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?

1 comment:

Lila1 said...

My husband, J P Wagner, loved maps. He collected maps. He drew crude maps for his fantasy novels.

But one of my favourite memories was of a short essay he wrote entitled, "The Cartographers' Conspiracy." In brief the essay posited the notion that map-makers were behind the tumult around the world because the changes in the borders of nations would keep them in business.