Saturday, December 6, 2014

Voices, late 2014

The fierce voice that argues. Eloquently laid out thoughts crystalizing hard and unswerving. Experience laid out incontrovertible. An argument between two giants, prizefighters offering up a spectacle of dialectic, and between their verbal punches, a diamond of pure truth is created.

The quiet voice, almost silent, that doubts itself, water running out of cupped hands: drink from it now and it’s gone back to ground. Evidence shifting, hiding like a rabbit that knows from birth what it is to be hunted. Nothing is certain, nothing is safe, except the dark place, which no one has discovered. Not yet.

Which voice wins? Which voice is correct? Which voice needs our attention and listening? Which voice will lead us to success? Which voice are we called to be faithful to?

What does it mean to win? Is accuracy a kind of voice? Do we follow our instincts in who we pay attention to, and how are those instincts formed? How do we define success? What does it mean to be faithful, and how is that different from being loyal?

What then must we do?

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Mapping the Holocaust

The keynote speaker at NACIS 2014 described (along with her students) a recent project to map Holocaust survivors stories, and in so doing to “tell stories” with maps. This has been a catch phrase in mapping circles the last few years, especially with ESRI’s Story Map product. But when presented with stories that demand to be told and interpreted inn there own terms—where respect for those stories and storytellers is paramount, telling the story with maps has turned out to be a challenge.

It was a striking presentation, Two comments in particular stuck out. The first was that early drafts of the obvious sorts of maps that might illustrate the Holocaust: showing where camps were located, transportation networks that connected labor and extermination camps, even the routes that survivors recounted, were reviewed by survivors, and that a persistent comment was that they were “like the maps Nazis would have made.”

The second resulted from attempts to map the survivors’ stories in time: it was that narrative—good narrative—does fit in a strict, measured, linear sleeve. Real stories linger in some places, gloss over others, They are specific about geography sometimes, too, and in other times the intimate spaces of a habitual life stop being geographic and the spatial relationships stop being part of the story.

I think these two comments are telling, and reflect back on critiques of cartographic thinking I’ve discussed here over the years in a number of ways.

Godwin’s Law is had to enforce when you are actually talking about the Nazis and the Holocaust, but I would assume that saying someone’s descriptions of the Nazi era are themselves “like something the Nazis would do” is not a comment made lightly. And I can see how the stark diagrams of the Reich and its huge network of detention and extermination facilities, printed with abstract symbols on a white background, would produce this reaction. Because the Nazi crimes were in part grounded in dehumanization: the branding of prisoner numbers, the shaving of hair and wearing of uniforms all stripped outward individuality away from the individuals detained and murdered by the Nazis.

One reaction occurred to me. I’ve been holding Richard M Kelly's essay on riding a train in Switzerland, watching two Jewish man arguing over their religious text, and this arguing is a part of narrative that is missing from maps, Mark Denil says that maps present an argument, but it’s not an argument with anyone. One of the defining characteristics of the monstrous political regimes of our era has been that they brook no dissension; their arguments are one-sided. And so it is with most maps: even if there is a counterargument to be made, it isn’t made on the map. The map, after all—a good map—is supposed to be a well-supported statement of fact.

What if the map of these survivors stories was a series of enactments on a stage-sized base map of Central Europe, an argument with different survivors stories bumping into one another and disagreeing, funny and unembarrassed, as art of a holy search for the elusive truth? What if the best way to map this kind of story was as a performance? What lies would be traced? How much of the argument would be scripted? What would remain of the map when the performance was over?

There is something oddly cowardly about trying to map the numbers of the holocaust, or any of the great disasters of the modernizing world. When professed objectivity becomes a mask for greed, violent hatred, fear and murder, it feels kind of off base to the seek to redeem that objectivity without first offering a ritual obeisance. Maybe there are things that are offensive to map, ot the same time wen wish to celebrate the humanity of.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Commodities and Experts, Part 2

[Edited for clarity, October 11]

It’s respectable—a mark of prestige—to say you are a professional. We still talk about “the professions,” practices that require advanced education and licensure. Like the last vestiges of the medieval guilds, they are meant to ensure quality, but these professional bars also serve to create elites.

Not all fields that aspire to this kind of professionalism achieve it using formal licensure. Accountants, teachers, doctors, nurses, architects, and lawyers do, and so do the trades: bricklayers, plumbers, electricians... but cartographers? journalists? graphic designers and printers? When it comes to the communications fields, our desire for an open public forum has meant we haven't put restrictions on professional practice we take for granted in the “professions.”

And yet, here we are, practiced and respected professionals. We are hired on the basis of our portfolio, and we pride ourselves on satisfies clients and audiences, and on the technical qualities of our work. Much of our “quality,” as with experienced practitioners in any field, is simply consistency: when you you go to a doctor, you may not be looking for the next mad genius; you want someone whose is consistently trustworthy, knowledgable, and understanding.

This is very much like the standard we might call “commodifiction” in the industrial world. Any product becomes a commodity when there is little difference in quality from example to example. This can occur within a brand: a Toyota Corolla is a Toyota Corolla, or it should be. It can also be true of a type of material: a bag of flour is a bag of flour, more or less, though any given mill may want to differentiate their product in the marketplace. Do you really choose one gas station or another because their gasoline is "better?"

I want to be treated as a professional whose work is consistently of high quality. But I do not want my products to be treated as commodities, though I also want them to be of consistently high quality. This is because, in a commodified world, price rules all, and in a global economy if my maps are just maps and I am paid for them accordingly, I cannot hope to earn a living wage in Minneapolis, competing with cartographers in the Philippines or Bangladesh.

Professions are a way of maintaining elites. What is the difference between the uniform standards of quality a lawyer must maintain to be admitted to the bar and the uniform standards a McDonald’s line cook must maintain? The major difference is the amount of education the lawyer must put in to achieve a legal standard, and the complexity of the system they must exercise their experience within. The degree of uniformity, of conformity to a standard, is virtually the same.

And so, what happens when a field no longer requires the accumulated knowledge it used to? When machines do more of the knowing and balancing and precision that it used to take an apprentice years to acquire? What happens, in short, to the cartographers of today?

Fifty years ago, map makers were a mysterious little cabal. We've never lived on gilded perches, like doctors or lawyers, or teachers in some parts of the world. We've always been a kind of hodgepodge, even when we tried to reach a more uniform respectability in the academy, coining ourselves "cartographers." We included people with backgrounds in printing, surveying, drafting, and the arts. One of the things that unified us was the specialized tools used to make published maps—whether abstract like the mathematics of map projections, or concrete like the scribers and scribe-coat, the rubylith, and the vacuum tables that road map publishers of my youth used. Today there are still specialized tools—GIS and graphics software—but they are ever more broadly used by fields outside cartography.

You didn't see cartographers on talk shows, but you saw maps, and these maps told you about the world in an omniscient, distant, authoritative way.

Today, and for a while now, anyone can make a map. They may have power and use, but they are hardly mysterious. And so, we cartographers—old-fashioned static cartographers—find ourselves in a gradually shrinking field.

Our situation is not new, nor is it hopeless. Expertise has been replaced by commodification over and over in our continuing industrial revolution. In my college years, it happened to graphic design. What was typographically sophisticated in my youth—this blog for example—is commonplace. It's templated, standardized, and those templates and standards come with the software. For many purposes, you don't need a professional.

And yet, there are professional designers. They create templates, they put a unique spin on products for high-paying clients, they engage in stylistic antics in the name of creativity. And they perform like consistent professionals. They deliver what is requested, without fail.

Plumbing isn't really mysterious. But it takes skill. I can now do very simple plumbing, but we still call the pro when it comes to leaks in hidden places. The risk of my being an inconsistent amateur and messing up is too big. Our spongy kitchen floor is a result of my thinking I could hook up a new dishwasher, for example. So, there are still places where you want a professional cartographer.

The question is (and this is not at all clear): where is that line for us? What are the things that cannot be reliably automated, or figured out by the equivalent of me with a wrench? When is it important, even where there is a consistent system in place, to have someone experienced behind the mapmaking wheel? When the constant change of geotechnology slows, what will it look like to be a "professional cartographer"? And will I want to do that work?

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Commodities and Experts, Part 1

Hearing Sandeep Jauhar interviewed by Terry Gross yesterday about the changing world of being a physician got me thinking about something that's been on the edge of my awareness for a while now: the conflict in our society between what I'll call "commodification" and "expertise." It's not strictly speaking an economics argument, though economics do certainly play a central role. It actually has to do more with the creation of a commons, the kind of thing I ascribed to "the grid" and other pidgin mindpaces, several years ago here.

Jauhar's point, or at any rate the piece that grabbed me, was that doctors are being steered from private practice into larger, integrated environments like hospitals, so their care will be more integrated with other specialists, and can be shared instead of overlapping inefficiently. And these arguments from efficiency really do make a lot of sense. I don't want to have doctor one take a full medical history and draw blood only to have doctor two do the same exact thing two days later. Talk to each other, people!

But doctors also feel a lot of stress. Jauhar ascribes this to the mechanical, no-time-for-hands-on-medicine life doctors have to lead these days, but I also think part of it is related to what Atul Gawande referred to in his book and article about the need for checklists in modern medical treatment: in essence, medicine has now gotten complex enough and the consequences of forgetting a step (especially in regards to infection) so great, that seat-of-the-pants reliance on a doctor's orderly mind is not enough. You need to conform to a system, rigorously, in order to be as good a doctor as you can be.

I know why doctors get nervous about this. It's not just the adrenaline rush, the cowboy scalpel-jockey thing. It's that their own aura of expertise disappears, the more dependent that they become on an external system. I know this because I'm a cartographer. It's kind of hard to imagine today, with ubiquitous data and maps, that maps used to have a kind of mystery to them, and the making of them was kind of an arcane skill. Like being a scribe in an age of illiteracy. It's not that we were superhuman, but we had a kind of mysterious cabal going: we knew how to make these elaborate, complex things. And you didn't.

Except, now you do. Or you can. It's not that hard. And there are fewer of us as a result.

But something interesting happened on the way to this glut of cartographers: maps got noticeably better, especially bad maps. It used to be there were companies that made terrible, hard-to-read, really almost illegible maps, but they were cheaper, and so people used them. Now? The cheapest map is a screen-shot from Google Maps (not legal, but lots of people do it), and you know, they don't look half bad.

At my former employer, we made a point of not entering what we called the "commodity map" market. This was a situation where a map retailer or distributor just wanted a generic "road map" or "street map" and didn't actually care how good it was. Like selling milk or windshield fluid: get something in the rack that people will buy if they just want a map. We specialized in a cut above that: maps for people who actually cared about which map they were buying. Selective buyers...

And it's not a bad niche to try and fill, if you can persuade people your product is better. You can get it placed, and maybe you can sell it for a little more. Not always, but sometimes.

The thing is, the way you persuade anyone that your product is better, is by comparing it to those products that are not as good as yours. And so the rising quality of the worst maps has made it harder to market oneself as a "premium" map publisher. The gap just isn't as dramatic as it used to be.

I was listening to a CD of the Cars on my car stereo this week, and thinking about the incredible time and technical expertise that went into their work and some of the other top acts of the 1960s through 1980s. When I was growing up, in the mid-1970s, the technical difference between the music of thirty years prior and then was enormous: Glenn Miller vs the Eagles. That same gap doesn't exist today. Recordings aren't really all that different from 30 years ago, c 1984. Heartbeat City, which apparently took months of excruciating work to get to sound like Ric Ocasek wanted... to sound like a lot of pop records today. And that's the difference: you don't have to be a genius or have tens of thousands of dollars floating around to make a pop record that sounds like a top-quality recording. The bottom bar has raised.

And in a lot of ways, this is a really good thing. The overall technical quality of our stuff is better. Cars routinely last for way more than a decade and 200,000 miles is not freakish. I remember our old Volvo was old at ten years and 100,000 miles back in 1976. And that was a Volvo. They would run forever.

Commodification—the creation of standards—also allows things like recipe books. A cup of flour is a cup of flour now, in a way that it wouldn't have been before flour mills became national operations in the late 19th Century. What variance there is in gluten or moisture content is the kind of thing an epicure, or a commercial baker, might care about. If you want to make a cake yourself? Pillsbury, Gold Medal, King Arthur... all will do the job just fine.

But this commodification also meant that the hands-on tinkering that local millers engaged in, the learning and re-learning what this machine will do at that time of year, and how to adjust to make the best flour from the local fields... this kind of expertise is now put into a context where responsibility is given to a higher order. That miller, now working for ADM or General Mills or whatever, is working in much less forgiving conditions, in a marketplace where there are seemingly faceless competitors ready to wipe you aside in the unlikely event that you should fall off of the pretty precise standards for "flour" in todays market.

About 15 years ago, I abruptly learned from a fellow actor what "professionalism" meant in his world. He had worked in the professional world, and was now doing high-end community theater. He was good at his craft, but what he defined professionalism as was not quality but consistency. It was his employer knowing that he could be called upon to show up on time, and deliver the same quality of performance he'd demonstrated previously. Obviously, he'd be paid more and get better gigs if the quality was better. And there are plenty of examples of performers whose performance is anything but consistent... except that even these are mostly consistent in their eccentricity. Robin Williams and especially Andy Kaufmann would deliver a surprise. That was their promise. And they did.

And speaking as broadly as possible, that kind of genius is one end of what I mean by expertise. When you are selling your ability to solve a problem and deliver a finished result—whether it's by a doctor or a plumber or a comedian or a cartographer—what you are selling is expertise. But it's harder and harder to escape the fact that you are also selling the consistency of the results you deliver. So much of our economy is now based in comparison shopping for equivalent results within a narrow range of acceptable standards, it takes an effort to carve out a space where expertise is actually valuable.

In some fields (writing for example), this has been true for a long time. "Everyone's a novelist, and anyone can sing/But no one talks when the TV's on," as Moxy Früvous sang. Writers who work for non-publishers regularly face the fact that "lots of people can write." Not as consistently, but most college educated people can put together a letter in written English that will be understood by the recipient. 500 years ago, this was not so true. Also way fewer people went to college.

Others of us are just getting used to this mode of working for pay in a technology that "anyone can do." But more and more of us are living in a data-rich world, where our special knowledge isn't all that special anymore. And as the distance between what anyone can do and what only a few can do continues to narrow, will we really end up with experts anymore? Those of us who grew up into an expertise really want to find a way to hang on to that, but is it really necessary? What happens to the place experts hold in our society?

We're seeing some of that now in America, with the declining respect given to experts: scientists, doctors... what do they know? This anti-elitism is nothing new, but it's backed up now by a diffusion of knowledge—not wisdom, but knowledge—that gives those expert elites less to stand upon.

I think those elites—the knowledge and technical cabals of old—are really evidences of imbalance. I'm not sorry to see them go, except that I kind of like it when people say, "Oooh, you make maps?!?!" at dinner parties. I like it, but it gets kind of old, honestly. I'd rather focus on what makes a humane way to be "professional," in the sense that actor meant. There the expertise was not black-box magic hocus-pocus. It was a practiced skill, an ability to perform consistently. That is valuable and it's healthily sustainable.

So why then does commodification sound so unpleasant, like The Prisoner's "I am not a number, I am a human being!"? What is the difference between professionalism and commodification? I'll discuss that in the next post.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Odd Socks

In high school, some friends formed a group they called something like "The Caffeine Addicts and Silly Walkers Appreciation Society." SF fans, Whovians, Trekkies, Monty Pythonites... A rag-tag collection of odd socks.

And it didn't feel right to me, even though by every measure I belonged there. It wasn't even a particularly principled stand—I probably justified staying away by thinking of the conforming non-conformist paradox (see the immortal scene from Life of Brian:)
but this was basically me being ornery about signing on with any group. I didn't trust groupthink in any form.

And so here I am among the Quakers. And diversity and variety are very much on Quakerdom's mind. But here's the question I keep coming back to: diversity to what end? If diversity itself is a defining value, then what of our human desire to hang around with people like us? If diversity is a defining value, then what do we have besides being a collection of odd socks.

The thing is, there is push-back in a lot of communities, a commandment to conform. Indeed, this seems to be some kind of deep-rooted human social thing. It's what we do. And so people get pushed to act in ways they do not as individuals feel right acting. They are asked to put on what feels like someone else's skin.

And the ones who get pushed hard enough they just can't take it, or people like me who are just ornery about getting pushed... we leave, or we put up a big stink. And we often develop a whole philosophical approach to life that decries conformism and conformity, sees conforming as an insidious disease. We think about the kind of cookie-cutter conformity that stereotypically characterized middle-class America in the 1950s.

And as liberal Quakers, we see a religiousness that doesn't really have a moral foundation, but that tells you to go to church because that's what nice people do. And so we look for a religious experience based in "realer" things: peace, the experience of worship, justice, diversity... and we end up gathering people around us who believe in those things. And soon enough we become a group of people with a common odd-sock-ness.

It is so bloody hard to gather a people who share values or dance moves or dietary restrictions or whatever, and then not enforce conformity on individuals. The gathering itself brings out a kind of mirroring, as we seek to be "better" at whatever it is we are gathered together by. And if that thing that gathers us is a value of diversity, How much time to we spend worrying if we are being "diverse enough?"

There are plenty of broad societal reasons why we as a culture, as a nation, as a community, need to fight against the biases that have condemned races, genders/preferences, religious affiliations, languages, physical limitations, etc to second-class citizenship. Conformity has been used as a weapon of power to broadly keep "you people" down so I can be higher up. And I as a white, male, straight, American-English-speaking, basically able, American citizen, am right at the top of that heap. So I shouldn't be writing this at all, probably. By many lights, I should sit down and shut up.

But I resist being told to sit down and shut up. I resist conforming "because." I'm ornery.

Here's what I think: We need to be gathered. And we need to not be in denial about this. It is part of being human. That gathering is not about deciding who we are gathered with, but neither is it based on divine mandate. We need to be with people we can trust, and who will be our team, our company, our gathered place. And within that group, we need to enforce that trust: if you will not behave in a trustworthy manner, we need to be able to kick you out.

Friday, May 16, 2014

The Audience

We went, my son and I, to see a performance by Zenon Dance Company, our premier local modern company. My wife and son went last spring, and thought it was fantastic. This time... it was mixed. The single piece in the second half, Danny Buraczeski's Ezekiel's Wheel, was really superb. it had flow, it had depth, it connected with the audience. The other dances... well, they had some lovely phrases, memorable pieces, but it didn't feel lilke they were paying much attention to the audience. 

I was interested to read in a 2003 review of Buraczeski's work:
Ezekiel's Wheel, which he completed in 1999, seems to have been a pivotal work: interviewed shortly after the piece premiered, Buraczeski said, "[That] concert was my most personal yet, my most vulnerable. I don't make dances for audiences any more, I make them to explore my feelings....But I leave the door open so people can bring their own lives in." 
Which is odd given my experience of alienation from the other pieces in the program tonight. Or it seems odd at first. But I think it points to a false way we think of audience, and that audiences think of performance.

In the pub sings I've been involved in the last few years, audience and performer are much closer together than most people are used to, I think. The setting helps: people just get up and lead a song, often from where they are sitting in the bar. There's ambient noise, sometimes annoyingly if there are clueless patrons talking loudly just outside the circle of song (or even, incredibly, right next to the singer). But that noise also serves to ground us: we are not in a temple of perfect sound: we are in the middle of our lives. Our audience are our friends around us. We are all part of the same group, and we are sharing those functions of audience and performer in a way that feels like a deep conversation. 

What Buraczeski I think is talking about, is that he is not saying what he thinks the audience wants. He is not trying to fill their appetite. And because his work is interesting, because the ideas and shapes he presents in "leaving the door open," it's like that part of a conversation. It's something we care about.

Where I think Zenon did a poor job in the first half, is in talking about things the audience just didn't especially care about—at least not the section I was in. It was technically excellent, but it just wasn't interesting.

Artists of all kinds like to guard against "pandering." We don'r want to just spoon-feed the audience. My yearbook quote from college sums it up (it's by Duane Preble): "Aesthetic is the opposite of anaesthetic." Good art in this model has the urgency of gospel: Listen! it says, This is important! We don't have forever to learn this!

Sometimes, though, the desire to not pander means we turn our back as performers on the audience. 
Good evening. Welcome to Difficult Listening Hour. The spot on your dial for that relentless and impenetrable sound of Difficult Music. So sit bolt upright in that straight-backed chair, button that top button, and get set for some difficult music.-Laurie Anderson
Well, OK, if you have a consensual relationship with a particular audience, where they know they are in for a hard grind. Fine. But me, I want art that reaches out not to pluck my heartstrings, but to grab me by the hand, to meet me halfway between the stage and the audience.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Harley essay and map reproduction: followup and posted files

Amongst the things I have learned the last few months is that crowd-sourcing campaigns, however well-intentioned, do not always result in the desired results. So, I did not get the amount needed to print the Ordnance Survey map that J.B. Harley so eloquently wrote about in his 1987 essay, "The Map as Biography." It's regrettable, but that's often how learning experiences go. I did however acquire a high-resolution scan of the map from the Library of Congress, and I offer a cleaned-up version of it to anyone interested here.

A few notes about this image: it is high resolution and bit-mapped, rather than grayscale. This may strike some as odd, as the on-screen quality of a grayscale image allows for more accurate viewing online. But this image is meant for printing, and it's my belief that a high-resolution bitmap ends up resulting in a crisper printed image. It's a difficult compromise, because the original imprint involved microscopic smudging and spreading which will probably not be duplicated on your plotter. If you would like a grayscale image, please get in touch with me, and I'll see if I can get it to you. a quick warning: the bitmap I've made available is 6.7 MB. You can view the image as a pan-and-zoom here.

I've also re-set the original essay as two 8.5 x 11 sheets, here. Thanks to Paul Laxton, Harley's literary executor, for his permission to reproduce this. I hope you will find the result of interest and will find it as rich a reading to come back to as I do.