Liquid sociology in a geographic context will become rivers or mud

By way of analogy or other figures, analyses such as these below have gained credence in association with a tide of writings about geography. Often the work of Deleuze and Guattari has been channelled through some geographic and geological terms. Deleuze and Guattari (A Thousand Plateauas, 1987) show how, in one of several ways, the borders of fundamental concepts in philosophy cannot be sustained. The concepts and figures typically used cannot sustain their separation often from other concepts drawn from other disciplines or from other ways of thinking. However, described as physical geography, this is analogous to what has been said of the Missouri River in the central US: ”The shifting channel provided a wide variety of hydraulic environments at a large quantity of connected and non-connected off-channel water bodies. Beginning in the early 1800’s and continuing to the present, the channel of the lower Missouri River (downstream from Sioux City, Iowa) has been trained into a fast, deep, single-thread channel.” (Jackobson, Jacobson, B. R., 2014. River-Gorridor Habitat Dynamics Research Lower Missouri River. Washington, DC: United States Geological Survey.2014) emphasis added). Especially in Bateson and Deleuze and Guattari, such themes cohere with at least four disciplinary tributaries: cartography, hydrology, cybernetics, and geology.

Liquid and Lines

Along the angle of refraction of the deep waters of Bateson’s (2000: 407) writing, cybernetic terms and theory readily appear. When Bateson is called a cyberneticist, his work is funnelled toward information theory linking computer technology with geography. (Dyson, 2012: 3) The locus of cybernetics is information; this is not a colloquial expression, but specific to “information” or “communication” theory belonging to the history, logic, and mathematics of electrical engineering and computer science. (Dyson, 2013) Bateson (2000; 406-408) writes: “In cybernetics, mapping appears as a technique of explanation whenever a conceptual ‘model’ is invoked, or more concretely, when a computer is used to simulate a complex communicational process….” Bateson continues insightfully that a fundamental tendency, fallacy, and constitutive error is mistaking “map and territory” or “map for territory.”  While power lines, flows of information, wires, cables, and “wireless” lines are the stuff of cybernetics, they still diagram a linear system, but still can capture neither a map nor a territory.

Reading the very early theory and practice of computer technology and cybernetics, streams of Bateson’s thinking point to a backwater of computer theory. Jagjit Singh (1966: 8, 9) uses a sweeping introduction to cybernetics. In contrast to how “mapping” of data evolved today, the emphasis was on the form of “information,” lines, flows, codes, patterns, and many other terms that seem to be a new vocabulary.  In the profession of electrical engineering, Singh (1966: 21) writes, information is stripped or purified of the semantic content, but is somehow more “lavish” than alphabetic language. Its notation is formulas, tables, and diagrams. The linear diagrams, which depict systems’ design or “roadmaps,” saturate thinking about computer systems. The communication system, expressed as a linear diagram, is composed of an information or message source, encoder, signal, channel, noise, decoder, receiver. Singh’s explanation is not without references to Zeno, the Talmud, Shakespeare, Chinese “ideographic” language, and Hindi symbols; all without touching their content. The form of information is thought to overpower semantics by its “lines of behaviour.” A digital model can be described as a “set of lines of behaviour” or “the field of lines of behaviour,” passage to equilibrium, and ending in a “the terminal field.” (1966: 218) The major concepts of positive and negative feedback are largely missing. This especially is still true of computer systems now. Singh (1966: 236) concludes that assessing the efficacy of computers “require[s] a theory which ensures communication of optimal information without interference by vibrations of noise.”

Bateson is covering the many meanings of “mapping” in theory and professional practice. In practice, and as Bateson explains, “mapping’ has many interwoven meaning. With the subsequent development of information technology, “mapping” has taken on more meanings than Bateson uses.

  1. Mapping means, in professions of software development and data management, comparing the semantics of one group of data values to another group to assess or make them equivalent.   A fairly innocuous example of such ‘mapping’ is making “date_of_birth” in one database the same as “birth_date” in another. A very problematic example would be comparing “poverty_rate” in one database to “rate_of_poverty” in another. The first may refer to a national demographic variable and the other to a periodic rate of poverty income of an individual. Sorting the meaning and logic of concepts and names is covered by the silly word, “disambiguation.’ The semantics of these data elements are critical to the validity and integrity of the data.
  2. Mapping means assigning formal linguistic notation to words and names into a semantic space and network diagram based on the numerical count of their occurrence in a text.
  3. Mapping means assigning data values to coordinates in a graph as in analytic geometry. Data points are set into formulas illustrating geometric figures. This exercise can follow from mapping data elements as above.
  4. When these styles of mapping are applied to or metaphorically confused with “territory” they support the creation of geographic information systems and cartography. In that case, all the history of cartographic problems floods into the problems of software development and database management. That is, the conventions of making maps are the essential condition of building software, data, and cartographic systems.
  5. Mapping becomes reflexive when taking a semantic, logical, rhetorical, or philosophical analysis of the “mapping” natural language categories into data, data to other data, or categories to categories with different meanings as well as any other level of meta-mapping of these to each other.
  6. Mapping the behaviour of mapping becomes a cultural, epistemological, and psychological manoeuvre. One’s professional credibility depends on the skill of negotiating all of these. Usually, as one moves in such rarefied dimensions and away from the immediate tasks of creating a database, the more one is viewed as a misfit.   One can manoeuvre from this point to the first as well, in and out, back and forth depending on the task at hand.

Deleuze and Guattari (1987) use concepts and style from Bateson’s work to become feedback that transforms it. Together, Bateson plus Deleuze and Guattari, the ideas’ volume, valence, and viscosity make their “noise,” as in cybernetic theory, informative. A summary of points or lines of argument in Deleuze and Guattari are not often desirable or possible to regulate and explain by way of citation. That is, whatever might Deleuze and Guattari write in one sentence there are hundreds of others that oscillate the meaning and importance. Language itself is an “overcoded” system meaning that computer code instructions are written to provide redundancy in the case of failure. An “abstract machine” in computer science is a logical statement from which more code is generated and perpetuated. (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987: 148,223)

The word “map” itself has become so overcoded and redundant — with new computer programming languages, overcoding and redundancy signals of error — that leads to more confusion as an emblem of geoscience. The diagrams in the early days of electrical engineering for computers are called maps. Ekprasis in general and specifically, narrative, epic poetry, paintings, textiles, and glyphs were and are now seen as viable representations of geography. However, the more we relay words expressive of geography, the geography itself slides toward being meaningless. Stones, knives, nails, ball bearings, cell phones, scimitars, and little geographic technology combine in light forces, but not weak, to spread horrible events. In each case, territory breaks down. Territory is not the map, and the map is not territory.

Bateson, G., 2000. Steps to an Ecology of Mind. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Bauman, Z., 2012. Liquid Modernity. Malden(MA): Polity Press.

Dyson, G. D., 2012. Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe. New York: Vintage Books.

Singh, J., 1966. Great Ideas in Information Theory, Language, and Cybernetics. New York: Dover Publications, Inc..

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