Knowledge and Power in a Skeptical, Connected World

March 18, 2011

Who do we listen to, and why? In an age when we can find anything information quickly, what does it take to be a voice that rises above many others? What kind of power does this represent?

I read in the latest edition of the Harvard Business Review that in 2011 companies are anticipating an increased focus not just on broadly saturating target markets with facebook ads and silly “viral” videos, but on targeting “influencers” as part of their “social media” strategies. These individuals are those who shape culture and get other people on board with new trends and ways of thinking. Oprah is an influencer. Radiohead are influencers. Steve Jobs is an influencer. And a lot of random bloggers, tweeters, and other social media characters whom you’ve never heard of are influencers, and they are going to be targets of corporations because they are both cheaper and perceived (perhaps) as more authentic shills than their more famous counterparts.

You can be sure that by the time something gets annotated up to the level of an HBR trend to watch, it has already set the Internet abuzz. Further research on “measuring influence” yielded far more twenty-first-century social media examples than any others. It seems that organizations have (finally!) learned that a “social media strategy” on its own is of little benefit without real, grassroots endorsement. However, I’m more interested in what “influence” looked like in the past, before it morphed into a social media concept to be made into the next corporate buzzword, and what characteristics have stayed with perceived “influencers” since.

It seems it is a tricky thing to quantify, or even define. An article I discovered about the role of influence in economic history discusses how it is closely related to communication, but can range from impression to force in the amount of strength it implies. The other critical factors in determining long-term influence were time and space. The example given was Saint Thomas Aquinas, whose ideas were central to much medieval thought (throughout the Latin-speaking world, at least), but are relatively inconsequential today.

Influence and Power – and Money

Influence, as the article points out, is closely related to power. One of the concepts that has stayed with me since learning it in an Organizational Behaviour class years ago is that of differences in the kinds of power wielded by individuals. They can have positional power, power stemming from one’s role as, say, a manager or a parent or some other official and likely formalized figure of authority, or they can have personal power, that stemming from an individual’s character or beliefs, and likely more informal in nature. The difference between them parallels that of practical/mental authority vs. emotional authority, and the general consensus is that emotional authority goes much further in influencing others because it does not rely on a (potentially temporary) and wholly external power differential the way practical authority does.

When I consider what influence looked like in the past, it seems there was little distinction between the two types of power mentioned above. Perhaps the theory I just articulated is a fall-out from our comparatively recent fixation on merit over birth status as a rationale for power. Indeed, the ideas (and names associated with them) that have survived best throughout history to influence many others have always been backed by great financial power. Take religion, for example, which has been perpetuated by wealthy organizations that held positional power in their communities. The familiar expression about history having been written by the victors speaks to the tendency of dominant individuals, families or states to justify their authority with historical precedent. And most of the theories in every field that are still with us today were dreamed up by men with solid financial backing and the ability to spend large amounts of time reading and philosophizing. (Even Marx lived off the generosity of his bourgeois co-author, after all.)

But today that is changing — to an extent. YouTube, twitter and other media that celebrate memes and all things viral can make ordinary people famous astonishingly quickly. Such fame is often fleeting and of dubious value to society, but savvier types can sometimes parry their sudden name recognition into the more lasting sort or influence (Justin Bieber, anyone?). This can happen because influence is magnetic and self-perpetuating. Mommy bloggers who are already widely read and respected are natural candidates to push band-name diaper bags or whatever else new mothers supposedly need and want. That corporations want to latch onto such people is hardly surprising – they are merging their corporate power with bloggers’ influence in new markets, and the bloggers want to in turn increase their own profile through association (or maybe just get free products).

Self-perpetuating influence applies to companies as well. The new techie term for this concept is “network effects” – as the Economist defined it recently, “the more users [services like facebook, eBay, etc.] have, the more valuable they become, thus attracting even more users.” Whereas in the past money and power begat more of the same, today we can add hits and click-throughs to the mix.

Knowledge Brokering from Darwin to Wikipedia

The common link between these people and corporations is the way they treat knowledge. They are what the corporate world now refers to as “knowledge brokers,” a title that refers to the ability to clarify and share information with different audiences or spheres, and determine what the common elements are between, say, Paul Revere, corporate marketing, and the AIDS epidemic. Knowledge brokering (and a bit of luck) is what separates widely-read bloggers from those who write solely for themselves (whether they want to or not). It is the ability to write things that people find interesting and useful. The CIA is investing heavily in such people after a serious of incidents that demonstrated how segregated and impotent their different bodies of knowledge were.

Knowledge brokering is more than simply aggregating (though smart aggregators of information are helpful too). It is the ability to analyze and draw connections while becoming a trusted conduit of information. Knowledge brokers are perhaps an antidote to the pervasive and growing tendency to overspecialize, because they connect many specialists and their ideas with a broad audience. They are the reason we know about Darwin’s ideas. Or Jesus. Or celebrities’ latest faux-pas. Wikipedia is one giant knowledge broker that has an army of largely volunteer knowledge brokers in their own right mobilized on its behalf. That is power.

But what makes us listen to them? I suspect the key is authenticity. A lingering distaste and a keen sense for corporate marketing disguised as something else define our era. Perhaps the main difference between influencers from the past and those of today lies in the type of power they wield, as I outlined above. Personal power – like that wielded by bloggers and Oprah – is seen as more trustworthy because it lacks an agenda (whether or not this is true). Positional power is usually distrusted simply because of what it is. We only listen to Steve Jobs because we truly believe he has our best interests – in being cool and technologically savvy, regardless of the product – at heart. In contrast, many Americans discount everything Obama says because they believe he merely wants to increase his own power and unveil his secret socialist agenda on an unwilling populace.

Is this a reflection of our philosophical allegiance to free-market democracy? Is influence and power of all kinds just the ability to get people to like and trust you? If so, many corporations are going to need a lot more than “influencers” on their side.

Food for thought: How do those with positional power gain credibility? Is this knee-jerk anti-authoritarian mindset in society as prevalent as I say it is? Do people who seek to perpetuate their influence by getting behind corporations somehow weaken their own authority (i.e. do they lose their ‘cred’)? Hm.

MARGINALIA: Though I did not explicitly link to it in this post, the Economist’s Intelligent Life ran a fascinating piece recently on The Philosophical Breakfast Club, a group of four Victorian scientists who were definitely knowledge brokers (and nifty polymaths) and who were key influencers in their time. I’d recommend reading it.


It Takes a Village: Why Not Outsource Childcare?

March 14, 2011

The 100th Anniversary of International Women’s Day last week got me thinking about how glad I am not to be Betty Draper. Yet despite our advances, the promise of happier people – which of course includes happier families – has not borne out. The feminist movement has made great strides toward equality, but often at the expense of children, many of whom now grow up in an environment with no parents at home. We could debate at length why so many families feel the need to have two working parents (is it that corporations no longer pay a “family wage”? or have standards changed and now families believe they need more things, bigger houses, etc.?), but it would not alter the fact that most families have not substituted a father working all the time – and a mother at home – with two parents alternating working half the time. Throw in a divorce rate hovering around 50% in the Western world, and single parents who have no choice but to work long hours, and the result is millions of children with almost no parental direction for much of the time, let alone quality time with two parents.

One of the enduring themes of this blog is the increasing over-specialization of work, study, and entertainment, but I have yet to touch on the arena of parenthood. So allow me to play Jonathan Swift for a moment with my own modest proposal: outsourcing childcare to those who can do it efficiently and – most important – effectively.

Why not outsource parenting? We seem to have made most of the rest of our lives as efficient as possible. Instead of each of us owning farms that grow all our own food, we have created supermarkets and other supercentres that not only sell food, but everything from pharmaceuticals to care tires. Millions of office drones sit in cubicles doing the white-collar equivalent of screwing a bolt into a chassis over and over for eight or more hours a day, the epitome of over-specialized corporate work.

And childcare itself has changed from the days of one parent teaching her young how to get on in life. Public schools were established 1 000 years ago to teach Latin to poor children who could not afford private tutors. Today it is a legal requirement in most countries that children spend their weekdays in classrooms full of other children. (And most do: the latest statistics for homeschooled children that I could find put the number at only about 3% in the United States.) We have already outsourced the majority of education to professional teachers, from the fundamentals of literacy and numeracy to advanced calculus and classic literature.

At an even more basic level, many working parents outsource childcare to day cares, nannies or relatives. Crèches, the forerunner of modern day care, were established in France in the 1840s near factories so working women could drop their children off there during the day. Today they are everywhere. As the percentage of working women (in Canada) aged 25-54 rose from around 50% in the 1970s to over 80% today, there was an accompanying rise in the number of children in non-parental care.  In 2002, 54% of Canadian parents had someone else look after their children during the day, up from 42% in the mid-nineties. In the U.S., almost two-thirds of pre-schoolers are in non-parental child care.

So outsourcing our parenting – if I can be forgiven for using such a cold, economic term – is certainly palatable to the majority of parents, at least some of the time. And there is most definitely a broader need for it, though less quantifiable. I needn’t go into the many social ills connected with a lack of influence, or parental influence, attention, or role-modelling during childhood, as these are well known.

There are many bad parents out there, but while we are quick to want to get rid of other minders who are ineffective, like teachers or nannies, social and biological conventions dictate that it is a lengthy and difficult process to “fire” parents. Leaving children exposed on mountaintops or in the care of a nunnery (in which something like 80% of the unfortunates dropped off died anyway) has gone out of fashion in developed countries, except in certain safe havens like Nebraska, so instead they remain with bad parents, or in foster care, which for most is not the optimal solution. Even parents who love their children can make bad child-rearing decisions with the best of intentions.

But what if the default option for raising children, like public schooling, was communal (or private) care by qualified parent-like figures? The right to “home parenting” (like home schooling) could be awarded only to those who are qualified to practice it, with regular supervision by a central body. Consider: specialist “parents” rearing children in groups is hardly a radical idea. The old African proverb about a child needing more than one knee, or the much more famous one that serves as the title of this post, indicates that our modern way of raising children is little more than a hiccough in the trajectory of human history.

Most parents raise only a few children, but almost all say that it gets easier the more they have, as they build experience and knowledge. Specialized parent substitutes would have the benefit of raising perhaps tens of children, and, what’s more, they would love it, because it would their career of choice. Children would also have the benefit of a diversity of tried-and-true, centrally vetted and approved child care methods, culled from what has been proven to work well internationally and throughout history — call it a “best practice” approach to parenting. Just think of what costs could be reduced or eliminated in  a society with a higher proportion of well-adjusted children – everything from healthcare (therapy and counselling) to policing and incarceration costs.

Clearly, this is not likely to happen anytime soon, and I no doubt open myself up to charges of everything from heartless communism to wanting to run state finances into the ground by proposing elaborate centralized childcare schemes such as these. But consider: we wouldn’t trust spinal surgery to someone who has never done it before and who would spend half the time we’re in the operating theatre off in corporate meetings somewhere else or on his Blackberry. We wouldn’t want an unqualified engineer building a bridge we have to drive over, especially on almost zero sleep while laying the foundations.  Yet we allow complete amateurs to raise their own children armed with little more than evolved instinct and maybe a copy of Dr. Spock. Does that really make more sense?


Some Loose Thoughts on Americans and Trains

March 9, 2011

Apparently there is a movie version of Atlas Shrugged coming out soon, and while I have neither seen it nor read the book (something I plan to remedy within the next month or so), I have read a few of the many criticisms and laments out there about the book and philosophies contained within it. These come from all sides of the political spectrum, but one of the more interesting ones to me concerns the role of infrastructure and the changing nature of support among conservatives and libertarians for large-scale rail projects on American soil. While Ayn Rand’s magnum opus features libertarian railroad moguls who plough vast sums into railroad development, railroads today are pariahs of American transportation infrastructure, and to none more so than the political right.

David Weigel on Slate summarizes the opposition to high-speed rail (and rail in general) from the American right mainly as opposition to state subsidies. There is a widespread belief that money pours from government coffers into railroads – at a cost to the taxpayer of between 13 and 30 cents per passenger, compared with between 1 and 4 cent subsidies for highways and other roads. Whether these numbers are accurate is not the point of this post; merely the perception of it being true is (as with most subjects in American politics these days) enough to colour the popular and official debate substantially. I’ve heard others comment that rail travel is seen as a form of communism.

The irony of that idea, of course, is that railroad owners were among the first übercapitalists of American business, sucking profits from their trade with an almost monopolistic hold on the industry. Names like Vanderbilt and J.P. Morgan and known to us now because many of these obscenely wealthy railroad barons wanted their legacies to live on in the form of grand houses, universities, and other large-scale public charitable works.

I’ve written before about how cars in the early days of automobile travel were seen as a “less technological” option than railroads, more rugged and democratic and, well, American. Travelling by car in those days was both challenging (tires exploding or parts falling off every few miles) and exhilarating (unprecedented access to tourist sites that railroads just didn’t go to). The ideal of the open road, and by extension the “open West,” has echoed down through the annals of American history from beat poets to “Boys of Summer,” and was undergirded by the Eisenhower administration’s creation of the extensive Interstate Freeway System in the 1950s.

But I never picked up on the “communism” angle, in part because that wasn’t a concern or a term bandied about frequently in American political discourse until the second decade of the twentieth century at least. Today, of course, high-speed rail and trains in general aren’t seen as feats of American engineering and technical prowess, but symbols of European- and Chinese-style communism.

Attitudes have changed: both railroads and cars have largely lost their breathless romantic and innovative associations and have become part of the humdrum reality of everyday transportation. Many people view their cars more as prisons (especially when stuck in rush-hour traffic) than gateways to the wonders of nature. And while European-ness today still has some cachet if it involves sitting in a café in Paris on vacation, Americans are confident enough in their own government that they certainly don’t aspire to managing their infrastructure like the Europeans.

The last paragraph of Weigel’s article clearly illustrates the link between railroads, communism and other un-American ideas:

Before and after 9/11, George Will was talking up rail as a way to take more people off planes and make America less vulnerable to terrorists. That argument has more or less vanished. Why? “It helped that somebody bombed a train in Spain,” says O’Toole. “If you concentrate people in one vehicle, then the vehicle is vulnerable. You concentrate society, and it’s vulnerable. So maybe it’s not a good thing to concentrate people.

Makes sense. People concentrated together in one vehicle are vulnerable to attack without the ability to pick up and go whenever and wherever they want to, as in cars. Similarly, people who have a shared and singular collective mindset are vulnerable without the influence of democratic choices. Looks a lot like communism, right? So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised the next time a state governor turns down a billion-dollar high-speed rail line subsidized by the federal government. He’s probably imagining that it’s the last stop on the Lenin line before Revolution Station…


Minimum Impact, Maximum Time, and the Goodness of Work

February 10, 2011

Is ambling antithetical to success? Is a life of purpose the only path to happiness? And is Gen Y really all that different from previous generations in wanting meaningful work?

On Marx, Meaning, and Materialism

I think often on Marx’s theory of alienation; namely, that under the capitalist system of increasing specialization, workers become alienated from the fruits of their labour, and from their own capacity as workers to work/produce things and grow in doing so. Instead of seeing work as an end in itself, and gaining feelings of fulfilment from seeing the fruit of one’s labour go from raw materials to completed items, according to Marx work had become but a means to an end as workers were increasingly slotted into automated lines of production. Instead of creating the whole shoe, they would nail in a piece of the sole, as it were, with no satisfaction in seeing the “end-to-end process” (as we might say in today’s corporatenewspeak).

Certainly, with the rise of the industrialization, Fordist assembly lines and globalization, the idea of work as a means to an end gained popularity as a way to describe life in the twentieth century. And in some ways, this was acceptable. In the 1930s, one was fortunate to have a job at all – any job. One did not pick and choose. The generation after that (those ubiquitous Boomers) observed their parents’ work ethic and adopted it without thinking, as a means to gain material prosperity. Nice cars, big houses, creature comforts, holidays in Boca Raton, and well-educated children became status symbols, ends worth working for. A life of middle management drudgery and rarely seeing one’s children was, for many, an acceptable trade-off.

But we expect so much more from our work today. Making a living, and a living that will support the lifestyle we’re used to, is mere “table stakes” (more corporatenewspeak). Because, with good education and attentive parenting and the opportunity to develop our skills as children, we have so many options for a career. Consequently, we expect much, much more out of the time we spend at work. (And before someone brings up 40% unemployment among global youth, yes, the recession has, to an extent, made Gen Ys a little less choosy – but only for now.)

The theory of work as an end in itself – and a means to happiness and fulfilment – has important research to back it up. A study out of California a few years ago remarked on the importance of hard work and purpose in achieving happiness in life. The conclusion is worth quoting at length:

A central presumption of the ‘‘American dream’’ is that, through their own efforts and hard work, people may move towards greater happiness and fulfillment in life. This assumption is echoed in the writings of philosophers, both ancient and modern. In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle (1985) proposed that happiness involves engagement in activities that promote one’s highest potentials. And, in the Conquest of Happiness, Bertrand Russell (1930/1975) argued that the secrets to happiness include enterprise, exploration of one’s interests, and the overcoming of obstacles. …Our data suggest that effort and hard work offer the most promising route to happiness.

Wow. Good work, it seems, is the answer to all our problems. The only thing left to do is find work that contains enough meaty, purposeful, interesting, content – related to our skills, of course, and with excellent “work-life balance” and good benefits – to meet our needs. Simple!

But is this expectation reasonable?

Really, it’s a wonder anybody finds jobs like this, let alone the majority of people. Even Marx’s (clearly idealized) autonomous, cottage industry shoe-makers (or soldiers, or second sons forced into trade…) no doubt achieved very little of this all-encompassing fulfilment through their work. Yet today we pile the expectations on our jobs. While there are certainly those out there who caution that work will not make anybody happy all on its own, the prevailing narrative remains that fulfilling work is the surest route to happiness. Consider: it’s just not socially acceptable for anyone able to participate in the “knowledge economy” to opt out and instead choose to make money solely as a means to an end with no other agenda – let alone anyone under 30. Do you know anyone? And do they want the situation to be permanent?

Minimizing Impact: Lowering our expectations? Or relieving the pressure?

While I was vacationing in the vineyards of Mendoza (rewards for a life of corporate drudgery?), I got to thinking meta thoughts about what people tend to expect from life. We use a lot of language today that revolves around impact. We want to “make a splash.” We long to stand out in interviews, on dates, and in applications. People everywhere seek to be famous for something (anything! Jersey Shore, anyone?) or to leave a legacy, something that will let current and future generations know they existed as individuals, and left something behind. Modern society refers to the more noble side of this feeling as the desire to change the world, whether through volunteering, winning a Nobel Prize or raising well-adjusted children. We have, as I have pointed out before, a strong bias to action which makes us want to do good and make things “better.” Most of us put a lot of pressure on ourselves, a vague kind of weight that is associated with the Victorian ideal of the innate goodness of work and the possibility of having a hand in making a better future. The idea of finding work that allows us to, as the above-quoted study notes, “promote [our] highest potentials,” is tied up in this pressure.

At the same time we are acutely aware that life is, as an honourary TED talk I watched recently put it, fragile and vulnerable – and short. (This fact creates a very un-Hobbesian empathy, the talk argued, not only for those with whom we share blood ties, but with other humans, other creatures, and the biosphere generally. Worth watching.) It is little wonder that, with the perception of the sand in the hourglass ever running out, we feel pressed for time, overwhelmed, and run off our feet. We try to make every moment count. We multi-task and are always tied to a communication device of some kind. Most things are done for a purpose: we educate ourselves in order to gain employment, money and “success”; we sleep and eat for our health; we watch our health to extend our lives (so we can keep doing it all longer). It has been often noted with bitter irony that with all the myriad time-saving devices we employ on a daily basis, we find ourselves busier than ever before. Trying to do things in the minimum amount of time has not made us happy.

So I decided to try an experiment in reverse-thinking. What if we sought to – even just for a day – minimize our impact, and maximize the amount of time we spent doing things? What would this look like? What does “counter-urgency” feel like in practice? Would it lessen the pressure?

Experiments in living “Slow

I suspect that it would in many ways resemble the slow movement, which has grown exponentially in popularity recently in response to the speed of life and destruction of the environment and local communities in the name of convenience. It must also be a response to the pressure of the purposeful life. The slow movement includes slow food, which is (in contrast to fast food) grown locally, often organically, and savoured. Slow reading is similar, and involves savouring text instead of skimming or summarizing, or any other kind of speed-reading I learned about in university.

A minimum-impact day would also result in fewer outputs (and here I use a very corporatenewspeak word deliberately). We would do purposeless things: ambling with no direction, daydreaming, journaling, writing poetry, reading fiction. There would be no book club to report to. No destination. Poetry, lyrics and plays could be memorized for the sake of the words themselves, lines savoured like chocolates instead of potential “gobbits” to drop into future conversations or be recalled on trivia nights.

Sadly, my brief experiment in slowly minimizing my impact was a failure: I wanted outputs. I wanted to write about it, to share it on this blog. I wanted to tie it into my life’s work and be fulfilled by it.

I sense I would not be unique in feeling this way. Is our desire for impact innate, or learned? Here we have contradictory evidence. An article in the Economist a few months ago referred to a study that concluded that the desire for good, hard work actually isn’t all that innate, particularly in Britain. But if learned, if part of the Marxist legacy we hold that says that fulfilling work is an end in itself, how do we handle the pressure of finding such fulfilment?

Perhaps the idea of work-as-end is a way to rationalize the short time we have on Earth, and that we spend most of it working. But are we destined not to find all we seek in our jobs? Is it possible to use work only as currency to “buy” time for our true passions? Should we seek to maximize the good in our work (whether employment at all, a means to material comfort and status, or even autonomous shoe-making) — even if we hate it? Do you amble purposelessly?

I’d love to hear your thoughts…


Silence and Schematics: The Things You Don’t See

December 16, 2010

In my last post I wrote about context and perspective in mapping, and the biases that are inherent in the information presented in different kinds of maps. Biases, of course, can be dangerous because we generally trust the information maps give us. They are more powerful for their apparent objectivity. The science behind them is sound, we think – after all, cartography is based on empirical data.

But just as maps can inform us, they can also make us ignorant – of context, of specific details, and of what we don’t know – even while they’re giving us other information. It isn’t just what we see in the frame that matters, but also what we don’t see, what’s left out. In conveying information, art can be as important as accuracy, and sometimes even more so.

Most early maps contained a lot of information. When little was known about the area beyond what had been explored, cartographers would create a sense of danger and excitement by inserting allegorical images, fantastical creatures, or mythical mountain ranges. They would decorate the frames with pictorial Biblical references, or symbols of their nation’s prowess at exploration and conquest.

A very busy map of Africa from the 1600s

In the above (relatively complete!) map of Africa from the 1600s, note the prevalence of mountain ranges and large rivers (that don’t really exist) and the animal drawings used to take up space. Also note the many decorations of ships in the ocean around the frame (side note: web address watermark not included on the original). What is silent? The cartographer’s ignorance – about the interior topography and other geographical markers. But a casual observer then would not have known this.

It was considered a great leap forward when in 1759 cartographers – influenced by French mapmaker Jean Baptiste Bourguignon d’Anville and the Enlightenment tradition dictating that all maps be empirically verifiable – begun to leave blank spaces if precise information about parts of the areas they were mapping was unclear. The practice served to encourage new forays into the “unconquered” and “uninhabited” areas they depicted to determine, for example, the as-yet undiscovered mouths of rivers or the potential treasure/glory/conquest that lay beyond established borders. But primarily these blank spaces lent increasing credibility to what was shown (whether it was accurate or not), by silencing everything else.

Accentuating some pieces of information over others with emphasis and silence grew in popularity even further as the centuries progressed. The most common world map we see, for example, privileges the northern hemisphere over the southern through the use of Mercator’s projection. It also puts the Western world – whether Europe or North America – in the centre of the frame, relegating all other areas to the peripheries.

"The Queen's Dominions at the End of the Nineteenth Century"

In the map above, the bright red colour of Britain’s imperial territories contrasts with the neutral colour of other lands. Islands of small geographical significance jump from the page with red underlines and heavy black labels indicating that they are strategic refuelling outposts, places that ship spices back to Britain, or simply more territory in red. Mercator’s projection is used to great effect, enlarging North America even above the bounds of the map’s frame, at the expense of the southern hemisphere.

It is all intended to provide a sense of a vast, interconnected Empire. While looking at this, viewers might fail to notice the absence of information not related to Britain’s imperial conquest. About other lands, the map is relatively silent, because they are not the focus.

Maps are now used for all kinds of things – everything from directions to websites or thoughts. The proliferation of maps has tended to swell the number of those used for a single purpose, and the trend seems to be toward more specificity but less context.

Consider subway maps, most of which are a legacy from the modernist era. They fall squarely into the “art” over “accuracy” way of conveying information, and are characterized by highly stylized lines, multiple colours and use of sans-serif fonts. The most famous, of course, is Harry Beck’s map of the London Underground, which dates to 1931. Its genius lies in its abstraction, its ability to draw order in the form of clean and easy-to-read visuals from the confusion and complexity of the actual system. Compare the official underground map with the actual map of the subway stations from above the ground:

Schematic Tube Map, Zone 1

 

Tube Lines Mapped to Actual Geography

It takes a certain genius to create schematic subway map order from chaos; no doubt this is the reason these maps are such iconic art pieces, found on buttons, t-shirts, and posters the world over. It’s fascinating to me that they are so simple and so focused – and yet divorced from the actual geography they represent. Almost every major city is the same.

Paris:

Paris Metro

Paris Metro

Washington DC:

Washington DC Metro

Washington DC Metro

Moscow:

Moscow Subway Map - Like an Alien Creature

Even maps of New York City’s frenzied system are relatively simple. But sometimes accuracy wins out over art. In 1975, the New York City transit authority determined that the map they had been using to that point was too much so, and commissioned something that would line up more with the streets above ground. (You will find a fascinating interview with the designer of the 1979 map, which was only just retired a few years ago, as well as several old subway maps from NYC, here.) Yet even this more “accurate” and “realistic” new map has some deviations from reality: Manhattan, and lower Manhattan in particular, have been expanded to accommodate the landmarks and subway lines that all seem to converge there; Brooklyn and the other boroughs are made relatively smaller than their actual size.
It would seem that for clarity or for a great story, some alteration is always necessary, and a bit of silence too. No map designed to emphasize transit lines could hope to show every street, and of course designers realize this.  People are perhaps more willing to put up with silence and abstraction in maps now because they are used to it, and because maps are not expected to be geographically accurate to be authoritative.  It’s an interesting trend that points to our increasing ability to cope with the abstraction and de-contextualization of cartography, even as the broader minimalist modernism movement appears to be winding down (the ever-popular clean lines of IKEA products notwithstanding). What does it mean for the future of maps? Will the definition of a map become ever-broader as we incorporate variations from site maps to schematics? Or do we need a new name for this kind of information vehicle altogether?

This post is part two of a three-part series on the past, present and future of mapping. Check back for a wrap-up later this week.


Secrets and Lies — and Google

November 29, 2010

There is an almost hysterical paranoia that permeates the air these days, concerning the information that is being collected about us and helping us make decisions, in many ways without our knowledge. What am I talking about? The secret of success for everything from Google searches to your mortgage approval process: algorithms.

And secret they are. Much of the fear about them is that they are “black boxes” about which we know little, and yet they are making decisions for us every day. In the process, some worry, they are taking away our capacity for decision-making and automating processes in which human input may be necessary to correct inconsistencies or mistakes. An extended report in The Globe & Mail last week examined the impact such incomprehensible and inaccessible mathematical formulas can have: according to the data collected, buying floor protectors at Canadian Tire might signal a conscientious borrower; late-night website browsing may indicate anxiousness and, in combination with a host of other minor activities, derail a credit application.

Google is another example: it uses complex algorithms to filter information to find exactly what it thinks we need, or, as its mission statement says, to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” It also provides us with ads, of course, based on our search history and preferences and in theory tailored to our needs. Even online dating websites such as OkCupid and eHarmony make extensive use of algorithms to predict who will make a good match. The information that comes out of such sites is a fascinating look at the likes and dislikes of a broad cross-section of the population.

The formulas used are secret, of course, in order to protect the competitive advantages of the organizations they serve. What surprises me is why there is such intense fear of them, these unknown equations that guide our choices. We are not forced to click on any of the links Google serves up. We’re not even forced to use Google as our search engine. If we want a local plumber, we can always use the Yellow Pages, where prominence is determined by advertising payments. Is this any better?

Perhaps it is the lack of control that is so terrifying. Because algorithms filter information for us, there is an unimaginable amount that we just never see. We literally don’t know what we don’t know. Somehow this seems more sinister than the way it used to be when we were all relatively more ignorant, perhaps because, through the Internet, we are now aware of there being a lot more information out there.

Does Google have a sinister hidden agenda? One would think that such a thing would go against its code of conduct of not being evil. Does OkCupid? Likely not, but in filtering information to satisfy our (perceived) needs and wants, argues Alexis Madrigal in this month’s Atlantic, algorithms can serve to maintain the status quo – or even prevent shifts in societal norms:

By drawing on data about the world we live in, [algorithms] end up reinforcing whatever societal values happen to be dominant, without our even noticing. They are normativity made into code—albeit a code that we barely understand, even as it shapes our lives.

Madrigal goes on to say that Google, OkCupid and their ilk give us only “a desiccated kind of choice,” and that we need to break the patterns by choosing against type. We need to make ourselves less predictable, to click unexpected links and choose unexpected partners, presumably in order to ensure that society in general doesn’t stagnate. Don’t trust The Man and all that.

The growing paranoia that unseen and unchecked forces are predicting – even controlling – our behaviour seems to be growing even faster than fear of Yemeni terrorists. I think it relates back to our growing cynicism and distrust toward all large organizations. Believing in anything at all is seen by many as a mug’s game. Trust in governments is ever-declining, the more we find out about how they conceal the truth from citizens, or tap their phone lines, or watch their goings-on. People now, on average, trust NGOs (even ones that are affiliated with large government organizations) much more than governments themselves, and certainly more than the politicians and bureaucrats that staff them. Faith in organized religion has plummeted amid endless sex scandals that are officially acknowledged too late (if at all), refusals from the highest levels to acknowledge the damage done by outdated policies, and generally divergent values from most Westerners about gay marriage, reproductive rights, and female clergy members.

I’ve written before about what apathy and extreme cynicism look like in modern society. I neglected to mention an obsession with knowing the “truth,” even if part of us believes that truth to be fictional or compromised. Hence the enduring popularity of the “exposé,” tabloid journalism, insider specials, and now WikiLeaks, the non-profit whistle-blower organization that is making news (again) this week with the release of thousands of diplomatic cables sent by US ambassadors. Despite pleas from the White House not to release the information (potentially jeopardizing thousands of lives, and undermining US diplomacy and counter-terrorism efforts), the obsession to reveal won out, and the cables were posted anyway.

Why? Secrets may not be entirely benign, but what seems to be missing from the discussion is the idea that neither might their release be. In an age of over-sharing, of laying open our most personal thoughts for the world to see, is even the necessary secrecy of diplomacy unwelcome? It has fallen victim to the public’s need to know anything and everything — or else there must be some ominous conspiracy at play. In democracies, utter transparency seems to be the only option palatable to citizens, and we are unnerved when it isn’t available, so we turn to (often illegal) means of obtaining information, such as WikiLeaks.

It seems we are experiencing a seismic shift in the way we are continually using and desiring more information.  Should we expect it to be entirely accessible at all times, to all people? Knowledge is power, as they say, and everybody wants more. The irony, of course, is that everybody also wants privacy: WikiLeaks, for example, will not disclose its sources, or its founders. One wonders how long they can expect to keep that a secret.


Democracy Rules! 10 Great Reasons to Vote

October 25, 2010

Voting is both a privilege and a duty. If you’re an apathetic type, consider the following 10 less commonly heard (and only slightly sanctimonious) reasons why you should take some time off work to mark an “X” on a ballot today.

1. You’re one of the lucky few in the world who is able to do so.

Accurate numbers on this score are not easy to come by, but this report from the Hoover Institution ranks about 60% of the world’s nations as democratic in the broadest sense, namely that they hold elections. The more stringent classification of a full “liberal democracy” includes electoral competition for power but also:

  • Freedom of belief, expression, organization, and demonstration
  • Protection from political terror and unjustified imprisonment
  • A rule of law under which all citizens are treated equally and due process is secure
  • Political independence and neutrality of the judiciary and of other institutions of “horizontal accountability” that check the abuse of power
  • An open, pluralistic civil society
  • Civilian control over the military

By this measure, the number of global democracies drops to only 37% of nations worldwide. Wikipedia tells us that this is less than 15% of the global population. When you think that (due to age) only about 60-70% of the population in a full democracy can actually vote, that number drops to under 10% of people living in the world today.

2. Voting makes you disproportionately powerful over your fellow citizens.

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