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Digital Earth?

March 25, 2013

Eric Sheppard

As geographers, we revel in the attention our discipline garners with the explosion of geographic information technologies and georeferenced data. We cannot be complacent, however: digital earth is not simply a digital atlas, nor should we limit ourselves to visualizing its ever-more complex patterns. Digital earth is nothing less than a potential shift in how the earth is inhabited. As scholars of space-time and nature-society relations, it behooves us to critically assess emergent trajectories of digitization and advise on their implications. Failure to make the best of our expertise in this domain may well amount to another disciplinary opportunity lost. I cannot pretend to do more than raise some aspects I am familiar with, seeking to provoke a disciplinary conversation.

We should be attending to how digitization is transforming space-time, often counter-intuitively. Location is increasingly at the forefront of our daily use of digital information, in ways that arguably undermine appreciation of how geography shapes our practices and imaginaries. Glued to the node and link geography of our GPS navigator, the wormhole capabilities of google Earth, or (soon) our wearable devices, we do not need to stop and ask directions. Having thrown away their street or even world atlases, however, people can lose a sense of the broader geographical context shaping these links and nodes. Digital earth creates the capacity to connect in multiple ways with almost any location from seemingly anywhere, reminiscent of Marshall McLuhan’s global village. Yet most peoples’ usage is profoundly local, as my undergraduates demonstrate when I ask them to map their social network and cell phone contacts. Cyberspace evokes the promise of a new, post-scalar flat ontology, the spatial equivalent of net neutrality. Yet access varies dramatically at even the most local scales (geo-digital divides), reflecting the persistent ‘last mile’ problem (that connectivity is determined by the capability of your interface and/or your ability to purchase better connectivity). Further, the actual power-geometries of Cyberspace reinforce pre-existing geopolitical and geoeconomic hierarchies (mapped onto the earth’s surface, cyber-infrastructures display a remarkable similarity to persistent post-colonial geographies of air and sea travel). Digital earth reinforces individuality and segmented worlds as its participants tailor their geographies to their wishes and preconceptions, while simultaneously fostering unexpected, unstable connectivities. Yet it also enables cybersurveillance and panoptic power, ranging from Google harvesting private information during its ‘street view’ drive-bys, to drones with the power to sweep into the micro-environments of everyday life (not only in Yemen but coming soon to your community).

Digital earth entails a two-way relationship between space and society, a socio-spatial dialectic that human geographers of all stripes are equipped to help make sense of. How is digital earth altering spatial behavior, and that behavior shaping digital earth? How is this emergent digital earth co-implicated with everyday cultural practices, in homogenizing and differentiating ways? Geographers have written much, recently, about the financialization of contemporary imaginaries, norms, practices and identities; what about their digitization? How does an emergent, ever-shifting digital earth intersect with geopolitics, state capacities and the spatialities of contentious politics? How is digital earth productive of new economic geographies of server-farms, cables, and ICT clusters and pipelines? How is it altering (and altered by) work relations, geographies of production and consumption, and the commodification of space-time itself? Finally, what about digitized space-time? Cyberspace is a relational space, bound up with faster and more complex temporalities that must also be part of our analysis.

Digital earth is closely co-implicated with shifting research practices and theoretical and philosophical inclinations. The complexity paradigm that has accompanied, and in many ways been made possible by, digitization (the rapid advancement of computing power), has triggered renewed interest in quantitative empiricism. Yet it also has generated renewed interest in dialectical reasoning (also in the physical sciences) while resonating closely with post-prefixed ‘continental’ philosophies. ‘Big data’ are all the rage: georeferenced, quantifiable and requiring the skills of spatially trained analysts to analyze rigorously. Big data draw our attention to the micro-scale, precisely because this is what they make visible: Individual firms, buildings, roads, neurons and genes (all digitally mapped). In so doing, what are the dangers of retreating into reductionist, empiricist science and methodological individualism (the view that all explanation should be built up from the micro-scale)? ‘Small data’ (field work, ethnography, focus groups) seem to represent the opposite extreme, but are also being transformed by digitization. Consider, for example, how long-standing practices of photography, videography and recording have changed, in terms of not only ease of use but also who participates. Indeed, digitization and participatory research paradigms have emerged hand in hand. Big and small data cultures and methodological norms have been brought together in surprisingly productive ways, as in qualitative and feminist GIS. Across this methodological spectrum, digitization is throwing up deep ethical questions, revolving around privacy, access to information and investigator-subject relations, that institutional review boards’ current norms and practices seem ill-equipped to deal with.

Biophysical geography may seem less complexly affected by digitization, but this remains an open question. Clearly, digital earth entails a revolution in observational techniques and possibilities, ranging from new satellite capabilities to micro-sensors and cameras placed in ecosystems, under oceans and on animals. These promise novel insights, albeit running the dangers of reductionism and empiricism noted above. Yet digitization is also affecting biophysical processes and the more-than-human world in ways that we have yet to fully appreciate. These range from the materials extracted from the more-than-human world in order to produce digital technologies, to digital technologies that seek to emulate non-human beings, to GMOs (and their patenting) and cyborgs. Digitization has been promoted as reducing our environmental footprint—e.g., the paperless society—but some research finds the opposite (remember those promises that digitization would ease our work week?).

Digitization is altering space, place, networks, scales, and nature-society relations. For geographers, around the world and in collaboration with academic and non-academic partners, studying this emergent digital earth is a massive research opportunity. But we also bear a responsibility. These are not ‘out there’ processes that society must accept and adjust to. Critical analysis of the emergence and socionatural implications of digital earth will be vital to making it emancipatory rather than exploitative, and geographers should be leading this effort.

Let me know what you think.

Eric Sheppard

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