New Paper: Information Geographies and Geographies of Information
29 September 2015
Big Data, data shadows, digital divide, digital divisions of labour, digital labour, geography, geonet, information geographies, information geography, Information Geography and Inequality, Internet Geography, Mapping, participation, place, Representation, Wikipedia
The latest issue of New Geographies is now out, and contains an exciting collection of papers:
My contribution to the issue is titled ‘Information Geographies and Geographies of Information.’ It is an earlier (and abridged) version of a longer paper that I have in Geo (‘Towards a Study of Information Geographies‘).
You can download a version of it below, and I also paste the conclusions of the piece at the end of this blog post.
Graham, M. 2015. Information Geographies and Geographies of Information. New Geographies 7. 159-166.
The sections above have demonstrated that not only are the geographies of access uneven, but so too are patterns of participation and representation: producing geographies of information characterized by ‘data shadows’ and ‘digital divisions of labour’ that are heavily concentrated in global economic cores. Furthermore, broadening internet access (with over 3 billion people able to be counted as users) does not seem to have resulted in any significant leveling of the playing field.
As human societies became exponentially more complex, moving from pre-industrial, to industrial, to post-industrial modes of economic organization, the reliance on geographic information that is both immutable and mobile became ever more pronounced. But the digital moment has offered the potential for something different. Geographic information can remain immutable; but, unlike previous eras, content can now be much more easily separated from its containers. This matters because geographic information becomes simultaneously influential in the ways that it can travel around the web and often untraceable to particular organisations or people. For instance, think how the Wikipedia article on London, or OpenStreetMap edits in Edinburgh, can impact upon a multitude of other sites and services using that content; yet, the conditions under which that information was produced (who created the content, why did they chose to highlight some elements and omit others, etc.) remain relatively opaque and often untraceable when accessed through a third party. The removal of the tether between content and container does not untether that geographic information from the very geography that it represents; it rather untethers it from the digital contexts of its production and genesis.
This tethered, yet untethered, geographic information is essential to critically understanding information geographies. At a time when an increasing amount of everyday life is mediated by the digital, we need to better understand both the political economy of, and the forms of power that produce, particular information geographies. And because immutable geographic information is becoming increasingly untethered from its contexts and containers, we face more complexity at a moment in which we really need opacity.
The uneven geographies of information outlined above can have profound impacts on economic, social, and political life. Geography is fundamentally informational; and that information has its own geography. Yet as information infrastructures and the political economy of digital information shift into a digital era, it is ever harder to map, understand, and critique those geographies.
This piece has sought to explore a few examples of the geographies of information in order to attempt to better understand how we might interrogate one important facet of contemporary information geographies. As content separates from its containers, as more complex relationships between mutable, immutable, fixed, and mobile information are brought into being, as creative destruction ceaselessly creates ever more information infrastructures, and as geographic information is governed by a diverse array of political economic configurations, we need to ask what rights should be expected in the contexts of our immersive information geographies.
What sort of information opacity should be a right? What sort of privacy should be a right? What sort of access to digital information should be a right? And what sort of voice and speech within the contexts of information geographies should be a right? Rich debates about rights, privacy, transparency, and access are being had by legal scholars, philosophers, and computer scientists. But the question that geographers should be asking is what we can add to the debate. The purpose of this piece has been to argue that productive questions sit at the intersections of research about uneven geographies of information (access, production, and representation) and power within information geographies. We continue to know too little about how people are empowered or disempowered within information geographies; how some circumvent some forms of power; how some forms of power are reinforced and amplified. But as ever more collections like this special issue on the geographies of information are assembled we may begin to more productively turn the theoretical and methodological tools of geography onto information geographies.