th-century American. A quick glance at the basic classifications of the system show all of the non-Christians shoved into 1/10 of the religion section, the non-European languages shoved into 1/10 of the language and literature sections, and so forth. Interestingly, the geographically-organized sections are the most democratic: a full section for every continent.

My qustion is: Does this structure cause users of the systems to become biased? If your library has as many books about Islam (297) as about Christianity (210-289 inclusive), will the reader be affected by the Islam's classifications having longer numbers than the Christianity's? I think the reader would look more at the numbers of books than the numbers on the books.

What bias does a rectangular grid provide? Well, it certainly has affected how the middle of the United States (and Western Canada) were developed, a vast sheet of graph paper laid out on the landscape. But this is a case of the graticule being applied to the land, like a library giving the exact number of shelf inches to each Dewey classification.

Jefferson's gridding of western territories is part of a longer tradition of rational development. Penn's Philadelphia, the nine squares of New Haven, the Mason-Dixon line, the Treaty of Tordesillas line: from the beginning of the European colonial era, people tried to impose their will (or God's will) on the landscape using lines and grids.

The problem any rational book-filing system runs into is the multiple-entry problem. If you have two authors, which do file it under? More importantly, if you have a book about religion and science, does it get filed in the science or religion section? Not just libraries have this problem. Why do some books get filed into genre fiction shelves in bookstores while others get filed under literature?

In geographic terms, a place can have multiple identites, which a map may not communicate. I've worked this over in the Neigborhoods of Minneapolis article on Wikipedia: Some major neighborhoods like Uptown are not officially defined by anyone, while others have primarily political significance, and still others (like Linden Hills) have both informal and formal recognition. On a more politically dangerous note, two warring nations may claim the same land as "homeland." Of course Kosovo and Israel/Palestine have more issue than "the map," but the absoluteness of boundaries on modern maps surely isn't helping.

But this is different than the underlying grid: territories are accurately mapped using the grid, but the two territories above are not defined by the grid. What would the same sort of problem cross-discipline books face loo like in geographic terms? I'm imagining a surveyor for some large construction project being told it has to follow a township line, come hell or high water. And there's this canyon in the way. It would be much simpler, cheaper, easier and less destructive to shift the project a mile west for a little while. And this is usually what happens in the real world, where dollars are more important than grid lines.

Even this doesn't work as an exact parallel. The classification of ideas and fields (like the my old favorite, the ontology of maps) occurs on a surface that is non-continous. Any given spot on a latitude-longitude grid is unique, just as a call number in a library is unique. But while a subject classification reflects a position on a conceptual framework which is non-absolute, the latitude and longitude are based on specific measurable attributes. Abstract attributes, but similar to (for example) title and date of purchase of a book.

But all this kind of puts what Steven and other cartographic critics have said into the realm of the ridiculous, which was not my initial intent. Clearly the grid represents a way of looking at the world that disturbs some folk. Heck, it disturbs me sometimes. What is it then that is disturbing us? I would argue it is not the grid itself, but its inappropriate intrusion into the physical world.

More next time.


joe said...

Oh boy. No, no, no.

The grid is an outgrowth of making a 90 degree angle with two lines, then extending them in equal distances ad infinitum. The initial crossroads (where one always meets the Devil, incidently) is necessariy a privileged location, the Origin. Oh, and it's arbitrary.

The fact that we create these distances from measurements doesn't imply any objectivity -- measurement itself is a political act, perhaps the most poitical act there is.

Every measurement is taken in relation to a specific standard, and collected by people who stand to gain something from that measurement. The US Soil Survey is a perfect example -- the soil under most of Philadelphia is labeled "urban soil," in spite of what must be a rich geological strata. Why? The US Soil Survey was created to help farmers and foresters manage their crops better. Why measure stuff about soil that no one was likely to grow anything in?

The cartesian grid distorts things, as any other system of projecting from N dimensions into N-1 dimension must. The range/township system itself fudges things, shaves some land off the edges so that the "grids" will line up with magnetic north at important points.

Systems of projections are also political in their nature -- the projection can alter the apparent size and relationship of land masses and territories to one another. If, as I understand it, projection necessarily involves some degree of distortion, the act of projection is a choice of what to distort, what to present accurately. That's politics for you!

But even bracketing that disturbing thought for a moment, consider the act of marking something. Cain's forehead, a line in the sand on a playground, a jagged line on a Palestinian map. What does that act do? Marking creates division, creates territory. Again, inescapably political, and, I would argue, inescapably violent.

(As a side, i should say that i don't think violence is necessarily wrong, or separable from being human, however difficult acts of violence may be for me personally and collectively. I know that Nat and I differ significantly on that.)

The division of knowledge implied systems like the dewey decimal system is fundamentally the same as lines on maps. It is the demarcation of bodies of knowledge made in the interest of those using the system, namely, librarians. Now i love librarians (my departed mom was one), but both the dewey decimal and the Library of Congress system is oriented towards being able to direct someone to a specific resource, and to be able to reshelve that resource. It's basically a warehousing algorithm for a system limited to a subject/author/title system of index cards. Some resources don't fit well into that system -- ask any cataloger who had to enter something into the sytsem for the Artist formerly known as Prince. But more importantly, the code acts as a way to control access to knowledge. You used to have to learn the system in order to find what you wanted.

So yes, I'd have to answer that these markings (grids on projections of the physical landscape, a decimal number assigned to a specialized body of knowledge) can't possibly avoid being palpable expressions of power, and that they form _what is thinkable_ in a very powerful way. The fact that they were created out of their utility to acomplish something (for somebody with certain goals and prejudices), or their ability to be used transgressively by different groups of people doesn't dim their existence as acts of power.

natcase said...

Right back atcha, Joe :-)

The Equator is arbitrary? since when? Yes the Greenwich Meridian is arbitrary, but in the same sense that word "arbitrary" is arbitrary. Why do we not say "snqubizzle" (besides its being hard to pronounce? Because the word "arbitrary" was adapted over time from a latinate root having to do with judgment or choice.

And at some point the word "neutral" essentially becomes meaningless. Switzerland, 50% gray, a facial expression halfway between a smile and a frown... all are choices, all are made in context, and all are dependent on that context for their meaning.

Same with the grid. The grid is neutral in the sense that within a context (that of geography) it allows us to talk about points not as "my point and I do have one" but as 45.003101°N, 93.249362°W (more or less my desk at work). I don't have to mark that point, I have an indexing reference.

So who is left out of this "neutrality?" Clearly those who are illiterate in the language of the grid, and for a long time the realm of surveyors and cartographers was deemed esoteric. This thankfully is changing. And would you say that musical notation is political (it leaves out those who do not read it)?

And I just don't buy the origin point thing. I work a block from 45° N, which ought to somehow privelege me and my community, It is utterly unnoticed, as largely is the Greenwich Meridian, the Equator, and every other "arbitrary" and imaginary geographic line with the exception of political borders. That distinction ought to tell us something: it isn't the grid or the line, it's what the line represents. And the grid in and of itself represents an index. An open-source index at that.

The biggest bias I see is those who wish to speak of place and space in an organic, holistic sense. As I think I've argued here before, this argument misses the point, like arguing that you can't write critically about a performance in musical notation. Other picturing traditions do a much better job of expressing a sense of place, and narrative prose or film do much better job of expressing movement through space.

I guess the question I would raise isn't "is it neutral or not" because no human creation is neutral in every sense. It is, "what context is this neutrality rooted in, and is are the things left out of that context important to the task at hand?"

joe said...

Hmm. :-)

I actually didn't use the word "neutral" at all -- i used the arbitrary exactly because it implies a judgement, on somebody's part, as to how one will divide one's representation of reality by marking it. That's really important!

I do think that marking things creates divisions and territories, and we (as professional "markers" of various ilks) can't delude ourselves that our mark can ever be divorced from the political, from the violence that is a corrolary to the act of marking. Our marking is not objective, merely reflecting "what is."

It is subjective, even when that subjectivity's origin is in utility -- "we organized things this way because it's easier to do these things that we want to do." It could be subjective because we want to make it accessible to as many people as possible. It could be subjective because we want to redistrict everybody and win an election and impose our eeeeevil will on everybody.

And those subjectivities WILL inflect what gets produced from the subjective artifacts (maps, plans, manuscripts, paintings). Music notation is a great example -- free harmony vs. shape note singing? 12 tone compositions vs. hard bop? The representational system forms the music, as much or more than the instruments producing it, because it frames how we think about it.

Perhaps _instrumental_ is the best word for what we're talking about here. The grid is instrumental, in that it provides certain opportunities, makes other less likely, or even unframable. Why an even-spaced, 90 degree grid, instead of a 60 degree tetrahedral geometry, or polar coordinates? The tetrahedral geometry fits a sphere much better than a grid, and the polar coordinates have the same origin and 2 numbers describing every point uniquely. Without knowing the exact history, i'm betting it was the instrumentality of magnetized iron pointing "sort of north" (a compass) combined with trig functions being really tough to do in the past.

I react this strongly because i beleivethat we (the professional "markers") OWN the systems we inherit, use, and produce. I think our work is better, and we are acting with more integrity when we understand and acknowledge the work's intimate relationship with the system which frames it.

Strangely, the challenge is the same for the folks that hate the Grid, (or whatever the dominant representational system is) -- a deep understanding of that system's origins, inflections, distortions and blind spots provides clues to its subversive use, sometimes its destruction.

[cue eeeevil laughter]

natcase said...

OK, I'll buy that.

But I go back to an innitial point I've been trying to make for a while here, that of neutrality, or attempted objectivity.

Of course no human can be completely objective. We're not omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent beings and even the beings we envision to be omni-whatever tend in our imaginations to start taking sides.

That said, we also imagine an idea of objectivity, and an idea of neutrality. To me, acts of power, or of ownership, can be performed with generosity or with jealous ownership (or with an unsettling combination of the two, e.g. Google).

To me, truly open-source frameworks like latitude-longitude are examples of pretty much generous behavior in themselves, and it is in their reapplication to the world via law and power (e.g. the American range-and-township system and its Canadian equivalents, or the aiming devices on bombs) that they lose that generosity.

I think I feel a full post coming on, so I'll stop here for now...

Next up: where eugenics went wrong.