detour 212_via Field Notes 2
*Drafted shortly after completing our workshop; see detour 208
I was asked to draw a map. On the table, I find large sheets of paper and colored pencils. I take a green one, and my hand starts tracing. My movements produce curves, lines with jagged edges, points, and shapes. Slowly, a territory begins to appear. And, little by little, I realize that I know more about that territory than I initially thought. But I also know less than what is necessary to draw a complete map. I leave blurry, uncharted areas. When I have finished my drawing, I feel closer and at the same time more detached from the territory I call my own. I have learned something, yet I have produced a drawing whose usefulness is rather limited because of its incompleteness and the subjectivity it embodies.
I was then asked to use a smartphone to map a territory. The smartphone has an app that allows me to take pictures and record sounds, which are automatically located on a digital map, according to the corresponding GPS reading. I walk around the area, more or less systematically, taking pictures of the features that I find interesting and recording my voice to explain what I see. After a while, I have taken almost a hundred pictures, and I can see all of them on the online map, each represented by a point. If I click on a point, the corresponding image and its accompanying voice message appear. It is an active map, and it can keep growing. Others can click through it as well. It can be useful, I think.
Is there a dichotomy between hand-drawn and digital maps? Is one kind of map better than the other?
The hand-drawn map seems to relate strongly to an embodied understanding—and even appropriation—of a territory. Yet its future usefulness remains limited. On the other hand, the creation of a digital map is almost fully automatized. It is possible to imagine map-making drones working in collaboration with satellites, wireless cameras, databases, and sensors to produce highly detailed representations of a physical space. No humans are needed, and therefore no embodied knowledge is generated in the process of mapping. However, humans could benefit from such robotic representations, perhaps by using them as interfaces to assist, optimize, and augment the process of managing a common space.
When I think of hand-drawn versus digital maps, I think about the opposition between process and object. Between embodied cognition and usefulness. But these are false oppositions, and the exciting question that arises is: How can we combine the meaning-making potential of hand-drawn maps with the functionality and detail of digital ones? Can we think of a mapping practice that values and assigns a role to both aspects? Is it possible to overcome the pervasive technological determinism that drives us to immediately regard the digital map as being more “valid” than its manual counterpart?
How can digital maps tell the stories of bodies coexisting on a territory?
In my own work, I have tried to use digital technologies, namely smartphones and web interfaces, to orchestrate the collaborative creation of maps that seek to become, at the same time, useful interfaces and communal memories charged with voices, symbols, and meanings. So, it is crucial for me to bring into question the dichotomy of digital versus embodied. I argue that the digital is, in our time, one of the most human manifestations available. And I do not think we can separate the human from the digital anymore: In the fields of Tanzania where I have worked, peasant women fold their gowns in a way that allows them to carry their mobile phones on their waists. During the breaks they take from work, they stand under the shade of a generous tree and take the time to make calls and financial transactions. Those who have smartphones will probably also look at the latest messages and pictures sent to them by their friends. The entanglement of the physicality of situated humans and the abstraction of digital technologies can be observed even in places forgotten by history.
But why would maps be needed there?
The maps created by the Tanzanian peasants with whom I work are communal documents. The points that populate them correspond to the peasants' stories and the stories they have heard from others. They respond to their aspiration to make their voices heard. To be recognized, to be “on the map.”
Yet there are dangers. As we know, technologies seem to be incapable of performing their functions without creating new complications. Smartphones help peasants to communicate, but they also generate dependencies since they need to be fed with money and electricity, which are not always available. A more subtle risk lies in the mediatization and hyperconnectivity afforded by smartphones, which may ultimately favor a detachment between the farmers' bodies and their physical and social environments. And, last but not least, the maps created by peasants to tell their stories, and published on the web, might fall into the “wrong” hands, or people who could misinterpret or even misuse the information featured there.
If human-made maps (be it drawn or digital) are the result of necessarily subjective processes, how can we prevent them from being radically reframed in order to avoid their usage against the interest of the map-makers? If a peasant maps the stories that keep her community together, what can she do when others exploit her map for their own ends?
I believe that maps can be seen as tools for political negotiation. They can be dialogical tools through which the controversies existing on a territory can be visualized. Maps made by the people responding to the maps made by those in power, and vice-versa. A dialogue of maps repeating over and over again, until...
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