Digital Emperialism and Lost Data

I have a colleague at work, who, when bored, will spend hours traveling the world with google maps. He opens the satellite mode, zooms out into space to see the entire planet earth, and then he decides on a place worth traveling to and uses the little yellow pegman icon to teleport himself right into the setting with the help of google street view. When I saw him doing that the first time, I was fascinated by how easily we can travel the world without even getting up from our seats. We can visit millions of places throughout the world and experience them through pictures, driving along streets and zooming in and out. I started spending some time with google maps and street view myself, and I started to realize that that there are some areas which are very well mapped, and some which aren’t represented at all.

For example, this screenshot of Google Maps shows that South Korea and Japan are mapped extremely well, with the blue parts representing possibilities to zoom into Street View, whereas there is no coverage at all of North Korea, and only a few points are accessible in China:

Google Street View (accessed 2/10/2018)

Of course, this is due to political notions and issues of accessibility. It entails that certain areas of the map are less accessible for the public and are thus underrepresented. Jason Farman elaborates on the ideological problems of cartography in his article here.

The questions that the Digital Art and Humanities have to ask when using this and other online data is not what information is given, but rather what information is not given. As Miriam Posner states in her blog, in order to visually represent data, it is often flattened and simplified, and this can have ideological implications [1]. To store and represent data, it has to be categorized and put into boxes, but this means that important connections and contexts get lost in the process. Especially with data about identity and structures like race and gender, simplifications lead to an immense distortion of people’s realities. Posner wants the Digital Humanities “to stop acting as though the data models for identity are containers to be filled in order to produce meaning, and understand that these structures themselves constitute data” [1], which I think is a crucial role of DH that separates it from the hard sciences.

When using digital tools, which were conceived for other disciplines (as there are almost no tools explicitly for Digital Humanities), we need to be mindful about how the data we feed into them is being rendered and compressed and how we can achieve a more transparent and holistic representation [2]. This is a niche DH occupies, and I think it is a very important one. While the computer sciences are all about data, the Digital Humanities are all about …humans. The humans behind the data and their individual experiences and identities. The data lost in space might not be important for the overall representation of the research, but it might be crucial for the representation of the people who are behind this data.

[1] Posner, M. 2015. What’s Next: The Radical, Unrealized Potential of Digital Humanities. Miriam Posner’s Blog. (Accessed: 29 September 2018).

[2] Farman, J. 2010. Mapping the Digital Empire: Google Earth and the Process of Postmodern Cartography. New Media&Society, 16(2), pp.869–888.


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