Mapping Digital Terra Incognita: Here Be Dragons

“We know the past but cannot control it. We control the future but cannot know it.”

– Claude Shannon

I am reading an excellent, albeit somewhat dated, book right now called The MapMakers by John Noble Wilford (Random House, 1981). Anyone who is interested in mapping the digital landscape needs to read this book. It’s not something you think about in our context but the digital world we are contemplating resembles in many ways the world as it appeared to a 16th Century mapmaker. It's useful to make the analogy and imagine for a moment making a map without the aid of modern technology. In an age of Google Maps, laser spectrometry and range finding, it’s hard to make the mental leap to the deck of a swaying ship trying to time the passage of the moons of Jupiter (which is impossible) in order to ascertain your longitude, much less draw an accurate representation of where you’ve been. Even the act of mapmaking on the ground was a tedious project involving lifetimes of work just to map a single European country. Four generations of Cassinis worked on accurately mapping just France over the course of more than a hundred years (1670s-1780s).

Ancient mapmakers labeled areas that they could not map “terra incognita” or incomprehensible earth. They also often embellished these areas with fantastical beasts including the occasional dragon. It is sobering to realize that it was only recently, within my lifetime no less, that we finally slayed all of the “real” dragons out there. For much of human history the world just petered out into the unknown. As recently as the 1970s the United Nations, which acts as a clearinghouse for maps based on the scale of 1:1,000,000, noted that half of the land area of the planet had not been accurately mapped to that scale. It is even more sobering to realize that the science of mapmaking is considerably faster than cultural cognition of mapmaking. While we may be relatively quick to accept Google’s instructions on how to get to the nearest Starbucks, the cultural and geographic connections we have with Mexico or Canada eludes many Americans.

What does this have to do with our current project? I recently finished reading another book, A Mind at Play about Claude Shannon and it made me think really hard about where the disconnects in our world are. We are digital mapmakers on the shore of a vast sea. Some of us are venturing out with compass and sextant but our cultural contexts are still grounded on the analog ground. Where are the hidden shoals that need to be mapped? Are there dragons out there? Just like the fictional dragons on these maps, I suspect that the digital dragons we discover will also be in our imaginations.

Most of the people in our community are already living in Terra Incognita Digitalis. We just don’t realize it. We see there are no dragons outside of our imaginations and our own making. We just don’t know how to communicate that to those still mentally and culturally in Analog Terram. Even more than in the physical environment, most don’t even realize that there is another reality to be explored or at best perceive it vaguely (and with dragons). Amber Case said Shannon was “hacking reality.". That’s what mapmakers and explorers do. We are both.

The fundamental problem that the FOEcast community is struggling with is that most of us don’t realize we are the mapmakers of the world that Shannon laid out 70 years ago. As digital explorers we have traveled to Terra Incognita Digitalis. Most of the rest of the world hasn’t joined us there and we are left scratching our heads and asking why that is. The vast majority of society doesn’t see the possibilities that we see. Instead, the rest of the world is much more likely to see dragons where we are instead of opportunity.

(modified by the author)

(modified by the author)

Ruben Puentedura, in an early ideation session, laid out our mission as bringing people across into a world of digital possibility. I would take that a step further and add the idea that we are responsible for mapping away the perceived dragons of hacking, fake news, digital stalking, and all of the other bogeymen that the media has placed on their maps of the digital world.

Like the early mapmakers this task will involve painstaking work and the development of whole new sciences of digital location and identity. We are going to need new sets of tools to navigate in this territory and to make maps for others to find us. We have to develop our own theodolites in order to accurately measure the geography of these places that we have so boldly ventured into, if for no other reason than to show the rest of world that what we have found is safe and can be immensely beneficial to mankind. FOEcast has the potential of being just such a tool.

Map of Web 2.0 in 2010

Map of Web 2.0 in 2010

We have to also be mindful how mapmaking has historically been used to impose primacy and power. Orienting (a word that also has real power implications, BTW) the map of the world with the northern hemisphere on the top is no accident. Mercator’s projection biased the importance of northern territories over southern ones (Greenland does not equal South America in size). Our maps of the digital world are also inherently biased. Do we map the Internet (only one part of the digital world) by where the money is? Or, perhaps where the people are? What other options are there? Can we map where the innovation is, for instance? Remember that where people are active is not transformative, it is actually normative. Some of you may remember this map of social spaces on the internet from xkcd in 2010 (it interesting that Randall Munroe has not updated this since then).

Randall Munroe is a good visualizer of worlds that only exist in our heads (implicitly or explicitly). We need to consider such tools as we embark on our mapmaking expedition into the digital world. This is where I think we will especially need the talents of visual toolmakers such as Ruben. However, our first task will be to define the basic units of measurement and location. We can’t visualize the digital world in any meaningful way without agreement on the basic sets of what we are measuring. Otherwise, we are just drawing dragons instead of lines of latitude and longitude.

Just as latitude and longitude overlaid geometry onto our real world, we must find abstract analogies in relationships devoid of spatial form to understand where we stand and where we can go in the digital world. Shannon may have shown us the way with the mathematics of communication but social science may also be required to overlay human latitudes and longitudes onto the new cultures, communities, and relationships that will make exploration of the digital landscape possible.

We have a great opportunity with the creative talent contained in the FOEcast community to create maps into the digital realm that dispel the dragons, real and imagined, that plague our human progress. I’d like to issue a challenge to the group starting with the comment thread below but extending to our continuing process of ideation. We need sets of digital tools and shared digital understandings to start crafting maps of the present and future. What does a digital theodolite look like? I’d love to see some ideas in the comments below.


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