Wednesday 9 November 2011

What Makes Spatial Special?

One of the nice aspects of being part of the jiscGEO programme is that occasionally we're thrown slightly more philosophical questions to chew on. The most recent one is simple but broad: 'What makes spatial special?' This is hardly a new topic of course, as one of our co-projects has pointed out. A lot of people have discussed the
significance of the Spatial Turn and Kate Jones has done an excellent job in summarizing many of the key arguments. Rather than repeat them here I thought I'd approach them from a different angle: 'Why has Space become special and not Time?'

On the face of it the two have a great deal in common. For a start they are both values that not only underpin virtually any kind of information you can think of, but as dimensions (or a set of them) they also form a ratio scale which enables us both to order it and calculate relationships such as the closeness and density of data. As the simpler of the two (with just one dimension to deal with, rather than two or three), time seems by far the easier value for people to engage with. And yet there are no Temporal Information Systems, no Volunteered Temporal Information, no Temporal Gazetteers, no 'Temporal Turn' to speak of. So why has space, and not time, become the darling of the digital zeitgeist? Here's my theory: Because we experience space statically but time dynamically, a social asymmetry exists which makes spatial descriptions more useful socially.

Both time and space are affected by the Inverse Square Law of Relevance: as every good hack knows, a person's interest in a topic tends to fall off the further away they are from it, temporally and spatially. Of course that's not an absolute rule, but on the whole people are considerably more interested in today's home game than they are in foreign matches from yesteryear. The difference between space and time is that populations perceive themselves as being randomly dispersed throughout space, whereas time seems to be experienced simultaneously[1]. As a result, maps appear to be universally relevant because the distribution of relevance is spread across them. In contrast, almost our entire global attention is focussed on just one (travelling) moment in time. So while a map of Britain is equally relevant to people in London, Bangor and Inverness, a timeline of Britain is not equally relevant to Saxons, Normans and ourselves because the Saxons and the Normans are dead.

Enough of the beard-stroking, why should we care? It seems to me that there are two important conclusions to be drawn from this. The first is that the importance of maps is created socially and not individually. Because their relevance is determined by having multiple points of view, they can be enormously enhanced through social Web
technologies which is why Webmapping, despite having far less functionality than GIS, has rapidly outstripped it in utility. The less obvious lesson is that despite its ubiquity, spatial relevance is not spread evenly. Sparsely populated parts of the world (i.e. most if it) are not considered highly relevant by many people. By the same token, places in which mankind congregates (cities) tend to be seen as highly relevant. We see this most clearly in the number and diversity of named places they create. Whereas unoccupied spaces tend to have a just a handful of big named places, densely occupied spaces have a name for every nook and cranny. That means to create really powerful, socially relevant maps we need to start thinking about visualizing places, rather than just spaces.

And what of poor old temporal technologies? Will we ever get people to be as interested in the past as they are in the present? That's for another blog post, but if you are interested, come and join us for the NeDiMAH/JISC workshop in Greenwich on November 30th where we'll be devoting plenty of space and time to the subject.

[1] Actually, physics gives us plenty of reasons to doubt that this is the case at all, but it certainly feels that way, which is what' here.

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