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Making maps of cyberspace

by Giles Turnbull -- 2000/11/21

Martin Dodge, the man behind cybergeography.org, has co-written (with Rob Kitchin) a book called Mapping Cyberspace. WriteTheWeb has got an exclusive interview with him.

In it, we asked him to explain what cybergeography is, and how it can be used as a tool for those people involved in the building of web sites.

Martin's candid and frank response was to compare the current state of cyberspace mapping with the very early days of real-world cartography. At the moment, he says, there are few really useful maps of cyberspace - but the science is young, and over time, we may come up with valuable uses for future maps.

Here's the interview in full:


WriteTheWeb: How can you describe the science of cybergeography to the lay person? Is it more than an excuse to surf a lot and make nice pictures that represent networks?

Martin Dodge: I don't have a nice definition really. I use the term cybergeography as a kind of shorthand for what I research on a day to day basis, the areas that interest me. This is really about studying the nature of the Net through the perspective of geography and cartography. These disciplines have proved useful for many years and I believe they are still useful today to study cyberspace.

Cybergeography is also somewhat of a counter reaction to much of the off-hand reporting of the net that it makes geography redundant, that implies that distance, location, and place no longer matter. That cyberspace has enabled anything, anytime, anywhere. The classic utopian fantasy that you can transcend material world and exist in the digital ether. Clearly, this not happening, cyberspace is not immaterial, it is very much an embodied space.

However, cyberspace is *changing* geography, it is warping space, shrinking distance and reconfiguring our sense of place. It is this warping and distorting that is very much the heart of cybergeography. It is also increasing of interest to geographers.

One can divide the focus of cybergeography (somewhat artificially) into studying the world 'outside the wires' and well as 'inside the wires'. The world outside the wires is how cyberspace is changing the world around us, reshaping cities, travel / commuting, shopping, education - basically the social context of cyberspace transforming human behaviour.

Computers are becoming embedded in urban fabric, the city of bits is emerging. The most obvious example at the moment, is the incredibly rapid and pervasive nature of mobile phones - they are changing human behaviour and also changing our relationship with the environment and other people. How could you imagine studying mobile phones without a geographic perspective - they intensely space-changing little boxes, they actual enhance the importance and meaning of location.

The reverse side of the city of bits, is the data landscape 'inside' the network. The classical Gibson data spaces of pulsing lights and infinite expanses of information. There is growing research in characterising the shape and structure of the Web, mapping the information of cyberspace and also the human communications and communities that are being forged there.

Of course I also enjoying searching out new maps. So in that sense it's a damn fine excuse to surf for a lot for pretty pictures. However, I would strongly argue that pretty pictures are intrinsically important in and of themselves. (The Apollo mission pictures of the 'fragile' earth are some of prettiest pictures around, but have proved to be profoundly important.) I am also interested in the story behind the pictures. The meta-map if you like. Why is there an urge to try and map cyberspace, and what do people get from them.

WtW:: More importantly, how can knowing the shape of cyberspace help those involved with it? Webmasters, writers, producers - do they *need* to know the geography to help them do a better job?

MD: You'd have to say that at the moment, most of the maps of the cyberspace are not practical tools and would not improve the day to day work of web builders. One might even argue that cyberspace is its own 1-to-1 map, infinitely complex and evolving. So why bother?

However, I believe just because we don't have workable, useful maps of the web at the moment, does not mean they can never be created. Cartography has proved its worth over millennia and I firmly believe it is just a matter of time before someone comes up with the "killer map". Just this week an interesting attempt at a map based search engine was launched - called map.net.

Of course, there will not be one single map that will fit all. There are many different people (with different skills and levels of experience) who will need a particular map to meet their needs.

For example, there is no one map of London. A taxi driver can navigate the whole city without a map, I would need to consult an A-Z if I was going to a part of town I did not know, while a tourist just in from Heathrow would need more detailed guides and maps.

Also, one needs to look beyond the "efficiency driven" view of maps. They have a significant role beyond functional navigational tools. They can also be definitions of the world, inspirations and works of artistic value. The best maps provide a sense of the whole, enabling one to see the overall shape for the first time, see clearly the different proportions and relationships.

They provide the big picture. This is very much what medieval mappa mundi were about, framing the religious view of world. These were incredibly powerful in shaping mental perception of the world. If you have ever seen a map centred on Australia, you feel disorientated because we are so used to mercator projected maps with Europe / Atlantic at the centre and north at the top.

Another classic example, is how the Tube map has become so much more than just a practical navigation tool - it is for many people their conception of the shape of London! The best maps of cyberspace can play this big picture role.

WtW: What trends are changing the shape of cyberspace? Do they matter? Why?

MD: Many trends, often contradictory.

Great growth and continued corporate imposed control. Yet the rise of open source and p2p file share. Increasing survellience, tracking, concerns for cybercrime - yet increasing concerns for personal privacy and the use of encryption.

Wider global diffusion, the decline (end) of English dominance. New multi-lingual domain names for example. Growing mobility of access devices.

Probably the most significant trend is being started at the moment in MIT, Stanford, Hong Kong.... the biggest trends are those unforeseen (especially by academics!). Eg, who saw mp3 / napster / p2p 2 years ago? Certainly not me. But it changes cyberspace greatly (and my use of cyberspace!)

WtW: How can your work be applied to problems caused by demand for high bandwidth services, such as video-on-demand?

MD: This is not something I had thought about. I guess you want to minimise the latency effect from speed of light limits. So you don't want to stream from Sydney if there is a server in Southampton.

WtW: Presumably, your new book was shaped by your work on cybergeography.org. Can you describe briefly what kind of topics the book covers, and why you think they are important?

MD:Well, it started off as a coffee table book in tail-end of 1997 that would review the growing range of maps of cyberspace. That did not fly with publishers so it turned into a more wordy, academic book. At the heart of the book are 4 chapters which review maps of net infrastructure, maps/visualisation of web space and then spatialisations/interfaces to email, news and real-time media like chat.

There are also chapters covering perception of space - how do we conceive and navigate cyberspace in our heads and also imagination of cyberspace by cyberpunk authors.

You can find out more about the book, or buy it, from the official web site.