Digital Mapping as Double-Tap – A Reply from Gavin MacDonald

Gavin MacDonald has been kind enough to offer a reply to the article Sybille Lammes and I wrote in Global Discourse recently on Latour and digital mapping. This is a short personal response – and does not necessarily represent the views of my co-author, Sybille – just to avoid any possible confusion.

In it Gavin draws attention to Latour’s celebration of ‘touching at a distance’ – rather than the aura of immediacy (in the form of ‘double-tap’) we identified as the ideal focus of Latourian work at present. In so doing, MacDonald attempts to qualify our own efforts at conceiving the relationship between phenomena and representation, vision and touch.

In short, MacDonald plays up Latour’s use of haptic terminology – especially the likening of mediation to the work of termites (!) and other ‘blind insects’. As MacDonald says:

Access depends on a relay of mediators, each of which touches the next. For Hind and Lammes, vision and touch are bound up with each other in the operation of touchscreen in such a way that the latter secures the former. A question that isn’t explore or answered here is whether or not we can conceive of these glossy interfaces [of phones, tablets etc.] in a way more attuned to Latour’s celebration of ‘the world at your fingertips’.

Whilst I wholeheartedly agree with MacDonald in this – Latour is remarkably keen to show how mediation is an inexact haptic science; of groping, fumbling and struggling to make connections, I’m keen to see how the interface erases this distance and smooths the otherwise unstable relays. It may be true that in order to load OSM or Google Maps onto my smartphone a huge number of commands need to be issued – to code, capacitors and cell towers – but I don’t need to (or do) consider this each and every time I do so. Put otherwise: the interface user barely – rarely – experiences this. Until, of course, like we say in the paper, things go wrong. I’m interested in this normalizing force. I think this as much an issue of methodological orientation as any conceptual approach – do we look being the scenes or into the audience itself? To use a theatrical metaphor.

MacDonald also rightly questions whether Latour’s notion of immutability mobility is still fit for purpose. I think this is an incredibly valid point – especially in relation the digital map. Is there value in attempting to trace the various im/mutable or im/mobile elements in each enterprise? As MacDonald says, we’ve stretched Latour’s sense of the term somewhat and pushed it out to refer to wider systems rather than objects themselves. I think this is necessary – to refocus our attention away from the objects and specifically the map – but I don’t think we need to do so in reference to exclusively  Latourian terms. Indeed, squeezing our efforts back into an ill-fitting framework is a recipe for disaster. Nonetheless, I’m still intrigued by the tension in immutability mobility. There is no agreed answer; maps are ‘in general’ neither immutable or mutable mobiles. Moreover, there is no need to find one.  As ever, we need to trace the connections in each and every case – just as Latour would rightly suggest.

Once again, thanks to Gavin for his reply.

Digital mapping as double-tap: cartographic modes, calculations and failures

Somerset SPOT 5 EA Jan 11 2014

I have a new co-authored, open access article (with Sybille Lammes) recently out in Global Discourse. Entitled ‘Digital mapping as double-tap: cartographic modes, calculations and failures’, the paper is a constructive reading of Bruno Latour’s latest project: An Inquiry into Modes of Existence (AIME) from a critical cartographic perspective. It should be part of a special forthcoming issue on AIME, although at the moment it sits orphaned under ‘latest articles’.

It aims to do a few things. In the first instance it’s a reading of AIME in relation to Latour’s previous cartographic work. That is, his Visualization and Cognition chapter (1986), the Paris: Invisible online project (2006), the co-authored article with Valerie November and Eduardo Camacho-Hubner (2010) and various other texts in which he’s employed some kind of cartographic metaphor or narrative in order to construct, elucidate or strengthen a conceptual argument. We think it’s worth re-visiting and re-analyzing them in light of the mapping stories that litter AIME.

Secondly it’s a constructive critique of AIME. In particular, it aims to strengthen Latour’s account of the moderns, by re-framing the double-click mode (introduced in previous articles, but foregrounded in AIME) as double-tap. Although this may seem like an inconsequential revision, the tweak in terminology allows Latour (and others) to actually further strengthen a conceptual argument concerning access and knowledge to the world. With the rise of ‘double-tap’ devices – touchscreen phones, tablets and other such technologies – talk of ‘double-clicking’ sounds oddly outdated.

Then we look to how thinking in different modal registers – ontological, cartographic and methodological – can help us to identify the ‘operative elements’ in different mapping enterprises. As critical cartographers have also talked of ‘modes’, we’ve drawn connections between Latour’s ontologically-pluralist variant, Matthew Edney’s cartographic version and Chris Perkins’ methodological one. Whilst there are huge differences between the three, we think this can serve as a kind of matrix for thinking about mapping endeavours – whatever they may be.

In the final section of the article we work with the above to expand on Latour’s conceptual legacy within critical cartography (the use and re-use of various terms including: immutable mobility, inscription, calculation etc.), to suggest another productive path: through cartographic failures rather than successes. Two cases – a flood event (image above) and a protest demo – are introduced to provide evidence for this methodological re-emphasis. Whilst Latour is keen to stress the contingency of socio-technical systems, we argue that there is still comparatively little space given in his many texts for failed projects (Aramis notwithstanding). In short, we think failure – and specifically failure in cartographic systems – needs to be attended to more thoroughly. This is a modest attempt to do just that.

Another reflective post on Latour’s 4th Gifford Lecture, including a nice little quote from Noel Castree.

Rain on Arrakis

In Lecture 4 of the Gifford Lectures, The myth and the destruction of the image of the globe, Latour began by affirming that pronouncements of the Anthropocene belie the “puzzling continuity” of Gaia’s metabolism, and that neither Nature nor nature, nor the human can enter the Anthropocene intact. As ever, lecture prosthetics available here.

Under what, then, can we unify during the Anthropocene? This lecture was, in essence, a restatement of Latour’s on-going multinatural democratic dream, a “thought experiment” that Noel Castree memorably called ‘as exciting and mad cap as cold fusion’. This involves at heart three steps: asking what sort of people are being called (demos); asking what entity they are being assembled under (theos); and ascertaining through what principles their agencies are distributed (nomos). It is a politics denuded of the cover of “what simply is”, a proper cosmopolitics in which the constitution…

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I wasn’t in a position to live-tweet Latour’s 4th Gifford Lecture (although I did watch it), so here’s a condensed version via Agent Swarm.


We are getting used to Latour’s rhetoric now. We know that Latour makes fun of the post-modern because “we have never been modern”. So this alolow him to rip off Lyotard by defining the secular as the absence of any universal arbiter, which is precisely Lyotard’s definition of the postmodern. So we need not be surprised by his ironic jibes at the post-humanists for failing to anticipate the “return of Anthropos”, now that we are entering the Anthropocene and that humans have become the most powerful geological, or “geostorical” force. But he is quick to notify us that Anthropos is not a “unified agent of history”. This is another unacknowledged debt to Lyotard, who made the absence of any unified subject of history another of the defining characteristics of the postmodern.

The link with the end of the last lecture is in the idea that Gaia is unlike Nature in…

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Latour Gifford Lectures 2013: Gaia’s Puzzling Features (3/6)

  1. Begins with comparison between Lovelock and Galileo.
  2. The view from nowhere – disembodiment.
  3. Gaia brought the earth to the centre and made us responsible.
  4. A ‘curse’ attached to the Gaia theory.
  5. What people under what conditions through what agency.
  6. People of Gaia not the same as people of ‘nature’.
  7. Just because entity named after god does not necessarily act as one (and vice versa).
  8. Gaia and Lovelock vs. Medicine and Pasteur.
  9. Comparisons in approach. Quoting from both now.
  10. Performance, attribute and ‘trial’ before name.
  11. Every item in the scenery of ‘nature’ interrupted and rendered mobile by invisible characters.
  12. Inert agents magically awoken and now ‘fiercely’ alive!
  13. Earth processes vs. Fermentation. Everything made to move.
  14. Still riffing off his Pasteur work here…
  15. That is reduction to a ‘sentient being’ or goddess (Gaia).
  16. Gaia as ‘providential engineer’. Need to explore.
  17. But no holistic nature to Gaia per se.
  18. Organisms curving environment to own needs. Manipulations changing its own world.
  19. Waves of action that do not take notice of any categorisations (inside/outside, scale).
  20. Life as more messier than economists and neo-darwinists suppose.
  21. No scalar relationship here. Only a historical result of connections between creatures.
  22. Space makes an entry. No empty container. Human Geographers rejoice. #blgiff
  23. Narratives rising or falling on strength and weakness of actors re: Pasteur’s microbes, Lovelock’s Gaia components.
  24. What to call this? History/Her-story. Distribution of agency. Gaia-story? Geo-story?
  25. Geostory of a planet -no harmony. A ‘contingent cascade’. No unity. Turmoil of geostory.
  26. Q: Can Gaia be extended to other planetary entities, instances?
  27. Yes, in short. Lovelock does necessarily identify earth and earth only as existence of Gaia.
  28. Q on interdisciplinarity in academia.
  29. Latour: Lovelock’s Gaia theory reverses the move to cosmic unity created by Copernicus and Galileo and invests earth with renewed uniqueness
  30. What as the successor? Geostory as a part of it. Human Geographers rejoice (pt. 2), I guess. #blgiff
  31. Geostory was put forward with a chuckle by Latour. Not meant egotistically!
  32. Another Q on possible disciplines in Latour’s hypothetical university. Would there be geopyschology?
  33. Yes, as long as there are connections.
  34. Q on scale, parts and wholes. Nice. Contingency and necessity. Fragility and solidity.
  35. Will again ‘storify’ so all tweets are together. Entertaining again from Latour. #blgiff