Neogeography and the delusion of democratisation

At the end of 2010, Matt Wilson (University of Kentucky) and Mark Graham(Oxford Internet Institute), started coordinating a special issue of Environment and Planning Adedicated to ‘Situating Neogeography’, asking ‘How might we situate neogeography?  What are the various assemblages, networks, ecologies, configurations, discourses, cyborgs, alliances that enable/enact these technologies?’

My response to this call is a paper titled ‘Neogeography and the delusion of democratisation’ and it is finally been accepted for publication. I am providing below an excerpt from the introduction, to provide a flavour of the discussion:

“Since the emergence of the World Wide Web (Web) in the early 1990s, claims about its democratic potential and practice are a persistent feature in the discourse about it. While awareness of the potential of ‘anyone, anytime, anywhere’ to access and use information was extolled for a long while (for an early example see Batty 1997), the emergence of Web 2.0 in the mid-2000s (O’Reilly 2005) increased this notion. In the popular writing of authors such as Friedman (2006), these sentiments are amplified by highlighting the ability of anyone to ‘plug into the flat earth platform’ from anywhere and anytime.

Around the middle of the decade, the concept of neogeography appeared and the ability to communicate geographic information over the Web (in what is termed the GeoWeb) gained prominence (see Haklay et al. 2008). Neogeography increased the notion of participation and access to geographic information, now amplified through the use of the political term democratisation. The following citations provide a flavour of the discourse within academic and popular writing – for example, in Mike Goodchild’s declaration that ‘Just as the PC democratised computing, so systems like Google Earth will democratise GIS’ (quoted in Butler 2006), or Turner’s (2006) definition of neogeography as ‘Essentially, Neogeography is about people using and creating their own maps, on their own terms and by combining elements of an existing toolset. Neogeography is about sharing location information with friends and visitors, helping shape context, and conveying understanding through knowledge of place’.  This definition emphasises the wide access to the technology in everyday practice. Similar and stronger statements can be found in Warf and Sui (2010) who clarify that ‘neogeography has helped to foster an unprecedented democratization of geographic knowledge’ (p. 200) and, moreover, ‘Wikification represents a significant step forward in the democratization of geographic information, shifting control over the production and use of GIS data from a handful of experts to large groups of users’ (ibid.). Even within international organisations this seems to be the accepted view as Nigel Snoad, strategy adviser for the communications and information services unit of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), stated: ‘On the technology side, Google, Microsoft and OpenStreetMap have really democratized mapping’ (cited in Lohr 2011).

However, what is the nature of this democratisation and what are its limits? To what extent do the technologies that mediate the access to, and creation of, geographic information allow and enable such democratisation?

To answer these questions, we need to explore the meaning of democratisation and, more specifically, within the context of interaction between people and technology. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, democratisation is ‘the action of rendering, or process of becoming, democratic’, and democracy is defined as ‘Government by the people; that form of government in which the sovereign power resides in the people as a whole, and is exercised either directly by them (as in the small republics of antiquity) or by officers elected by them. In modern use often more vaguely denoting a social state in which all have equal rights, without hereditary or arbitrary differences of rank or privilege’ [emphasis added]. A more colloquial notion of democratisation, and a much weaker one, is making a process or activity that used to be restricted to an elite or privileged group available to a wider group in society and potentially to all. For example, with mobile telephony now available across the globe, the statement ‘mobile telephony has been democratised’ aims to express the fact that, merely three decades ago, only the rich and powerful members of Western society had access to this technology.

Therefore, it is accepted from the start that the notion of democratisation cited above is more about the potential of neogeography to make the ability to assemble, organise and share geographical information accessible to anyone, anywhere and anytime and for a variety of purposes than about advancing the specific concept of democracy. And yet, it will be wrong to ignore the fuller meaning of the concept. Democratisation has a deeper meaning in respect of making geographic information technologies more accessible to hitherto excluded or marginalised groups in a way that assists them to make a change in their life and environment. Democratisation evokes ideas about participation, equality, the right to influence decision making, support to individual and group rights, access to resources and opportunities, etc. (Doppelt 2006). Using this stronger interpretation of democratisation reveals the limitation of current neogeographic practices and opens up the possibility of considering alternative development of technologies that can, indeed, be considered as democratising.

To explore this juncture of technology and democratisation, this paper relies on Andrew Feenberg’s critical philosophy of technology, especially as explored in his Questioning Technology (1999) and Transforming Technology (2002), which is useful as he addresses issues of democratisation and technology directly. For readers who are not familiar with the main positions within philosophy of technology, a very brief overview – based on Feenberg’s interpretation (1999) – is provided. This will help to explain his specific critique and suggestion for ‘deep democratisation’ of technology.

Equipped with these concepts, attention is turned to the discussion about the democratic potential of Geographic Information Systems (GIS), which appears in early discussions about GIS and society in the 1990s, and especially to the discussions within the literature on (Public) Participatory GIS (PPGIS/PGIS – assumed to be interchangeable here) and critical GIS. As we shall see, discussions about empowerment, marginalisation and governance are central to this literature from its inception and provide the foundations to build a deeper concept of democratisation when considering neogeographic practices.

Based on this historical understanding, the core of the paper explores why it is that neogeographic practices are assumed to be democratising and, more importantly, what the limitations are on their democratic potential. To do that, a hierarchy of ‘hacking’ – that is the artful alteration of technology beyond the goals of its original design or intent – is suggested. Importantly, here ‘hacking’ does not mean the malicious alteration of technology or unauthorised access to computer systems, or the specific culture of technology enthusiasts (‘hacker culture’). The term is used to capture the first and second instrumentation that Feenberg (1996, 2002) describes.  As we shall see, by exploring the ability to alter systems, there is some justification in the democratisation claims of neogeography as it has, indeed, improved the outreach of geographic technologies and opened up the potential of their use in improving democratic processes, but in a much more limited scope and extent. The paper concludes with observations on the utilisation of neogeographic technologies within the participatory process that aim to increase democratisation in its deeper sense.”

The paper’s concepts are based on talk that I originally gave in 2008 as part of the World University Netowrk seminar on Neogeography. A final note is about the length of time that some ideas need from first emerging until publication – even with the current imagination of ‘fast moving technology’, there is a value in thinking through an idea over 4 years.

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Professor of GIScience, University College London

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